Current River, Missouri — a summer interlude

On Monday two weeks ago, my son David and I drove with 9 other Boy Scouts and parents from our Troop to Montauk State Park in the Ozarks. We were there to canoe the notoriously beautiful, spring-fed Current River. We arrived to Zebra swallowtails and calls of Northern Parula warblers, which have already migrated through our area but breed in much of the forested east, American redstarts and red-eyed vireos. A tufted titmouse perched on a colleague’s car and pecked with some irritation at its reflection in her sideview mirror, repeatedly staring, then darting forward the few inches to engage with its colleague, only to bounce off the mirror and come back. After three or four times it flew off and buzzed angrily in the woods over the car hood. We camped that night within a few feet of the river and had steak and potatoes for supper… wonderful. While we sat by the campfire, barred owls monkey-called to each other for several minutes and then were silent.

The next morning, phoebes and towhees were singing loudly at about 5 a.m. There was a fog low over the river in both directions from the camp. By 7:15 it had largely burned off and catbirds were singing. We broke camp, had Fruity Pebbles and Lucky Charms for breakfast and drove to the Baptist Camp canoe launch. A group of three adults drove to pick up the canoes; the six scouts, myself and one other adult, John, waited and had 2 1/2 hours to relax. One of the boys caught a couple of crayfish, which he bagged goldfish-at-the-fair style and brought down the river with us (one for bait, one for hors d’oeuvres). The boys swam and fished, skipped rocks, sat on the shore and chatted. I talked with John about river, as he had done this trip three times previously. The first day is the hardest, he told me, lots of turns, but looking at the river here, almost babbling at our toes, I couldn’t imagine that there was much challenge to be had. I waded across the river to the mossy, fern-covered bluff on the opposite bank. A spring fed into the river along the base of the bluff, feeding a vein of aquamarine that ran downstream along the bank of the river for about 50 or 100 feet, where the surface broke out into riffles.

The canoes arrived, and we packed them with some sense of order but almost as much sense of urgency. We were eager to get onto the water, overpacked, and not sure yet how everything would fit in. We did however get it all in, and then we headed downstream. It was clear very quickly that this was not quite the lazy river I had expected: with substantial debris in the river and a group with varying levels of expertise, the first day of the trip was exactly as John had characterized it. Within a mile or so, one boat flipped and was pinned against a log. It was not easy to extract, but we did so and emptied it out relatively quickly. Everyone was left feeling a bit rattled and gun-shy at the strainers and snags along the edges. We all began to hit each turn and riffle more strategically, casing out even the seemingly innocuous turns carefully, heading in aggressively and pulling out deliberately. My son David quickly came to enjoy the tension of getting into the maneuver, the pleasure of executing it precisely, and the rest afterwards as you are pushed down the river.

We camped on a gravel edge of the river, barely above the edge of the water, with a bluff across the way. There were no mosquitoes. I slept outside, the moon over my right ear and my nose pointed at Sirius. A Chuck-will’s-widow sang as I fell asleep, and I awoke in the middle of the night with my glasses still on, watching the stars winking in and out from behind the clouds. The Milky Way was bright. I took my glasses off and fell back asleep, only to be awoken by something scrabbling across my camping pad, brushing against my hair. Surely it was a raccoon; the next morning it turned out everyone had heard or seen one, and there were footprints all over. I’ve had mice scurry over my sleeping bag and once a tarantula in my hair as I slept, but I don’t care to be scratched by a raccoon. I crawled into my tent and dozed on and off till the morning, when an indigo bunting perched outside my tent door and sang to awaken the morning. I got up and made a fire.

Everyone awoke refreshed and dried out, ready to canoe. We headed into the morning emboldened by our successes of the previous day, and David and I promptly took a turn too tight and flipped our canoe. We filled it right up with water, soaked our tents and bags. I had followed the person ahead of me too closely, tried to squeeze between his boat and a streamside strainer more precisely than I had the chops to do. I’d been too confident, and I realized that even this fairly popular river is not to be underestimated. Fortunately, our personal gear was triple-bagged, so our things stayed dry, and we emerged none the worse for wear. David was not at all rattled; I confess I was a little embarrassed.

