Float trips are an annual rite of a Missouri summer. But the best time to enjoy the scenery and the wildlife from a canoe or a kayak may be the fall when it is cooler, colorful foliage is emerging, there are fewer insects and, best of all, the crowds are gone.
Explore the calm waters of a cypress tree swamp, take a lazy float down a Missouri river, canoe the Mighty Mississippi or kayak a peaceful lake. All four of these trips are close enough to do as day trips, and amid travel restrictions and quarantines, the best river might just be somewhere nearby.
Illinois’ hidden bayou
Rising tall from the murky green waters, massive bald cypress trees — some that have grown for thousands of years — towered above us as we paddled the canoe. Another swamp-loving tree, the tupelo, is also prevalent in the lush landscape along with thickets of buttonbush and blooming marshmallow.
The Cache River feels mystical — more like a Louisiana bayou or the Florida Everglades than Southern Illinois.
Totaling more than 14,314 acres, the Cache River State Natural Area is spread out across Johnson and Pulaski counties and just a few short hours from St. Louis. The canoe trip takes visitors through the Lower Cache River Swamps, which is between the small villages of Karnak and Ullin in Pulaski County.
Cypress trees are distinctive with their flared buttresses and many “knees” or protrusions that grow from the trees’ roots and stick out above the water. One of the trees as we rowed across Eagle Pond boasted “209 knees” on a wooden, well-worn sign. Another cypress in the Cache wetlands holds the state title for oldest tree. It’s also the largest of its species in Illinois. See it as we did at the midway point on our winding canoe trip through the wetlands or drive to a nearby boardwalk on Lower Cache River Access Road.
Deer, beaver, otters, muskrat, wild turkey and bald eagles are among the animals that live in the swamp. The Cache, designated in 1996 as one of America’s 15 wetlands of international importance, is also critical to migratory waterfowl and shorebirds. The ecosystem is at the northernmost range of a true southern cypress swamp in the Midwest.
On the day we floated the 4.6-mile canoe loop, we saw a majestic blue heron, an egret, lots of turtles and also a wood duck, one that eluded the camouflaged duck hunters who got to Eagle Pond in the wee hours, long before we did. An unwelcome spider also hopped along for a ride in our canoe, and some non-native Asian carp startled us with their jumps — thankfully there are no alligators in this bayou. Mostly we just sat back and took in the peacefulness and beauty of the Cache River.
Cache Bayou Outfitters, a nonprofit organization, rents canoes and kayaks for self-guided and guided tours. Paddling instruction, life jackets and paddles are included. Located in the last stilt house on the righthand side of the river on Dean Lane (just trust your GPS, you are in the right place), tours start and end at the rental site.
There are no amenities at the rental place, so don’t forget bug spray, sunscreen, water and binoculars for birdwatching.
Skill level • Easy to moderate. The river is very slow moving but expect strenuous paddling and a lot of twists and turns.
More info • cachebayououtfitters.com
Cost • $25-$45
— Norma Klingsick
Whether you want to get up close and personal with nature or just want to lay back and drink some cold beverages with friends, Missouri has many rivers to choose from — the Meramec, Current, Jacks Fork, Eleven Point, Gasconade and Huzzah, just to name a few. And while summer may be the ideal time for tubes and rafts on rivers, fall is perfect for canoes and kayaks — and longer trips.
The Gasconade and Eleven Point rivers are my family’s favorites — they are quieter and less congested in the summer, but for a quick trip, we usually go to Ozark Outdoors Riverfront Resort in Leasburg, Missouri. On a recent September weekend, when it was still warm enough for rafting, we did a 10-mile trip that began on the Huzzah, then flowed onto the Meramec River for the last two miles.
Steep limestone bluffs, dense tree cover and clear water created a scenic backdrop for a peaceful Saturday afternoon. Besides the “wildlife” we saw in rafts, we also saw turtles, fish, turkey vultures and other birds along the way.
