Although the Missouri Conservation Commission lists 50 rivers and streams as floatable—at least some of the time—my St. Louis friends are devoted to the Current, not only for its beauty but also for its dependability. Being spring-fed, it never gets too thin, and its waters, hurrying over a gravel bottom, are rarely dingy. So to my friends it is the prima inter pares of floaters' rivers, though Jack's Fork and the Eleven Point are not without their partisans.
Floating, for the uninitiated, is a one-way, downstream trip in a canoe or john boat, the latter being the shallow wooden skiff that appears in the river paintings of Bingham in the last century and in the comic strip Pogo today. Many floaters fish, some hiring guides and commissary boats; others, like my friends, go alone and simply loaf. Attracted by the notion of a weekend loaf, I went along on their most recent float, an excursion led by a painter named Anne LaMonte. (Every expedition needs a leader, Anne pointed out, adding, "Someone has to be tyrant, and I'm very good at it.") Anne's semidocile followers were Mary Augustine, Pete Willson, and Elihu Hyndman, experienced floaters all, and Bee Brown and myself. Bee had floated on her honeymoon years ago, but now her husband has fresher memories of the outdoor life encountered in World War II and will have absolutely no part of floating.
We were to be two to a canoe, with the equipment in the middle, and this equipment immediately became the cause of a palace revolution, which Anne lost. Anne was for austerity and light travel—pemmican and peanut butter, washed down with bourbon—but Elihu carried the day with appeals for creature comforts, and there were cries of grief from Anne as the list grew.
For the canoes, a call was made to Orville Spurgeon, who has the only tavern—and apparently the only phone—between Salem and Eminence, Mo. We agreed to rent three 17-foot aluminum ones at $5 a day, and to meet at Orville's tavern on Friday to discuss just where we would get in and out of the river, and at what time he would meet us with our cars. The tavern turned out to be populated largely by stuffed game, whose glassy eyes matched those of the human clientele. As we awaited Orville, these beery gentlemen offered friendly advice on the state of the river, friendly invitations to "drop by home for a drink" and firm opinions against the Monument Bill. (Later, on the river, the only marks of civilization we would see for hours would be large signs saying, "Monument, No." These referred to the so-called Monument Bill, now before Congress. Last year the legislation had aimed at turning the Current and Jack's Fork into a national monument. Now the plan is to make them into "Ozark National Rivers." The locals oppose either version because they do not care for the prospect of a flood of tourists or for federal supervision of any kind, on principle. Secretary Udall recently floated the rivers.)
April 28, 1963
Orville seemed unhappy that we did not plan to fish, and generously offered to reveal the best pools. We learned that he not only is an ardent fisherman but an inventor of lures; one in particular he has named the "Crooked Hooker." Orville will pay $100 to any fisherman who can beat him with a non-Spurgeon lure. We declined the proposition, and arranged instead to meet the next morning at Akers Ferry.
Having been roused at six by Anne—determined to be lazy on the river and not in bed—we started the not-so-lazy process of embarkation. An absolutely staggering mound of equipment built up on the gravel bar at Akers Ferry, including a suspicious number of folding chairs, cocktail tables and cushions, property of Elihu, which Anne thought she had successfully "forgotten" in St. Louis. Even Orville, who has seen off many a floating tourist, looked dismayed and cast nervous little glances at his fleet. But, like busy worker ants, we gradually reduced the mound, piling objects into canoes and lashing them down to avoid loss in a swamping. Anne and Bee, sharing a canoe, were neat and precise, putting everything in its most convenient place. Mary's belongings seemed to have a squirming life of their own. Every time one thing was pushed in, four would ooze out the other end. Since Pete, another tidy type, was Mary's canoe partner, he soon began to wear a look of alarm as he snatched at creeping canteens and wandering charcoal briquettes. Elihu made cunning attempts to fob off some large objects on other canoes, but they returned to ours like homing pigeons. A brief jurisdictional fight took place over the beer chest, which Elihu won and triumphantly lashed to the thwart behind my seat. By this time the sun was beating down fiercely on the gravel bar, and the promised tranquil joys of the river seemed very remote. I began to wish I were home in Manhattan watching the soot fall. But finally the last thing was lashed into place and, though our canoe looked a bit like a floating aluminum trash bin, we slipped into the river.
