Missouri’s White River perfect for kayaking

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Fed by springs and protected by national forest for the top two-thirds of  its 50 miles, the North Fork of the White River is among the most pristine of Missouri’s Ozark float streams.


One of a handful of rivers in the state where wild rainbow trout thrive, the fish were last stocked by the Missouri Department of Conservation in 1965 and have bred since on their own.


“The North Fork maintains one of the largest self-sustaining trout populations in the Midwest,” said A.J. Pratt, a department fisheries management biologist who works on the river.


The North Fork also has a population of Ozark hellbenders and is one of the few rivers chosen by wildlife researchers for a restocking program of the endangered aquatic salamanders.


Both rainbow trout and hellbenders need cold, clean, swift-flowing water from springs. Those ingredients also make the North Fork prime for floating.


The Memorial Day weekend marks the traditional opening of the summer float season. The North Fork of the White River offers a worthy alternative to the Current, Jacks Fork, Niangua, James, Meramec and other well-used streams.


Located deep in the Ozarks near the Arkansas border, the river is near Dora, south of Cabool in south-central Missouri. The remote location makes it a half day’s drive from major metropolitan areas, but it can be a rewarding trip.


A float on the North Fork, especially as it flows through the Mark Twain National Forest, is a near-wilderness experience. Because of its big springs, the stretch from Dora to its end at Norfork Lake is nearly always floatable, and includes some fairly sporty riffles.


“My favorite time to be on the river is winter, or spring – fall is nice, too,” Pratt said. “Summer can be crowded on weekends, unless you try to float during the middle of the week.


“Year in, year out, it’s one of your better floating streams. It’s a beautiful place to be.”


Rainbow Spring Adds 128 Million Gallons


The first flow of crystalline water comes from Topaz Spring in the headwaters of the North Fork near Dunn. A historic red mill, with a rebuilt water wheel, still stands and once was powered by the spring’s daily output of some eight million gallons.


Most floats start at Twin Bridges, two curving bridges that take Highway 14 over the river, or Hammond Camp, where the U.S. Forest Service has a campground off Route CC.


Floaters can take out at Blair Bridge, or three miles further downstream at Patrick Bridge. The Conservation Department has accesses at both bridges.


Twin Bridges to Patrick Bridge is a float of 18 miles. Hammond Camp to Patrick is 13 miles. Shorter floats can be arranged with canoe outfitters.


Minutes after leaving Hammond Camp, Blue Spring flows from a fern-filled grotto and adds some seven million gallons of water a day. North Fork Spring, which bubbles up from a gravel bar, has a flow of 40 million gallons.


Rainbow Spring is the largest with an output of 128 million gallons. It is privately owned, and empties from two branches with bright green mats of watercress at their entrance.


Jewel of the Midwest


The hills and bluffs of the Mark Twain National Forest, with its stands of short-leaf pine, line the river from the headwaters to just below Rainbow Spring, with a few private in-holdings along that 33-mile stretch.


Development begins below Rainbow Spring, with a scattering of homes and half dozen outfitters, some with camping or rustic lodging.


River of Life Farm (RiverofLifeFarm.com) is the largest resort, with 10 units, including “tree house cabins” on steel stilts looking out on the river. It has lodging, a restaurant, rafts, canoes, kayaks, fishing guide service and hiking trails on its 350 acres.


The latest addition, the River Light House, has two bedrooms, each with jetted tubs for two, a large living room with a stone fireplace and a covered deck that looks out over the glistening river.


“My father started a little resort below Rainbow Spring in 1949; he bought 20 acres for $100,” said Myron McKee, who owns the resort with his wife, Ann.


McKee’s father, John Calvin McKee, was crossing the North Fork on horseback during the flood of 1958 to get to work at the family sawmill.


“The horse showed up riderless; his body was found three days later,” McKee said. “As a child, we didn’t have electricity or water. I remember my mother doing laundry out the back of a boat.”


McKee welcomes the crowds on summer weekends, but urges floaters searching for a little solitude with their scenery to try spring and fall.


“The leaf changes in fall are totally spectacular; the river becomes a big reflecting mirror with those oranges and yellows,” McKee said. “In spring, we have double or triple the water.


“The North Fork is the jewel of the Midwest, in my biased opinion.”


That opinion is seconded by the Conservation Department’s “A Paddler’s Guide to Missouri.” It says of the North Fork: “Indeed, this river has high-quality recreation value equal to any in the Ozarks.”


For a list of all the outfitters on the North Fork of the White River, visit Missouri Canoe & Floaters Association at MissouriCanoe.org.


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