Wild_Horses.jpg
Beyond Castlewood - February 17, 2015
The Wild Horses of the Ozarks made an appearance during a winter float on the upper Current. Tom Uhlenbrock/Missouri State Parks
Welch_Spring.jpg
Beyond Castlewood - February 17, 2015
Welch Spring doubles the flow of the Current River. Tom Uhlenbrock/Missouri State Parks
Current_River.jpg
Beyond Castlewood - February 17, 2015
The Current River Valley offers a quiet solitude in winter. Tom Uhlenbrock/Missouri State Parks

Wild Horses and Golden Glows on a Winter Float

By Tom Uhlenbrock
Missouri State Parks


The Current River Valley offers a quiet solitude in winter. Tom Uhlenbrock/Missouri State Parks
Akers, Mo. – Ask Eugene Maggard about floating in winter, and he’ll tell you the story about his grandson’s birthday.

“I wanted to do something memorable for Josh’s birthday when he was young, and I asked him what he might want to do,” said Maggard, whose family owns Akers Ferry Canoe Rental. “He said, ‘I’d like to go on a float trip.’

“Well, his birthday is Jan. 2, and it was around 20 above zero. But we had a pretty good float from Welch Spring on down. The next year I asked him if he wanted to go on a float trip again, and he said, ‘No, Granddad, it’s too warm.’”

Maggard’s family has been in the Current River valley since before the Civil War, operating the vintage ferry that takes vehicles across at Akers. He has witnessed the growth of floating in the Ozarks, and says many floaters are missing the boat, so to speak.

The traditional float season is said to be from Memorial Day to Labor Day in the summer. But veteran floaters and outfitters like the Maggards know the best time to be on the river is from fall through winter into spring.

The crowds are gone, the scenery is better and the solitude offers a wilderness experience. Even the wildlife seems at peace.

“It’s kind of a special deal with a lot of people,” said Maggard, who is 73 and recently retired as president of the Missouri Canoe & Floaters Association. “We’ve got two or three groups that are snowbirds. They’ll get 20 or so people and come down and float when there’s snow on the ground.

“I’ll tell you what. All of these bluffs seep water. There’s a pretty extended period where those seeps freeze into icicles, and it’s just beautiful. The whole river has a different feeling.

“Even after you’ve been around here for 70 years, it still fascinates me.”

Watch the Forecast


Montauk State Park, where sparkling springs form the headwaters of the Current, is one of Missouri’s popular trout parks.

But Montauk also serves as the perfect base camp for a winter float on the top stretches of the river. The park keeps its motel and several cabins with kitchens open all winter, and the store and restaurant in the lodge operate Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

I’m a member of a kayak group that floats in every season, and reserves cabins at Montauk each November.

We also have regular floats on the Meramec near Meramec State Park on New Year’s Eve, and this year the temperature was 20 degrees when we hit the water, but sunny with no wind. I doubled up on my feet warmers, and was snug as a bug.

We float in good and bad weather, and it was the former at Montauk last November, with blue skies and temperatures above 50.

We put in at the Tan Vat Access, where the Current flows out of the state park and enters the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, the national park that preserves the Current and Jacks Fork rivers.

The water at Tan Vat can be shallow, but the spring flow keeps it floatable most of the year. The short stretch to the Baptist Camp Access, which is mile 0.0 where the river officially begins its course, is especially lovely with a canopy of trees over the sun-dappled stream.

Cold season floating, of course, requires a few precautions. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst, with several layers of clothing that can cover every exposed inch of skin. Chemical packets to warm the hands and feet are a blessing.

The top of the Current, for the most part, is a gentle, family-friendly float with a few tricky twists and turns. A full change of clothing in a dry bag is mandatory equipment in case of a mishap.

It helps to be flexible and pick your dates with an eye on the forecast, heading out on those winter days full of sun and unseasonably warm temperatures.

“We adopted a policy a long time ago that we don’t put anybody on the river when it’s 20 or below,” Maggard said. “Of course, all good rules are subject to stretch.”

Golden Hour on the River



Welch Spring doubles the flow of the Current River. Tom Uhlenbrock/Missouri State Parks
The first day from Montauk, we floated the nine miles from Tan Vat to Cedargrove, returning to our cabins at the state park for a fried-chicken dinner cooked by the restaurant.

The next day, we did the eight miles from Cedargrove to Akers, passing the beautiful Welch Spring along the way. The spring’s daily output of 78 million gallons of crystalline water doubles the flow of the Current.

Like Maggard said, the river valley is a different place in winter.

With just a few shades of autumn left in the forest, the leafless trees gave open views of the gray bluffs, pockmarked with caves. The sculptural limbs of bone-white sycamores hung like skeletons at the river’s edge, the still water reflecting their mirror image.

In the late afternoon, under the cobalt blue sky of winter, the colors of nature seemed less harsh, but more intense. In the “golden hour” before sunset so revered by photographers, the slanting rays of the sun sliced through the forest, leaving the landscape in a soft glow like a sepia photo.

Bald eagles are a common sight in the skies and overhanging trees of the Current from Montauk to Akers. Many are the offspring of a pair that has nested for more than a decade in the park, producing 11 chicks in the last four years. The year-round residents are joined by northern eagles that migrate south in the winter.

“Minnesota eagles I call them,” Maggard said. “They arrive early in November and leave in the middle of February. Quite a few eagles have taken up permanent residence in the valley. They love the trout at Montauk. It’s like a smorgasbord.”

Belted kingfishers, the aerial artists of the river, followed us downstream, squawking and occasionally diving into the water for a fish. A buck with an impressive rack splashed his way across the shallows.


The Wild Horses of the Ozarks made an appearance during a winter float on the upper Current. Tom Uhlenbrock/Missouri State Parks
After leaving Welch Spring, we floated onto a surprise – a white horse standing in the willows at the bank. Two of us disembarked a bit downstream, and walked back quietly into the woods.

Eleven of the legendary Wild Horses of the Ozarks grazed in the forest. They included a gray colt surrounded by a protective group of mares. Curious, they watched us approach to within 100 feet before disappearing into the trees like ghosts.

“Amazing,” said my companion.

We saw a few other floaters during our days on the river, including two young fishermen in canoes loaded with gear. They stopped to try their luck at every promising riffle, and one went ashore to photograph the stone ruins of the sanitarium at Welch Spring.

After playing leap frog on our leisurely two days down river, we asked them where they were taking out.

“At Akers,” one replied, “someday.”

For more information, visit MOStateParks.com
Castlewood & Beyond
Join our group on Facebook and share your outdoor adventures.
Castlewood & BeyondCastlewood & Beyond
Join our group on Facebook and share your outdoor adventures.

Contact Privacy Disclaimer © 2018 Beyond Castlewood
ContactPrivacyDisclaimer © 2018 Beyond Castlewood