LEBANON — The Niangua River was showing off its mild side.
As Jack Glendenning silently paddled down the Ozarks float stream, he couldn't help but notice.
During the spring and summer, the Niangua can be a party animal, filled with canoes, people and noise.
But in the winter, well, the party is over; life slows down and the river puts on a different face — one that showcases its beauty and solitude.
"I love being out here right after a big snow," said Glendenning, 42, who has spent most of his life on the river in south-central Missouri. "The hills are white, everything's quiet, and you can see forever with the leaves off the trees.
"You can go out and not see another canoe all day long. If you want to fully enjoy the beauty of this river, this is the time to go."
Recently, a monster storm had dumped almost a foot of snow on the banks of the river. A second front had added another 4 inches to that total.
Now, that snow was melting in the midst of a warm-up that made for ideal floating conditions.
White, fluffy snow, unbroken by animal tracks, glistened in the bright sun. Ice formations clung to the rocks along the banks and at the edge of riffles. And fish darted through the cold, clear water at the advance of the canoes.
A giant flock of mallards rafted in one large pool and flushed as the canoeists paddled around a bend. And a short time later, a large group of Canada geese got up and broke the silence with loud honks.
"That's the thing that's great about being out here at this time of the year," Glendenning said. "You'll see so much wildlife. We'll see deer, turkeys, waterfowl, even otters. You never know what's around the next bend."
Glendenning has been enjoying these winter floats since he was a boy. Brought up "just up the highway" from the river, he and his family were on the water constantly.
"My parents told me they started taking me to the river when I was 3 months old," he said. "I guess this was always in my blood."
Glendenning has spent his lifetime canoeing, fishing, gigging and hunting on the Niangua. He eventually bought Sand Spring Resort on the river in 2003. Today, he rents out 100 canoes, 25 rafts and 20 kayaks. During the summer months, there are plenty of days when all of those boats are on the water.
But Glendenning learned long ago there are no traffic jams on the water in the winter.
"We used to have a tradition where we go out floating every New Year's Eve or Day," he said. "My brother, sister-in-law and dad would do the Polar Bear Plunge. We don't do that as much as we used to, but we always get out for a few winter float trips."
Recently, Glendenning, his 16-year-old son Jase and his good friend Brandon Johnson floated a four-mile stretch of the river below Bennett Spring — from Sand Spring Resort to the NRO Campground.
The stretch provided ideal floating conditions: enough water so that they didn't have to get out and drag their canoes over riffles and enough warmth in the water to keep the water open.
Glendenning and his partners enjoyed winter's beauty and occasionally pulled over on a gravel bar to fish for trout in holes that are traditionally productive.
Jase baited his hook with the family's "secret weapon," a bread ball, cast his line to the edge of a riffle and let the current bounce the bait along the bottom. It didn't get far before Jase felt a tug.
He set the hook and pulled a 12-inch rainbow fish to the surface.
That fish went on the stringer, as did several others. By the end of the afternoon, father and son had six trout for the frying pan.
Glendenning viewed that catch as a bonus. Even when the fish aren't biting, he enjoys time on the water in the winter.
"It's a whole different river in the winter," he said. "There are boats everywhere in the summer, which is great. People have a lot of fun down here. But I love being out at this time of the year. That's when you can slow down and really appreciate this river's beauty."