Volume IV, No. 3, Spring 1977



Story and photography by Daniel Hough

Drawings by Emery Savage

Some people are content to view the Ozarks scenery from the comfort and convenience of an automobile, which is a reasonable method of observation. The advantages are quick and easy access, the possibilities of covering a hundred or more miles a day and leaving whenever you find it necessary. The disadvantages are being locked up inside a vehicle and not getting out into fresh air except for short walks.

Other people like to throw themselves out into nature and experience the sights, sounds, smell, feel and even taste of the outdoors. For these people, a hike in the woods is great. Even better is a float down an Ozark river.

Truly, a float down the Ozark rivers is one of the best ways to get into the Ozarks. Rest and solitude alternate with speed and excitement for every mile of water. Animals and plants flourish in and around the river. A chance to get-away-from-it-all, and at the same time a chance to get-into-it-all is what the float trip is all about.

The qualities that make the Ozark rivers special are evident when you compare Ozark streams with rivers that flow outside the Ozarks. Parts of seventy-five or more rivers and streams are floatable and some remain much as they were a hundred years ago. For those interested in running the river in a canoe, kayak or johnboat, the chance is readily available.

The rivers' winding channels run through gravel, sand and rock, and are fed by cold, clean springs which make the rivers surprisingly clear. There is a minimum of soil run-off, except where vegetation has been destroyed. Compared to muddy rivers in the plains, the Ozark rivers are much more enticing. Also, because of the springs, the Ozark rivers seldom go dry, whereas plains rivers may turn into muddy trickles during summer.

The Ozark rivers have nearly everything to offer in abundance. Quiet stretches of water called eddies ranging from four to ten feet deep and from a quarter of a mile to two miles long or more offer silence and solitude--the fisherman's dream.

The eddies are separated by riffles--shallow, fast water rushing over rocks. The term rapid is a misnomer for Ozark fast water, since a rapid is more thought of as churning, boiling white water breaking against rocks and boulders. A riffle is a tamer version of a rapid. You can wade through some Ozark riffles, but rapids would sweep you off your feet. Even so, the riffles offer excitement because the water not only moves swiftly, but in right angle turns, s-curves, double s-curves, and 180 degree turns. And more than likely a tree limb or rock is hidden around that curve right in your path. But don't let this frighten you away. Most Ozark waterways are safe enough for even the inexperienced boater. With a little common sense you won't get dumped out into the water. Even if you do go swimming unexpectedly, the worst damage will be to your pride.


All of the rivers offer good fishing opportunities, and it is difficult to say which is best. Any resident of any river will tell you his or her river has the biggest fish around. But don't count on them showing you the best fishing hole!

For those really inexperienced or those who don't have canoes or who don't want to fool with getting them but like to be around people, go with an organized float trip. On the Niangua River by Bennett Spring, the Current River, the James River and other rivers groups of boaters leave nearly every day during the summer months. There are lots of people on these rivers, so if you want to be alone, find another river.

The only really dangerous rivers in the Ozarks are the St. Francis River and its tributaries, the Little St. Francis and Big Creek. A solid granite formation called shut-ins has been formed where water cut narrow channels through rock. The swift shut-ins, with boulders scattered throughout, are hazardous to move through in a boat. All Ozark rivers are dangerous in flood, and even if you are an expert you should stay off them during high water. Of course, anytime you are on water you should exercise some caution.

Stephen Ludwig (front) and Daniel Hough professionally show how not to run riffles. The broken tree limb just in front of Daniel caused the upset. Note that Steve's paddle is next to the limb. Steve lost his seat and paddle, and his sudden shift in weight pushed the gunwale dangerously close to the water. However, they didn't tip over (much to the spectators' dismay) but made it safely through the riffle. by Doug Sharp



When you decide which river to float, figure how many days you have for floating. To plot your river route, put-in, camping and take-out points, consult a county map which is available at the courthouse of each county. The map shows great detail, with every bridge and river crossing marked. To plan your mileage, figure six miles in six hours for a slow fishing trip. Eight miles in six hours for viewing the scenery. And if you're in a hurry and want to paddle your head off, ten miles in six hours.

Outfitting, or getting supplies and equipment together, depends on whether it is a day float, overnight float or longer. The longer the trip, the more supplies and equipment necessary. (For suggested list, see page 35)

If you are going on an organized float trip and paying an outfitter to have everything ready, then you need not worry with outfitting. On the other hand, if you embark on your own, you had better be sure you're well supplied.

Equipment for a day float will only be the boat, paddles, seat cushions, life jackets, drinking water and lunch. Overnight trips add sleeping gear, cooking equipment and a change of clothes. More than one night adds more clothes and additional food.

