by Tom Uhlenbrock
SALEM, Mo. – Early settlers lowered an anvil on a rope into the turquoise waters of Montauk Spring in an attempt to measure its depth. The weight dropped 367 feet – longer than a football field - and stopped. Without reaching bottom.
“The anvil got so deep that the water pressure started pushing it back up again,” said Steve Bost, the naturalist at Montauk State Park, which is located where the spring emerged on the banks of Pigeon Creek.
Heavy rains in 1892 eroded the clearcut hills and filled the spring with silt and gravel. Distraught that their beautiful spring was gone, the locals set off dynamite charges to try to unplug it.
“But the damage was done,” Bost said. “It changed the way the water was routed into a series of smaller springs. And new ones appear all the time. One just popped up behind the park lodge.”
The combined flow of the springs still pumps out some 43 million gallons a day of cold, crystalline water, forming the headwaters of the Current River.
When the federal government acted to preserve America’s pristine rivers, the Current , and its sister river, the Jacks Fork, were the first to receive protection. The Ozark National Scenic Riverways was formed in 1964 to create a national park along 134 miles of the two rivers, establishing a bluff-lined, green corridor that today attracts more than a million annual visitors.
The Missouri Ozarks is known for its spring-fed, gravel-bottomed float streams, and the Current River is the crown jewel of them all. Four floats – from Baptist Camp to Cedargrove, Cedargrove to Akers, Akers to Pulltite and Pulltite to Round Spring – are top of the line, literally and figuratively.
The four range from eight to 10 miles and can be done in four to six hours, depending on the time spent fishing, swimming and exploring. They can be combined for an overnighter on a gravel bar. Unless in flood, the river is a gentle float. Some stretches send you gliding down a riffle beneath a canopy of trees in a wilderness setting.
Montauk State Park, which is one of the state’s three popular trout parks, has a lodge with a restaurant, cabins and campgrounds that serve as the perfect base camp for exploring the upper reaches of the river.
The Missouri Department of Conservation, which manages the trout hatchery at Montauk, also stocks areas of the Current River outside the park boundaries on down to Akers twice monthly, an added incentive for combining a fishing expedition with a float trip, Bost said.
“There’s a tremendous amount of trout there,” Bost said. “Here’s something to think about: Right now, you can go canoeing on the Current River and see otter, eagles, possibly a bear or cougar. And for the first time since 1865, you can see elk in the Current River Valley.
“The good news is the river, and the wildlife, are getting better all the time.”
With a family history that goes back before the Civil War, Gene Maggard is the patriarch of the Current River Valley. “My great-grandfather followed a wagon team in here, right around 1835 to 1840,” Maggard said. “It’s a wonder to me why they stopped and stayed, but they did. Maybe the wagon broke down.”
Now 71, Maggard is president of the Missouri Canoe and Floaters Association, which lists outfitters and conditions on state rivers at missouricanoe.org. The association led the push to ban glass bottles on the rivers, and Maggard suggested putting red mesh trash bags in rental canoes and kayaks. The impact was immediate, and lasting.
“It’s amazing the tons we gathered the first year,” Maggard said.
Maggard’s parents, Buck and Loreen, rented out their first johnboat in the 1940s and hauled folks across the river on a ferry that is the last of the state’s two-car, current-powered ferries. Since 1970, Gene Maggard and his family have operated Akers Ferry Canoe Rental at the same spot.
The Maggards once owned 140 acres on both sides of the river. The family now leases seven acres from the park service to operate a general store and canoe livery. Gene Maggard recalled hearing for the first time that they would lose their homestead.
“It was in the middle 1950s,” he said. “Mom and I were hoeing tomatoes when our state rep came down and said the river needed to be legislatively preserved because people were going to destroy it. That was a shocker to me.”
Bitter initially at losing the land, Maggard has mellowed over the decades and now views the National Park Service as a steward of the river.
“We have a good relationship,” he said. “As far as landlords go, the park is as good as it gets.”
Creating the national park prevented an outgrowth of private club houses along the Current and Jacks Fork within the boundaries, and recent federal regulations on beer bongs, loud stereos and other rowdy behavior have made floating the Current and Jacks Fork more pleasant. Alcohol is still allowed.
“Early on, it got a reputation as being crowded, and for bad behavior,” Maggard said. “Now it’s gone the other way, with a reputation of not being crowded and leading the way on the behavior. Those were good laws.”
Flowers till fall
Asked for float tips and highlights, Maggard responded with a mental trip down river from Montauk State Park.
“On Baptist Camp to Cedargrove, about halfway down, you get to Schafer Spring in Parker Hollow, where the park service has restored the Susie Nichols cabin,” he said. “She was kind of an Ozark Mountain cowgirl, who rode English-style over these hills.”
From Cedargrove to Akers, the first highlight is Medlock Spring, which pumps about 20 million gallons a day. “What’s so unique about that spring is it comes out quite high on the hill,” Maggard said. “Most springs come out the bottom of hollers.”
Bluff School, a one-room schoolhouse dating back to the Civil War, overlooks the river. “My mother taught school there,” Maggard said.
Two-thirds of the way to Akers, Welch Spring comes in on the left with a daily outflow of some 75 million gallons. Over the mouth of the spring cave is the rock ruins of an asthma hospital built in 1913 by an Illinois doctor named C.H. Diehl. It became known as “Diehl’s Dream.”
“My aunt and uncle sold that spring for $300 an acre to Dr. Diehl; they thought they had really rooked him,” Maggard said with a laugh. “Dr. Diehl was going to cure asthma and do a little tourism. Of course, when you’re coming by train and wagon, it takes some time to get down here.”
One mile downstream, on river right, is the Maggard Cabin, a restored log cabin. “Mrs. Howell first owned that cabin when Jesse James was riding through this country,” Maggard said.
The main attraction on the Akers-to-Pulltite stretch is Cave Spring, with a cavernous opening on the river. “This is the only cave I know of in the whole country where you can paddle about 100 feet back in and turn around in the dark,” Maggard said. “And it’s 63 degrees in there on the hottest summer day.”
Pulltite to Round Spring features Pulltite Spring, which is reached by a short hike. The spring gurgles up to form an azure pool, filled with lime-green watercress, at the base of a bluff before tumbling to the river. The park service has partly restored a vertical-log cabin near the spring.
Appearing at the water’s edge a short distance downstream, the opening for lovely, little Fire Hydrant Spring is decorated with maidenhair fern and wild hydrangea.
Because 75 percent of its flow is from springs, the Current is floatable year round. Maggard said there was not a bad time to float the river, noting that he takes his grandson, Josh, out on his birthday, which is Jan. 2.
“My thinking is the ideal month, if a guy wants to be alone, is September into October, when it’s not so hot and the nights are cool,” he said. “But spring through summer, it’s a photographer’s dream on this river. Almost every week, the flowers change from yellows to reds to whites. My favorite is jewelweed. That’s the prettiest flower that God ever created, except for a rose.
“And then there’s fall.”
For those who haven’t experienced the quiet and solitude that can come with a Current River float, Maggard offered this advice: “What I like about floating, once you get around the first bend, any problem you’ve got in the world doesn’t seem quite as important as when you started.”