Saturday, December 26, 2015

Ozark National Scenic Riverways

Drifting down the Current River in the Southern Missouri Ozarks, our canoe paddles brush lightly through the flowing crisp blue green water. Mid-October’s color and light accent the hills while massive Sycamores cling to the eroding banks. The Karst geology of the Ozarks (limestone and dolomite) features predominately in bluffs and overhangs, vanishing creeks and caves; the river's shallow pools of iridescent green and blue expose deadfall and boulders slipping by under glass just below the surface - the pace and tempo is downbeat and mellow. Ahead of us a lone bald eagle retreats as we approach, flying down river a few hundred feet to take perch again on the branch of  an abandoned tree stump. Frogs, turtles and birds are ever present while schools of smallmouth bass and bottom fish make their appearance below us. It’s near perfect, quiet and pristine and a welcome reprieve from social media, traffic and population.

Montauk and the Current River

Thanks to the designation of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways in 1964 the area has been protected. The first national park to protect a river system, the Current and Jacks Fork rivers wind themselves through the Nation’s largest concentration of first magnitude springs - springs that produce millions of gallons of output daily - and feature some of the nation’s best bluffs, streams and mixed hardwood forests. Much like their Western counterparts, the State Parks here are CCC and WPA projects; hefty lodges and natural stone. At the headwaters of the Current River in Montauk State Park we grab a quick and tasty breakfast at Montauk Resort Restaurant, enjoying the laid back, wood paneled rooms hung with images of prize trout. If fishing is what you like, fishing is what they have in abundance and variety. Fisherman line the banks, wade the pools and generally become permanent fixtures in the park during peak fishing season. Rustic cabins and camping sites are throughout the park, which is centered around the various springs that make up the headwaters of the Current River. We slip out of the park and onto state route 19 - the canopy of  the hardwood forest streams past overhead as we make our way south. Small valleys criss cross the landscape separating the forest covered ridges - the leaves just starting to show fall color.

Twin Bridges takes its name from the 2 bridges spanning the North Fork and Spring Creek and also sits at the junction of 2 highways - 14 and 181. There is a store and bar. Outdoors a stage and lights sit within earshot of the . Tucked in along the banks of the North Folk, small rustic cabins and racks of canoes sit quietly awaiting the next surge of summer crowds. It’s here we taste moonshine. Although the clear alcohol has made a legal comeback in recent years (just google ‘moonshine’), it isn’t often you get a pour of moonshine aged 2 years in oak barrels served from a gallon milk jug. Ozarks and Moonshine was as common here as any place where the Scotch-Irish settled (as well as the plentiful natural springs, deep ravines and dense woods), but I wondered if this was also a first hint at marketing local folk culture and heritage. As the dynamics of the US change and as populations shift - will moonshine tours alongside angling guides be the next thing?  

The River’s Edge ( in Eminence, the county seat of Shannon County, is a river front, multi-level lodge situated along the sandy banks of the Jacks Fork river. Rustic, covered in pieces of iron stove fronts, gears, ornaments; anything metal - the rooms are comfortable, clean and on the river’s side they face the Jacks Fork. Eminence is a working town of 600 that swells during peak times due to horse back riding, rafting, fishing, hunting - the full expanse of America’s outdoor offerings is a few turns away in any given direction. 

There are a variety of length of canoe floats on the Current (and Jacks Fork) that can be arranged varying from 4 hours to multiple day trips. The rivers here at this time of year are lazy, sublime and easy. We rented 2 canoes from Windy’s Canoe Rental - - a short walk across the bridge from River’s Edge in Eminence - and 40 minutes later we were unloading after a leisurely climb down a rural dirt road in one of Windy’s vans towards our destination Jerktail Landing.

Jerktail Landing sits next to a still pool of water along a curve in the river. Bluffs face you from across the landing - a tree notched for climbing sits waiting for occupants to swing out over the teal colored water. It seems staged; a vignette of all things American and again, pristine. In October, the rivers are low, running at an easy pace of 4 miles per hour. Hardly needing to paddle, we drift between deep pools of water that back up to bluffs. Visions of Zen gardens appear in my head as we drift by exposed rock bluffs, solitary trees clinging to outcrops, reaching out over the river.

A must stop in the area is Rock Bridge Rainbow Trout and Game Ranch. Originally a small village built around a grist mill (the founders spent 6 months traveling 500 miles to get here) - today it features one of the best bars, The Grist Mill Club, fantastic fresh fish from the trout farm and a variety of rental cabins. Although not the original Mill - the first was burnt during a Civil War Battle - it was replaced shortly after and moved to this location.


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