Posted by: cctracker | October 29, 2012

Wonders, Wisdom on the Wide Missouri

I have two large river maps on the back wall of my office. One charts the winding courses of the Current and Jacks Fork as they flow out from springs on the north central edge of the Ozarks, come together near Eminence, Mo. and run down off the map toward Arkansas. I’ve floated both streams many times, spent many nights camping on their gravel bars, sometimes with my boys. I know the names of put-ins and take outs and can call many stretches to mind from memory. Bee Bluff. Jam-Up Cave.  I never get tired of squinting at the map, trying to see and remember more detail. Floating Ozark streams and camping, particularly with my own boys, is a personal barometer for measuring how in touch–or out of touch as the case may be–I am with who I’m supposed to be and what life is really about.

I hadn’t been floating or camping since taking a short float with my wife and some friends on the lazy Huzzah Creek and camping overnight at Red Bluff near Davisville in early summer. It had been well over a year since I’d been on the water with my sons. When school started and they’d all settled back into jobs and school, I promised them a fall float. But by the time October arrived I hadn’t picked a weekend or made any plans. That’s when my friend Andrew e-mailed to announce what he called “The Concept.”

The other river map behind my desk is of the Missouri rolling southeast into St. Louis County, merging with the Mississippi and running off the edge of the map down toward New Orleans.

I hardly ever look at it. When I do, I realize now that part of my mind was always picturing ugliness: mud, trash, debris, carved silt banks, barges, channel dikes and effluent pipes running through a relatively featureless landscape, never far from suburbs or industry. My friend Andrew’s “Concept”  was to float the Missouri from Washington, Mo. to just below the riverfront at old St. Charles–a trip of just over 40 miles– with an overnight camp across from the bluffs and Katy Trail at Weldon Springs, an area I’d hiked and biked many times.

Katy Trail at Weldon Springs Photo James Burton

I’ve been intrigued by our big rivers my whole life and, like almost everyone I know, have always been embarrassed by how little I know about them, how little time I’ve spent on them or near them despite the fact that they are overwhelmingly the most significant geographic features in this region. When I’d heard of people floating the Missouri or Mississippi I pictured them in tiny crafts dwarfed by water, land and sky. I  admired their spirit of adventure, but though I knew ought to say yes to my friend, my immediate reaction was to look for an excuse. Adventure called, but danger loomed larger. Andrew had never been on the Missouri and neither had I. What about barge traffic? Whirlpools and undercurrents? Rising waters on a sandbar overnight ? The invasive, (take a look!) jumping carp I’d seen on YouTube?

My attempt at a dodge was to tell Andrew I’d already promised my boys a float weekend on the Current. “Well, call ’em and see what they say about the Missouri!” He had me there, so I e-mailed them. Two out of the three were free and said they were both in.”The Concept” was feeling inevitable, the Missouri river undercurrent pulling hard.

For the next few days, the trip still over a week away, I contended with a rising tide of anxiety and dread. I told myself the feelings were about safety, especially now that my boys were involved. But the real obstacle I was contending with was spiritual and harder to admit. I’d be giving up a luxurious, empty fall weekend, something I’m still not used to having after decades of coaching. The trip would demand days of preparation: camping gear jumbled in damp heaps and dusty tubs in the cellar would have to be gone through; food and supplies would have to be bought; I’d have to figure out how to move two kayaks and a canoe on top of my ailing 2003 KIA Sedona. And underneath that was an even more humiliating truth: I didn’t want to deal with two days of discomfort.

HH Ranch, New Mexico

When camping and being outdoors are a regular part of your life, it’s as if you’ve got a second skin. Your regular, daily work skin may recoil like everyone else’s does from whatever is gritty, clammy, cold or greasy, but because you’ve been out in the mud, the heat, and the dew so often, because you’ve been incensed with wood smoke and anointed with the holy oils of your own skin mixed with DEET and sunscreen, your second skin doesn’t mind. It knows that life is wet and dirty. It has gotten over those petty discomforts and waits underneath for your next trip when you’ll strip off the cheap suit and breath the real world in through open pores. I’ve had that second skin for months at a time at various times in my life, but I didn’t have it now.

I met early the next week to plan the trip with Andrew and Mike, another teacher friend who’d decided to join us, and spent the rest of the week going through gear, shopping for stuff gone missing or broken and loading supplies into dry bags for my two sons and me . On thursday Andrew and I figured out how to strap the kayaks and the canoes to the roof of the van. Thunder storms were added to the weekend forecast that night and my mood brightened. The trip might yet be scuttled. Weathering lightning strikes on 200 open yards of water was something even Andrew would agree was a deal breaker.