One thing to remember is to pack light--take the bare minimum of equipment. If in doubt, leave it out. The purpose of a float trip is to enjoy yourself, which is nearly impossible if you are burdened by a stack of gear you'll never use or need.

If you don't own a canoe or boat, and cannot borrow one, the next best bet is to rent one. Near the more popular rivers canoe rentals abound, where you can rent a canoe for as long as you need. Paddles, seat cushions and life jackets are available with the canoes. Often other camping gear is for rent, but suppliers vary. Check the rentals to be sure what they have for use.

In addition to supplies and equipment needed there are certain other preparations you should make before you leave to save time and trouble during your float trip. Headaches can be prevented later by a few preliminary precautions.

Know the river. Every river is different. While one may be perfect for quiet bass fishing, another may be completely white water. You can't know everything about a river beforehand, but you can have a general idea of the river's nature by asking local residents and reading literature about it. If possible, take along someone who is familiar with the river. Even this is no guarantee, since the river changes with every flood. Still get some idea of what the river is like before floating it. (An excellent guide to Missouri rivers is Missouri Ozark Waterways, Missouri Conservation Commission, Jefferson City, Missouri 65101. Price $1.00)

Check the river. Depending on the season, a river may be at the perfect level for boating, flooding its banks or too shallow to float. During spring, rains usually fill the river to an adequate level. Summer will probably bring a drier season, but most rivers usually stay about half full because of the water supply from natural springs. Fall usually brings the rain again which refill the river. Sometimes winter is also dry. However, Ozark weather is known to be finicky. Droughts can occur in spring, or a deluge can fall in summer. It is disheartening at best to drag a canoe over gravel on a low river farther than you ever paddle, and it is much too dangerous to run a river in flood. For the most enjoyment float when river conditions are best.

Check the weather. Even though the river is at the perfect level for floating, heavy rains along the river may raise the water four to eight feet in hours. A sudden downpour may flood the low-water bridges, gravel bars and low banks, and wash away anything not tied down. Flash floods can occur on the smaller tributaries, but are not as likely on the wider rivers. The rise of water will be more gradual on wider rivers, but the danger still exists. A wall of water several feet high poses a dangerous and frightening prospect. Besides, it is very disturbing to wake up underwater on a gravel bar with all your gear bobbing around you. The floater and camper should always observe the weather and river conditions.


Daniel Hough (front) and Stephen Ludwig paddle through riffles on a cool winter day. The water level was very low because of sparse rains during fall and winter. They had to drag the canoe over almost every riffle, because of the heavily loaded canoe and low water.

Mike Doolin (left) and Doug Sharp pull a swamped canoe to the bank to bail out water. They had approached a tangle of fallen trees in the riffle and tried to paddle through. The bow nosed under a tree trunk and dipped into the water, filling the canoe. Mike then jumped out to prevent the canoe from turning over.


Check the weather situation before you leave on your float trip. If inclement weather is forecasted, take along rain gear. If a heavy rain falls during the night, move to higher ground. Don ' t be caught on a low spot if the river floods.

Check out all your gear. Look over the boats completely for cracks, leaks broken rivets, or other damage and repair them now. For added ease in sliding over rocks, apply car wax all over the bottom of metal boats, but do not wipe it off. Make sure the paddles do not have cracks or splinter in the handles. Check tarps, river bags and plastic gear sacks for holes. Double check everything just to be sure. Ten miles downstream is no time to find out half your gear is missing and the other half is faulty. Be sure all equipment is together and sound.

Notify friends. With care, probably nothing will happen to you on the river, but it is reassuring to know someone is expecting your return. The Ozark rivers are not generally dangerous and someone's farm or house is usually close by in case of emergency. There are, however, some stretches of river so lonely nothing passes by for days except animals. So be sure someone knows where you are going and when you plan to return.

Get permission from the landowner. Whenever crossing private land for access to the river or when camping on someone's land, ask first. More than likely you'll get yes for an answer. The laws defining the line between public and private lands on the river are disputed, and no matter what you think your rights are, it's very difficult to argue with an angry landowner on his ground. Respect private property, and you can leave with a friendly "Come back anytime" from the farmer.


With everything stacked into the back of the car or pick-up, you're ready to load the boats onto your vehicle. With a pick-up or truck, you can either tie the boat over the cab and bed or let it stick out the tailgate. (diagram 1 and 2) If you rest it on the cab lay an old rug or mat down to protect the finish of the car. If you stick it out the tailgate, tie a red flag on the end. Tie the boat to the bumper and front of the truck bed or it may be bouncing down the road in the wrong direction.

If you use a car, place a mat on the top and balance the boat carefully. (diagram 3) Tie to the front and back bumpers. Also, wrap a cloth or foam rubber around the rope where it touches the car to prevent rubbing off paint.

Three ways to secure boats onto vehicles.


