“Spendin’ my nights in a bar room lord, turning these songs into two by fours”
As I sit here bangin’ on my dirty, 7 versions back, beat up, 30 light years out of updates laptop keyboard, the Tyler Childers song ‘Country Squire’ is spinning on endless repeat in my head, which seems appropriate if you’re writing about the Ozarks. Mind you, this isn’t exactly about the Ozarks, as much as a couple of 50ish white dudes trying to relive some of the fun of their youth. And Tyler ain’t from the Ozarks anyways, SON.
I’d always wondered about the word, Ozarks. The internet tells me that depending on who you believe, it’s a french reference to ‘at the Arkansas’, meaning either the people who lived there, the ‘arc’ of the Arkansas river where people would disembark, or a reference to the many natural bridges (land of arches) in the sandstone in this area. Well I guess that settles it, huh?
Back in the misty days of my childhood, a trip to the Current River in southern Missouri was a highlight. With its crystal clear water, fast flowing riffled rock bottom streams bound by rocky outcrops, cliffs, pools, caves, rope swings, swimming holes and cliff jumping adventure, it was dang near heaven to a midwest boy. Some of my fondest childhood memories are still flowing down there, and I suspect they always will.
A couple of years back, one of my lifelong friends and I thought it would be a good idea to get together once a year for a long weekend and go do ‘something’. Last year we’d hit the driftless area of Wisconsin and canoed the Kickapoo river, ‘the crookedest river in the world’. We had both enjoyed the heck out of that trip, and had some serendipitous fun along the way.
This year, due to Covid-19, plans were shakey. Nothing was guaranteed, and we made no plans, other than we would get together and do ‘something’. So when my buddy arrived down from Chicagoland, we had a couple ideas to discuss. He suggested Southern IL, I suggested Southern Missouri. A fight broke out. A good old fashioned tussle. I burned him with a lit cigarette, he tried to snap my leg. Feelings were hurt, feelings were smoothed, beers were drank, and Southern Missouri came out the winner. Hasn’t it always? (We won’t discuss that ONE time).
So come Thursday morning, we awoke, drank our coffee, packed our stuff, and hit the road. My buddy is actually gainfully employed if you can believe that, and we weren’t getting thru this trip without at least one work call, so he decided to get it out of the way early, like most people, at 70 mph, southbound on some crowded, impatient strip of concrete highway. I rode shotgun, and fiddled with some fidgets in my backpack. Like any terrible passenger, I dropped my beer (kidding, my house key) under the seat, and the proceeded to remove my seatbelt and climb all over the car trying to retrieve it. After a few minutes the driver grew annoyed with my acrobatics and asked what I was doing. I told him not to worry about it, and returned to my seat. Soon his meeting finished up and he asked if I’d like to pull over and retrieve my key? Yes please. We pulled into the coalfield rest area and I began working to retrieve my key, while my partner headed up to the bathroom. Key retrieved, I stood up and glanced towards the restroom, only to see my friend approach an older couple in front of the bathrooms, stop, and then HUG the lady. What the heck? I began to walk towards them, trying to figure out who the heck it could be…
In the first strange coincidence of this trip, we had run into my friends MOM at a rest area on 55 south. Neither of them had known they would be in the area, and living fairly far apart, neither gets to see the other as often as they’d like. Welp… that was weird!!!
We took a moment to chat, shake hands, hugs all around, and got back on the road.
Our first stop, Ozark Outdoors Riverfront Resort. We picked this based on the fact it was close, and we were told we could get on the river as late as one o’clock in the afternoon.
We pulled in about 11:30 and true to their word, within 20 minutes, we were on a shuttle and heading upriver to start our float. SWEET!
We picked an easy 5 mile float that connects 3 rivers, the Courtois, (pronounced Kort-uh-way by the locals) The Huzzah, and the Meramec. This was the first time I’d been on any of these rivers and I was looking forward to checking them out.
The moment you step into a canoe, grab a paddle and let the water take you, the worlds troubles just fade into the background. Like staring at a fire, there’s some shared human memory of our early years on this planet, using the water ways to transport, find our way, find food, or just play. Heavenly.
