Spring-fed Missouri rivers offer best floating in drought

Friday, August 31, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD — My wife and I have canoed and kayaked Missouri waterways since we moved here from the flatlands of Kansas in 2004.

We've found each stream and river has a personality of its own — some offer an energetic, wet romp; others a gentle, contemplative ride. Right now they're all taking it slow and easy, thanks to Mother Nature's decision to turn off the rain spigot.

But if you want to squeeze in a float trip before the kids go back to school it's still possible, despite the terrible drought that's turning fields brown and making some trees shed their leaves way before autumn. Indeed, several of my colleagues have had enjoyable floats in recent weeks on the Current River.

Any rain would help, but several of the most popular floating rivers in Missouri — the Current, Jacks Fork and Eleven Point, and the Spring River in extreme northeast Arkansas — are fed by large springs. They still offer cool water to enjoy, said Michelle Lambeth, executive director of the Missouri Canoe and Floaters Association.

"Right now I've not heard any of our members say you can't float some section of their rivers," Lambeth said. "Most of our rivers are at least partially fed by springs, and it would be rare to find a river that you couldn't find some section to float."

Despite occasional spotty thunderstorms in the past week, the National Weather Service reported extreme drought conditions continuing through much of southwest and south-central Missouri.

As of Monday, Springfield's 2012 rainfall total was 11 inches below normal and 6.8 inches below normal since June 1.

More rain has fallen east of Springfield, with West Plains reporting total rainfall for the year at 9.67 inches below normal — 4.1 inches below normal since June 1.

Lambeth said Missouri floating streams and rivers typically diminish in late summer, during the hottest part of the year. But the drought isn't helping.

"A lot of our outfitters, when the water gets low, will pull their (inflatable) raft floats but keep running their canoes," she said. "When people get out and drag rafts it can rip the bottoms of the floats. Canoes are sturdier and can withstand dragging better. Most outfitters will tell their customers if they'll likely have to pull canoes in some spots because of low water."

With rivers and streams running slower, Lambeth said floaters might want to revise the lengths of their trips.

"If they're used to making 10 to 15 miles in a day, maybe consider floating six or eight miles instead," she said.

"Regardless of the water level, if they go with the idea they're going to have fun and are going to make memories, even with low water, they'll enjoy it."

The middle and lower sections of the scenic Buffalo River in northern Arkansas are floatable, though the water is low, said Leon Somerville, office manager at Buffalo Camp and Canoeing south of Yellville, Ark.

"We are on the lower Buffalo, where you can float year-round," Somerville said. "The water is low, and you may have to step out of your canoe four or five times at certain spots, but it is floatable."

He said many customers are opting to do the4 1/2-mile stretch from Spring Creek to the Highway 14 bridge. Though a short distance, it still takes them more than four hours to complete because of the slower-moving water.

Outfitter reports about stream conditions are updated regularly at the Missouri Canoe and Floaters Association website, .

Veteran paddler Matt Plank, a specialist in canoe/kayak sales at Dynamic Earth in Springfield, said anyone looking for detailed information about water levels in Missouri streams can find it online or talk to him at the store.

He recommends and Both have searchable formats that show water level and stream volume measurements for Missouri streams and rivers. The United States Geological Survey data also compare current levels to average flows for this time of year.

Plank said paddling on area lakes is always an option when stream levels get too low or slow.

"Around here, Lake Springfield is a pleasant place for an evening float," Plank said. "And the James River near Cape Fair is also pleasant to float and fish. If you want to float the James River right now, until you get past Galena, you will probably be getting out and dragging your canoe a bit."

Lambeth and Plank said Missouri float streams often rebound in autumn, when rainfall typically resumes as the season turns cooler.

"Floating doesn't stop when school starts," Lambeth said. "Fall often is a great time to enjoy quieter floats on our rivers."

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