The current immediately caught us, and we started downstream at a pleasant pace. "The bow paddler," said Elihu behind me, "supplies nothing but muscle when needed. I will do the thinking." I hadn't realized there was any paddling involved in floating, but of course the canoe must be aimed from time to time. Also, I was to learn, a head of steam must be built up to get through the shallow riffles. It had been 15 years since I'd had a paddle in my hand, so I put mine in the water to see if I could still handle one. A few strokes—and suddenly there was a surprising amount of water around my ankles. Elihu had wisely foreseen this possibility and was able to supply a sponge. As I was mopping, Elihu continued his lecture on the simple duties of the bow paddler: besides supplying muscle from time to time, I was also to look out for snags in the river and to open the beer. He then left me to my duties and reclined in the stern looking like Madame Récamier in a straw hat. As I was opening a beer, Bee and Anne, with the same thirsty thought, drifted alongside. Delivery was solved by putting the open can on the end of a paddle and passing.
So we slid through the water, drinking our beer, watching the bright birds and listening to the sound of the river. From time to time we hurried over little riffles, occasionally scraping the bottom of the canoe, and once we were brought to a scrunching halt. There was nothing to do but get out and lead the canoe like a dog on a leash through the shallows. But most of the time we were in tranquil pools, passing moist limestone ledges festooned with ferns and wild flowers. Because of the fairly constant temperature of the river there is an unusual variety of both birds and plants. We paddled nearer the bank to admire the white, lavender and yellow blossoms in the mossy shade. We came upon a fisherman looking hopeful but empty-handed. Again we overtook Anne and Bee, drifting ahead of us, and held on to each other's canoes and floated together, watching the scene change on the banks and savoring the river's serenity.
A large black cow, of all things, put an end to the morning's peace. There she stood, suddenly, in a narrow part of the river choked on either side by fallen trees, placidly enjoying her bath. Anne, who was leading the way, shouted "Scat! Shoo!" and similar threats, but Bossy merely turned on a look of mild reproach and stood her ground or, rather, her water. It was rapidly becoming a question of whether to ram a cow or a large boulder, neither of which looked very yielding, when Anne's voice of authority, by then taking on a hysterical edge, did the trick. Bossy retreated about three paces, and one canoe after the other flashed by under her indignant gaze.
We passed into an area of high bluffs with gnarled trees clinging in their crevices. Caves in somber shadow invited us mysteriously, and here and there a spring slipped from the rock and sprayed into the river like a giant shower. Only a ruined castle was needed to give the scene the final 19th century romantic touch. We drifted by a few more fishermen in john boats and exchanged greetings. They were empty-handed but optimistic. The sun sparkled on water so clear that the river's gravel bottom was almost always visible. I was gazing dreamily into its depth when I saw a large fish, so I knew there was one around to be caught. Straightening up to follow its route, I caught sight of a log just under the surface. "Elihu!" I screeched, "Log! Log!" I didn't have sense enough to tell Elihu where it was, but sat in paralyzed fascination, watching us heading dead at it while Elihu sat up, tried to collect himself and decide where to steer. Onto it we went, scrunching along until at last, at the equipment-laden center of the canoe, we were caught. As perfectly suspended as a seesaw, we teetered, first the stern and then the bow, back and forth into the water. When it was all too obvious that no amount of jiggling and wiggling would unstick us, Elihu braved the jeers from the other canoes, and the cold water, went over the side and pushed us off. I hoped that hadn't happened to Mr. Udall.