In true Missouri scenic river fashion, the current was strong, the water clear, the beer cold, and the scenery awesome. The first couple miles went by so fast we had to pull over and kill some time. Before we knew it we had peeled off all 5 miles and pulled up at the takeout, the car only 20 yards away.
Success! Our next days plans were further south and we still had a couple hours of driving in front of us, food and lodging to find (I told you we were winging it!) and a canoe to rent.
Next stop, Alton Missouri, 131 miles due south. And according to google, nearly 3 hours driving. There’s no such thing as a straight line in the Missouri hill country, so typical drive times “DO NOT APPLY”.
I begun making phone calls looking for a cabin at one of the local canoe outfitter places. I struck out at my first pick, but the second call, to Richards Canoe Rental, the owner said, yessir, I have one room left with two beds. What time will you be here?
I said I wasn’t sure to which he replied, “as long as you’re here before dark.”
Google showed us arriving well before dark so I wasn’t worried… much.
I settled in to watching the ozark scenery go by. For me, there is a distinct feeling of going back in time in this area. It just feels… different. The country side is dotted with abodes of every size and stripe, and every configuration imaginable, from large, cabin-esque lodge type homes (RARE), to shacks (common) that look as if they hadn’t changed much since they were built, whether that be 1892, or 1952. Most are spread out far enough to keep the neighbors friendly, and prying eyes away. The towns get fewer, and smaller as you wind your way south toward the Arkansas border and that feeling of the ‘old south’ gets stronger. An occasional confederate flag in a window or yard adds to the feeling, and the historic marker we passed illustrating the battle of Leasburg reminds you, this is Dixie. Missouri’s history in ‘the war of northern aggression’ is complicated, and like todays politics, divided. All that aside, the people tend to be friendly, laid back, and southern hospitality is the norm. You get what you give, SON.
Soon, the google announced we would arrive at Richards Canoe Rental and Outfitters in the next few minutes. A sign appeared, and here we were. We pulled into the drive and began looking about. Our first glance was at a long low building with a sign, ‘Public Showers’. An unkempt cinder block affair, with a water pipe untethered by anything but gravity hanging off the front. A dirty shower curtain hung in the doorway, and someone had hand painted a human figure, maybe a ‘Bald Knobber” with a coonskin cap and a rifle running at full tilt on the front. The artists skills were rudimentary, if I’m being kind. It looked a bit like there might be dead bodies inside, or maybe the latest kill from a deer hunt. “This can’t be it” I said to my friend. A look toward the back of the property showed several sheds of various colors, in various states of repair lined up. “Are those the cabins?” I wondered aloud. “No idea, but I think so” my friend opined.
The main building itself was a long two level with a wrap around porch. It may have been nice at some point, but that point had dulled, considerable.
At this point it was nearing 6:30 and options were slim to none. “Well… lets go check it out I suppose”. We walked around front and were met by a skinny, older gentleman who said little, just looked at us. I got the distinct impression he was annoyed to see us.
“Howdy” I offered. “We called about the cabin with 2 beds earlier?”
“Out back” he said.
“Mind if we take a look”?
His eyes narrowed as he looked at us. “Go ahead. It’s the gray one”.
Well that confirmed it. These sheds were indeed the “cabins” advertised. We located the shed, surrounded by other sheds, a few junk cars, a rotting particle board picnic table, and a steel ring, for fires. We opened the door, and were met with air approximately the temperature of the sun, or maybe just a house fire. It was near 95 degrees outside and probably 120 inside the closed up shed. Inside stood a bunk bed with wool blankets, a table with no chairs, and little else. A window AC unit sat in the window. A hole had been cut in the wall, and some type of shower building attached to it. The shower room had a toilet and sink, and appeared functional, but dark, dusty, and haphazardly attached to the shed. There was no internet here, and no cell service.
Our hearts dropped a little at the idea of sleeping here, even for one night. But there were no nearby towns, and we had no camping gear with us. At least the AC appeared to work, and I left it running as we went to tell Richard we’d take it. It was only one night, after all, we told ourselves. Gulp.
We walked back up front and Richard had had a couple of visitors arrive. He ignored us while talking to his guests who then stopped him and said ‘go ahead and take care of these gentlemen first’. We stepped inside the office / camp store. The vibes were strange. The lights were off, and the shelves were a plywood affair laid out on bricks he’d stacked up. Various food items were spread out for purchase, as well as rudimentary camping and canoeing items. The lack of lighting inside made it feel like closing time was passed and we were intruding, and just maybe, something, was watching us, just out of sight, in the shadows in the rear of the building. I glanced around nervously.
