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

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

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.

The Jacks Fork Canoe Rental and Campground in Eminence (1-800-522-5736 or is an outfitter that offers canoes, rafts, tubes and kayaks for a slew of floats down the Jacks Fork River. Trips can last anywhere from a few hours to a five-day float that covers 62 miles.

The Bass' River Resort (204 Butts Road, Steelville; 1-800-392-3700 or offers all the amenities of the Jacks Fork outfitter, but along the Courtois, Huzzah and Meramec rivers. It also has two sizes of cabins to stay in: "cozy cabins," built for two to four people, and log cabins for bigger groups.

A bit further afield is James River Outfitters (110 Y Bridge Boulevard, Galena; 417-357-6443 or which offers floating, fishing and the scenery of the southern Ozarks.

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