GREENWELL: Preparation is key to fun float trips
When I was I kid, I played a computer game called “Oregon Trail” created by MECC. Set in 1848, the game was based on the famous trek out California way on a packed Conestoga wagon. Among several obstacles, rivers and streams forced you to face a treacherous float down the current, avoiding rocks, whirlpools, and other hazards.
At twelve years old, that defined adventure for me. Now that I actually know how to use an oar, l head down to Current River in Southern Missouri every year to live the dream, with a little less at stake, of course.
Current River is one of the most popular floats close to this area. I use the term “close” loosely because the area is actually a three to four hour drive away, and there are no major interstates running North to South that make it a quick, easy drive from Quincy. Regardless, thousands of people come from all around the Southern and Midwestern U.S. every year to float the river.
Despite its name, the river is relatively calm and serene. It’s called a float trip because most people pack a cooler full of ice, beer and bologna, bungee it down, and spend the day literally floating downstream. You can also rent canoes and kayaks for longer trips or if you prefer a little more action. There are several beaches to pull aside and have a beer with fellow floaters, river caves to explore, and large rocks or cliffs to jump off of. It’s also very common to come around a bend and see a massive group of twenty people reclined in inner tubes, tied together with rope, and double fisting two cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
The first step of going on a float trip is planning.
Some people like to fly by the seat of their pants, or are lucky enough to have someone else plan it all out for them, but my girlfriend and I had the great pleasure or organizing everything this year. I would suggest doing some research in advance. I have heard horror stories of groups booking a camp site they can’t even get to because they don’t own four-wheel drive vehicles. And guess what? No refunds.
When you call to book a campsite, I recommend that you ask questions:
• Are these party camp sites or private sites with quiet hours? Are they easily accessible?
• Is the cost a lump sum or per person?
Most websites suggest that you make camping reservations at least two weeks in advance, and I highly recommend it. Many groups that float the river are large — 20 to 30 people — so campsites can fill up fast. Jason’s Place, one of the more popular campgrounds where we stayed, also advertises an early bird discount if you book summer trips in January, and since several groups go every year, they take advantage.
You also need to decide how far you want to float/paddle. Trips range in length from 2.5 miles (small 1 day) to 144 miles (large 8 or 9 days). Each float trip is named for the points where you “put in” (put your canoe in the water) and where you end. Check out this map for a reference to river access points. This year, we took a 20 mile trip in one day (Akers Ferry to Round Spring). This was the longest I have finished in one day to date, and I wouldn’t recommend it if you have novices in your party. We did, and I felt a little responsible when the sun sank low in the sky, our buzz wore off, the fist-sized horseflies came out in swarms, and we still had 5 miles to go. I suggest a 10 mile trip at most if you are looking for something a little more leisurely. You’ll have a lot more time to stop and drink, mingle and experience the river.
Here are a few things I highly suggest you pack:
1) Plenty of beer. Most floaters drink throughout the whole trip, and no one wants to run out. That’s a huge party foul. Plus, it just feels right to tackle the outdoors with a cold beer in your hand.
2) A koozie. No one likes the last half of a warm beer.
3) String cheese and lunch meat. You need to stop for lunch too.
4) Water shoes. The riverbed and beaches are rocky, and the current can pull a flip-flop right off. If you tip, you could cut or bruise your feet without them.
5) Bungee cords. You’re going to need something to keep your cooler strapped down in case you tip over.
6) Plastic bags or a dry sack for any electronics or items that need to be kept dry.
7) Sunscreen and bug spray (with deet). Enough said.
8) Ivy dry. If you stray off the beaten path, you will find poison ivy and sumac everywhere.
9) Swimsuit and towels.
10) Camping essentials—tent (waterproof if possible), sleeping bag, etc.
11) (Optional) Your dog. The river is pet friendly to obedient dogs.
12) (Optional) Costumes. I saw all four Ninja Turtles, Hercules, Xena, and the Power Rangers.
Canoe rental and a campsite for two nights cost us around $46.00 per person (this fee can vary if you book through different campsites along the river). Rafts seat multiple people, canoes seat 2, and kayaks seat 1, so prepare your party numbers accordingly. You have the option to pay over the phone or when you arrive. I suggest paying cash when you get there in case people cancel. Most rental companies also charge a fee for cancelling within eight days of your reservation, so read the fine print. All together, with gas, food and drinks, the trip probably cost us anywhere from $75 to $100 each for the whole weekend.
Now you’re ready to float. We carpooled down on a Friday afternoon in two hatchbacks and a truck. We wanted to get to our camp while we had daylight to find firewood and set up the tents. The first night was a big party. We met a group of about 30 people at the site next to ours from the Illinois-Indiana border. They brought two sets of bean bags and bag boards to play Cornhole. Everyone was there for a good time, and they were happy to introduce themselves, let us play, and share some beers. I caution you not to drink too much if your bus leaves for the river early in the morning.
Our bus picked us up and left for the river at 9 a.m. We were originally scheduled for 10 a.m., but we woke up at the crack of dawn on Saturday due to some light rain. The staff at Jason’s Place is very accommodating since buses run all day. The bus schedule is posted at the camping office, and they drive floaters to and from the river all day so personal vehicles can be left at the campsite.
The canoes were waiting for us at the water’s edge, and we hopped right in, bungeed down the coolers (after grabbing some beers) and started downstream. The sky cleared up shortly after we put in, and it was smooth sailing. The river is very clear and shallow in most places. It was relatively easy to stay together. We pulled over to talk to other groups and swim whenever we wanted. I highly suggest stopping at Cave Spring if you get the chance. The water is cerulean blue, freezing cold and stretches far beneath the cliff on the east side of the river. It’s beautiful.
There are several other things to see along the river, and your experience will depend heavily on what length of the river you decide to float, and the group you take with you. If I had to make a recommendation, I would suggest Pulltite to Round Spring, even though Cave Spring isn’t on that stretch. It has better stop offs and more places to dive off rocks, over-hanging trees, and rope swings. The current is a little stronger. We had two canoes tip over on this stretch, and we had to scramble to retrieve the oars, canoe, and whatever contents that weren’t bungeed down. The canoes are also equipped with net sacks for trash. This prevents garbage from floating down the river when canoes tip.
We finished our float at 7 p.m. I was exhausted. That’s 10 hours of rowing. Okay. Okay. You got me. I floated and drank most of the way. But I was still tired. Thankfully, we were able to get on a bus right away and ride back to our campsite half an hour away. We started a fire, shared stories, laughed about how “outdoorsy” we weren’t, and turned in early. We left for home the next morning after cleaning up the campsite.
I feel compelled to add this cautionary note:
• Please be responsible.
• You are on a river in the summer heat. Hydrate yourself.
• Wear sunscreen.
• Be alert (and sober) enough to respond if your canoe tips. It happens all the time in short areas with swifter currents. Others are usually willing to help, but you can’t count on it. If you read The Herald-Whig, you know a thirteen-year-old boy wondered away from his camp, fell in the river, and drowned this past weekend. I’m not trying to scare you. This is rare, but it does happen. I just want you to be aware.
Bottom line—everyone is there to have fun in the great outdoors. I recommend you take a float trip at least once in your life. I think the element that makes this specific trip so popular is its diversity. The experience is designed to accommodate large groups, families and small groups canoeing and camping over long distances. The variety of floating options makes it simple and safe enough for even the most unskilled and hydrophobic people. It’s a place to relax, take your time, and enjoy nature. The campsite staff is used to people missing buses and staying on the river late, so you never have to worry about schedules (even if they give a pick up time). Current River is a staple vacation for every Midwesterner and a memorable experience for me every year.
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