We told Richard “we’ll take it”.
“Well you better, it’s the only one left” he replied sarcastically.
We informed Richard we’d be canoeing in the morning and he asked us where we wanted to go and how far. We asked for some tips since we didn’t know the area. “We want a longer trip, any recommendations?” “
“Not really” he replied.
“What about the river, I hear it’s awesome. Are there any more scenic areas than others?” I asked.
“Not really” he replied. “It’s all pretty much the same”
I began to ask another question but the phone rang. Richard cut me off mid sentence and answered the phone. It was a lady asking questions about his rates, camp sites, etc. He answered her questions gruffly and then hung up on her before she could finish.
“I should have hung up on her right from the start since she’s probably just comparing prices! Damn waste of time.”
My buddy and I exchanged glances. Yikes.
Finally we settled on a trip of 14 miles and a start and end point and then asked Richard if we could get food anywhere.
“There’s a gas station just down the road. They have a deli in there. They have chicken, AND fish. It’s where I get my food”.
We thanked him and got in the car. This was all so… WEIRD. We headed down the road following his instructions and eventually found the town, and the gas station. Looking about, it appeared the town was big enough to at least have a restaurant or two, so we looked around and found a place called ‘The Cornfed Rascal’. Google reviews were positive so we stepped inside. The building appeared to be 40s or 50’s era facade fronted and would fit right in on any rural small town square downtown. Those places are quickly fading into oblivion.
The Cornfed Rascal turned out to be serviceable decent food if nothing fancy, and we were both satisfied. Ignoring Richards advice was working out. Neither of us were very happy about paying Richard for his rudeness, or staying in his dirty shed. We discussed this as we ate, and decided to see if there were any motels in the area. Google showed two. One a block away, and another in the next town, 18 miles south. After dinner we headed over to the first but struck out. They were all booked up for the evening. We called the next one and a gruff sounding old man answered. “This is Richard”. Holy crap… it SOUNDED a bit like OUR Richard, but maybe not… I asked and was informed they had one room left. I told them I’d take it, and was asked for a name, and when I was arriving. I told them I was 18 miles away and they said fine. People REALLY like to know when you’re coming in these parts apparently.
We drove over to “The Comfort Green Motel” and were somewhat relieved to see a regular looking Inn. A little bit rundown, but nothing scary. We checked in and were thrilled to find a nice big room with the AC running, two queen size beds, wifi, clean bathroom, TV, tables and chairs, in other words, a “normal” hotel room.
Score. The motel was an older U shaped configuration, and from the looks of it, many of the rooms had long term renters. There were chairs and flowers and some names on some of the rooms, a few had dogs laying out front. We settled in, drug our cooler out front, and sat down on the deck in front of our room with beers, and a guitar. I began to pick a few tunes and could see a middle aged gentleman across the way begin tapping his foot and bobbing his head to my rhythm. He was enjoying this. As I finished up my tune he clapped loudly and yelled over “I’ll give you a couple dollars if you’ll keep playing!”
I laughed and said “not necessary, I’m playing for fun man!” Another couple songs went by, each accompanied by his hoots, hollers, and claps.
Eventually he got the nerve to drag a chair over and asked if he could sit and listen.
“Of course! We’re just chilling.”
I played another song and he told me, “you the finest picker I ever heard at this motel”. I just chuckled and asked his name.
“What’s your last name, friend?”
“Loew. Curtis Loew”
“Nice to meet you Curt. What do you do for a living?”
“I’m disabled. Used to be in the army long time ago. But I got blown up in a propane fire”.
“Holy crap man, that’s terrible!” I said.
“Yessir. I lost my wife and best friend in that fire too. But, hey, I’ll give you my drinking money if you’ll play me another song!”.
Having no good answer to that statement, I just shook my head and dug into another tune. Curtis hung around for a bit longer, talking about this and that, how he’d used to play a bit of guitar, dobro, and more compliments on my playing. He finally wandered off and we hung it up for the night.