We caught up with the others just as they rounded the bend where, on our left, was the vaulted opening of Cave Springs. White mists rose from the steel-blue water as the cold spring joined the river, and wild geraniums, grouped in the rocks like flower baskets, trailed from overhead. We paddled into the chill, misty dusk of the cave, where light, refracted from the blue water, flickered on the buff walls, and tears of moisture plopped mournfully from the ceiling. Through a small passage, we slipped into another round chamber, the source of the spring. We sat there listening to the different sounds of the water in the gloom, until Anne remarked, "It's a fine place for snakes," her voice echoing from the vault. I started paddling hastily for the exit. As it turned out, no work was necessary on my part—the push of the spring to the river seized the canoe and eased it firmly through the gap and into the reception chamber. But there something went wrong, for we emerged from the cave and its mists going downstream backwards.
"This," said Elihu as he began to straighten us out, "is not approved of in better floating circles."
The others passed us, aimed forward, in search of an inviting-looking gravel bar for lunch. Soon we found one and swept down upon it with glad cries. Then began the sweaty task of unloading. We trudged up the bank with food, chairs, cushions, tables, ground covers and a shovel for burying the luncheon remains, while Elihu, under some pretext I cannot recall, watched approvingly from under a shade tree, sipping a beer, of course. Anne fixed an ample cold buffet and filled our plates. Later she waded into the river to cool off from her exertions, and found she was able to sit down and lean her shoulders against the current as though it were a chair. But her comfort was short-lived. The zipper in her shorts had opened a bit, and a school of minnows swam in. With a shriek, Anne made an Olympic leap from river to gravel bar, shedding minnows. She disappeared behind a clump of trees after clutching, en route, the clean clothes she had laid out.
We pushed on downstream, the trees making gothic arches over the river, and the water a soothing murmur. Another pocket of mist on the right indicated a major spring coming up, and we angled across to beach our canoes at the foot of a stately cliff. It guarded the entrance to Pulltight Springs. "Now I want everyone to ooh and ah!" Anne announced. "This is the most beautiful spot on the river. Or," she added, "maybe anywhere."
Shreds of mist clung to the rocks of the double cascades down which the blue water, slashed with white foam, tumbled into the river. We followed them on foot back to their source, a quarter-mile walk of wild beauty—rocks and water twisted into changing patterns and the music of their coursing filling the most air. "The last time I was here," Anne said, "I saw two children sledding down the falls, flat on their bellies on rubber mattresses. It looked like fun, but in this place it seemed almost irreverent."
The gorge led to a horseshoe-shaped dell encircled by tall bluffs. The spring itself, a huge, majestic pool at their base, was wreathed in watercress. We gathered some for our dinner and hurried away, almost fearful of the spell cast by this magnificent glade.
Since we had idled so long at lunch, Anne decreed that the time had come to search out our evening camp, and she soon found a choice bar. The kitchen site was selected first, and then the scramble began for the best bedroll locations. Elihu first claimed a particularly lumpy-looking section of stones but, on further exploration, coveted Anne's location. Anne, after driving a crafty bargain with him about dishwashing, relinquished her site, and then revealed that she had spied an even better one for herself at the other end of the bar. When everyone was more or less satisfied with bedrooms, and the ground covers were unfurled, the most dreadful trial of the trip began, a task requiring strength, endurance, stamina and moral fiber: blowing up the air mattresses. This labor accomplished (and after I stopped gasping like a beached whale), we repaired to the river with soap and towel for the evening bath. Then came the insecticide-anointing and a change into clean clothes and dry shoes. (Anyone who has never floated may find it hard to appreciate the simple luxury of being able to walk without going "squish" at each step.)
Pete, meanwhile, had gotten the fire started, and bedrolls quickly yielded up a harvest of bottles: Scotch, bourbon, gin, vodka and even two bottles of wine for dinner. We took our ease on Elihu's disputed furniture, dipped into assorted canapés spread out on the folding cocktail tables and sipped cool drinks. Obviously, a gravel bar can be a very homey place.
