Although the Missouri Conservation Commission lists 50 rivers and streams as floatable—at least some of the time—my St. Louis friends are devoted to the Current, not only for its beauty but also for its dependability. Being spring-fed, it never gets too thin, and its waters, hurrying over a gravel bottom, are rarely dingy. So to my friends it is the prima inter pares of floaters' rivers, though Jack's Fork and the Eleven Point are not without their partisans.
Floating, for the uninitiated, is a one-way, downstream trip in a canoe or john boat, the latter being the shallow wooden skiff that appears in the river paintings of Bingham in the last century and in the comic strip Pogo today. Many floaters fish, some hiring guides and commissary boats; others, like my friends, go alone and simply loaf. Attracted by the notion of a weekend loaf, I went along on their most recent float, an excursion led by a painter named Anne LaMonte. (Every expedition needs a leader, Anne pointed out, adding, "Someone has to be tyrant, and I'm very good at it.") Anne's semidocile followers were Mary Augustine, Pete Willson, and Elihu Hyndman, experienced floaters all, and Bee Brown and myself. Bee had floated on her honeymoon years ago, but now her husband has fresher memories of the outdoor life encountered in World War II and will have absolutely no part of floating.
We were to be two to a canoe, with the equipment in the middle, and this equipment immediately became the cause of a palace revolution, which Anne lost. Anne was for austerity and light travel—pemmican and peanut butter, washed down with bourbon—but Elihu carried the day with appeals for creature comforts, and there were cries of grief from Anne as the list grew.
For the canoes, a call was made to Orville Spurgeon, who has the only tavern—and apparently the only phone—between Salem and Eminence, Mo. We agreed to rent three 17-foot aluminum ones at $5 a day, and to meet at Orville's tavern on Friday to discuss just where we would get in and out of the river, and at what time he would meet us with our cars. The tavern turned out to be populated largely by stuffed game, whose glassy eyes matched those of the human clientele. As we awaited Orville, these beery gentlemen offered friendly advice on the state of the river, friendly invitations to "drop by home for a drink" and firm opinions against the Monument Bill. (Later, on the river, the only marks of civilization we would see for hours would be large signs saying, "Monument, No." These referred to the so-called Monument Bill, now before Congress. Last year the legislation had aimed at turning the Current and Jack's Fork into a national monument. Now the plan is to make them into "Ozark National Rivers." The locals oppose either version because they do not care for the prospect of a flood of tourists or for federal supervision of any kind, on principle. Secretary Udall recently floated the rivers.)
Orville seemed unhappy that we did not plan to fish, and generously offered to reveal the best pools. We learned that he not only is an ardent fisherman but an inventor of lures; one in particular he has named the "Crooked Hooker." Orville will pay $100 to any fisherman who can beat him with a non-Spurgeon lure. We declined the proposition, and arranged instead to meet the next morning at Akers Ferry.
Having been roused at six by Anne—determined to be lazy on the river and not in bed—we started the not-so-lazy process of embarkation. An absolutely staggering mound of equipment built up on the gravel bar at Akers Ferry, including a suspicious number of folding chairs, cocktail tables and cushions, property of Elihu, which Anne thought she had successfully "forgotten" in St. Louis. Even Orville, who has seen off many a floating tourist, looked dismayed and cast nervous little glances at his fleet. But, like busy worker ants, we gradually reduced the mound, piling objects into canoes and lashing them down to avoid loss in a swamping. Anne and Bee, sharing a canoe, were neat and precise, putting everything in its most convenient place. Mary's belongings seemed to have a squirming life of their own. Every time one thing was pushed in, four would ooze out the other end. Since Pete, another tidy type, was Mary's canoe partner, he soon began to wear a look of alarm as he snatched at creeping canteens and wandering charcoal briquettes. Elihu made cunning attempts to fob off some large objects on other canoes, but they returned to ours like homing pigeons. A brief jurisdictional fight took place over the beer chest, which Elihu won and triumphantly lashed to the thwart behind my seat. By this time the sun was beating down fiercely on the gravel bar, and the promised tranquil joys of the river seemed very remote. I began to wish I were home in Manhattan watching the soot fall. But finally the last thing was lashed into place and, though our canoe looked a bit like a floating aluminum trash bin, we slipped into the river.
The current immediately caught us, and we started downstream at a pleasant pace. "The bow paddler," said Elihu behind me, "supplies nothing but muscle when needed. I will do the thinking." I hadn't realized there was any paddling involved in floating, but of course the canoe must be aimed from time to time. Also, I was to learn, a head of steam must be built up to get through the shallow riffles. It had been 15 years since I'd had a paddle in my hand, so I put mine in the water to see if I could still handle one. A few strokes—and suddenly there was a surprising amount of water around my ankles. Elihu had wisely foreseen this possibility and was able to supply a sponge. As I was mopping, Elihu continued his lecture on the simple duties of the bow paddler: besides supplying muscle from time to time, I was also to look out for snags in the river and to open the beer. He then left me to my duties and reclined in the stern looking like Madame R�camier in a straw hat. As I was opening a beer, Bee and Anne, with the same thirsty thought, drifted alongside. Delivery was solved by putting the open can on the end of a paddle and passing.
So we slid through the water, drinking our beer, watching the bright birds and listening to the sound of the river. From time to time we hurried over little riffles, occasionally scraping the bottom of the canoe, and once we were brought to a scrunching halt. There was nothing to do but get out and lead the canoe like a dog on a leash through the shallows. But most of the time we were in tranquil pools, passing moist limestone ledges festooned with ferns and wild flowers. Because of the fairly constant temperature of the river there is an unusual variety of both birds and plants. We paddled nearer the bank to admire the white, lavender and yellow blossoms in the mossy shade. We came upon a fisherman looking hopeful but empty-handed. Again we overtook Anne and Bee, drifting ahead of us, and held on to each other's canoes and floated together, watching the scene change on the banks and savoring the river's serenity.
A large black cow, of all things, put an end to the morning's peace. There she stood, suddenly, in a narrow part of the river choked on either side by fallen trees, placidly enjoying her bath. Anne, who was leading the way, shouted "Scat! Shoo!" and similar threats, but Bossy merely turned on a look of mild reproach and stood her ground or, rather, her water. It was rapidly becoming a question of whether to ram a cow or a large boulder, neither of which looked very yielding, when Anne's voice of authority, by then taking on a hysterical edge, did the trick. Bossy retreated about three paces, and one canoe after the other flashed by under her indignant gaze.
We passed into an area of high bluffs with gnarled trees clinging in their crevices. Caves in somber shadow invited us mysteriously, and here and there a spring slipped from the rock and sprayed into the river like a giant shower. Only a ruined castle was needed to give the scene the final 19th century romantic touch. We drifted by a few more fishermen in john boats and exchanged greetings. They were empty-handed but optimistic. The sun sparkled on water so clear that the river's gravel bottom was almost always visible. I was gazing dreamily into its depth when I saw a large fish, so I knew there was one around to be caught. Straightening up to follow its route, I caught sight of a log just under the surface. "Elihu!" I screeched, "Log! Log!" I didn't have sense enough to tell Elihu where it was, but sat in paralyzed fascination, watching us heading dead at it while Elihu sat up, tried to collect himself and decide where to steer. Onto it we went, scrunching along until at last, at the equipment-laden center of the canoe, we were caught. As perfectly suspended as a seesaw, we teetered, first the stern and then the bow, back and forth into the water. When it was all too obvious that no amount of jiggling and wiggling would unstick us, Elihu braved the jeers from the other canoes, and the cold water, went over the side and pushed us off. I hoped that hadn't happened to Mr. Udall.