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Spring Floats in the Ozarks

By Roger Wall

Tired of winter and don’t have the time or money to get a winter tan and float at the same time: like the Salt River Canyon in southern Arizona, the Rio Grande in Big Bend country, or several rivers in Florida. Yes, there is even one waterfall/ledge in Florida and it is on the Suwannee River in the northwest central part of the state.

There are several good local floating options in our area but first let us remember a couple of river dangers and talk about river accesses. Hypothermia can be a killer. If you are going to be doing a lot of winter floating and/or whitewater boating it will usually be in late winter or spring when there is plenty of water. You might want to invest in a dry suit or a wet suit. If not one of these, wear wool. It retains so much more body warmth even when wet. Avoid like the plague denim and cotton, which become heavy and retain little body warmth when wet.

Let’s move on to a discussion of river access. First of all, even if you think you are in the right, don’t get into an argument with a riverside owner at access points. It’s not worth the trouble and any such disagreement will lead to a perception of bad manners and attributed then to all floaters. See the notes at the end of this article but the general rule for river access and floating fall into one of two categories: Riparian and non-Riparian or western water rules; or a combination of both.

Generally, by American common law, the nation started out with Riparian rules. Under the Riparian doctrine, you look at navigable and non-navigable sections of waterways (upper and lower). In the upper stretches where the river is deemed “unnavigable”, the bankside landowner owns the land to the middle of the stream.

However, if the stream is deemed navigable, the rules differ greatly. In this case, the landowner does not own the stream and the boundary is the high water mark meaning that gravel bars usually belong to the public. However, a high water mark does not mean a high water flood mark. Simple, right? No because of the definition of “navigability.” (See the note below.)

As the nation expanded westward, water became much scarce, the “western states” water rule was developed. This rule applies to Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, and other states although court decisions have made Arkansas a “combo” state.

In western states, even on navigable streams the landowner owns the land to the middle of the stream. However, he does not own the water flowing down the stream. In these states, access is a lot tougher and whereas most Missouri bridge accesses are public, this is not the case in western states.

However these restrictions can be overcome with politeness, tact, and sometimes luck. A good example is the Caney River flowing out of the beautiful Kansas flint hills into the old cowtown of Elgin, right on the Kansas, Oklahoma border. The Caney is the most reliable one of only three whitewater streams in Kansas, the other two being Lyons Creek and the Fall River, all located in the Flint Hills.

The whitewater float on the Caney from Cedar Vale, Kansas to Elgin is a total of 21 miles and it makes for a very long whitewater day. About halfway down is the Hewins bridge crossing. That land was and is still owned, as far as I know, by an old Kansas homesteader family that had always refused access at this convenient halfway point on a county bridge.

As an occasional leader of the Kansas Canoe Association whitewater floats, I developed a friendship with the owner and his wife and eventually secured a limited access at this point. The only stipulation of the owner is that he requested that no photos be taken of the numerous combines, auto and truck bodies which were lodged on the riverside to help control erosion.

Unfortunately, at the time of this writing the Kansas rancher and his wife have both succumbed to old age and this access point was later revoked by their heirs. Who knows, maybe someone parked on their land or left some trash by the bridge or maybe they just didn’t want to establish a precedent for the Caney River. I haven’t floated the Caney River for over a quarter century.

But back to the local scene. Try some of these upper floats, with a reminder about getting along with bankside owners, picking up litter even if left by someone before your presence, and avoiding the “deadly rootwads” and tree jams.

Beaver Creek – generally from West Highway 76 or Jackson Mill;

Bryant Creek – from U Highway north of Basher;

North Fork – from East Highway 76, or the county road just downstream.

For real whitewater gems in our area, try Swan and Bull Creeks. Note that Swan has a larger drainage area and carries more water than Bull Creek. However, don’t do like I did once in May, and try to float if the water is too low. This will definitely result in a lot of scraping, walking, and a long day of drudgery.

For Swan Creek, put in at the AA Highway bridge near the old village of Swan above Taneyville and take out either at the Swan Arm of Bull Shoals at Shadow Rock Park at Forsyth or the bridge one mile above for a 13 mile day. In high-water, the rapids on the Swan start above Dickens Ford and can reach 4-6 feet and swamp an open canoe. Local boaters call this stretch of the river the “Swan Express” as the river bed consists of several areas of unbroken greenish limestone riverbed rock located beneath all of the rapids.

For Bull Creek, put in at the gravel road off of State Highway 176 at Goodnight Hollow. This road is called Big Round Top Mountain Road or something like that. You can take out at the “F” Highway Bridge for a 10 1/2 mile trip. You can expect a similar trip to floating on the Swan except that it is tighter. Halfway down above and under a small county bridge is a set of exhilarating rapids.

Note: If you are going to do much hiking or floating in the Ozarks, be sure and pick up “Ozarks Hiking Trails” and “Ozark Waterways” by Oz Hawksley, who wrote the bible on Ozark floating. These publications, I believe, are updated and possibly sold through the Missouri Conservation Commission. If not, I have recently seen these small books for sale at Bass Pro Shops.

There are 2 cases of note con-cerning accesses and navigability. The first is an old Missouri case in the early 1950s called the Elder case. The Court reversed a conviction of trespass against a floater, laying down the rule that navigable streams offer special rights to the floating public and in that case allowed a fishing party the right to portage around a log jam which necessitated entry onto a streamside landowner.

A much more recent case comes out of a Federal Court decision involving the Mulberry River, a popular but dangerous whitewater stream in Northwest Arkansas.

This case offers a good definition of a “navigable stream”. Historically navigability was defined by the commercial use of rivers by factories, boats and movement of logs. If you ever float the Eleven Point River, about six miles below Greer Landing is a good historical example of old metal log boom poles and hooks sunk into the rocks at Mary Decker Falls.

But the Arkansas case said that the definition of navigability has been expanded now to include downstream recreational river boating and kayaking.

Most people but not all agree that Beaver is navigable downstream from Rome, Bryant downstream from Vera Cruz, and the North Fork from Topaz.

Be aware that the upper reaches of these rivers will often not be floatable after May. And in fact I have seen dry summers in which Beaver was only floatable for a couple of miles from Hilda down to the highway bridge on Bull Shoals Lake as the Beaver contains fewer springs and tributaries.

Now, get up and go enjoy the beautiful outdoors.