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story.lead_photo.caption Amanda Kay Whelchel-Harris stands Feb. 5 to find a floatable channel on the Meramec River as a snow storm begins while floating. Eight paddlers from the Fayetteville area spent Feb. 2-10 floating 46 miles of the spring fed river in Missouri. - Photo by David Gottschalk

Pizza arrived with our shuttle team, Dan Held and Bob Kramer, on a late Friday afternoon at the Riverview public access on the Meramec River in Missouri.

Photo by Chris Swindle
A map showing the location of the Meramec river

The two had finished running our group’s two vehicles downriver on the first day of a nine-day winter canoe float trip. The four pizzas and three large salads were handed over to Robert Walsh, who gladly ferried them downstream about 50 yards to the four other paddlers already at our riverside campsite for the night.

The trip started at river mile 42 off Riverside Road east of Cuba, Mo. We would paddle just over 46 miles to river mile 88.2 at the Elm Springs Branch on river left under the Missouri 185 bridge in Franklin County.

With the evening group dinner taken care of, everyone’s attention could focus on collecting firewood and setting up tents, cots or just finding a level section of ground to roll up in a sleeping bag on top of a thin air mattress.

A campfire would prove to be one of the more important elements on our float trip providing warmth, light, heat for cooking and heat for thawing and drying.

The thawing started right away as temperatures stayed in the low 20s and upper teens through the first night, freezing a week’s worth of bottled water, assorted adult beverages and food items.

The frozen items were thawed for use as needed through the following eight days by being placed a strategic distance from the campfire to promote thawing without melting the packaging.

Foods placed in coolers retained their correct temperatures. Foods outside the coolers froze. Skins on frozen onions are difficult to peel.

On average, temperatures were in the lower 20s at night. One of those eight nights temperatures dropped into the teens. Another night was near zero.

Daytime temperatures stayed in the upper 20s to lower 30s with a mix of clouds and sun. Two of our afternoons were in the mid 40s.

Scavenging for firewood on the banks was never a problem. A series of damaging floods in 2015, 2016, and again in April of 2017, left an abundance of dead and dry downed trees and branches. At camp, large stumps were easily converted into firewalls reflecting and then becoming the source for heat as the flames grew.

The Meramec is primarily spring-fed, but rises and falls with the influence of rain. Snowmelt can also have an effect. The average flow during our week was around 150 cubic feet per second according to provisional data posted on the U.S. Geological Survey website for the river. The U.S. Geological Survey measured the peak river flow in April of 2017 at 62,200 cubic feet per second with the river cresting at 28.71 feet.

Though many deep pools existed, the low water level left us navigating to stay in the deepest channel possible to avoid dragging on the river bottom and to avoid the occasional fallen tree.

On at least three occasions the group pulled over during the lunch break to light a quick fire on a gravel bar. Flames warmed hands and feet. Lunches were left to each paddler and often consisted of kale-filled sandwiches, slices of cheddar cheese, summer sausage, bagels, chocolate and maybe hot tea.

Dinner each evening was a shared meal prepared by a paddler that had previously drawn the date for his or her service. Meals included quesadillas of chicken marinated in Worcestershire sauce and fajita seasoning served between corn or flour tortillas. Eric McMillan, the quesadilla cook, added green bell peppers, onion and cheese.

A Thursday night steak tenderloin dinner prepared by Walsh included baked potato and salad. Another paddler precooked a curried lamb mulligatawny that was thawed, heated and served over naan flatbread.

The group elected to take Monday off after paddling the first Saturday and Sunday. Activities that day included short hikes along the river and a nontraditional game of bocce ball played with rocks and a softball found in the river.

We would take one more full day off on Wednesday upstream across from Onondaga Cave State Park, the site of Ondondaga Cave and Cathedral Spring. That day the group ferried back across the river from our campsite and hiked the well-marked bluff line trail to the park and spring.

The cave was closed for the season but the spring continued pouring up from a long pool near a hillside with two crumbling stone structures and grazing deer.

The top wildlife attraction on the river during the week was watching the mature and immature bald eagles. The large birds of prey made a presence in the early morning flying low over the tree-lined banks as we broke camp and providing an escort through the day as we paddled.

On one sunlit afternoon near the Campbell Bridge, a pair of eagles perched high above on sycamore trees on both sides of the river near a large nest cradled in the limbs of one tree. Both birds held their positions as we floated by attempting to photograph them with cellular phones and point-and-shoot cameras.

On Saturday, our ninth day, an immature bald eagle flew a circular pattern repeatedly diving 30 feet down to the same spot before pulling up inches from the water surface and returning to the circular pattern before diving down again.

Our group was close enough to but was unable to hear the force of its wings pushing back on the air current because of a cold, constant headwind.

The Meramec River flows 193.5 miles through four counties in Missouri eventually entering the Mississippi River.

Information from Missouri Department of Conservation says the river is floated year-round. A popular stretch is between Maramec Spring and Meramec State Park.

Many outfitters operate on the river during the warmer months. The department says that development, railroads and industry might distract some paddlers if they continued the next 100 miles. Our group of eight would have gladly continued floating on.

David Gottschalk can be reached at dgottschalk@ nwadg.com

Print Headline: Going with the flow

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