Make sure your vision is not obstructed by the boat or the tie ropes. Removable luggage carriers which fit on the tops of cars are excellent for transporting boats. They can be extended so that two boats ride as easily as one. Just be sure there is no danger of the boats falling off.

Of primary Concern is the way back home. After you know where you are getting out, you need to arrange a ride to pick everything up. Here are two possibilities of getting home. Shuffling cars is first. You'll need two vehicles, at least two people and some extra time to run around when putting in and taking out. First unload the gear and boats from the two vehicles at the starting point. Next, drive both cars to the take-out point and leave the first one there. Drive the second car back and leave it at the starting point. When you finish the float, the first car is there waiting. If you travel light and can carry your boats and gear in one car, load up and return to the starting point to pick up the second car. Sometimes it takes both vehicles, in which case both will return to the take-out point to get the rest of the gear.

The second way to get home is to have someone take you to the river and meet you at the end point at a specified time. This is a lot simpler, but you must depend on someone other than yourself and your time is pre-determined. You can't take an extra day or even an extra hour on the river with someone waiting for you.

With all your gear together in waterproof bags, canoes on the riverbank and feet itching to get on downstream, you're ready to load the boats. But load up correctly, or the first bump in a top-heavy canoe may dump you in the river. When loading, place the heaviest items in the bottom center of the canoe, slightly back from the middle. (diagram 4) It is better to have more weight toward the back than toward the front for stability. Keep the weight low and toward the back. Use a waterproof tarp, if desired, on the bottom of the canoe, extending over all the gear. Gear piled higher than the gunwale can be jerked out by tree limbs. Fishing rods especially have a peculiar habit of snapping off in trees. Place small valuables in waterproof sandwich bags so they will float if you upset. For large or expensive items you will be using constantly (such as cameras or fishing rods) tie a string or rope onto them, then tie the other end to a tire innertube. Then, even if they sink, the innertube will float and you will be able to retrieve them.

Diagram 4--Place the heaviest item in the bottom middle of the canoe, underneath everything else. Below--Don't overload the boat or you will drag bottom through shallow spots and exhaust yourself paddling in eddies.


Summer sunrise on the Osage Fork  below Long Ford Bridge. Color photo by Daniel Hough.


After loading, the boat should float about six to eight inches above the water for safety and greater ease in handling. You are then able to enjoy yourself and not be a freight barge.

Keep the gear you will use during the day on top, the camping equipment on the bottom of the canoe. Keep the extra paddles close at hand, so you will have little trouble grabbing one if you break or lose one in the middle of a riffle.


There are three ways to get around on the river--drifting with the current, poling or paddling. Outboard motors have been omitted on purpose from this article. we do not condemn their use on the rivers, for many trappers and trot line fishermen use them to run the eddies. But a boat motor defeats the purpose of a float trip. The noise, fumes and troubles of the motor disturbs the silence and stillness of the river. Electric motors remove these factors, but even they can be used only in the deep eddies. The propellers must be raised up through riffles, and even a snag in the eddies might snap a prop off the shaft. Motors are fine for some purposes, but on the float trip they have no use.

Drifting with the current is what you do on a float while fishing or lying in the sun asleep on a mile-long eddy. Here the current does the work for you. Drifting takes a long time to get anywhere in the big eddies, but you're not in any hurry. An occasional paddle thrust is all it takes to keep you on course.

It is doubtful you will need or want to do any actual poling with a pole. What you will do is use your paddle as a pole--and as a brace, rudder, drag, steering wheel, anything to keep the boat upright and going in the right direction.

To save wear on your back, pick a long paddle. For the bowman, the paddle should be chin level or a little below when stood on the ground. For the stern-man, eye level or below. Grasp the paddle by putting one hand on top and the other hand just above the blade. (diagram 5) This grip gives the most leverage.

The way you paddle depends on your position in the canoe, front or back. The bowman (front) uses a straight-back stroke (diagram 6) or a sweeping stroke (diagram 7) in normal paddling, switching sides back and forth as either arm gets tired, or to correct the bow's position in the water. A third stroke is pulling water toward the canoe (diagram 8), which will swing the front end in the opposite direction of the pull.

Diagram 5--The proper way to hold the paddle. Place one hand on top and one on the shaft near the blade.
Diagram 6--This stroke moves the canoe forward and slightly to the side opposite the paddler. Reversing the stroke (backstroke) slows the canoe to stop.

Diagram 7--This stroke, only slightly different from #6, also moves the canoe forward and slightly to the opposite side.

Diagram 8--Pulling the paddle toward the canoe (pulling water in) moves the bow of the canoe in the opposite direction of the pull. Reversing the direction of the stroke moves the bow the other way. This stroke is useful while moving through riffles.


