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.