Spring is coming, so I thought I would share my memories of my first float trip back in 2013 with my readers. It was quite the exciting day and I felt like I had come through this trial by water with a greater appreciation for the power of water and the importance of preparing for any circumstance. Pictures provided are scenery taken elsewhere as I did not take a camera with me on this first float.
In May 2013, I was finally able to take my very first all day float trip down the Niangua River. Of course, being involved with Scouting over the years, I know which way a canoe or kayak faces, the rudiments of how to steer, and basic first aid. I had paddled around lakes and slow moving streams for a few hours, but never on a river swollen with runoff and full of obstacles.
As you may remember the Midwest had been inundated with rainfall that spring. Although we chose to float at least a week after the last downpour, the river was running high and had accumulated debris from previous weeks. Uprooted trees and boulders that the current had placed in the middle of the river made my first float trip one I will never forget.
The Thursday before Memorial Day weekend, my son Cole, two of his high school friends and me headed out to Niangua River Oasis (http://www.nrocanoe.com/) on the Niangua. The trip only took an hour from Springfield’s north side straight up Hwy 65 to Louisburg and right on Hwy 64 to NRO. They had marked the highways well with signs making it easy to navigate directly to their door.
NRO is a good size operation run by some helpful people. They offer 6 man rafts, canoes, sit in kayaks, and sit on kayaks. We paid $80 for two canoes for our all day excursion. Updated prices for 2018 are $45 a canoe for 2 people. We arrived at about 9:30 a.m. and had to be out of the water by 7:00 p.m. Not a bad price. They have two floats, one a 7 miler and the other 14. The lady behind the counter mentioned that the river was running so well that people were disappointed in the 7 mile trip because it went too fast. We had already decided on the 14 miler.
After loading our gear onto a short school bus, we were driven to the drop off zone and pushed off. It was about 10:00 a.m. I insisted everyone wear their life jacket, not just have it available. A woman kayaking on Table Rock Lake had died the week before after being caught under some tree roots, even with a life vest. When we made our stops along the way I told the kids they could take them off as long as they stayed out of the current.
The first part of the float was peaceful and gave us all a chance to remember our rusty canoeing skills. Jamie, one of the kids, had never been in a canoe so it took a little while for her to work out what was expected. The trip was definitely scenic and we had the river to ourselves for pretty much the whole trip. If we encountered 30 different people that day I would have been surprised.
Cole had packed his gear in a bucket with a tight fitting lid, which turned out to be a Godsend. We had a cooler full of food, a couple of backpacks, water and one fishing pole. We also had a fire starting kit and first aid equipment along with bug spray and sunblock. Cole had rope as well, which also turned out to be useful as the day went on.
Uprooted trees can be a big problem on a float trip. I had never had any experience with them paddling around on lakes, so didn’t realize how dangerous they were. Our first and scariest episode involved an uprooted tree standing about 8-10 feet out of the water, blocking part of the river and causing a backwash. Trent, my partner for the morning, and I chose the wrong route and ended up swamping our canoe. We almost lost our gear, but I managed to grab the backpack in time and the cooler floated into the eddy created by the backwash of the current. We ended up hanging onto the roots of the tree for dear life while standing on our swamped canoe. I managed to control my panic (I was the adult after all) and finally started backing up into the eddy which immediately relieved the pressure of the current on my body. Trent followed me, backing up slowly and we stood in thigh high water trying to allow our adrenaline to diminish while deciding what to do about the invisible canoe being pushed into the uprooted tree by the incredible weight of the current.
I have grown up around water, first the ocean, then the Great Lakes. Ocean waves and even waves on Lake Michigan eventually go back out allowing you to recover from the force of the water. On a river, that water has only one way to go and it doesn’t give you a break. Ever. It was an eye opening experience for me and one I will not soon forget. Cole worked his way downstream and then upstream to us and using his trusty rope, Trent’s muscles and my guidance, we managed to pull the metal canoe out of the water. The bucket came in handy for bailing and a fellow floater came to our rescue as well.
Back on track after about 45 minutes we continued our float, stopping occasionally to swim and eat and rest. The river wasn’t running extremely fast in most spots, just in a few where debris had created rougher water. Occasionally we noticed boulders in the middle of the river, but tree trunks were everywhere forcing us to pay attention and make sure we threaded through them.
Our second “incident” took place around a bend and was again created by an uprooted tree. We had switched partners and this time Trent and Jamie took the lead only to swamp their canoe because they couldn’t paddle hard enough to keep out of the danger zone. Seeing this, Cole and I jumped out of our canoe and portaged it to safety before again grabbing our handy rope and bucket. While we were bailing, three more canoes came into contact with the tree, one other swamping as well. These folks were not wearing their PFD’s and I pointed that out to my charges. One girl went under for longer than we liked and three of us began to move in to assist her to break free of the current and the tree she was pinned against. Again, our fellow floater and his friend helped everyone bring their canoes to safety and continue downstream. You just never know what’s going to happen when you’re out in an isolated area relying only on experience and the kindness of strangers.
This last incident forced us to think about the next one. The four of us decided we would rather portage around such obstacles until we were more comfortable with our skills and on the last leg of the journey, we only encountered one more that gave us pause. We beached our canoes and checked out the best way to handle the area. Deciding on a likely course, we adjusted our canoes and traveled onward without incident.
The float was beautiful and took 7 hours, which surprised me. I am usually good at telling time by the sun, but was about 2 hours off that day. There were plenty of birds and wildlife to look at, tons of turtles sunbathing on rocks, grateful for a chance to escape the rain and warm up. Sometimes it seemed that we were the only people on the river, it was so peaceful and quiet. I prayed for our benefactor and his friend several times that day, I thanked God he was there and so willing to help. Apparently, he was right where he was supposed to be. I, for one, will never take another float trip without being a little more prepared.