The sternman has the most power and control of the canoe, owing to his ability to swing the back (and front) in either direction easily. This is not to say the bowman has no control, but that the sternman can overpower him.

The sternman has three strokes. The straight-back method (diagram 9) is perhaps the worst way for the sternman to paddle. With every stroke on the left side, the bow swings to the right. Switch sides and the bow runs to the left. Either you must switch sides every two or three strokes, or the bowman must paddle twice as hard to keep straight. Keep paddling on one side, and you'll paddle in circles all day.

The J-stroke (diagram 10) is better than the straight-back stroke for the sternman. The backwards pull sends the canoe forward, and the hook of the J keeps the bow straight. Though this stroke keeps the canoe in a straight line, the hook has the effect of slowing down the canoe from the drag on the paddle which acts almost as a brake. This means the sternman has to paddle harder to make any distance.

The pitch, or guide stroke, is the best of the three. This stroke is actually a modified J-stroke. In the pitch stroke, the sternman pulls the paddle back and then moves it outward and back, feathering the blade out of the water as he does so. The feathering keeps the canoe on course and keeps drag to a minimum. It takes practice to use this stroke effectivelY, but mastery will allow the canoeist to travel many miles with minimum effort.

Most people today floating rivers use canoes, and a few daring individuals use kayaks. But before the interest in these boats, fishermen used the wooden johnboat on the river. Many today still prefer the wooden or aluminum johnboats to canoes for fishing.

The major difference in johnboats and canoes is the shape. With its flat bottom and squared-edges, the johnboat resembles a rectangular box. The john-boat has a much greater stability in the water due to its wide bottom, and it rides higher So it can float in shallow water without dragging bottom on gravel. However, the johnboat cannot cut through water as quickly as V-shaped craft, and not capable of quick maneuvering in riffles. The johnboat was designed for long eddies, quiet floating and fishing in a limited area.

A johnboat can carry more cargo because of its space, but loading remains the same as with a canoe. Keep the weight low and to the back. Don't overload, and don't stack gear over your head.

One way for the back man to paddle consists of pulling the blade to the back edge of the johnboat and then ruddering the paddle behind the boat. (diagram 11) This is not the only way to paddle a johnboat, but it is a common method. (See "The Ozark Johnboat," Vol. I, No. 2, p. 4)

Diagram 9--The sternman's straight-back stroke moves the canoe forward, but also swings the bow toward the side opposite the paddler.

Diagram 10--The J-stroke moves the canoe forward, while the hook of the J keeps the bow headed straight. However, the drag from the blade slows the canoe down.

Diagram 11--In paddling a johnboat the paddle is pulled back as in the regular canoe stroke, then ruddered around behind the boat.

Parts of a johnboat


These basic paddle strokes of canoes and johnboats can be easily understood and learned individually when used in the quiet water of lakes or river eddies. But a river's current as it rushes around log jams, over riffles and through bends makes river boating much different. Instead of there being only two people in control, there is a third element with a mind and power of it's own--the current. In order to take advantage of the current when it is going where the boat needs to go and to counteract it when leading into dangerous places, the paddlers must act as a team. The bowman must watch for obstructions in the river, pick out the best course to take and give instructions to the sternman. The stern-man then moves the canoe with the bowman's help. In essence the bowman must help make the decisions and the sternman must have the skill and power to guide the canoe.

Still, there are three items of caution to consider. When floating down one of the Ozark rivers, you place yourself at the mercy of the river the same way you are at the mercy of the other drivers on interstate highways. In both cases there are unpredictable variables. When you come through safe and sound at the end of the trip, it is not because you have tamed or conquered the river. You have become part of the river and made it because the river itself came through.

Second, the instructions here are misleading because you may think each action is governed by careful thought and communication. In some instances they are such as when you choose to go left (or right) after studying a short riffle from the bank. But after you have entered a fast riffle and round a corner to view a log jam laced with barbed-wire throughout, there is little time for thought, much less communication, before action. Instead, this would be reaction to a crisis. Hopefully, the bowman and sternman react enough alike to beach on the left where there is a bit of gravel and not each paddle in opposite ways. Perhaps the bowman will have time to yell "Left!", and the sternman will understand he means to go to the left bank but not to paddle on the left side. But more than likely each reacts automatically and hopefully as a team.

Which brings up the third point. Canoeing Ozark streams is not a dignified orderly paddle-by-the-rule-book activity. Quite the opposite. It is a humbling, extremely haphazard and devil-may-care sport. Remember the river is in charge. If a tree or boulder lies directly in your path, don't try to execute a perfect reverse stroke or curlicue. Stick out your paddle and push away from it. If you get caught on a rock, shift your weight to one side and use your paddle as a pole to get free. For reasons like these, paddling Ozark rivers has sometimes been called "stroke-one, dodge-two" and the name fits. This method isn't professional, but it will keep you (almost) dry.

