Upstream With a Paddle: From cops to cottonmouths, float trips can be perilous if you're not prepared

Upstream With a Paddle: From cops to cottonmouths, float trips can be perilous if you're not prepared
Dan Zettwoch

Summer float trips are a time-honored tradition here in Missouri — a chance to become one with nature or unleash your inner redneck, depending on your prerogative. But whichever style of canoeing, um, floats your boat, there are precautions you can take to make your river experience as agreeable as possible.

In recent years the Missouri State Water Patrol and the U.S. National Park Service have begun cracking down on disorderly conduct on Missouri's streams and tributaries. And if the cops don't get you, the environment may. The state's rivers and forests are alive with all kinds of creatures — from poisonous snakes to menacing bacteria — that could ruin your trip. Here, then, are a few tips to ensure smooth sailing on your summer float.

Keep It Legal
Before packing your canoe full of booze and letting loose, Missouri State Highway Patrol's Sgt. Jerry Callahan implores you to remember that rivers are public areas.

If your actions wouldn't be accepted in the store on the way to the river, they aren't acceptable on the actual river, says Callahan. Unacceptable behavior includes drunkeness, underage drinking, drug use and nudity.

Some Missouri rivers are stricter than others about intoxicants and rowdiness. The Current and Jacks Fork rivers, for example, cut through the Ozark National Scenic Riverways where the federal government has banned the use of beer bongs, kegs, Mardi Gras beads, Jell-O shots, dry-ice bombs, air horns and loud stereos. As the website for the federal waterway states in big, bold letters: "Public intoxication will not be tolerated."

Glass bottles are discouraged on all Missouri rivers, and beer bongs are prohibited on all state rivers except for Osage, Mississippi and Missouri waterways.

"Those devices are designed so that people can consume alcohol quickly," Callahan says. "That type of behavior is what tends to get people in trouble."

But it's not just partying that can get you busted. Trespassing also leads to arrests when floaters wander into private property — often in search of a place to relieve themselves. Which leads to the question: What to do when you have to pee?

The two most viable options are the river and the woods. Authorities suggest neither.

Not only is peeing directly into the river gross for fellow swimmers, but human urine (especially from the ladies) sets hormone levels in the water on the fritz, affecting animals that live in the river year-round. We're talking hermaphrodite fish and sterile salamanders.

Going in the woods would be the next logical choice, but once you pass the high-water mark, you're probably trespassing into private property. Instead, experienced floaters know to head to a gravel bar when nature calls, and do their business behind a bush where you're not likely to incur a ticket for indecent exposure.

Staying Alive
Chances are the wildest animals you'll see on your float trip are some sunburned college kids drunkenly making their way downstream on an inflatable raft. But Missouri does have its share of menacing and dangerous wildlife, especially south of St. Louis (Interstate 44 and farther south), where you can find snapping turtles, venomous snakes and even the occasional black bear. And no doubt, wherever you are, you'll have to deal with the annoying — though mostly non-lethal — mosquitoes, ticks, biting flies and other parasitic pests.

Alligator snapping turtles are capable of taking off a finger from their powerful bite. The best advice is not to dangle your digits in front of one of these prehistoric beasts. Black bears, meanwhile, can come calling for food left around your campsite. So, you know, be sure to put the lid on that jar of honey before setting out from shore.

The most dangerous creature on and near the water, though, is the cottonmouth (a.k.a. water moccasin), an all-black, venomous snake that can be potentially deadly. But it's nothing to worry about — too much. There have been no snakebite fatalities in Missouri in 30 years. Still, should you somehow manage to get bit, stay calm. Panicking makes your heart beat faster, which causes venom to spread more quickly. Keep the bite low and seek medical attention immediately, but don't try to suck out the poison.

"All these animals — while potentially harmful to people — will never go out of their way to hurt people," says Dan Zarlenga of the Missouri Department of Conservation, who adds that it's the smallest critters out there — like sandflies, thistles and chiggers — that are the most dangerous and cause the most pain. And sometimes those microscopic boogers are in the water.

Lorin Crandall, the director of the Clean Water Program at the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, warns that pathogens, protozoa and bacteria, such as E. coli, can be found in Missouri streams and will "completely destroy you" if ingested. Crandall suggests that floaters bring at least one-and-a-half times more water than alcohol with them. And whatever you don't drink you can always return to the river. Lord knows it could use some freshening up.

Hit the Waters
If after all that you're still willing to embark on a river adventure, the following outfitters can help you out.

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My Voice Nation Help

I totally agree with you that cottonmouth snakes are the most dangerous creature on and near the water and the danger increased little more when you are traveling in such areas that have some distance from the main city and you may not get the medical attention quickly. A cottonmouth snake bite can be deadly if it does not get the treatment in time. Those who are interested to know more about cottonmouth snakes should checkout the following website:

Bill Kammer
Bill Kammer

what a ridiculous article, a propaganda designed to appeal to one's "fear factor", this is not a realistic representation of floating in Missouri, not even close. Shame on you RFT, and you Julia, have how much experience floating? Obviously not much. I have been floating the Courtois, Huzzah, Big River and Meramec River for 50 years, and I know many others who have also, the worst we got out of it was a sunburn. I have worked in the float trip industry for 30 years and your representation here in this article is grossly inaccurate.


Propaganda designed to do what exactly? Steer people away from the outdoors? From someone with so many years of floating experience I find it surprising that you wouldn't agree that many "city slickers" could benefit from learning a thing or two about the in's and out's of Missouri water ways. I felt the article conveyed the unlikelihood of encountering any of the aforementioned dangers and at the same time informs floating "noobs" how to conduct themselves without johnny law harshing their buzz for being ignorant jags.

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