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June 27, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST
No one captured the romance of a float trip quite like Missouri native Mark Twain when he penned The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
"We catched fish and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness. It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn't ever feel like talking loud, and it wasn't often that we laughed — only a little kind of a low chuckle. We had mighty good weather as a general thing, and nothing ever happened to us at all — that night, nor the next, nor the next."
And there you have it — floating, fishing, spending time with good friends. Float trips are a chance to get away from it all. Even if your reasons for floating down a river aren’t as noble as Huck Finn’s, the same amount of adventure is readily available if you’re willing to get a few hours outside of Columbia.
Lee Kern, author of Fllog, a blog used to recount her float trips in and around Missouri, has been floating for as long as she can remember. She says she goes on about 30 floats a year. For her it’s about feeling connected to nature and relaxing. Some people take to the rivers and creeks for a weekend release — chasing a tan, drinks in hand. Although that’s fun, she says floats are also a great way to see wildlife, hike near the shores and fish.
The basics of floating are fairly obvious. Have a life vest; anything you need for your boat or inner tube; water and food, pack a little extra just in case; a camera to capture the priceless moments; and a flashlight never hurts. Kern also suggests not wearing flip flops because you’ll probably come home with only one of them. Fitted water shoes or old tennis shoes are better options, she says.
Most people rent canoes, rafts, inner tubes or kayaks. Brandon Blackwell, another avid floater, says canoes are harder to navigate, so he usually takes a rubber raft that holds five to eight people. Trip outfitters will rent you a canoe or raft and shuttle you (usually in an old school bus) to and from the put-in and take-out points on the river.
Leave all electronics, such as your cell phone, in your car when you head down the river. “Anything you bring, just expect for it to be soaking wet by the end of the day,” Blackwell says. If you can’t bare to be disconnected for the day, have a dry bag to store things in.
The busiest days for our favorite places are Saturdays. Most people will drive to the river on a Friday afternoon and float, fish or party the next day. By Sunday, people are ready to head home. So if you want a quiet river experience, it might be a good idea to take some weekdays off. There are several outfitters along all the rivers that rent boats and tubes and provide access points.
Which river you want really depends on what kind of adventure you’re looking for. Our float trip pros Kern, Blackwell and Andrew Sharpe along with owners of river outfitters offer their insight on six trips. Whether you’re floating with your family or drinking with your buddies, these floaters know where to go to find just the right day on the river.
Area: 80 miles of floatable river in south-central Missouri
Distance from Columbia: 2 hours and 20 minutes to the Niangua River Oasis in Lebanon, Mo. if you take the straight shot of U.S. 54 West
Gas: At 131 miles to the Oasis, this trip will cost you about $40 in gas roundtrip
Description: In the eyes of Bob Burns, the retired owner of canoe rental business Niangua River Oasis, the Niangua is a “good floating river.” The current doesn’t rush, and it’s an excellent place to blow off a little steam, he says. If you enjoy camping, there are several campgrounds along the river, but most of the land on either side is privately owned.
Bennett Springs State Park is close to the river, and some people go on four- to five-day float trips because of its proximity, Blackwell says. The park offers camping sites and hiking trails. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation website, there’s a good chance you’ll snag a rainbow trout or a smallmouth bass if you are so inclined to let loose a reel.
Burns says the river he was born and raised a quarter-mile from gets busy on Saturdays, but there are only a few rowdies. It’s a more relaxing, more serene river than others he’s been on — a great family float, Blackwell says. When he was younger, Blackwell and his family would hit up the Niangua at least once a year, and it’s the river where his dad taught him to fish for trout.
Area: 135 free-flowing miles from Oklahoma to Arkansas
Distance from Columbia: 4 hours and 24 minutes to the Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca, Ark., if you take U.S. 65 South
Gas: At 260 miles to the center, this trip will cost you about $76 roundtrip
Description: The Buffalo National River is one of the few rivers in the United States that has yet to be dammed, according to the National Park Service website.
Blackwell says it’s family-oriented and pretty secluded. Kern says she floats the Buffalo about once a year, and it’s one of her favorites. The upper part is very contingent on the rain and is most floatable during the spring months. The lower part is floatable year-round. The campgrounds along the river are first-come, first-served, so Kern suggests going on Thursday if you’re looking to camp for the weekend. She says the high bluffs and clean water make the scenery majestic.
