With high-tech gear, you can float an Ozark river and still stay warm. Enjoy the quiet solitude and see lots more wildlife. Our writer shares her experience and tells you where to float and how to prepare and find a paddling pal.

Winter floating can be mighty cold. But there are advantages.

“Wildlife is everywhere once the summer and fall float seasons end,” says Monty Heise, a seasonal ranger at the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. “Otters will come out to your boat to observe you. You’ll see otters, beavers, mink, deer, eagles, and coyotes along the river every day. If you are lucky, you might catch a snowstorm. You have not seen the Current and Jacks Fork unless you have seen the bluffs covered in snow, with huge icicles hanging all the way down to the water. In the winter, you often have the river to yourself. I love the quiet and solitude.”

Christy Kurtz of Paddle KC braves a snowstorm for a paddle on Longview Lake in Kansas City.

But you do want to prepare for it. This year, an annual Winter Paddling Clinic and First Day Float are from December 30 to January 1 at Echo Bluff State Park. There will be speakers and safety sessions on the evening of December 30 and the morning of December 31. The afternoon will be open for floating or hiking, with more instructional sessions that evening. Then on New Year’s Day, there will be another group float.

The clinic and New Year’s Day float grew out of a casual comment on Facebook. When Jeff Clawges of St. Louis asked in December 2015 if anyone wanted to join him for a First Day Float, Dave Tobey, who at the time was a newly hired interpreter for the Upper Current River in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, jumped on Jeff’s suggestion.

The Winter Paddling Clinic and First Day Float draw more participants every year. This gung-ho group paddled the Current River on New Year’s Day 2019.

“Great idea. Let’s do it,” Dave said, and the wheels began turning. Mother Nature didn’t cooperate, with parts of the park flooded and sections of the rivers closed, but twenty experienced paddlers still floated the Upper Jacks Fork River, one of Missouri’s most wild and scenic places, from the Prongs to Buck Hollow on January 1, 2016. A new tradition was born.

Mother Nature frequently puts on an icy show for paddlers.

When the next New Year rolled around, Dave, Jeff, and his friends were ready. The first Winter Paddling Clinic and First Day Float were held at Echo Bluff State Park. New Year’s Eve found enthusiastic paddlers attending safety sessions and learning about proper gear for winter floating. On New Year’s Day 2017, a guided float on the Current River from Current River State Park to Round Spring convinced many fair-weather paddlers that winter paddling could be fantastic.

“This started on a whim,’” Dave says, “and we have expanded it every year. The clinic is all about river safety. We’re trying to let people know they can paddle safely other times of the year than just Memorial Day to Labor Day. If you have the right equipment and skills and follow safety measures, you can paddle safely all year round.”

Each year the paddling clinic has grown, both in scope and number of attendees. The Missouri chapter of the American Canoe Association is heavily involved, as are paddling clubs from around the state. More than a hundred people, from beginners to experienced, participated in the last event.

Below, cold-weather paddlers and their boats provide pops of color in a wintry palette. Observing wildlife, caves, and the topography is easy because no foliage obstructs the views.

On New Year’s Day 2019, a group of paddlers put in at Pulltite and floated down to Current River State Park. Meanwhile, another group hiked from Echo Bluff over to Current River State Park, and the two groups met in the lodge. Together they finished the float down to Round Spring.

Jeff, a member of the St. Louis Canoe and Kayak Club and the Missouri Whitewater Association, says, “It’s the quiet I like. I like to say the sounds of the river drown out the voices in my head. It’s peaceful and exhilarating at the same time.”

He recalls a “National Geographic moment” on the Current River, about halfway between Round Spring and Two Rivers. “I had just pulled out for the night and was relaxing and watching this little bat go flitting above the river chasing insects. From behind me on the right comes this big red-tailed hawk, with his wings flared and talons extended. Bam, he hits the bat at full speed about six inches above the river. It looked like slow motion.

“That was the same spot I also saw a deer swimming across the river and a family of three otters working their way upstream,” Jeff says. “Eagles are common on the river. By that, I mean I’ve seen twenty in a day.”

Christy Kurtz, founder, and manager of Paddle KC, a paddling group in Kansas City, is also a year-round paddler. “I enjoy seeing my favorite places in all seasons and in varied weather. In winter, the greenery is gone so you see more of the bones of the land around the waterways, including rocky outcrops and caves,” she says. “It’s very peaceful.”

A highlight for Christy came during the winter paddling clinic in 2017. “On New Year’s Day, we paddled the Current River in eight-degree weather. It was spectacularly beautiful, with blue-green water and cascading sheets of giant icicles hanging from the cliffs along the river. I remember looking around at steam rising off the water, the sun glinting on icicles, the faces of paddlers crazy enough to also enjoy the frigid experience, and feeling joyful and grateful to have the opportunity to share such a cool experience with other paddling fans.”