My friend Andrew is a hero of mine.

Photo James Burton

He is a relentless promoter of events around his passions: frisbee golf, biking, floating, camping, Bob Dylan. His invitations are delivered with a bare minimum of words, but they hit a target that makes you feel like a kid watching TV inside who knows he ought to be out playing ball or walking the creek. He doesn’t say it out loud, but the message is: “What the hell else do you have to do that could be better than this!?”

Kayaks are “yaks” in Andrewspeak. I remember an e-mail I got from him a few years ago with the title: “Yakin’ or Slackin’?” He wanted to float about 20 miles of the Meramec on a frigid, wind-whipped early spring day with sleet in the forecast. But the trip was on the calendar and he’d been building up karma for it for weeks. We couldn’t talk him out of it and none of us were willing to fight his relentlessly positive mojo. It wasn’t until we were actually at the put-in with the car sliding out of control in the ice that we finally cancelled. Even then, we had to pull the plug without his actual verbal consent. He simply couldn’t bring himself to say no to getting out on the river, even when the worst of the elements were against us.

He’s a hero for me because a relentlessly positive spirit is indispensable if you’re going be an outdoor person, or an adventurer in any endeavor for that matter. I don’t always have that spirit and Andrew helps me keep it alive. There are always excuses and never guarantees. If you’re  unwilling to risk exposure to chaos, you’ll rarely know the joys of being in the wilderness. Thanks to Andrew, I’ve had a whole set of experiences I might have otherwise given up on. The weekend that lay ahead was to be the best of them all.

Photo James Burton

But  the night before we left I was still in turmoil. I’d finally finished packing gear late friday night, tired from a week at work and emotionally spent by anticipating the demands of the ordeal ahead. Camping gear and food were in the bags, but a storm was coming Saturday night and would likely last through Sunday. As I imagined it, we’d be breaking camp in a thunderstorm, the most miserable of outdoor tasks, and then do 20 miles of paddling in the rain on Sunday. Mike gave us notice in advance that he was out for day two; his wife would be picking him Saturday afternoon at Weldon Springs. Andrew said he was in for camping on Howell Island, but understood we needed to think about it. My boys and I  agreed we’d play it by ear.

The next morning on our way out to Washington, the van began to lurch and skip. We burned through nearly a 1/4 tank of gas in 30 miles. Then a 2 x 4 we’d used to secure the canoe came flopping off the roof rack onto the interstate. We pulled to the shoulder. Thankfully, no cars were directly behind us and it was smashed to splinters by passing semi’s in a few minutes. I ran out onto the roadway to haul off the remaining chunks and we re-tightened the straps. I couldn’t help but read the mishaps as bad omens for what lay ahead.

Photo James Burton

By the time we limped down to the landing at Washington, hauled out the gear and loaded the boats, I was at last out of the mode of anticipation and deliberation and into the moment. The vast Missouri swept along beside us. My wife was willing to drive the van home and had someone to call if she ran into trouble. Like the Corps of Discovery to whom we couldn’t help but compare ourselves, we bid farewell to our party of well-wishers, pushed off the landing and steered out to the middle of the longest river in the United States.

From the moment I was on the water, revelations, pleasures and wonders came faster than I could count: the relatively unspoiled contours of the surrounding land, the ease and safety of navigating back and forth across the current, the astounding scale of wing dikes built and rebuilt over many years to channelize the river, the size and rugged beauty of bluffs that could easily justify setting aside large stretches of the Missouri riverbank as a National Park. The whole experience on that first day was slow, easy, and grand.

I realized almost immediately that I had known almost nothing about this river. And the most surprising revelation of all was that almost none of us appear to know it. We’ve turned our backs to it, just as we have to the Mississippi. A friend from school who is a masterful canoeist and spends more weekends on rivers and streams than off, admitted he’d never been on the Missouri. He’d assumed it wasn’t safe. It hadn’t occurred to him that it might be beautiful. We saw two boats, in total, over the course of two days. If not for the wing dikes, it was easy to imagine ourselves as the Lewis and Clark party going downstream, heading home.

Photo James Burton

The navigation was easy; Andrew had brought the maps and done his homework. River miles are marked at points of interest. Every few miles there are bright, white day-beacons to guide barges back and forth across the stream to catch the fastest and deepest part of the current. We mostly followed this path, gliding along next to the dikes for a half mile or so with very little paddling, then paddling hard for five or six minutes to head over to the other side when the river took a gentle turn pushing the water to the opposite side against the next long wing-dike line.