Emmitt Massey (front) prepares to cast while Ellen Massey rudders BITTERSWEET's johnboat into a better fishing spot.


When approaching riffles (diagram 12) head the canoe into the longest "V" in the current and keep the canoe moving straight with the current, unless a rock or limb lies in your path. In this case, the bowman pulls water in on one side to pull the front over, and the sternman paddles on the opposite side. After passing the obstruction, the bowman pulls the bow back into the current. This is, of course, no set rule as different strokes can achieve the same effect. The sternman could just as easily have swung the bow around by ruddering and brought the canoe back into line by paddling harder on the side.

If the riffles curve, hit the first V, then move the canoe straight to the middle of the river where the current is strongest. (diagram 13) Next swing the stern into the current, being sure to keep the bow in the current also.

If the bow moves out of the current and the stern is caught in the current the back end will swing around. Unless you enjoy running the river backwards, continue in the swing until you move full circle. Stay in the current except to dodge rocks and move onward out of the riffles. This type of maneuvering calls for timing and teamwork, so it would be best to practice in an empty canoe for an afternoon before venturing out with a fully loaded one for an extended float.

If you cannot avoid hitting an obstruction in the river, try to hit it with the bow of the canoe rather than the side. A head-on collision will jar your teeth, but a side-swipe may dump you overboard.

If you get pinned against a log or rock (diagram 14), lean toward the obstruction, not away from it. If you lean away, the gunwale will likely drop below the water and the current will flood the canoe. Instead, keep your weight next to the log or rock, and work your way around it keeping the bow pointed downstream.

If you are snagged on a rock or underwater tree limbs, push off with paddle, limbs, hands, feet, anything available. Just don't tip over with your efforts.

If your canoe fills with water and sinks under the water level but still floats upright you're swamped. The canoe will remain afloat, unless a shift in weight or so much as a soft nudge flips it over and your gear falls out. Stay seated and get 'the canoe to the bank by paddling gently, throw out your soggy gear and empty the canoe.

Diagram 12--When moving toward riffles, head the boat into the longest V in the water, This insures running through the deepest water.

Diagram 13--Going around a bend while floating through riffles. Keep front and back of the boat in the current.

Diagram 14--If pinned against an obstruction by the current, lean toward the rock or log working around it.


The bowman and stern-man need to keep watching ahead of them to locate and avoid rocks and limbs. If you are snagged on a rock or limb, keep your weight steady and push off of the snag.

On the other hand, if you turn completely over and dump everything out, push the canoe to the bank and gather up any floating items. If the weather is warm, then you get to go diving for everything. This is usually no problem, since Ozark rivers have gravel bottoms except for a minor layer of silt, and are generally not deeper than five to eight feet. There are exceptions, however. Around bluffs and rock outcroppings the water can be twenty feet deep or more, with swift undercurrents which will pin you under a rock ledge or strike your head against rocks. In winter, the river is cold and with the added exposure to wind, your endurance is limited. At 60 degrees water temperature, you can stand an hour or more submersion; from 50 to 60 degrees, 15 to 40 minutes; from 40 to 50 degrees, 5 to 20 minutes; below 40 degrees, less than 10 minutes. If you do get wet in cold weather, get to the bank and start a fire with the waterproof matches kept in your pocket. If it is extremely cold, then strip and get into a sleeping bag. Use common sense and remember that even a $500.00 camera is not worth your life.

To avoid a chancy spot where you might ditch, pull over to the bank to make a visual inspection of the river before you go on. If the river is choked with trees, you might try to get out and push the canoe by hand. If the river is so bad you can't even walk through, then unload your gear, carry your canoe and gear around the spot, then reload and get back in. Portaging will also be necessary on the small concrete mill dams still standing on some rivers.

Dead falls and logs abound below the water and limbs above. It is the bowman's job to locate snags, rocks, and shallow places and inform the sternman of the new direction to by-pass it while keeping his paddle ready to avoid it.

Occasionally (and embarrassingly) you may barrel into a tangle of tree limbs. This is the main reason for keeping your gear below the gunwale. The impact will snap fishing rods and scatter lighter articles all over the river. If you get entangled, the only answer is to push out. But keep your weight steady, for a sudden shove could drop you or the canoe underwater.

If you grind to a halt on a gravel or sand bar, push off with a paddle. If you're stuck for sure, don't break the paddle with your efforts. Just hop out and get your feet wet. In most cases only the heaviest person needs to get out.

You don't have to memorize these rules. A little common sense will go a long way while floating the river. Just be alert, prepared for anything, and remember the most important rule of all--enjoy yourself.