Area: The largest tributary of the Gasconade River in south-central Missouri
Distance from Columbia: 2 hours and 27 minutes to Rich’s Last Resort in Duke if you take U.S. 63
Gas: At 127 miles to the resort, this trip will cost you about $40 roundtrip
Description: A canyon. That’s how Terry Johnson, the owner of Rich’s Last Resort, a canoe rental business on the Big Piney, describes the river and its surrounding cliffs. The Big Piney is a slow, meandering river. Blackwell says there are some amazing hikes around there, and the fishing is pretty good. Your best bets are largemouth and smallmouth bass.
It’s a very family-friendly river with few problems, Johnson says. He estimates that 60 percent of the people who float on the river are regulars — those who have been coming for 15 to 30 years. Kern agrees this is a great fishing river. She also suggests checking out the nearby Little Piney, which is more of a creek but still a good spot for a float.
Area: A clear-water creek in eastern Missouri
Distance from Columbia: 2 hours and 14 minutes to the Huzzah Valley Resort in Steelville if you take U.S. 63 South
Gas: At 120 miles to the resort, this trip will cost you about $35 for a roundtrip
Description: “HOO-ZAH” sounds like a rallying cry for a big bash, doesn’t it? It’s a fitting name for the river Blackwell calls the “party spot.” However, the “clear as drinking water” creek offers family R and R as well, says Karen Cottrell, owner of the Huzzah Valley Resort. She says the family groups get in upstream from the party groups.
There’s also a loud campground for partiers and a quiet one for those not looking for a wild time. Blackwell says it gets extremely crowded on hot summer weekends, like bumper-to-bumper crowded. Despite this description, the creek offers some of the best canoeing in the state. The river does have some huge campgrounds for those looking to do some camping.,center>
If you’re feeling adventurous, there’s a 20-foot cliff you can jump off of into some pretty deep water. There’s also a rope swing if you feel like being Tarzan or Jane. All in all, Huzzah Creek is the place to go for a good time and for, yes, the partaking of numerous alcoholic beverages. As Blackwell puts it: “There’s a lot of nudity, a lot of drinking, a lot of beer pong, a lot of Jell-O shots. It’s a party spot for sure.”
Area: 44-mile-long stretch in southern Missouri
Distance: Around 4 hours to the Eleven Point River Canoe Rental in Alton if you take U.S. 63 South
Gas: At 221 miles to the canoe rental, this trip will cost you about $65 roundtrip
Description: A favorite of Kern’s, the Eleven Point River might be farther away than the others, but if you enjoy untouched nature, it’s well worth the extra hours in the car. Of the nearly 52,000 miles of river in the state, only 44 miles are designated as National Wild and Scenic Rivers, according to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers website. The designation means the river’s surrounding area is undeveloped, and you float through forests, says Brian Sloss, owner of Eleven Point River Canoe Rental. You can pull over pretty much anywhere on the river and set up a camp because the U.S. Forest Service owns a majority of the shoreline, Sloss says. The Eleven Point, Sharpe says, is known for its great fishing. If you like chain pickerel, rainbow trout or smallmouth bass, this is your river. Because 30 springs feed the Eleven Point, the water stays cold even on the hottest summer days. Kern says there’s a lot of wildlife to be seen on this river, and you can take a break from the hot sun with a swim in one of the refreshing springs.
Area: The river forms in the southeastern portion of the Ozarks of Missouri
Distance from Columbia: 2 hours and 44 minutes to Akers Ferry Canoe Rental in Salem via U.S. 63 South
Gas: At 141 miles to Akers, this trip will cost you about $40 round trip
Description: The Current River is one of the most popular rivers to float in Missouri. It starts in Montauk State Park and enters the Ozark National Scenic Riverways soon after. Because it’s in this national system, it’s managed differently, so there are more rules floaters have to abide by. But Kern says the scenery is pristine, the fishing is good, and you can float the river several times and never see the same spot. She says this is a good river if you want to do a longer, multiple-day float trip.