It was at the end of these dikes that we usually saw the Asian Carp–spooked by the boats as advertised on You Tube–leaping three or four feet into the air. At one point a six or so pound fish leapt right into our canoe and flopped wildly around until Andrew scooped him out with a paddle. Even at our speed they’d pack quite a wallop if they slapped you upside the head. I don’t think I’d be willing to take that chance in an open motor boat at 30 miles per hour. For the rest of the trip Andrew went into martial arts mode with his paddle any time we got to the end of a run along the dikes.

One of the most striking visuals on the trip was watching the man-made dike border passing by us at one tempo while seeing the true boundary of a bluff or a distant ridge appearing to sweep grandly by more slowly.

Seeing this double footprint of the river reminded me of a great book I read several years ago: John Barry’s Rising Tide.

Barry tells the story of the devastating flood of 1927 that destroyed thousands of farms and homes in the Louisiana lowlands. Levees were blown open with dynamite upstream on the swollen Mississippi to save New Orleans. It’s a book for both historians and engineers, full of astounding details about how we have tamed our great rivers with bridges and bent them to our commercial will with massive channelization projects.

In a larger sense the book is about our ignorance of what a river really is. We think of them as streams existing naturally within defined banks that occasionally flood. But that is what we have made of them. They are–or were– much more like living organisms: writhing across the landscape, changing constantly in intimate and ultimately creative and sustaining interactions with the every species in the environment. A river in flood should extend into thousands of capillaries, spreading the life blood of nutrient rich sediment, seeds, and fish eggs all across the flood plain. Huge extra volumes of water from snow melt, spring rains or sustained storms that we see almost exclusively as a threat to be contained by levees and sent downstream for the next community to do likewise, are meant to be taken up by wide lowlands like a sponge.  This is what a wetland is. And it’s why they are among the richest and most productive ecosystems on the planet.

Preserving wetlands and limiting the degree to which we channelize our great rivers and build hundreds of miles of so-called “500-year” levees would not only make environmental and aesthetic sense, but would protect us from the cycles of catastrophic loss and destruction that inevitably come to channelized rivers. The water has to go somewhere. For a hundred years or so the water has been mostly destroying our crops and the occasional small river town. Increasingly, as our patterns of suburban development have become more aggressive, the water eventually rolls out over our outlet malls. Floating the Missouri certainly personalized for me these truths about the harm we’ve done to our rivers and our communities. The surprise was that it also gave me frequent glimpses of what the river once was.

Photo James Burton

When we passed through the Creve Coeur basin on the second day where the vista is so wide-open that you can’t see the bluffs and ridges that define the river valley, my imagination boggled at what the coiled, monster of the Missouri might have been like as it rolled through here on a bright spring day, long before the Lewis and Clark  party somehow dragged themselves and all their gear upstream.

Beside the Asian Carp, we didn’t see much wildlife on the trip. A few Great Blue Herons, Green Herons, Gulls and King-fishers. One Bald Eagle. Evidence of hundreds of deer coming down to the river’s edge on Howell Island. But there was a “wilderness” quality to the huge, man-made objects we passed along the way. The hulking, apocalyptic monolith of the Labadie Power Plant just seemed too big to have been built by us. It had its own waterfall, but like a ghastly, anti-spring, the water coming out into the Missouri was warm, not cold, to the touch.

Photo James Burton

Passing under highway bridges was weird. In an abstract sense I knew there were people in cars passing far above me sealed in the highway experience of the world to which I would soon return. For them the river was, at best, a moment of shimmering, expansive, release  from the business of the day. Meanwhile for me, fully immersed in the world of the river on its own terms, floating under the bridge was like passing through a monumental stone archway, the sounds of passing cars not tires echoing but mysterious, awesome rumbles of unknown origin. The drivers above and I were not in the same plane of existence; these were separate worlds. When I mentally stepped back from this experience to reflect upon it as I passed out into the open again, I knew that it would be strange to drive home Sunday across that same bridge and remember myself in another world, a world so much further away than 120 feet.

