Keeping Current – The Wild Things

Rivers are places that renew our spirit, connect us with our past, and link us directly with the flow and rhythm of the natural world.

~Ted Turner

My only regret from our canoe camping trip last month was that I did not bring my usual camera gear to record some of the wonderful wildlife we encountered on both rivers. But, canoeing unfamiliar waters while toting large lenses has the potential for unforeseen (and unwanted) outcomes, so I am left with memories and a slew of iPhone photos (and some point and shoot pics underwater). On our first afternoon of paddling the Current River, we enjoyed the company of what would be our most frequent bird companions on the river – Belted Kingfishers, Pileated Woodpeckers, and Bald Eagles. It seemed there was a kingfisher rattling a sharp greeting around every bend in the river. It is no wonder since the clear water and abundant small fish make for a kingfisher buffet. Pileated Woodpeckers called from the forest edges and often flashed their bold black and white wing patterns as they flew overhead. And we probably saw 15 or more Bald Eagles on our journey, including a very sociable juvenile on our first full morning. Our first campsite on the Current River was a small gravel bar bordered by a bluff. We spotted the eagle flying toward us and it made a slight turn and landed in a dead treetop on the far bank. It sat for awhile, preening, surveying the scene. But one slight movement was too much for the dead branch perch and the startled eagle was suddenly airborne as a few feet of limb crashed into the river below. As if to say, I meant to do that, the eagle flew upstream, made a U-turn and landed in another tree not far away.

Juvenile Bald Eagle flew in and hung with us for awhile (click photos to enlarge)

Shorty after that, Melissa spotted a deer walking downstream toward us. I was standing, adding some sticks to the fire, so I froze, hoping the 8-point buck would continue our way. It kept walking in a straight line right at us, then hit a deeper section and began to swim across the river. It reached a shallow spot, started walking again, and then suddenly realized something was not quite right across the river, and he stopped.

This 8-point buck was headed straight toward us and then realized something was amiss

This is where I really wished I had my telephoto lens…it was a beautiful morning with a light mist clinging to the surface of the river. The buck was framed perfectly in the still water, looking directly at us. It stood that way for a few seconds and then bounded back across the river to the safety of the woods. A great way to start our day.

There is one potential positive about not having the big camera gear – I tend to focus more on the scene and the small life around me. And there was plenty to see, especially each time we landed on a gravel bar. A variety of wolf spiders greeted us at every stop, so many that at first it made you wonder about who might be sharing your campsite each night (but they were not a bother at all).

Spiders were everywhere on the gravel bars (most not as large as this one)

One beach area had a large number of one of my favorite stream-side insects – Toad Bugs. One resource indicated this species may be the Big-eyed Toad Bug, Gelastocoris oculatus. Toad Bugs do look and act a bit like tiny toads, slowly walking or hopping along the shoreline. They are well-camouflaged and kind of resemble a fat-headed stink bug.

Our first stop was a hangout for Toad Bugs

Their large eyes and raptorial front legs are useful in catching their prey (other insects). Early naturalists must have found them amusing as well, as the genus name means laughing or funny bug.

At a few stops we saw Northern Cricket Frogs, which always seem to jump into the leaf debris just underwater right when you lean down to get a photo. This one cooperated long enough for a quick portrait.

A Northern Cricket Frog along the river’s edge

There was a lot of beaver activity along the banks and a few lodges where the shoreline was amenable. One beaver had a particularly creative location for its home – underneath an overhang on a bluff. Other mammals we encountered included a Muskrat and several River Otter (unfortunately, the latter were too elusive for an iPhone image).

Beaver lodge under a shallow overhang

One stop had several Question Mark butterflies seeking minerals at an abandoned fire pit. There were also many small yellow butterflies along the river (I assume they were Little Yellows) and a few migrating Monarchs.

Question Mark butterflies (named for the faint white question mark symbol on the underside of the wing) were common on many gravel bars

The clear waters of the Current River gave us a window into a wildlife world that we rarely experience – an abundance of freshwater fish (plus a few other surprises). A highlight was Melissa spotting a soft-shelled turtle swimming underneath us one day as we paddled. We stopped and drifted along with it, enjoying this rare treat. Soft-shelled turtles lack the hard bony scutes found on other turtles, giving them a more pliable shell, especially along the sides. They have long necks, and elongate, snorkel-like nostrils. There are three species of soft-shelled turtles in Missouri, and I am not positive which one this is.

Melissa spotted this soft-shelled turtle drifting downstream with us (video by Melissa Dowland)

Melissa is a cold water fanatic. She will swim in mountains streams and lakes at the drop of a hat. So paddling these clear waters was just too much of a temptation for her in spite of the chilly temperatures. She had packed our masks and snorkels and so she was in the water at a few of our stops checking out the underwater life (I finally joined her on a couple of swims). Along the edges we saw many large tadpoles, which I assume are American Bullfrogs (please drop me a note if you know for sure).

Our last campsite had numerous large tadpoles (Bullfrogs perhaps) in the shallows

Another ubiquitous member of the shallows club was a species of darter that quickly dashed from one rock to another whenever we walked along the shore. There are 44 species of darters recorded in Missouri, so I’m not sure which one this is. It is post breeding season for these often incredibly colorful fish species so that makes it a bit harder to identify.