Dinner preparations attracted an interested audience of bugs, including a large airborne species that lives for one day. This was der Tag, naturally. The meal was considered a treat, however, despite the small misfortune with the corn. It came out of the fire with its aluminum foil cover glowing like a horseshoe fresh from the forge and, once unwrapped, presented a similar charred appearance. But fresh air, several strong Scotches, a glass or two of burgundy and exercise work wonders for the picky appetite. The exercise, as a matter of fact, continued throughout the meal, since we kept one arm circling constantly to swat our flying guests.
Later, we sat around the dying fire, nightcaps in hand, singing a bit, talking now and then, but mostly watching the night mist seep off the river and the sliver of a crescent moon slip as silently across the sky. Anne sighed contentedly as she checked the campsite—all neat and tidy—and her not so tidy friends. The Coleman lantern was put out, our insect visitors vanished and one by one we did the same, disappearing into the underbrush with flashlight and pajamas to change for the night.
I wriggled into my sleeping bag and looked up at the stars. I was relaxed, at peace and ready for sleep. Directly overhead a whippoorwill on the prowl tuned up—whip-poor-will! Then, whip! whip! whip! like a poorly grooved record. His friend answered from another tree, and they conversed happily for a while. I turned my mind to the possibilities of a silent introduction service for whippoorwills, and then the bullfrogs started. They sounded large and lonesome. A great deal of crunching seemed to be going on around the gravel bar as people either disappeared into the brush or went to the water jug for a final drink. I thrashed around, thinking wistfully of clanking garbage trucks and other city night noises that I could sleep through like a baby, when someone crunched alongside me. I could make out Elihu's silhouette against the stars. "Phsssst!" he hissed, "have one of these!" He held out a small bottle and a glass of water. "Sleeping pills," he explained. "I keep them especially for float trips."
So came the glorious dawn, and I slept right through it. But the sun was soon beating on the gravel, and I awoke feeling like a loaf in a stone oven. I squirmed out, squinting and fumbling for sunglasses. As usual, my pre-coffee mood was absolutely sinister. Elihu, depressingly cheerful, was making the rounds of the sleeping bags distributing an eye-opener called "Brown 'N Serve"—orange juice and bourbon. Gripping our drinks and trailing folding chairs, we gathered under the shade trees, there to sit and sip and slyly outwait each other on starting breakfast. The morning levee was obviously going to be a lengthy one. We watched some canoes and John boats pass our gravel bar. The Sunday river seemed as busy as Route 66. Two boys floated by sitting in inner tubes, which looked like fun until I remembered the turtles in the river.
At last, bacon, eggs, coffee and hot sweet rolls were fixed by Bee. After eating, we scuffled around the bar, picking up and packing up. Mary, who by now had lost two lipsticks and a compact, sat cross-legged in the middle of her air mattress, looking like a puzzled Venus rising from a foam of polyethylene bags as she tried to gather her scattered belongings. Anne organized everyone else into helping her and Bee, and soon their canoe, neatly packed, was in the water and on its way downstream. When Elihu and I finally pushed off, we waved to Mary and Pete, who were still collecting their laundry from the shrubbery.
Once on the river, all was serene again. The current was wider now, and although the trees no longer formed arches their outflung branches seemed to hover caressingly over the water, making green tunnels, through which we paddled near the bank. Three white geese sat tranquilly on an arching branch and watched us float under, and once we saw a lethal-looking water moccasin coiled in the sun on a beaver-felled trunk. The sight sent us paddling toward the river's center. There we floated peacefully, admiring billowy clouds drifting over the bluffs. We should, at that moment, have been looking in the opposite direction. Just under the water's surface was a large boulder, and before I could even say "Elihu!" we were on it—scrunch: in dry dock again. "Alice," said Elihu, "as a snag-watcher, you are a failure." Once again the center of the canoe was perfectly in balance and, as the current caught us, we turned in the river like a weathervane on a church steeple. At about the third revolution I went over the side—before I was swatted by Elihu's paddle—and pushed and tugged the canoe off its roost. As I struggled against canoe and current in the waist-deep water, Mary and Pete floated past, their damp laundry spread on the center tarp. They waved somewhat smugly.
