High Adventure in the Ozarks: Canoeing the Current River

cave on the current river

This summer I joined the scouts from our church for their high adventure trip to the Ozarks. We maneuvered a caravan of canoes about 50 miles down the north section of the Current River, starting near Salem, Missouri, before getting pounded by a storm that would send us home a day early.

Getting to Aker’s Ferry, MO

We left Lincoln before sunrise on a muggy Monday in June, three adults, four scouts, and five days of gear all crammed into a minivan. Sleeping pads and pillows were stacked to the ceiling behind the back seat, with all the heavy stuff underneath, giant totes full of food, stoves, the troop cookware, and an accumulation of old mess kits seasoned with food residue from many years of fireside feasts. Those ancient mess kits connected us to a long line of scouters who camped the same parks and wilderness over the decades, who tread the same earth and waterways, but who left no trace, except for the scratches and dents and the hint of oatmeal and other reconstituted meals in those thin aluminum pans with the awkward flattened handles.

cave on the current river

After nine hours together in the minivan, we were anxious for a change of scene. We arrived at Aker’s Ferry, tired but excited to paddle, around 3PM. We discussed our itinerary with a weathered old river man, who cautioned us against drinking the river water, which would give us gee-ardia, unless we drank it straight from a spring. Then, another old river man, more weathered than the first and harder to understand, instructed us mostly with gestures to throw our stuff in the back of his short school bus. And we were on our way.

Yellow school buses with glossy black trim are as timeless as aluminum mess kits. They never age or change. It’s impossible to tell when they were made, or where they come from, or how many kids, over how many years, have climbed around on those tough green vinyl seats on their way to the schoolhouse.

The bus driver took us up a bouncy country road to our starting point, Ceder Grove. Ignoring my offer to help, he unloaded the three sixty-pound canoes plus a kayak from the trailer on his own with ease, as if he’d done it every day for the past fifty years. Before he pulled away, I asked which canoe was best. I imagined he knew those battered plastic boats like a dog sledder knows his team, that he knew which one was loyal and reliable, which one had spunk. Pointing, he shared what sounded like critical information about each craft. I couldn’t understand anything he said. But I did gather that the yellow canoe was best, so I got first dibs.

Paddling and Capsizing

We distributed the heavier items across our three boats, which would later be dubbed orange crush, green monster, and the banana boat. Orange crush was gimpy, but bulky and tough, not runty. It floated about 4 inches lower on one side, with its gunwale just above the water, as if it dared the river to enter as it pushed past. I liked crush. It had experience and character. Green monster wasn’t really a monster. The scouts just couldn’t think of another name to go with its color. The monster was steady, reliable, and unassuming. Then there was the banana. Quick and confident, having been named best of the group by the canoe master himself.

beach on the current river

For our first hour on the river, we got comfortable in our boats, becoming familiar with their movement on the water, how they responded to our shifting and leaning, and how they handled sharp turns past downed trees and other obstructions. My ride, the banana, didn’t respond like I expected and we tipped into the river while trying to shoot under a tree that formed a low arch in the water. We lost about a fourth of our food as a result, since it wasn’t water tight. A giant box of minute rice doubled in size, bulging at the sides and top, within minutes. Pasta got soggy. Fortunately, we had about twice as much food as we needed, so no one went hungry.

In the end, everyone would capsize at least once. It was always caused by a downed tree that would knock the canoe off balance, usually going around a bend in the river. All sorts of gear, including sleeping bags and pillows, would get soaked. The biggest challenge was then drying the soaked gear under a cloudy sky and in the humid air. Aside from a t-shirt or hat, what got wet pretty much stayed wet.

The Water

Water is the earth’s eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.
Henry David Thoreau

I love water. I love gulping it, splashing it, surfing it, floating on it, bailing off a cliff or flinging from a swing and crushing through it. I love how it can smoothly separate when broken and then seamlessly reconnect, how it reflects and distorts light, how it looks and sounds as a paddle blade slices through it and pushes off it.

If only I could become water, forgiving but resilient and consistent, fluid but strong and supportive.

Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. Put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or creep or drip or crash! Be water, my friend.
Bruce Lee

See my notes on the River Shannon for another ode to agua.