We stopped at Welch Hospital, a small, two-story sanitorium enclosing a cave. The cave exhales from between the stone-and-concrete walls abutting the hillside into the old hospital. The “hospital” had been established as a place for asthmatic patients to breathe the wholesome, cool, moist air coming from the cave straight into their chambers, but I cannot help thinking of all the bat guano and its attendant fungi and mold and bacterial spores. With the roof gone, the inside of the hospital is now a garden of redbud and poison ivy, hackberry and dogwood. Outside its front doors, Welch Spring runs cool and clear, pooling with aquamarine water behind a dam that the doctor had erected to raise the water level above the entrance to the spring, forcing more air out through the hospital. The water tumbles down from the spring and gushes into the river.

As we left the hospital, the rush from the water moving into the river propelled us along to a cave that we could canoe into, jet black but not deep, cliff swallows (I believe… I don’t know swallows well, but the coloration and habitat looked right) swooping in and out of the cave entrance. As we went further on, an older couple appeared at the edge of the river and waved to us to see if we could retrieve a lost paddle, which was lodged in a snag about 50 feet upstream. We called to each boat in our group, but no one heard in time. David and I turned our boat around, paddled upstream to the far edge of the river, then ferried across the river slowly and deliberately. This was a tricky maneuver and one that I’d read about but never tried–my experience with canoeing is almost all on flat water with plenty of portaging, and only brief rapids and rushing water–and I wouldn’t have tried it with just anyone in the bow. David was a rockstar, paddling strong and steady, and as he got nearly even with the paddle, I told him he’d have one shot to grab that paddle, and that if it didn’t come easy, he was to let go so he wasn’t pulled off center. When we reached the paddle, he set his own paddle down, extracted the lost paddle, and we pulled out without tipping. It was a thrill, and I tried to express to David how well he had done. When we delivered the paddle, the gentleman said, simply, “I don’t know how you did that.” This trip was exceptional for the degree to which it made David and I feel as though we were working as a team.

Right around the corner we found our group pulled in at the ideal campsite, sand along the bank and rock above, already laying out tents and gathering firewood. There was ample time for fishing, and that night we ate spaghetti with sausages and, for dessert, a taste of rainbow trout caught by one of our group, the same scout who had caught the crayfish on the first day. The fish was perhaps 15-20 inches long, a fighter, and the scout landed it and fileted it with help from an adult and then an older scout, pan fried it in sausage grease, buried the entrails about two feed deep along the beach. We hung our trash from a tree branch, and it’s good we did: that night raccoons were into our food, there was a midnight adjustment of canoes and coolers to keep them out, and when we awoke the next morning, we found the fish entrails excavated, the sand around the hole dotted with raccoon prints.

We awoke to cicadas calling, the first I’ve heard this season. There were turtles sunning themselves on the branches, an otter swimming, a mink bounding around on a branch at the edge of the water, a blue-winged warbler calling from an unseen tree behind a spring, Northern parula warblers and common yellowthroats and ovenbirds, a dragonfly painstakingly taking down a butterfly, flying off with it. At our lunch stop, the rocks were covered with tiny black snails, which David had pointed out to me on our first day and we had both thought were tadpoles come to roost, until they failed to rouse when we plunged our paddles in after them. After lunch, one of our canoes did the most graceful sideways slips down a riffle, then jetted backyards downstream when it hit the main channel… thrilling! We kept looking for just the right campsite that night, our last night on the river, and after several failed attempts found a gravelly flat facing a maple-rimmed bluff of perhaps 70–100 feet or more in height. We were buzzed by a couple of motorboats; it was Thursday now, and the weekend crowd was starting to build. The anglers in our party saw good-sized trout in the water, but no one pulled anything in. Rain started, we got firewood and tents set up, then the rain stopped after 30 minutes. We made foil packets and folks fished, chatted. Two scouts hung a plastic gallon milk jug from a rope on the far bluff, with a glow stick inside to fire at with slingshots later that night. We ate, cleaned, and as the sun was going down and the candles and fire dominated our view, a whip-poor-will started up, incessantly. The milk jug glowed like a lantern outside someone’s home.

I slept outside again that night. The whip-poor-will kept up until late, but when I awoke in the middle of the night to a bright Milky Way, he had stopped. He started up again a bit before dawn, and as light was just appearing on the horizon, a solitary pewee called. A few minutes later, phoebes, ovenbirds, cardinals. Rain started, and I packed my things into my tent and put my coat on, made a fire before things got too wet. By the time tea water was ready, the rain was dissipating, and then the moisture burned off and the sun illuminated the bluff. Phoebes started flycatching, sallying forth from the trees perched on the bluff face. Near the base of the bluff, a waterthrush–northern? Louisiana? I wasn’t close enough to tell for sure, and my binoculars were safe and dry at home–foraged for insects on interconnected ledges, tail bobbing slowly. It was our last day on the river. We had a marvelous breakfast of Hansen hash–sausage and apples and onions and canned sliced potatoes–and packed up for the last leg. We had as nice a view as one could hope of a bald eagle perching on a branch, then flying off to a tree upstream. Fluffy seeds tumbled across the water’s surface, rolling, not at all wetted. It was an easy paddle, but many of us were tired. David and I lagged near the end of the group.