Once on the river keep in mind a few important rules for a safe trip. Don't go alone in a boat. Two people are usually needed to handle a boat safely. It is actually better if there are four people and two boats in your group. This way, if one boat runs into trouble, the other can help. Canoes designed for two people are best only for two, but a third person can ride in the middle if gear is limited. Johnboats can take three or four. A kayak by design allows only one person.

When going through riffles or other obstructions such as log jams or low hanging trees, have only one boat at a time go through. Wait until each boat is completely through to prevent collisions and jams. Then stay around unliterary boat is through in case the last boat upsets. Everyone should keep watching ahead and all around constantly for obstructions above and below the water, or anything else that could cause problems (animals, barbed wire stretched across the river, submerged rocks, tree limbs).

Most rule books say to never stand up in a boat. Times often dictate otherwise. When approaching riffles or obstructions, the sternman usually stands to better survey the situation to determine what course to take. Johnboats were designed for standing while casting or gigging. Obviously, standing must be done with care. If you have little or no sense of balance, don't try it.

Otherwise, just keep your weight centered in the boat. After a while, you'll get your 'sea legs' and standing up in a boat will be easy. The same hold true for leaning out of a boat. Just don't lean too far.

If You can't swim, or the water is very cold, swear life jackets. Inner-tubes or life preservers should always b~ handy for spills. Even though much of the water you will float through is wad' able, there are deep spots made treacherous by strong currents around obstructions. So be prepared.

If you're out under the sun paddling in spring or summertime, don't overwork yourself. Sunstroke (also called heatstroke), caused by the body's loss of fluids from overheating, can kill. Drink plenty of fluids and salt if heavily perspiring. But since the Ozark rivers are mostly well shaded, you can usually stay in the cool shade of trees and avoid overheating,

By the same right, if you're on the river in the dead of winter with 30 mile an hour Winds blowing, don't exhaust yourself to the point where your body can no longer keep warm. Most people will never be out in bad weather, but then again you might. A fair winter day can turn the tables and change into a freezing storm. If things do go badly, beach the boat and walk to the nearest farm, which is usually less than a mile away. Telephone your friends to pick you up and get off the river there.

Broken trees (above) and tangled limbs offer a problem in navigating the river. The tree on the top is not particularly hazardous, but somewhat unsettling on the nerves to pass under. It might be necessary to get out and push the boat through the tangle below while wading in the river.


Dress appropriately for the weather. In summer, a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses and suntan lotion to exposed skin are your best protection. While on water you receive a double dose of the sun's rays from overhead and reflections off the water surface. It's pretty hard to sleep on a sunburn at night.

In winter, wear plenty of clothes to keep warm, rubber gloves to keep hands dry and rubber footwear. Several light shirts are better than one or two heavy shirts. This way, you can remove clothing as you become hot from exertion and replace them when you cool off.

A homemade wooden johnboat equipped with a paddlewheel to ease the job of paddling.

Dress warmly for a float during the winter.


Besides avoiding trouble by your own actions, the river itself offers some problems. Passing tree limbs catching on the boat can lash back and put out an eye or scratch your face. Sunglasses fulfill a double purpose for eye protection here. Cobwebs and wet leaves are annoyances in your face and down your neck. Floating under trees precariously balanced on the river are not particularly hazardous, but are unsettling on the nerves.

The only foliage offering annoyance is poison ivy. Poison ivy is easily identified by its three leaves extending from a central point. The irritating agent is in the sap, which is transferred to skin by crushing the leaves or handling a bruised vine. You can also get the rash by touching anything which has come into contact with the sap--paddles, clothing, pets, or from the smoke of burning vines. The irritant acts differently to each person due to skin chemistry. Because your own skin sometimes changes, you can be immune this year and get a rash next year. If you can't remember which plant is poison ivy then play safe and don't touch anything you are unsure about.

Dogwood, red bud and other trees flower during springtime and summer, along with a hundred other plants. If you have an allergy you can bet it will flare up on the river. Either come prepared with medicine, or wait until fall to float. On the other hand, if you have a fall allergy, float when the irritant is not present in the air.

Animal life is not too great a threat, since wild animals fear humans and the strange sights and sounds man brings along. There is one poisonous water snake in the Ozarks, the cottonmouth water moccasin (Agkistrodon piscivorus). Most water snakes are harmless but most people confuse poisonous snakes with harmless snakes and figure that every snake they see is dangerous. Unless you startle or corner a snake they will retreat. Don't try to kill a snake with a paddle because it might be tossed into the boat on your back swing. Snakes can also drop into the boat from overhead limbs. Do your best to get the snake out without turning the boat over.

There's a story about a man who always kept a .22 caliber rifle in his boat to kill snakes. One day a snake dropped into his boat from a tree limb, and in panic he began firing on the snake. He was shaking so bad and the snake kept moving so he used up his shells and never hit the snake. Pretty soon the boat was under water and the snake swam out on its own unharmed.