The Current is a special waterway, a diamond in the redneck rough of rural Missouri. Because it is spring-fed, it has none of the murkiness that gives any other river in the Midwest the appearance of swamp drainage. Instead, it’s as clean and clear as snow melt, but warmer and with a slight bluish limestone tint. All the pollution, the stink and muck and gee-ardia, is removed through the process of infiltration, as the water percolates down through the southern Missouri countryside into an unseen aquifer hundreds of feet below the surface, to later emerge, purified, through cracks and caves under and along the banks of the Current.

So, being four days in and on the Current was sublime.

The Caves

Every few miles the forested hills on either side of the river grow into towering limestone bluffs and cliffs. The cliff faces are moist from the groundwater seeping out through their pores, and in a few of them we discovered gaping caverns that led deep into the throat of the crags.

cave on the current river

About 25 miles into the journey, we stopped at Round Spring and took a guided tour of the cavern. Hiking half a mile into the belly of a mountain is a little unnerving, especially when the guide locks the gated entrance behind you, but the tour was well worth the 90 minutes of our day. We saw what are assumed to be ancient beds and claw marks of the short-nosed bear, possibly the largest bear to ever roam the earth. We also marveled at an enormous pile of guano, easily 15 feet high, and witnessed thousands of stalactites forming at a rate of 2 millimeters per year.

I have no pictures from Round Spring cave, or anything after day three of our trip, because my phone battery died. So I’ll have to describe my two favorite parts of this trip in words.

The Storms

One evening we set up camp along a straight section of river as a thick thunderstorm formed to our north. We were battening down the hatches when one of the scouts started shouting and pointing upstream. A wall of rain was rushing toward us. The river surface showed a clear distinction between raining and not raining, and the not raining part was shrinking fast.

We waited out the deluge in our tents until the sun had set and the storm had moved to the south. Then, the lightning bugs appeared. I’ve never seen so many at once. The forest all around us was filled with an ethereal and ephemeral new species of tree. Spindly yellow saplings sprouted from the glowing paths of the rising fireflies, and then evaporated into the darkness as others grew in their place.

The lightning bugs must have been inspired by the actual lightning that flashed across the horizon. I’ve also never seen such an electric thunderstorm. The clouds produced a strobe light of lightning, with almost more light than dark. It was magical to watch the bugs with their namesake, dancing together through the same sky.

The day after the lightning rave, we encountered a storm that would stop us in our tracks. It was early Thursday afternoon. The saturated clouds were gradually descending on us as we paddled, first as a light mist, then a light drizzle. When the drizzle turned to rain, the calm turned to wind, and the two seemed to antagonize one another until an all-out brawl started, rain versus wind, with us in the middle. We sprinted to the nearest beach and set up our tents, potentially for the night.

After about ten minutes of fighting the rain was squelched. The wind had won. But it was much stronger and much fiercer now. The edges of our tent started to pull up from the sandy gravel beneath them, with us still inside. Then the tent poles started snapping. The wind was rushing and howling so loudly that we had to shout and wave our arms toward the river to confirm to each other that it was better to be in the boats or in the open than in a torn up pile of tent.

We struck the tents in a matter of seconds, wrapped them crazily into bundles, and stuffed them into totes. But clothes, hats, sleeping bags, backpacks, anything not strapped to a human or a canoe blew away down the beach as the wind increased. It was wild. We quickly formed a huddle to reconsider our decision: go or stay?! Just then we heard the deep, slow cracking of a century-old tree trunk splitting in two. We turned to watch it topple over, crushing everything beneath it. Trees were splintering all around us now. That was our cue.

Looking into the scouts eyes I saw confusion and fear, but, in a frenzy, we finished packing and loading. Sand and gravel pelted us now, as gravity was overpowered and the surface of the beach began to erode into the air. This was now a battle between wind and earth. As people climbed into the canoes, I couldn’t resist stopping for a moment to take it all in. With sand and river spraying my face, I put my hands up and shouted into the storm, frightened but exhilarated. Then, I jumped into orange crush and pushed off into our only refuge, the open water.

swimming in the current river