By Loring Bullard
Missouri has an abundance of clear, swift, and beautiful streams to canoe and kayak.
Floating has become so popular that on summer weekends it may seem like everybody is on the river.
If it’s solitude you want, you may have to go floating in the off-season.
Then, if you’re quiet, you might catch a glimpse of reclusive wildlife. You might even get the feeling that you’re alone in the wilderness — the first person to ever dip a paddle in these running waters.
But, of course, many have been here before you. In fact, floating in Missouri has a rich history.
One of Missouri’s early floaters was Leonard Hall. In his 1958 book Stars Upstream, Hall described floating the Current River in his aluminum canoe — a Grumman.
An engineer with the Grumman Company hit upon the idea of an aluminum canoe while portaging a heavy canvas-covered boat in New York State in 1944.
Why not build canoes from the same lightweight material used in the company’s famous fighter planes?
The next year, the world’s first aluminum canoe rolled off the plant’s assembly line on Long Island.
Before aluminum canoes arrived on the scene, john-boats formed the mainstay of Ozark floating. Traditional john-boats were made from tightly butted wood planks sealed with glue or pitch.
After a time in the water the wood expanded, making the boat watertight — but heavy. John-boats weighing 300 pounds dry could become a back-wrenching 800 pounds when waterlogged.
These boats were usually narrow and long, sometimes exceeding thirty feet, but were surprisingly stable, accommodating several fishermen.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, john-boats provided basic transportation for many of Missouri’s citizens, since roads were rough to non-existent in the state’s rugged Ozark hill country.
Travelers would sometimes pole their boats twenty miles upriver just to visit neighbors. Canoes of the wood and canvas variety became available in the early 1900s, but were slow to catch on.
The geographer Carl Sauer, writing in 1915, noted that canoes, though apparently well suited to Missouri’s streams, were at the time “almost unknown.”
By the 1920s, many Missourians, especially business people from Kansas City and St. Louis, had discovered the Ozarks as a fishing and recreation paradise.
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These lengthy excursions were made possible by that river workhorse, the john-boat, which could carry the mountains of camping gear as well as paying customers.
Jim Owen perfected guided float trips on the James and White rivers in southern Missouri. A transplant from Jefferson City, Owen at first knew little about floating or guiding.
But his background in advertising gave him an edge in marketing and promotion. He started a Branson-based float service in 1935 with six boats.