The soft-shelled or snapping turtle is another reptile that can cause distress if you try to corner it or try to kill it with a paddle. Its jaws can bite off a finger or take a sizable portion of flesh from anywhere else. And once a turtle bites down on a paddle its pretty difficult to persuade it to let go.

While on a short hike on land or camping out rattlesnakes and copperhead snakes might be found. Both are poisonous and prefer rocky ledges to hide under. The three snakes--cottonmouth water moccasin, copperhead and rattlers--are the poisonous snakes native to the Ozarks.

Other animals you might see are skunks, stray dogs and non-poisonous snakes. Nosy cows and mean bulls are sometimes a nuisance if you are in an open pasture. Insects such as mosquitoes, gnats, horseflies, deerflies, biting fleas, ticks and chiggers will be a problem during warm weather. A good dose of insect repellent will be needed. Remember to reapply repellent after perspiring in the sun and after swimming. Check nightly for ticks and chiggers and soak them down in alcohol to get them loose. Get ticks off as soon as possible to prevent infection. Don't pull ticks off for an embedded head left under the skin can lead to infection. And don't squash ticks on your fingernails. Germs on your hands will undoubtedly make their way into your eyes or mouth. Toss the little beggers into the fire and watch them pop.

Hornets, wasps, yellow jackets and bees might be seen along the river but will mind their own business. On occasion you might see a hornets' nest hanging from a tree limb. Do not bother it. Hornets can fly faster than a man can run, let alone a man paddling a canoe.

Leeches are sometimes present in mud and around water plants. They're after one thing--your blood--and once they set on you they are bound and determined to stay there. The worst thing about leeches is that they're painless and you won't notice them until you see them. Look for leeches while you're looking for ticks. Rub them with tobacco juice, rubbing alcohol or a lit cigarette and they'll come right off.

Contaminated spring water is a problem near farms and cities. Sewage, barn lots, industrial wastes, fertilizer run-off and sinkholes filled with rubbish will seep germs, disease organisms and foreign material into the springs. In wilder areas the springs may be pure enough to drink but recent studies show pollution travels long distances in the Ozark underground water system. Therefore, it is safer to boil or chemically purify the water before using. Better yet, bring clean water from home. On an extended trip take a walk to the nearest farmhouse for a friendly chat and a fresh supply of water.



The list below is only for a guide. Items will vary with each individual.

MINIMUM ESSENTIALS--(for 1 hour or 2 weeks)

Boats-2 to 3 people to a boat
Paddles--2 per person
Life jackets--1 per person
Ropes or heavy cord tied on front and back of each boat
Drinking water--enough for entire trip Sponge for bailing


Food for each meal. Make menu and bring everything needed including salt, seasonings, fat, sugar and flour.
Table service for each person

Cooking utensils
1 or 2 kettles and lids
Frying pan and lid
Knives, wooden spoons, long-handled fork, pancake turner
2 buckets for dishwashing--one metal to heat water

Washing detergent
Hot pads, dish cloths, towels and scouring pad
Matches in waterproof containers
Paper towels

Tent or tarp for ground cover
Sleeping bags or blankets for each person
Flashlight or lantern
Extra rope for clothes line

Soap, towels, wash cloth, comb
Tooth brush and paste
Toilet paper
Other items as deemed essential 

Warm weather
Shorts or jeans and shirt
Canvas shoes
Extra change--more if gone for more than 2 days Jacket
Extra shoes for camp
Hat-if desired

  Cold weather
Long underwear
Heavy shirt and Pants
Heavy coat or jacket
Waterproof footwear
2 pairs of socks 
Warm head covering
Rubber gloves and regular gloves
Heavy shoes for camp
Extra change of all clothing-more if gone longer than overnight. Be sure there is always a change of dry clothes.
Waterproof matches in your pocket at all times.


Several waterproof bags to pack food, clothing and camping equipment
Map of river or area
Floatable seat cushions
First aid kit
Rubbing alcohol
Insect repellent
Suntan lotion
Tarps to cover load
Fishing equipment
Fish scaler
Ice cooler
Bathing suits-most people swim in clothes

The drop-off at the Orla Mill dam makes portaging necessary.



About two hours before sunset you should pick a spot to camp. Gravel bars make fine campsites. They are close to the water, free of ticks and chiggers and clean. However, tent stakes are difficult to secure in the gravel., If you are using a tent and cannot secure tent pegs in sand or gravel, tie a short log or stick onto the end of the tent rope and bury it in the ground. The additional weight will keep the ropes tight.

If there is a rainstorm in the middle of the night and the river rises, the gravel bar will be the first to flood. If that happens, grab your gear and head for high ground. In the morning re-assess the condition of the river, and if it's too high, don't try to finish your trip. Find the nearest farmhouse, explain your predicament and call your friends to pick you up.