A wintry still life of paddling gear and the canoe enliven the Greer access point on the Eleven Point River.

Where to Float

It’s a wise idea to float a river that you know well; winter is not the time to experiment. Many people prefer the clear, spring-fed Ozark streams, the Current, Jacks Fork, and Eleven Point. Because the spring water stays around fifty-eight degrees all year, these rivers don’t freeze over. Also, there are established put-in and take-out spots, and you can plan a route that allows more than one option to get off the river.

Plan a shorter trip. “In winter, don’t plan an eight-hour canoe trip,” Dave recommends. “You plan a shorter trip with several bail-out points, just in case.” His favorite winter paddle is any short stretch on the Current. He especially likes the trip from Current River State Park to Round Spring, because there are so many natural features on that section of the river, and Sinking Creek provides a midway exit option if needed.

Monty Heise’s two favorite winter floats are from Buck Hollow on the Jacks Fork to Powder Mill on the Current, about forty miles in four days, and the Eleven Point River from Greer to Highway 142, in three or four days. “These are very much wilderness rivers with lots of wildlife and winter beauty,” he says.

The Eleven Point is Jeff’s favorite. He usually floats Greer to Riverton, or Greer to Whitten if it is really cold and he wants a shorter trip. Below Greer Spring, there is always a good flow.

“I like deeper, faster water in the winter because I don’t want to have to get out and drag my boat through the shallows,” Jeff says. “The Eleven Point has some neat Forest Service campsites you can paddle into. They are usually set back into the trees, so it’s a nice break from the wind. Watching the stars from a gravel bar on a cold, clear night is an experience worth a few shivers.”

The Current is Jeff’s go-to river because he can be at Cedar Grove in less than three hours from St. Louis. “In the winter, I like to do shorter floats. Just in case something goes wrong, you’re that much closer to your vehicle. The Current River is perfect for that. Cedar Grove to Akers, Akers to Pulltite, Pulltite to Round Spring, they’re all around nine to ten miles. Any of these sections would be a good starter trip for someone new to winter floating.”

Dave Tobey, Ozark National Scenic Riverways interpreter for the Upper Current River, cofounded the Winter Paddling Clinic at Echo Bluff State Park.

How to Prepare

The key to enjoying winter floating is being prepared, both with equipment and skills. Winter is not the time to try out unfamiliar rivers or go for your first paddle.

“Be realistic about your skills,” Jeff Clawges says. “If you’re tipping over on a warm summer day, you’ll want to get better before you try winter paddling.”

Monty Heise adds, “You need to approach it with an abundance of caution. What you might float through in August, thinking you might have problems, you do not want to attempt in January.”

Christy Kurtz advises, “Take paddling safety training, or if it’s not available near you, watch as many videos on winter paddling safety as you can find. Always wear your life vest, dress for immersion, know your skill and endurance limits, stay close to shore and close to your paddling pals, and don’t paddle with people who don’t practice safe paddling. I never float solo in cold water because it’s much too dangerous, in my opinion. I prefer to paddle with at least two other people with winter paddling gear and safety skills.”

Both Jeff and Monty enjoy taking solo overnight trips in winter. However, they both emphasize the importance of knowing one’s skill level, having the proper clothing and equipment, having solid survival and camping skills, and knowing self-rescue. They also stress always filing a float plan with someone you know and trust.

“Take the easy routes,” Jeff adds, “and don’t be afraid to portage. Our rivers are mostly Class 1 flat water, but you add freezing temperatures and wind chill, and that Class 1 swim can have Class 3 consequences that could kill you.”

Monty says, “One item I make sure I have with me is a fire starter—multiple things like matches, lighters, and maybe some fuel to accelerate a fire. In an emergency, a fire may be your only option for warmth. Carry the fire starter in a waterproof container and always have it on you or close to you.”

Paddling pals

Paddle clubs offer trip opportunities throughout the year, as well as training sessions and workshops. The St. Louis Canoe and Kayak Club, Paddle KC and the Ozark Wilderness Waterways Club in Kansas City, and the Ozark Mountain Paddlers in Springfield offer a variety of programs. The Missouri Whitewater Association pro-
motes whitewater paddling on the St. Francis River. There might be other clubs near you; ask at area canoe and kayak retail outlets.

For more information on the Winter Paddling Clinic and First Day Float, visit NPS.gov/ozar [sic] and click on the calendar, or call the Round Spring ranger station at 573-323-8093. There is no charge for the clinic, but participants pay for lodging and meals.

Photos by Jeff Clawges, Lisa Magruder, Patrick Hahn, Reta Barkley, David Stoner