It was our first three-day weekend in quite a while, and we wanted to do something adventurous and memorable. The idea had been discussed to go on a backpacking trip or just car camping somewhere, but we eventually settled on floating and camping overnight on the Current River, down in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways (ONSR).
The ONSR is comprised of just over 105 miles of the Current River and about 30 miles of the Jacks Fork River, and it is the first national park in the United States whose specific purpose is to protect a river system.
These clear and cold Ozark waterways are sparkling examples of the natural beauty that exists in Missouri, as well as holding the rugged history of the people that have made these steep and secluding hills their home for generations.
These two river flows also provide us with direct insight into the nature of the water cycle on this planet, and I am grateful for the protection and respect with which we have designated them.
Yes, Missouri has a gorgeous and magical national park, and we were going to take a canoe trip along 27 miles of its prettiest natural offerings. I couldn’t wait!
How to get there
The Ozark National Scenic Riverways is located in southern Missouri, laterally around the center of the state. Eminence, Mo., is the closest larger town to most points, directly on the Jacks Fork River and southwest of the Current River.
You can get there from multiple directions, but if you are coming from the St. Louis area, this is how I get there: Take Interstate 44 west for about 80 miles to St. James. Get off at exit 195 and take Highway 8 south for about five miles to Highway 68 south. Turn right on Highway 68 and take it about 22 miles to Salem, where you will take Highway 19 down toward Eminence, and into the
Ozark National Scenic Riverways.
The first section we were floating on the Current River was Cedar Grove to Akers Ferry. It is an eight-mile stretch of river that holds a lot of adventure and beauty, and any outfitter you rent through will likely be shuttling you there.
We rented with Carr’s Canoe Rental, which is located at Round Spring on Highway 19 about 16 miles north of Eminence. This is where we were ultimately floating to, so I wanted to have my car at the take-out so that we could hit the road once we had said our goodbyes to this precious river.
The great staff at Carr’s drove us and our rented canoe up to Cedar Grove, supplying us with the personal flotation devices and paddles and trash bag that every floater should have whenever they are out on any body of water.
To get to Cedar Grove on your own, take Highway 19 south out of Salem about five miles to Route K. Make a right on Route K and take it almost nine miles to Jadwin. Make a right on Route ZZ and take that about four miles to the low water bridge where it crosses the Current River. Then transfer your gear to your boat, put some sunblock on, and say a prayer of thanks for the fun you’re about to have!
What you need to know about this section
This is the uppermost section of the Current River that I have floated, and it is similar to a lot of upper river sections and creeks that you may be familiar with.
It is shallow and calm in some spots, but it also has some quick turns and swift current, sometimes with a tree right in the middle of it waiting to roll your boat over and dunk you and all your stuff.
When we set off that morning with our loaded down canoe, we negotiated the first couple of turns and made our way around some of the other traffic on the river. Recognizing a noticeable hazardous tree on its side up ahead, we made the choice to get out and walk the canoe. Just too much going on, and we didn’t want to dump all our gear.
As we were making our way past the tree, a guy in a canoe behind us came barreling straight into it and instantly swamped his canoe. After helping him to shore and dumping the water he had collected, we carried on, on foot still, around another sudden curve filled with branches from the deep, passing another group on a gravel bar who were pumping water from a canoe they had rolled as well.
Danger can happen quickly, so wear your life jacket and don’t be too prideful to get out and walk your boat past the fast and scary parts.
With it being a narrow section, it can get inundated with river traffic pretty quick. When we were taking off from Cedar Grove a lot of other people were, too, and that led to a bunch of extra navigation from the get go, avoiding obstacles and other boats.
Be mindful of the other floaters around you, being as courteous and patient as possible. Rafts are slow, so canoes are good at passing rafts, and kayaks are better at passing everything. The thing that ties all of our experiences together is that we are all there to enjoy this beautiful river and the nature along it. Remember this when getting frustrated with the people in front of or behind you.
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We experienced a couple short runs that had some healthy sized rocks just under the surface that were obscured by the choppy water. You will be rolling right through, seemingly in deep enough current, and BONK — run right into one of these underwater obstructions.
We prefer aluminum canoes, so that makes it even more dramatic, with all the scraping and churning. I’m sure that variances in river levels throughout the changing seasons and weather can alter each floater’s experience a lot, but always keep a keen eye on that wide and fast channel you are about to shoot through, and look for the nuance in the chaotic waves to avoid surprise boulders.