Grassy areas on the bank are safe from high water and give softer footing and anchorage for tent poles, but they may be infested with crawling insects. Pick an area with a breeze blowing at night to keep down flying insects.

After selecting a campsite dig a fire pit and get a fire started using only dead wood. There will be plenty of dead wood lying around and the landowner will take a more tolerant view of you if you don't cut down trees. If you use a gas stove, then you need not worry with wood unless you wish a campfire for the mood of the scene. Spread out your gear but keep sleeping bags and blankets covered up or the dew will leave them soggy.

Try to get supper cooked before the sunlight leaves. It is a lot harder to cook after dark with only a flashlight tO see. Clean up your utensils after you use them instead of waiting until morning. Sand or fine gravel makes an excellent abrasive to scrub pots and pans except on teflon. Put the next day's food away securely and burn or bury any food scraps. Tossing scraps in the bushes will bring night prowlers in search of food. It could be a skunk after your hamburger. Keep all your unburnable trash and any plastic in a trash sack. If you had enough room to pack it in, then pack it out.

Two turn-of-the-century camps on the James River and (bottom) one present day camp on the Osage Fork River.


In the morning, after you have cooked and eaten breakfast and cleaned up, break camp. Reload your canoes as carefully as at the beginning of the trip. Fill in the fire pit and then take a last look all around. Is everything the same as you found it? It should be. Leave the river as clean or cleaner than you found it. Disrespect of property will lose the river to boaters, while courtesy ensures you'll be welcome again next year.

We have not tried to explainevery-thing about camping as there are numerous books and guides available on general camping and cooking. What we have done is explain the differences about camping on Ozark rivers.


Knowing how to do something is one thing, knowing why you do it is another. All the trouble it takes to get on the river, all the precautions to observe and all the annoyances once there may cause you to ask, "Is floating the river worth it?" Before answering that, let's examine some of the joys of the river.

The rivers offer a calm retreat from everyday living--peace and quiet and the chance to be alone are the offerings of the river. But it is not lonely. In any supermarket or department store you are isolated and lonely even though in a crowd. You are restricted to be the same as a hundred other people surrounding you.

On the river, you are an individual. When you face a problem you make your own decisions and are free to act as you see fit, accountable for your decisions immediately. Everything depends on your decision. When you face riffles, do you go left or right? Take a chance in a log jam or get out and portage? If your decision was correct the reward is a smooth ride. If not, the river will flip your boat over. The river judges everyone swiftly and fairly.

Because of this, you learn something about yourself on the river. You find out how well you can make your own decisions. If you break your last paddle five miles from the take-out point you can't just let someone else handle the problem or quit and go home. Not until you finish the last five miles. Only your own resourcefulness can get you home. Do you repair the paddle with a stick and rope? Whittle a sapling into a pole to guide the boat the rest of the way? Get out and pull the boat through the water? Or use the camp shovel as an improvised paddle the rest of the day? You must decide something and finish the float.

Almost all of the Ozark rivers offer excellent fishing opportunities.


Besides yourself, you learn a great deal about your partner. Facing the problems, discomforts and minor dangers on the river you see how he or she reacts. Is she as level-headed as you thought? Or does she fall apart at every little crisis? Can he or she also find joy on the river or only boredom? Does he appreciate what the river has to offer, or long for the comfort of anonymity in crowds?

Back home, someone is always trying to sell you something but on the river nature reveals her secrets only to those who have the patience, curiosity and understanding to look for them. What you seek is the order and balance that only nature has and that man seems to have forgotten. Squirrels play in the treetops, hawks and buzzards circle overhead and fish splash about in the water. Dragonfiles hover in search of insects, snakes glide gracefully through the water, cutting a V to trace their path. A fragrance of flowers drifts over the water, caves in bluffs open their black mouths to the river and bees hum in search of pollen.

Rounding a bend to view a colossal stony wall beats all that Rome has to offer in monuments. Startling a blue heron or white crane into flight or following a flock of wood ducks down the river all day is ten times more interesting than watching nature shows on television. With tv, you are merely an observer. Not on the river. There you are the actor in the real thing. Sit quiet and the river will play her orchestration of sight and sound, taste and touch. Ail senses come alive at the dip of a paddle blade.

Is it worth it? Without a doubt, yes! The rivers are worth the time you spend on them today and the effort you give to save them for tomorrow. No amount of exclamations can state it forcefully enough.

Now if you're still curious as to what a real life float trip is like for some beginning floaters, then grab your paddle and read on.

The joys and adventures experienced during a three-day float trip are worth all the time and trouble preparing before you leave. The rivers offer a different sight around every bend, a different scent with every breath. Enjoy and respect the Ozark rivers.


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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