The morning began bright and early at 8 a.m. at Katfish Katy’s campground and general store, named for the giant catfish often caught nearby. Pictures of people with story-worthy catches decorate the walls of the Huntsdale store, which offered early arrivals a chance to peruse everything from bike tires to fishing poles and enjoy warm biscuits and gravy.
Outside, sleepy wildlife enthusiasts waited to board the big yellow school buses that would transport them to their day’s adventure at Franklin Island, 16 miles upstream. Families with young children, retirees and floaters of all experience levels mingled.
A number of roving dogs, many of them obviously experienced floaters, joined the participants. A beagle, Jenny, came fully equipped with her own life vest, and when it came time to board the bus, a large golden retriever named Guinness grabbed the first seat in front and looked impatiently out the window. He was clearly no stranger to the river.
It was the morning of the inaugural Big Muddy Wildlife Float, the largest group float trip ever organized on the Missouri River. More than 85 curious floaters, most of them first timers, had turned out for the late-September event, which Brad Hargrave, who works with the Missouri River Communities Network, says embodied everything his organization was trying to accomplish. The network is dedicated to promoting stewardship and recreational use of the the vastly underrated river — and what better way to do so than with a float trip.
Not only could partipants navigate the river in a comfortable group, but they could also hear presentations from the Missouri Department of Conservation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other environmental agencies along the way.
By 9 a.m., dozens of canoes had made it onto the shores of Franklin Island and hit the water. It was quite a scene: Pairs of floaters in kayaks and canoes fought the wind as they floated downstream toward an initial stopping point. There, the Missouri River Relief started a litter pick-up contest to see which participants could rid the river of the most trash. Although experienced river-user Brett Dufur says the river has been looking a lot cleaner lately, some floaters still found whole tires to haul into their canoes.
Farther along the trek, a few floaters detoured into one of the smaller channels. Dufur was one of them. He deftly navigated the eddy line, which separates the downstream-moving current from the calmer water, and maneuvered through a small opening between the rocks. Immediately, his canoe entered rougher water, which sent it rocking precariously. The initial rush of fear evoked by a rocking boat dissolved into laughter as the canoe made it through and joined the rest of the group floating downstream.
Hargrave says a lot of people are intimidated by the river, and getting them in a group where they feel safer paddling with people who have done it before creates a confident setting. He says that by the end of the day, many of the participants mentioned how much the float trip had improved their appreciation of the river.
Dufur, also the mayor of Rocheport, editor and publisher of Pebble Publishing and owner of Mighty MO Canoe Rentals, was one of the experts guiding beginners along the float. “I always think of the Missouri River as a huge classroom waiting for students to arrive,” Dufur says. “People are always looking for ways to connect with nature and be more outdoorsy. The river is close to home but still a world away from everything else.”
Ruth Ann Spotts came into an unexpected connection with nature when a 15-pound carp jumped straight out of the water and into her canoe. She learned firsthand that this was the carp’s only defense when its habitat is sufficiently agitated by the trespass of large boats or, in this case, a gaggle of canoes. Spotts, a lifetime floater, was unfazed. She wrangled the fish by its gills and tossed it overboard, leaving only a thick slime as evidence of its brief appearance.
Sixteen miles and seven hours from the starting point of the Big Muddy float trip, the last group exited the river and hauled themselves up the boat ramp to return to Katfish Katy’s, where hot food, cold beer and live music greeted them. The floaters settled into picnic tables and recounted their experience. Dufur thought the day was a success. He had launched 18 boats on the water that day and was glad to see renewed interest in a river with such rich history. Hargrave agrees, “A lot of people mentioned to me how much this changed their perception of the river.”