This colorful darter s a common species in the gravel along the river’s edge

Melissa took our Olympus camera out on a few snorkels and managed to capture some of the many small fish swimming just off the shoreline. The cold water made for relatively quick drifts but she got some nice pics of a few species (again, we don’t know the identity of these guys, but it was fun seeing so many fish swimming with us).

A school of small fish swims in front of Melissa (photo by Melissa Dowland)
These fish were about 4 inches or so in length and a few had hints of red (photo by Melissa Dowland)
Red lips staring at Melissa (photo by Melissa Dowland)

The night we camped at Bee Bluff, we witnessed a surprising local custom. An hour or so before dark, two guys drove down a dirt road that ended in a beach just downriver from our campsite. They launched an aluminum motor boat and headed past us upstream. We were surprised anyone would maneuver an outboard motor through some of the riffles and shallows we had paddled, but I figured they would go upstream a bit and then drift back down to their launch site fishing along the way. But they didn’t return until well after dark, and when they did, they had huge lights on the front of the boat with one man standing on the front with a long pole. Were they gigging something or just poling through the shallows to avoid rocks? The next day I asked a local at one of the landings what was happening the night before. He said there is a gigging season for the “undesirables”, the suckers. We certainly had seen a bunch of large suckers of some sort as we paddled, but I had never heard of gigging for suckers. The next afternoon, a young man in a motor boat passed our campsite going upstream. But he was drift fishing, casting as he came back well before dark. He said he was fishing for Smallmouth Bass, but people do gig for suckers (we think many of the ones we saw were Northern Hog Suckers).

When we got home, I looked up gigging for suckers and found a wealth of articles describing the practice, which has apparently been going on for well over a hundred years on the Current River and other Ozark waterways. Originally, people used a wooden boat and illuminated the water with a basket hanging over the edge with a flaming pine knot or a lantern. Now, a flat bottom aluminum boat with a railed front deck is the choice and strong LED or halogen lights (or car headlights) and a generator light the way. The people up front have 12-16 foot long poles with barbed spears on the end and they try to spear the suckers as the driver moves the boat through the clear and often very shallow waters.

Our last night on the river was the best for this Ozark tradition. A boat with two men and two young boys went by and stopped just around the bend a few hundred yards downstream. We could hear the motor and generator going, the occasional laugh or yell, and see the light reflecting off the treetops downriver. They worked their way back upstream past our campsite and were apparently, based on their hooting and hollering, having a grand time gigging for suckers. The usual outing ends with a campfire and fried fish and other fixings for a late night dinner.

Gigging for suckers is a long held tradition on rivers in the Ozarks. This is the boat with lights coming upriver toward our campsite with the glow of our campfire in the foreground.
The lights and sounds of the fishermen certainly added a surreal aspect to our canoe camping adventure

Later that night, under a full moon, our river trip ended with one last “wild things” mystery. I was awakened after midnight by loud sounds in the brush across the river. There was a steep bluff directly across from us, with a shallow edge of trees and shrubs adjoining the water. Whatever it was was making a lot of noise going through that vegetation. Melissa and I strained to see any motion and were perplexed at what could be over there and how it even got into that spot since a steep rock face soared above it. I finally remembered my binoculars were inside my dry bag just outside the tent so I rummaged through it and pulled them out just in time to catch a glimpse of something swimming across the river and disappearing upstream around the curve in our shoreline. No details were visible in the moonlight, just a blob in the river making a wake as it swam around the bend. We listened for a while longer, but heard nothing else. What was it? A beaver dragging some cut limbs? A bear? The next morning we paddled across and looked for any beaver sign (none) or anything other clue (none). It didn’t seem likely that something had climbed down the rock face and entered the water so where had it come from? I mentioned it to the folks at a local landing when we got off the river and they smiled and said, Sasquatch. Hmmm…where the wild things are, the Ozarks. And we hope to return before long to paddle this or another of the incredibly clear rivers. Next post – our paddle on the lower Buffalo River in Arkansas.

Keeping Current – The River

The rivers flow not past, but through us…

~John Muir

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…

Eating dinner on a gravel bar near our campsite along the Jacks Fork River the night before our launch on the Current River- all photos taken with iPhone unless otherwise noted (click photos to enlarge)
Forest Service campsite on the river

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.

Our route on the Current River
And here we go, launching at Cedar Grove on the Current 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.

Welch Spring

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.

The old hospital at Welch Spring

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.

Southern Maidenhair Ferns hanging from the bluff walls along the river

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.

First night campsite on a narrow gravel bar

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.

Entrance to Cave Spring

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.

Looking out from the cave (photo by Melissa Dowland)

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.

Pulltite Spring

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.

Campsite across from a cave along the river

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.

Bee Buff campsite

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”.

Owls Bend campsite

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.

Blue Spring, with what is believed to be the deepest blue color of any of the other natural springs in Missouri
Looking downstream at the outflow from Blue Spring
The rapids in the outflow from Blue Spring. As the case with the other springs with discharges flowing into the river, the rapids here were larger than most other rapids on the river proper

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).

Our last night on the river at our favorite camspite

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.

The end of our journey at Log Yard

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.