When the federal government acted to preserve America’s pristine rivers, the Current, and its sister river, the Jacks Fork, were the first to receive protection. The Ozark National Scenic Riverways was formed in 1964 to create a national park along 134 miles of the two rivers, establishing a bluff-lined, green corridor that today attracts more than 1 million annual visitors.
The Missouri Ozarks is known for its spring-fed, gravel-bottomed float streams, and the Current River is the crown jewel of them all. Four floats – from Baptist Camp to Cedargrove, Cedargrove to Akers, Akers to Pulltite and Pulltite to Round Spring – are top of the line, literally and figuratively.
The four range from eight to 10 miles and can be done in four to six hours, depending on the time spent fishing, swimming and exploring. They can be combined for an overnighter on a gravel bar. Unless in flood, the river is a gentle float. Some stretches send you gliding down a riffle beneath a canopy of trees in a wilderness setting.
Montauk State Park, which is one of the state’s three popular trout parks, is at the headwaters of the Current. The park has a lodge with a restaurant, cabins and campgrounds that serve as the perfect base camp for exploring the upper reaches of the river.
The Missouri Department of Conservation, which manages the trout hatchery at Montauk, also stocks areas of the Current River outside the park boundaries on down to Akers twice monthly, which adds another incentive for combining fishing and floating.
With a family history that goes back before the Civil War, Gene Maggard is the patriarch of the Current River Valley. His great-grandfather drove a wagon team into the area in the early 1800s.
Now 71, Maggard is president of the Missouri Canoe and Floaters Association, which lists outfitters and conditions on state rivers on its website. The association led the push to ban glass bottles on the rivers, and Maggard suggested putting red mesh trash bags in rental canoes and kayaks. The impact was immediate, and lasting.
Maggard’s parents, Buck and Loreen, rented out their first johnboat in the 1940s and hauled folks across the river on a ferry that is the last of the state’s two-car, current-powered ferries. Since 1970, Gene Maggard and his family have operated Akers Ferry Canoe Rental at the same spot.
The Maggards once owned 140 acres on both sides of the river. The family now leases seven acres from the park service to operate a general store and canoe livery.
Creating the national park prevented an outgrowth of private club houses along the Current and Jacks Fork within the boundaries, and recent federal regulations on beer bongs, loud stereos and other rowdy behavior have made floating the Current and Jacks Fork more pleasant.
Asked for float tips and highlights, Maggard responded with a mental trip down river from Montauk State Park.
“On Baptist Camp to Cedargrove, about halfway down, you get to Schafer Spring in Parker Hollow, where the park service has restored the Susie Nichols cabin,” he said. “She was kind of an Ozark Mountain cowgirl, who rode English-style over these hills.”
From Cedargrove to Akers, the first highlight is Medlock Spring, which pumps about 20 million gallons a day. Bluff School, a one-room schoolhouse dating back to the Civil War, overlooks the river.
Two-thirds of the way to Akers, Welch Spring comes in on the left with a daily outflow of some 75 million gallons. Over the mouth of the spring cave is the rock ruins of an asthma hospital, built in 1913, by an Illinois doctor named C.H. Diehl.
One mile downstream, on river right, is the Maggard Cabin, a restored log cabin.
The main attraction on the Akers-to-Pulltite stretch is Cave Spring, with a cavernous opening on the river that leads back into a cave accessible by boat.
Pulltite to Round Spring features Pulltite Spring, which is reached by a short hike. The spring gurgles up to form an azure pool, filled with lime-green watercress, at the base of a bluff before tumbling to the river. The park service has partly restored a vertical-log cabin near the spring.
Appearing at the water’s edge a short distance downstream, the opening for lovely, little Fire Hydrant Spring is decorated with maidenhair fern and wild hydrangea.
Because 75 percent of its flow is from springs, the Current is floatable year round. Maggard said there was not a bad time to float the river, noting that he takes his grandson, Josh, out on his birthday, which is Jan. 2.
The ideal time, especially if a boater wants the river to himself, is September into October, when the water reflects the autumn colors. But spring and summer are best for wildflowers; floating the river after the first snowfall is a religious experience.
For those who haven’t experienced the quiet and solitude that can come with a Current River float, Maggard offered this advice: “What I like about floating, once you get around the first bend, any problem you’ve got in the world doesn’t seem quite as important as when you started.”
From more information on Montauk State Park, visit MoStateParks.com.
Written by Tom Uhlenbrock, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Division of State Parks