As we got to the middle of Saturday afternoon, some of my pre-trip sourness returned. Mike had called his wife to pick him up at the Weldon Springs access. Theoretically, this was where my sons and I were supposed to take a last look at the weather and make our own decision about going ahead with the plan for camping at Howell Island or calling it quits. Even after an incredible 1st day, I was ready to call it. Storms were almost certainly coming; nothing had changed to challenge my initial grim forecast of what Saturday night and Sunday would be. Why not just end the day on a glorious note? But as we sat at Weldon waiting to help Mike pack out, it was obvious how this was going to be decided. Andrew respected our choice of course,  and he’d have had to quit if we did, but he wasn’t going to ask us what we thought and we weren’t going to bring it up if he didn’t.  We had a few beers courtesy of Mike’s wife, repacked the gear and pushed off from Weldon to look for our camp. We’d left one of our party and a cozy night in a warm bed behind.

The Missouri is pretty low for most of the autumn and that was a problem for finding a campsite on Howell. The typical shore profile was 5 to ten feet of mud, sand and driftwood at the water’s edge, then a weed-choked incline of 20 feet or so leading to a 12 foot sheer wall of silted soil leading up to the island’s forest floor. We stopped at a few prospective sites just down stream and across from the Weldon access, but they were unappealing: hundreds of deer tracks meant there would be ticks and flies and there was no level ground. The prospect of dragging our boats and gear up the embankment into the forest was no better. We kept floating downstream, thinking we might have to give up the island and find a spot back in the woods on the north side near the Katy Trail. We paddled over to the north shore. It wouldn’t be a pleasant place to camp but at least we’d be on ground high enough and flat enough to ride out the night’s storm.

Then, about a mile further down, we caught site of what appeared to be a small strip of sand near a driftwood bundle behind a jetty. We paddled across resolved to make it work if we possible could.

The place was a river rat’s dream: a steeply elevated sandbar for safety from rising water with a flat crest for tents; all the driftwood you could ever want for firewood; tucked just below the steep embankment for cover from the wind. And an absolutely magnificent view  across the river to the Bluffs of Weldon Springs.

There were whistles and laughter all around. “Perfect!” “Tents right here!” “We’ll use this dead limb for a cooking shelter!” In a few minutes the fire was going and the camp felt like home.

Evening came on as we ate dinner and a familiar calm settled on our stretch of the river. Gravel bar camping on an Ozark stream you expect a night like this. Winds die off. The surface of the water, though still moving downstream, becomes almost still. Sounds and voices stand out clear and rich against silence. Your stretch of the river feels small, complete and utterly your own as the stars come out. But I never expected to pass one of those “Ozark”  evenings camped on the banks of the Missouri. It was as if the whole scale of the river changed. As the water calmed and the light faded so that we could no longer see the distant cliffs clearly, the opposite shore seemed a stone’s throw away. The experience wasn’t wide and grand any longer. We were tucked into a cozy camp on the water in the woods. The only break in the illusion came when tiny floating headlamps of late-night bike riders appeared, heading east for St. Charles on the Katy Trail almost a half mile away.

Sometime around 10 o’clock a hard rain did start in and lasted through the night until just before dawn. But by the time we got up, only a few low, dark clouds were left hovering just above the bluffs. Gold light from the sunrise was slanting across below them to light up the rock and the autumn colors.

Photo James Burton

We drank coffee and contemplated another five hours the river. So much for my nightmares of day two. Another friend put in at Weldon early that morning and paddled into camp that morning to join us for another 20 miles on the river.

Those moody, low clouds below scattered sunlight lasted all morning Sunday. Our eyes were on the sky as much as the land and water .

We passed under the bridge at Highway 40, through the Creve Coeur valley and under the bridge at the Page Extension. I recalled all the environmental disputes about this “bridge to nowhere” through the wetlands. We caught a glimpse of the Ameristar Casino even before the bridge at I-70  came into view. That finally broke the spell of “wilderness” that had held for two days. Paddling in from that point was a ritual of leave-taking.

It ‘s taken me several weeks to post this entry because I couldn’t step back from the experience for a few days. It was too big, spiritually and physically. Even a week later when I took that photograph of our camp from the Katy trail, part of me was still on that sand bar.

Photo James Burton

As I’ve gone back over the photos and the images in my mind to collect my thoughts and impressions, I can feel the direct and honest experience of those two days slipping away, being replaced by thoughts about thoughts, images of images. I’ll need another stretch of water very soon, and maybe a storm that does actually douse me for a day, to keep myself honest. If Andrew calls, I hope I won’t sweat it too much before saying yes.

Photo James Burton


  1. […] Wonders, Wisdom on the Wide Missouri ( […]

  2. I’m searching for the map you mention in this post of the Jacks Fork and current rivers. Can you take a picture of the name of this map? Or share a good image of the map in its entirety? They are long out of print and I’d love to have a chance to learn every hole and bluff along these rivers. Thanks, Stuart

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