Located only an hour and a half from St. Louis, you can drive up for the day or stay at the resort. Ozark Outdoors offers full hook-up campsites, tent camping, cabins and hotel-style rooms.
Skill level • Easy to moderate. A 10-mile trip will take you approximately 4-5 hours.
Cost • $25-50
— Norma Klingsick
Canoe the Mississippi
A Big Muddy Adventure is just that — a new perspective on an old river you may have taken for granted. The company was founded in 2002, the first professional outfitter giving people access to the middle Mississippi and lower Missouri rivers, as well as Ozarks trips.
My husband and I are history buffs, so the “STL Riverfront Adventure” seemed like an appropriate escape on a Sunday. All we had to do was bring the two kids, pack extra clothes, sunscreen, river shoes, water bottles, and, if we wanted, our swimsuits. Swimsuits? Would I want to swim in the Mississippi River? Would a giant catfish grab me by the ankle and make me his dinner?
We met up at 10 a.m. at the riverfront and met our guide, Joe, and another family of four who would share the 25-foot canoe with us. We hopped in Big Muddy’s van and took a ride up to North Riverfront Park.
The water was amazingly calm, and we made a smooth, quick paddle across the river to Mosenthein Island, just south of the Chain of Rocks Bridge. There, Joe said we were free to hike, swim, explore and relax, and he’d set out a deli lunch for us. The kids found shells and the river’s version of “sea glass,” and we studied tracks in the sand, wondering what animals wandered from the woods to the water. I waded into the river up to my waist, feeling the current flow around my legs.
We boarded the boat after lunch, rounding around the end of the island. Herons sat on the rock jettys and swam over the surface of the rippling water, looking for lunch. We watched and flinched as a conveyer belt spilled a crash of twisted metal into a barge. The Gateway Arch peeked at us from a distance, disappearing and reappearing as we rode the bend.
We waved to passengers of the passing Tom Sawyer excursion boat, then yelped as our canoe rose and fell in its wake. We craned our necks as we passed under five bridges: Merchants, McKinley, Stan Musial Veterans Memorial, Martin Luther King and Eads. We returned to the cobblestone shores underneath the Arch and helped Joe load the canoe back onto the trailer.
We’re eager to learn more and gain new perspectives on more trips, such as a moonlight journey complete with a campfire and dinner, and even overnight trips with campouts on sandy island beaches. They also manage boat and paddleboard rentals from Boathouse Paddle Co. in Forest Park.
Skill level • Easy to moderate. Our STL Riverfront Adventure took about 4½ hours.
Cost • $60 per person for this trip, $85 for dinner trip and $150-$300 for overnight trips; custom trips available
— Valerie Schremp Hahn
Kayak a lake
The mostly still waters of a lake are perfect for a beginner kayaker. And luckily, you don't even need your own equipment at a handful of lakes around the St. Louis area.
The most popular place in the St. Louis area to grab a kayak is probably Creve Coeur Lake, but honestly, it's also a little crowded. A hidden gem, is St. Peters' Lakeside 370 Park off Interstate 370 in St. Charles County. The lake is big, at 130 acres (Creve Coeur is 320 acres) and the park has lots of fun amenities including a dog park, archery range and sprayground.
I've always kayaked with someone else on vacations. But I always end up fussing with my partner (usually one of my sons). This time, I wanted to try it solo. I just checked in at the trailer (full disclosure: this was after I'd chickened out on an earlier visit), and headed down to the beach with a worker to unlock a trailer and grab my oars. After that, I was on my own.
Luckily there are really no big weeds or brush to get tangled in, just mainly open water — oh and a big alligator sculpture on a little island in the middle of the water.
There were few others on the water: a few people fishing on the sides, a group in a paddleboat passed by, one other kayak. It was quiet and peaceful — and no one to fuss at.
Skill level • Easy
More info • stpetersmo.net/lakeside-park.aspx
Cost • A two-person kayak is $15 an hour; $7.50 for each additional hour. A single is $10 an hour; $5 each additional hour.
— Amy Bertrand
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