Canoe camping notes for any Ozarks river

May I mention some things about canoe camping? Many people have asked about doing it for their first time, so I thought I might say a few things.

I’ve canoe camped and backpacked many times. I volunteered as a Scoutmaster for 20 years, and taught many young guys how to best do these things.

So here’s my basics for the beginner:

Try to camp on sand, not gravel, if it is at all possible. Bring a cooler (tie it in,) and freeze a gallon or two of water in old milk jugs or something similar. Use this water as it melts.

Bring a tent, sleeping gear, and self-inflating air mattresses in case you end up on gravel. Bring a backpack-type stove and the cook gear you will need. Plan your menus and only bring what you need for cooking and eating them.

Bring something waterproof to keep all this stuff in. You can buy dry bags/river bags from an outdoor supplier, or you can put them into five gallon buckets with waterproof lids. Tie them into your canoe.

Bring a small folding stool or chair for each person on your trip. Bring soap, a trowel, and toilet paper — just in case.

Bring some rope and a stuff bag or duffel you can put your food in and suspend from a tree branch well out of the reach of mice, opossoms, raccoons, and maybe even bears.

Float camping is backpacking with a cooler and no weight restrictions. Steaks, beer — it’s all possible.

You don’t have to eat hot dogs or canned soup, you can have gourmet meals if you plan for them. (That’s what I do. Usually bring a small bag of insta-light charcoal and a folding grill, fresh potatoes and veggies, and the right spices for what’s on the menu.)

You will likely mess up somewhere on your first float. Too much stuff — or not enough. Or you might get your clothes or sleeping gear wet and hate the trip. But then you’ll know how to do it better the next time.

Don’t give up because of an unpleasant first experience. Do not leave trash. Even a cigarette butt. And don’t pee in the river!

Other thoughts:

• And when you wake up at dawn on your first morning, and see the fog on the gurgling river as the first light of the sun warms the nearby hilltops, and get your wood fire burning, you’ll be drawn to that cold water.

Then with the smell of river morning and wood smoke, bacon and coffee filling your senses, you wade into that spring-fed water.

Jump in if you are brave enough, or just splash it onto your face and body. Then feel not only instantly awake, but oh, so very alive!

You will be addicted, and promise yourself to do it as often as possible ever after.

• Bring a good lighter or three, a 10×10 tarp and a poncho. Fire is your best friend (and worst enemy if you can’t get one going). A leaky tent is more of a “when” than an “if.”

• Paddling in the rain is not fun at all, thank you Katrina.

• We burn our toilet paper, and if you are a on a popular river you will see it everywhere. It does not biodegrade nearly as quick as you think. Caution: watch it burn and then make sure it is out. Obviously don’t do this where there is fuel for a forest fire to get started.

• As for tying things in, it can be a blessing and a curse. If you tip your canoe or kayak, your stuff doesn’t go on without you but now all of that has to be untied to right the boat and get the water out.

• Your cooler should have a latch. There is a company that makes screw-on lids for five and seven gallon buckets, they are called gamma seal, well worth the money. Oh, and never trust a dry bag, put your important stuff in trash compactor bags in the dry bags in case of seam leak or tear.

Most importantly have a map of the area and let someone know when to expect you home.

• Always sleep on your inflatable mattress and bring a spare one for the group. You’d be amazed how often the spare is used.

• I use a one gallon water jug as a dry bag for items like my ID, car keys, glasses, etc.

• Plastic peanut butter jars, etc., with the screw-on lids are great little dry boxes and fit nicely in most coolers. In the case of a turnover, they float. I keep my keys, ID, toilet paper, candy and such in these. Snack nut mixes come in plastic jars with lids and are square, these are great to reuse.

• Wet wipes. And a couple one gal ziplock bags. Many purposes.

• Common sense goes a long way on the rivers. Take a good rope and you will find multiple uses for it — a clothesline, tie the canoe up, tie the tent to a tree if windy.

• If you have not float camped before, check you gear first to make sure you know how to use it (camp stove for example). Make your first trip is a relatively short one, also, so you can learn what works for you.

Another idea is to talk to local outfitters for the most up to date river conditions. The gauges are great, but they do not tell the whole story. Always ask questions if in doubt and never be afraid to walk if an area looks iffy.

I love the southern Appalachians, Rocky Mountains, Lake Superior and the desert southwest, but I live here.

It’s not just because it’s close enough to get to in a day, it’s because floating and camping these rivers is just about the most relaxing and enjoyable outdoor experience I have found anywhere.

Try it out yourself.

(Mike Nance lives in Collinsville, Ill.)

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