Underway again, and marveling at the unsinkable qualities of Mr. Spurgeon's canoe, we passed a fisherman sitting on the bank. "Anything happening?" called Elihu. "Not often," was the laconic response. We overtook the boys in the inner tubes—by now they were turning a vibrant shade of cyclamen pink—and asked if they wanted a tow. They admitted the river was sort of lazy in this stretch but decided to continue on their own. The current did not stay so good-humored for long, however. Already the rapid, louder music of fast water could be heard. As we approached a gentle bend, Elihu maneuvered the canoe into the center current to be prepared. We swept into the wide curve and ahead we could see a narrow and evil-looking kink in the river, where the water threw itself angrily against a steep and log-choked bank.
"Paddle on the port side—hard!" Elihu instructed. "If we're swept against that bank, we'll swamp." That was an unappealing prospect, so we put our backs into it and paddled like fury against the tugging water. Our efforts were a bit too successful. Before we knew it, we hit a calmer spot out from the bank, and, since we were still paddling with all our might, we made a nifty and completely unexpected U-turn and found ourselves aimed back upstream.
"That," Elihu announced, "is what is known as overcompensation." Still flailing away with my paddle, I asked just what we were going to do to get out of the situation dry. We were held by the current, and our own paddling efforts, in one spot, but at least we weren't being taken through the riffle backwards. "Hmmmmm," said Elihu, "the time has come to get out and walk. Aim for the shallow bank." So, with much panting and thrashing, we managed the canoe into the swift but shallow waters, hopped out, fought it around, walked it downstream a way into a better launching position and hopped back aboard. Instantly we were seized by the current and hurled toward the dreaded bank. We bounced off a log broadside, rocking wildly, but Mr. Spurgeon's remarkable canoe carried us through again, and we soon emerged into calmer waters, a bit unstrung but not upset.
We caught up with the others and began the search for a lunch bar. Elihu found an unusual one of sand, opposite a brooding, lichen-spotted bluff. There we waded into the chill waters to cool off, watching nosy minnows nibble at our ankles. Bee scooped up crayfish from the gravel bottom, later cooked them and pronounced them delicious. Elihu discreetly snatched all the available cushions and, arranging a pashalike cozy corner in the shade, had a nap. We unfolded our camp stools in the dappled water and ate sitting there, as Anne admonished us to eat everything so there wouldn't be leftovers. We almost succeeded in making her happy. The innertube floaters drifted by, now a deep puce hue, and waved limply. Overcome by languor, we lingered on our bar, reluctant to make the start that would end the trip.
Back in the ever-widening river, the signs of civilization on the banks were now more frequent. The sudden scent of cows wafted across as we passed a farm; the sound of voices as we drifted by a camp. The patient and apparently always disappointed fishermen were now more numerous. We continued downward, past the scarred faces of looming bluffs and leaning trees whose trailing leaves stroked the water, while the immense shadows cast by a dying sun made twilight shapes on the water. We rounded a curve, the three canoes hitched comanionably together, and saw ahead, arching like a cat's back across the river, the bridge that marked Round Spring and the journey's end. We passed the conflux of Sinkin' Creek, aptly named because at one point it goes underground, then gets bored in the dark and reappears to meet the limpid Current River. We also passed the inner-tube boys, looking ready to be served up with drawn butter. The raucous stutter of an outboard motor, the first we had heard since the float began, shattered the peace. Reluctantly we took to our paddles to edge across to the takeout point.
Orville stood on the river bank, a long shadow in the lowering sun, pleased to see his canoes returning safely to the fold. "Anything happen?" he asked, as we crunched ashore. "Not often," I replied.
100 mi. to ST. LOUIS
Akers to Round Spring about twenty miles