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Family travel: Before the storm

Lebandon, Mo.—My notebook is wet. So are my shoes and if we don’t make it around this “s” in the river in the next few minutes, every thing in sight and on board our canoe will be soaked. Thunder is rolling overhead and rain, what smells like buckets of it, is ready to let loose. The anticipation of it only heightens the exhilaration of our mid-afternoon float on the Niangua River in this part of the Missouri Conservation Area, just outside of Bennett Spring State Park in Missouri.

Brian Wilson owns and operates One-Eyed Willy’s, our canoe outfitter of choice for the afternoon. Wilson is a man of many talents—dog breeder (English bull dogs), campground owner, part-time school bus driver, and canoe, tube, and kayak outfitter. He also has plans to build a bed and breakfast on the top of a bluff near the Niangua. I have no doubt that he will; he has that air about him of getting things done. Like the “s” in the river; he guided our canoe around it without a hitch, even climbed overboard to push us safely past the trunk of a river birch that was stretched out over the water.

As Wilson gazed at the river banks, he talked about the devastating ice storm that hit this area over the winter. A lot of boat launches were smashed, others just cracked, and trees and tree limbs fell from the excessive weight of the ice. “You don’t notice it much now,” he said, giving a nod to the leafed-out oaks and other hard woods along the shore, “but it was bad, plain bad.”

He and other volunteers that make up the Missouri Stream Team will be walking the Niangua in another month. At the end of the summer season, the Missouri DOC sponsors a river clean up day and volunteers, like Wilson, remove whatever litter has accumulated along the shores and in the water. This year, they will be looking for debris as well. He has no idea of how much stuff was cleaned out of the river last year, but he does know that it took several truck runs to get rid of it all.

An advocate of “leave no trace,” Wilson says he is not shy about calling out a person who is littering on the river. “I just ask them what are they doing … what do they want to the river to be like when their kids are grown or their grandkids. The river isn’t just for us, for now, we have to take care of it for the future.”

If he had his choice, Wilson would only float the river on a tube. He finds it more relaxing to stretch out on the canvas than paddle. He gets some A-personalities that paddle so hard they turn a 3-hour float into a 90-minute marathon. It is what they want, he smiles, and that’s okay for them. For himself? He likes to let the gentle current take him downstream and land near the gravel bar that he and his crew maintain. This area is also the drop-off point for guests.

“We meet people here, too, so their vehicles are here. It just makes it easier for them to get out of the water and into their car instead of riding in a bus with a lot of strangers back to a parking lot,” he said. Ordinarily (if it wasn’t going to rain) people don’t leave right away as One-Eyed Willy’s also operates a concession stand at the gravel bar; the smell of grilling brats or hot dogs is enticing enough to keep people around to eat something before taking off.

“Last night we had a band playing,” he said, as he maneuvered around a low spot with a boulder bottom, “and some nights we hook up karaoke. It’s just a good time.” The “we” he mentions is himself, Scott, Kyle and Russ. The four guys who make One-Eyed Willy’s work.

There are springs all along the river, Wilson said, as we paddled toward an area of bubbling ripples. The mouth of the spring was further up an inlet, so we met only its confluence with the river proper.

He told me to put my hand in the water where we were and then again at the spring. Whoa. At least a 20-degree drop in temperature, maybe more. The difference between tap water temp and ice water.

We pass a few fly fishermen and a group of tubers getting ready to get back into the water for the last 30 minutes of the run. It’s the rain, everyone senses it.

“If you ever float in a tube over an area with a boulder bottom,” he smiled looking at the smooth, sandy colored rock face beneath the surface, “remember to arch your back to get your bottom up or your butt will be bruised for a week.”

Thanks, Brian! I think I’ll write that in Outlook for 30 days from now. By then, I gotta feeling that I’ll be ready to return to Central Missouri for another run on the Niangua.