What a day we’d had. This morning we’d been drinking coffee at my kitchen island, and now we had run into my friends mom, canoed three rivers, found our way into backwoods Missouri, been treated like an annoyance by a local outfitter who just may have been a retired serial killer, and now, picking and drinking with a disabled vet in a cheap motel in the middle of nowhere. We only had one more problem to solve, finding a different canoe rental outfit. Google showed plenty in the area, so we had no doubts about finding one.
The next morning, coffee procured, bag lunches & beer stuffed in the cooler, we headed out to find an outfitter. Back to Alton and walked in to the first place we saw, Eleven Point Canoe Outfitters. We walked in and some fine Missouri gentleman had us hooked up and ready to go within the hour. I’d picked the eleven point river on a whim. I’d never even heard of it till a couple days before while researching floats in MO. Some of the pics and reviews had me sold, cold, clear, aquamarine blue waters in a typical Ozark river valley. The outfitter took the time to explain to us in good detail, even drawing a map, of how to find the old mill, spring, and cave along the river. On the van ride to the river I struck up conversation with our driver, a youngish male with a trucker hat and a dip of skoal in his lip.
“You know Richard, of Richard’s Canoe Rental?” I casually inquired.
“Yup. He’s a dickhead” he drawled.
Well… that doesn’t leave much room for interpretation.
We pull in to the put in and got geared up to go. We soon got on our way and were rewarded with a perfect day, a light breeze shining the leaves, sun glistening on musical rocks, bouncing echoes on the dolomite bluffs. Dipping paddles and looking over the edge of the boat showed large Sauger darting among the streaming, flag like flotilla of seaweed like plants that dominate the upper reaches of the river, likely adding to the bluegreen color of the water. I keep my eyes peeled for Cryptobranchus alleganiensis bishop, also known as the Ozark Hellbender. A salamander that has survived millions of years, sadly, it is critically endangered now.
A bald eagle fishes the bend ahead of us, and various birds float quietly in the shadows of the banks, keeping their watchful eye on us, and looking for a meal as well. Both hard and soft shell turtles are abundant on the logs, and the water is so clear that many times we spot turtles swimming by underwater. A twisting movement on the surface of the water ahead catches our attention, and we strain with anticipation towards what can only be a reptile, twisting gracefully thru the water, on its way to some important meeting no doubt. To our surprise, the twisting turns out to be a family of river otters, swimming single file, all but their tails under the water. They emerge silently near the edge and slip wraithlike under dripping ferns at the edge and surface under a ledge, watching us curiously for a moment, without even the tiniest sound. We are utterly delighted to meet them, but our delight is met with indifference, distrust, perhaps even disinterest. Trout dart from hole to hole beneath us, and we deeply enjoy the ancient river reverie. We have not encountered a single soul other than the first 5 minutes of our float, when fellow paddlers entered with us, then quickly fell behind. We are professional paddlers after all, or maybe just antisocial. This is as close to a wilderness experience as you might find in the Midwest, and it is all the better for it. The more popular rivers in Missouri are known, nay, FAMOUS for Saturday drinking fests, and we are happy to avoid that fate, being a weekday, and a way less known river. The river kicks along at anywhere between 2.5 to 5, 6 mph in the swifter sections. Little effort is needed, other than steering thru an obstacle occasionally. Unlike those other rivers, the eleven point is deeper, and as elevation drops, good speed is produced without the shallow narrowing typical in other streams in this state. There is almost a jungle feel at times. It is sublime.
At 5 miles, we reach a take out area, with a gravel trail opposite. Turner Mill. This is where we are to look for the old mill, spring, and cave. We gracefully dock the boat, and disembark port side, keeping our eyes peeled for the trail that leads up to the spring. It is easily located and we walk a short distance into the woods and encounter a few other explorers, enjoying the afternoon. Soon we spot what appears to be a rusted ferris wheel sitting in a shallow valley, partially submerged in the crystal clear stream. This is the old mill wheel, and it still stands silently, challenging nature to knock it over. It’s impressive, 25 feet tall and still maintaining its fins. It almost looks as if it could be put back to work.
Wandering upstream, we encounter a small waterfall, dancing over moss covered rocks, bubbling up from the karst in the hillside, every possible shade of green represented, envy even.
