SULLIVAN, Mo. – Living in Missouri and never floating its Ozark streams would be like being in Florida and ignoring its beaches, or spending a lifetime in Colorado and never hiking the Rockies.
Meramec State Park offers the perfect trip for a rookie to get his or her feet wet, and see what floating is all about. You leave your vehicle at the park, take a shuttle to the Sappington Bridge, and float five miles back.
“The river is easy and wide,” said Mike Fleming, the concessionaire at Meramec. “It’s a nice little float.”
Meramec is one of three Missouri state parks that offer river floating. Washington State Park has floating on the Big River and Sam A. Baker offers floats on Big Creek and the St. Francis River.
The Missouri float season generally gets under way on Memorial Day weekend, and runs through Labor Day. However, regular boaters know that spring, when the redbuds and dogwoods bloom, and fall, when autumn colors are in their glory, are fine times to be on the rivers, as well.
And the occasional warm winter day presents a special opportunity to shake a bout of cabin fever. Bring along a dry bag with a change of clothing, just in case.
The popular float streams can be crowded on summer Saturdays. Go any other time, and you’ll have the river almost to yourself.
“If you go on Saturday, expect a lot of people,” Fleming said. “Weekdays are a great time to go, it’s much quieter.”
TRY A KAYAK
At Meramec, Fleming has 100 canoes, which rent for $40 for two people, and $45 for three. An eight-man raft is $160 and a six-man is $120 on weekends. This year, he has added 20 kayaks, which rent for $25. Paddles, life vests and mesh litter bags are included.
“If they’re not real comfortable on the water, we recommend a raft,” Fleming said. “Nobody’s flipped one of those, yet.”
The kayaks are the one-person, sit-on-top type. Many Missouri outfitters are now offering kayaks, which are easy to maneuver and allow a lone floater to explore the nooks and crannies of the river.
“Once people realize how easy they are, and how fun they are, they really like them,” Fleming said of the kayaks. “You go where you want, and don’t have to keep paddling together with the other guy in a canoe. And you can go a little faster.”
AWAY FROM IT ALL
Fleming also is the concessionaire at Sam A. Baker State Park, near Patterson in southeast Missouri, where he rents canoes, rafts and kayaks. When the water is high enough on the St. Francis, he offers 14-mile and 18-mile floats with overnight camping.
“We’re the only outfitter on the St. Francis,” he said. “If you want to get away and not see many people, this is the place to go.”
In summer, when the river is low, the only float offered on the St. Francis is four miles from the park, down to the Highway 34 bridge, where you’ll get picked up and ferried back.
High water also is needed to float Big Creek, which has eight- and 11-mile floats. The creek can be a little more challenging, so only kayaks are offered.
“It’s a crystal clear river with some rock gardens to go through,” Fleming said. “When the water’s right, kayakers come from all over to float Big Creek. It’s well known in the kayak world.”
On a weekday, Fleming was right, the five-mile float from Sappington Bridge to Meramec State Park was nice and easy. The river was wide and green, and moving at a steady pace, with only a couple twisting chutes to negotiate.
Crows chased a bald eagle up the river, a great blue heron stalked the shallows, turtles sunned on the logs and only two other boats were on the river during the two-hour float. The stretch included gray bluffs decorated with blooming columbine and plenty of gravel bars for stopping. If there was one word for the float, it would be “peaceful.”
But that’s not always the case.
Because the park is an hour or so drive from the St. Louis metropolitan area, summer Saturdays mean the river can be crowded.
“And noisy,” Fleming said. “We are completely full every Saturday in the summer. On Saturdays, you have to have a reservation. During the week, you can walk in, but we suggest you get here a half hour early.”
Sunday through Friday, Meramec float shuttles leave at 9:30, 10:30 and 11.30 a.m. On Saturday, it’s every half hour from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Because summer Saturdays had gained a reputation as floating parties, new regulations have been added in recent years. State laws ban beer bongs, foam coolers (which break up) and containers with more than four gallons of alcohol. Glass containers are prohibited and coolers must fasten shut to prevent the contents from spilling during a mishap.
Most people float an Ozark stream to enjoy getting back to nature in a quiet wilderness setting. Leave the loud stereos, Mardi Gras beads and Jell-O shots at home.
THE NATION'S BEST
If a short float like the five-mile Meramec State Park run leaves you thirsty for more, your choices are unlimited. You can merely move upriver, and float other sections of the Meramec. The stretch from Campbell Bridge to the Blue Springs access goes by Vilander Bluff, the most majestic scenery the Meramec has to offer.
Huzzah and Courtois creeks near Steelville are smaller streams with pristine scenery, and the Black River near Lesterville is a clear-running little gem. Then there’s the Eleven Point, Niangua, Elk, White, North Fork and more.
In southeast Missouri, the Ozarks National Scenic Riverways was designated in 1964 to preserve the spring-fed Current and Jacks Fork rivers. As the first national park created to protect a river system, this 134 miles of river presents the best flatwater floating in the nation.
Floating in Missouri is a leisurely sport. No whitewater, no Eskimo rolls. Rain can turn any river rambunctious, but, for the most part, you’ll be drifting along, with plenty of time to enjoy the sights and sounds of the forest.
The Missouri Canoe & Outfitters Association lists rivers, and the outfitters that serve them, at www.missouricanoe.org. Pick a river, and let the outfitter select the float trip that’s right for you. To schedule a float at Meramec State Park, call 1-573-468-6519.