The rivers flow not past, but through us…
it has been a little over a month since our paddling adventure. I’m finally getting around to sharing some of the incredible memories from that trip. My knee has been causing some real problems these past few months so we agreed to try a paddling trip rather than a backpacking one (whew!). Based on a friend’s recommendation and our experience in Arkansas on our last trip, we looked at rivers in that state and adjoining Missouri and finally settled on two trips – the Current River in MO and the lower Buffalo River in AR. This time of year you have to choose your rivers carefully so as not to be dragging your canoe everywhere due to low water levels that are typical in Fall. The Current River fits the bill nicely as it is largely spring fed and so has relatively constant water flow. Melissa did the research and planned a 6-day trip totaling about 61 miles. We arranged a shuttle with one of the several park-approved vendors (both rivers are under National Park Service jurisdiction). We had delayed in the mountains of NC at the start of our trip enough that a storm front had passed by the time we arrived at our campsite on the Jacks Fork River (which feeds into the Current) the night before our launch. If that river was any indication of things to come, this was going to be an awesome trip…
The next morning we arrived at our launch site (Cedar Grove) early and loaded down the canoe. As we were getting ready, an old school bus (the vehicle of choice for local outfitters) pulled up and unloaded a large group of teenagers. We hurried and put in the water to get ahead of the group and were instantly impressed by the clear water and the forested edges of the river.
Due to their unique qualities and beauty, the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers were designated as the Ozark National Scenic Riverways in 1964, becoming the first rivers designated as National Riverways (a full four years before the Wild and Scenic River Act was enacted). The geology of the region is primarily soluble dolomite (limestone with some magnesium in it as well) giving rise to countless sinkholes, caves, and springs. Over 60% of the rivers’ flow comes from seven major and hundreds of smaller springs within the park. In fact, the park brochure states that the park is home to more first order springs (springs with a daily flow of more than 65 million gallons) in one area than anywhere else on Earth! The water is clear and cold, a fairly constant 58°F, undoubtedly making for a refreshing swim in summer, but a rather chilly one in October. The water clarity is striking, coming from the typically silty NC Piedmont rivers and streams back home. The other thing the Current has going for it is that it is an easy paddle (rated as Class I rapids) so even beginners can navigate it. Now, you still have to pay attention in the many rapids (especially with a heavily-laden canoe), but it is a great paddle on a beautiful waterway.
Our first major spring was Welch Spring, just a few miles from our launch site. An interpretive sign along the short trail from the river to the spring explained the site was initially owned by a man named Welch, who built a grist mill and store at the site. We were stunned to read that the average daily flow from the spring is 70 million gallons of water! As it joins the river, this discharge nearly doubles the flow of the river. And there are much larger springs along this river, including Big Spring (below where we took out at Log Yard). With a daily flow of about 286 million gallons, Big Spring is the largest spring in the Ozarks and one of the largest single spring outlets in the world.
In 1913, Welch Spring was purchased by a doctor who created a health resort and a hospital on the site. He believed that asthma patients could benefit from breathing the moist, chilly, pollen-free air coming out of the cave. The resort failed after his death and the land was bought for a hunting and fishing lodge before being purchased as part of the park.
Back in the canoe, we passed numerous bluffs rising out of the river, many festooned with luxurious growths of a variety of plants. The whole scene reminded me of ads for scenes from a tropical paradise and yet here we were in Missouri.
We chose a small gravel bar for our campsite the first night, in part because we figured no one else would want to squeeze into the site should they be following us down the river. It was an exquisite first night. We were serenaded by a pair of Barred Owls, an Eastern Screech Owl in the distance, and the faint sounds of what we later concluded were migrating waterfowl. Much more on the wildlife we encountered in the next post.
I imagine this river can be very crowded during the warmer months, but we encountered few paddlers during our trip. That lack of paddlers also meant we had plenty of dried sticks available on the gravel bars to gather for firewood each evening. Our daily ritual became get up early, eat breakfast by a small campfire, paddle, stop for short hikes to a spring, lunch in a scenic spot, paddle until 3 or 4 p.m., and then find a nice gravel bar for the night. Gather firewood, cook a nice meal, and sit by the fire until 8 or 9 p.m. and then hit the tent. Most of the time we had no cell phone service so no news, no email, just each other, the stars and the sounds of the river.
The next day we passed a couple more large springs. The first was Cave Spring, which is a large cave that you can paddle into.
The spring averages 32 million gallons of water per day, making it among the 20 largest springs in Missouri. The spring has a vertical shaft of about 140 feet. Nearby are two large underground reservoirs, Devils Well and Wallace Well. Devils Well is a public use area with a trail where visitors can descend a short distance into the mouth of the sinkhole and gaze upon an underground lake that is larger than a football field. Eventually, the water from these two reservoirs emerges at Cave Spring.
Some of the springs are home to unusual species such as cave crayfish and blind cave fishes. We didn’t spot any of these, but we did see one bat hanging from the cave ceiling. Due to the fragile nature of these springs, swimming, fishing, and diving in them is prohibited.
Downstream from Cave Spring is another large spring, Pulltite Spring, accessible by a short hike from the river’s edge. This is ranked as the thirteenth largest spring in Missouri, with a daily discharge of between 38 and 47 million gallons.
We camped that night on a gravel bar across from a terrestrial cave. Melissa did her first swim that afternoon, but I decided to wait until a time when the air temperature was a little warmer.
After another day of paddling, we pulled up to a gravel bar across from Bee Bluff which, at several hundred feet, was the highest bluff we encountered on our paddle. The name comes from the hives of honeybees that can sometimes be found in the holes on the bluff face.
The next day we passed more of the many so-called landings along the river, some with developed facilities, others with just a dirt boat launch at the end of what must be a long and bumpy gravel road. We tried to camp beyond any such sites to avoid the noises of “civilization”.
A long gravel bar at Owls Bend was a perfect spot to camp the next night. After a misty sunrise, we paddled to Blue Spring. A short hike revealed a true gem of a site, with water reminiscent of a tropical lagoon. This is the eighth largest spring in Missouri with an average daily flow of 87 million gallons.
Our last campsite was our favorite – a large gravel bar across from a beautiful bluff. Small fish and tadpoles were abundant, the sun was out, and the air temperature was warm, so we both did some cold water snorkeling looking at the fish (more on this in the next post).
It was a magical last night on the river with some interesting surprises (again, more details next time). Our final morning was a relatively short paddle (about 5 miles). The take out was at a small landing called Log Yard, and, thankfully, there was our truck waiting for us safe and sound.
It was an exceptional trip with beautiful scenery, amazing wildlife, serenity, wonderful campfires, a gorgeous night sky, and an amazing crystal clear waterway. We will definitely be back.