A little further on, a white noise battle ensues from the rocks above. This is the spring. 1.5 million gallons a day flows out here, and a large bluff above adds to the fun. This is a beautiful place, and we are taken by it’s charms. We spend some time sitting, climbing about and enjoying the scene, and soon retreat to the canoe and lunch.
We lunch on a handy picnic table in the woods, enjoying our hastily purchased gas station sandwiches and the mosquitoes seem to enjoy their lunch as well.
Soon we are sated and ready to take on the final 7 miles of river before us. We climb aboard, run up our colors, fire the cannon and push off into the current.
Once again, we are spinning deftly along in the current. Again, we see few, if any people. The river continues its graceful path among the deep and unopinionated forests, and we settle into our rhythm. Eventually we hear a deep buzz in the distance and begin to speculate what it could be. It has the whine and buzz of a chainsaw, but is far too consistent for that annoyance. It grows steadily louder until finally, a speck emerges on the horizon. A fishing boat comes into view, and makes it way upriver under full power, roaring against gravity and the rivers incessancy. I’d seen jet boats on other Missouri rivers, a necessity due to the shallow nature of those rivers. But the Eleven Point is deeper, and apparently capable of allowing traditional prop engines. The boat nears and the driver cuts the throttle to idle and drifts past us. Passing quickly, he opens up again and is gone a couple minutes later. We appreciate the courtesy but nonetheless are buffeted in their wake.
Eventually the sun begins to work its relentless charms on us lonely travelers and we begin to thirst for a break, and an adult beverage. We come to a Y in the river and are forced to make a choice: Left or Right? The right looks slightly more advantageous, so we choose it. As we move into the curve, the island on our left reveals itself and we see a scene before us so idyllic, so inviting, we MUST stop. We pull our boat up on a sandy promontory and revel in the scene before us. The island presents a park like setting, and we can see a fire ring where others have stopped and camped for the evening. I can see why. The place is absolutely gorgeous. The river is a deep blue here, and deep pools extend away from a beautiful sandbar along the edges. The water tinkles through a deadfall on the other side, presenting a small challenge for canoeists and boaters. A perfectly level and sandy spot in the shade beneath the trees makes a perfect camp and the view both up and downriver is sublime. We pop a couple beers and spend the next half hour relaxing, and just enjoying the view. I’ve seen prettier places in Missouri, but I really don’t remember when.
Eventually we mount up and continue our journey. We are nearing the end of our ride for the day and we are well satisfied.
Finally, we arrive at our pickup spot. We’re about an hour early but there is a rope swing here, and people camping. We take turns swinging and dropping into the cold clear water until we’ve had our fill and the van returns to take us back.
The return trip to the outfitter is short, and we are quickly back to the car. We leave tips for our drivers and load up in the car.
We’d made no plans for the evening, we just know we’re heading towards Southern Illinois to do some quick hikes in the AM. Triangulation shows us that Cape Girardeau is directly in our path to Southern IL, so we point northeast and head that way.
Path decided, my trusty navigator plugs in the ever present communication device and proceeds to search up some tunes for the drive. Low and behold, while searching he runs across a less famous Lynyrd Skynrd song, “The Ballad of Curtis Loew”
What. The. Hell.
“Play me a song
Curtis Loew, Curtis Loew
Well, I got your drinkin’ money
Tune up your Dobro
People said he was useless
Them people all were fools
‘Cause Curtis Loew was the finest picker
To ever play the blues”
We looked at each other with wide eyed amusement and shook our heads. We’d been had! It was par for the course, of course. A couple of yankees in the Comfort Green’s court. We both smiled at the clever fools we were, and rolled on north.
All in all, we deem our trip to the Eleven Point River a grand success, and I think we both agree that it rivals the more famous Missouri scenic rivers in beauty, scenery, and adventure, if not the popularity and accommodations of those places. I make a mental note to return to the area sometime, if not the exact spot, and explore more of the southern ozarks, meet its people, eat of its bounty, taste of it’s history, and share in its charms. After all, Missouri Loves Company!
“TWENTY bridges from Tower to Kew –
Wanted to know what the River knew,
Twenty Bridges or twenty-two,
For they were young, and the Thames was old
And this is the tale that River told:”
― Rudyard Kipling