Suddenly we were at the confluence of two rivers where the trip was to end, and we docked. As happens at the end of every backcountry trip, the feeling of being on the river evaporated. The even pace of paddling gave way to hauling and unpacking and getting into cars, setting up camp in a congested site, surrounded closely by tents and trailers, strings of lights, and more poison ivy than I have ever seen on the lawn in a campground. We inadvertently laid our shovel down in the poison ivy, then we washed it off with cold soapy water to avoid any risk. A few boys went off to fish, a couple of adults went into town to get groceries, and two stayed back to mind camp. I took the occasion to walk the horse trail uphill into a forest of sassafras and red oak, scarlet oak, Carya, serviceberry, sugar maple and red maple, black oak and white oak and post oak. There were reindeer lichen and huckleberry in fruit, not yet ripe, blue-eyed grass and wild onion in fruit, a panic grass (Dichanthelium) dispersing achenes, and at least four bedstraw species (Galium concinnum, G. circaezans, G. pilosum, and some narrow-leaved thing that I didn’t have good enough fruits to identify). Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) fruits were developing, not ripe.

The next morning was our last day. I headed out for a walk about 5:00. There was a nice fog over everything that grew thicker as I walked uphill along the road. The whip-poor-will started singing as I was reaching the crest of the hill. I took the horse trail into the woods. White spikes of bugbane flowers floated at eye-level in the woods. Two turkey vultures flew up from the trail ahead of me; when I reached the spot where they’d been hunkered down, I found a small deer at the edge of the trail, partially eviscerated. I walked further along and left the National Park Service property. The forest road I was now on cut through bright red soil, but the forest turned from second growth oak to pine plantation, and I grew disinterested. I returned and entered an oldfield of Queen Anne’s lace and orchard grass and daisy fleabane that ran parallel to the woodland trail. The field overlooked a fog-filled valley. The eastern horizon was now glazed with luminous clouds, undersides orange. The sun was about to rise. I stood and watched as the east gradually started to glow more intensely. I kept an eye on a distant hilltop tree, the highest tree around, which I expected to burst into radiant light as the sun rose. A catbird called. The sun crested the horizon, and instead of a sudden illumination, the indistinct light of dawn gradually sharpened into shadows and sunlight against the trunks of the pines and oaks behind me. The field continued to brighten, and when the sun was halfway up, I headed back to camp. A prairie dock leaf was growing near the edge of the woods, tucked under the oaks.

Back at camp, we awoke the group at 7 a.m., and remarkably they were all ready to leave by 7:30. We ate at a restaurant in town and hit the road. As we drove north, the forests turned to cornfields packed with ears, then to shorter cornfields. There were sunflowers with enormous leaves as tall as a grown man, chicory in bloom, cattails with inflorescences as big around as sausages, ditch bottoms filled with foxtail barley, blooming wild parsnip, bolting teasel. We passed three signs reading “Thugs won’t stop… to wait for a cop… guns make sense,” then four more reading “Criminals menacing… A lady alone… She needs… More than a phone… gunssavelives.com.”

Our thoughts were all on home by now, but as we passed Braidwood, I thought of the small Tully Monster, which 300 million years ago in this very spot bred and fed in tropical seas. At this time, our ancestors were reptilian-looking synapsids. It struck me as we drove past that they, like the Tully Monster, were bound to the same laws as canoers. They were spun around and borne forward by currents, and they made their futures by acting. Their lives, like ours, were a balance between where they found themselves and where life propelled them on one hand, and the other, doing. For them, as for us, pulling into and out of a turn in the river would dictate exactly where they ended up, and consequently they shaped their own evolution as we shape ours. This is the balance between calling and action, between opportunity and volition. We, like the creatures whose fossils we were driving past, have something we are best equipped to do, but we also have to act to get anything done. Let ourselves be simply dragged along by circumstance, and we’ll make no impact. Force ourselves against what life presents us, and we’ll spend unnecessary time bailing our boat and drying out our gear.

We made it home and unpacked. We slept exceptionally well that night.

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