(State #29/50) “I’m writing a book on the whole thing.” Josh told us with his perpetual smile. “He doesn’t know it, but he’s one of the main characters.” From hence forth, I will refer to this man — the subject of the book and alleged murderer — as “The Maniac.” Taylor and I had seen him at Round Springs and passed his kayak again floating down. He was middle aged, scraggly beard, thinning long hair with the gravelly voice that only perpetual drinkers/smokers and old country musicians possess. “The Maniac” comes from a one-off character from an Always Sunny in Philadelphia episode: he lived out of his car, acted deranged and had a variety of unspoken priors. I dubbed the man this before we ever heard his backstory from Josh and Katessa.
Josh explained that The Maniac was one of the leaders of this loose “country mafia,” which involved guns, sex rings, local law collusion and getting flowers if your number was up. Josh said sometimes he’d be out hunting and would catch The Maniac watching him from afar… Creepy stuff along those lines. I was incredulous.
“Why in the hell are y’all canoeing with him then?” I asked. “Well, he’s sort of family… and you know what they say about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer? That kinda thing,” Katessa answered. I stared at them, mouth still open. “Besides, I’ve got him outgunned on this river,” Josh said, indicating his custom made (he is a gunsmith) AR-15 he had broken down in his canoe. “You know what I mean?” Josh said to me. I had to confess that I didn’t.
Country stories, of course, grow as you get further down river. They lengthen and gain more color as the empties pile up on the bank. Still, they seemed genuine in these tales and, as crazy as it all seemed, I believed the broad strokes of their story.*
Well over two hours passed and the Maniac never showed. With evening fading, we all gathered wood for a campfire. Taylor and I were happy to have them camp at the site with us as long as The Maniac didn’t show up. “We’ll move on and camp on down if he shows up.” Josh assured.
By dusk we had a roaring beach campfire. Then we heard a whistle upstream… The Maniac had arrived. Taylor went ashen, but Josh was true to his word. “We’re going to camp on down, we’ll catch up,” he called to the boats in the darkness. I felt bad that they left so close to dark, but even if a fourth of the stories were true, there’s no way we’d get any sleep with The Maniac in camp. Josh and Katessa got back on the river. We yelled goodnight and watched the light of their lantern drift downstream and out of sight.
The next morning, after the soaking rain debacle, we took it easy as canoes passed and looked, with an envy I understand, at our fantastic spot — it truly is my favorite place to camp. With the sun out in force, I snorkeled where the clear, warm rainwater of Big Creek flows across a shimmery gravel bar and drops off into the foggy blue, cold, Current. Taylor watched as I made brief dives to where large boulders and submerged logs reside at the edge of visibility. But mostly, I snorkeled at the shallow juncture of the cool and cold waters, where the fish feed, swim in place and flash silver in the rippled sunlight. I can’t imagine better snorkeling in middle America.
We set out at one o’clock. The rains cleared out any summer haze, leaving the sky clean and blue and magnificent. Floating below the midday sun, I felt fresh after my river bath. We canoed down passed fifty foot dolomite cliffs of streaked gray stone, dripping water, ferns, moss and sycamore saplings growing from tiny caches of dirt twenty feet feet up. Cedars, covered in green Spanish Moss, crested the top near the places we used to jump in our younger days.
Our friends were still camped on the gravel bar. Across the river, Josh and The Maniac clung to the bottom of the cliff, half in the pull of the blue Current. “I’m too old for this,” The Maniac said with a tooth-light smile, his long stringy hair matted to his head and shoulders. I told Josh, sunburned pink, to be careful climbing up. “We’re all gonna die someday!” he called out with cheer as the river swept us around another bend.
By two o’clock dramatic and gray-bottomed clouds had replaced the clear blue sky. They began to opened up as I spotted something swimming downstream. Taylor saw it too. “It’s definitely not a duck.” I told her, canoeing fast towards it. A small tail slapped the surface as we watched it fly through the water, a foot submerged in the clear river. “I think that was an otter!” I told Taylor. Her eyes lit up. “There it is!” Taylor said. She spotted it’s head pop out of the water to investigate us. I saw just enough whiskers and gray face to confirm. The otter climbed up on the bank and fled into the woods. “I saw an otter.” Taylor turned around to tell me, smiling like a kid.
Within ten minutes, the intensifying storm washed away the thrill of the otter sighting. “What are we gonna do?” Taylor asked as the light rain transitioned to a solid pour. “We’re going to keep canoeing.” I replied. Then a bolt cut the air and the boom and crackle followed immediately. “Okay, nope, we’re getting off the river.” I said.
We passed a flat boat, taking shelter beneath a low overhang of a limestone cliff — a terrible spot to be in a lightning storm. Though to be honest, I’m not sure where a good place to be is if there is no house or grounded car. Certainly not floating on the water. We pulled up the canoe, grabbed the cooler with the cheap whiskey and Coke. We hustled across the gravel bank towards the woods. I settled on a little space below the low flood ravaged sycamore bushes. It wasn’t a dry spot, but it was out of the driving rain. We made mixed drinks with terrible whiskey and waited for the lightning to pass.
After the worst of it subsided, we arrived at the Two River takeout at four o’clock, completing the forty-five mile paddle in the rain. Back in Eminence, Taylor and I procured a cheap room at the Shady Lane motel. It was my first motel of the trip, but it was my birthday eve and Taylor deserved an actual bed after several nights on the river. The rain quit and we walked across the bridge to the Dairy Shack (the best cheap, greasy food in the land). We spotted Josh, Katessa, her step brother and the Maniac loading up in a flatbed truck. We wished them well, waved and hoped for their safety as they hit the road for Indiana.
Across the street at the Double O Bar, they served us strong mixed drinks. There, we met a local who’s house was destroyed by the flood. “I worked 68 years of my life to have it all taken away… And I don’t want to hear that shit that at least I’ve ‘got out with my life and that’s what matters.’ You try losing all you built and retired into,” the man said. I couldn’t argue. He was living with his son-in-law, who chimed in. “At his age… it just isn’t right.”
Taylor and I played pool and were both terrible, but it was fun and free. We walked upstairs to a balcony were three girls stood, drinking beer. The sky was half lit, reflecting a sunset on puddles in the street. The bartender walked out to her car and tossed up packs of those little paper/rock poppers you throw. We chucked them down at the ground and passing semi-trucks, laughing like idiot children. It was great.
Back inside, we drank more beer, played more bad pool, listened to country and rock on the juke box and had a birthday shot, courtesy of the bar tender. It was a fine birthday celebration and ending to one great float teeming with more adventures to enter that grand flowing stream of Current River nostalgia. Though I may never get her in a cave again, Taylor thrived out there… She witnessed a wide swath of both nature and people. From the flood damage to bubbling springs, from ferocious storms to sunshine fit for a John Denver song and from the friendliest people to the murdering Maniac.
*Weeks later, I got a text with a picture of a newspaper article. It involved a guy getting arrested for drugs and poisoning. It was from Josh and Ketessa. The message below read, “Looks like our book got an ending.”
River Stats and Fun Facts:
- Current River, Missouri
- Miles Canoed: 45
- Dates Canoed: 6-24/26-17
- Weather: Sunny and hot to rainy and cool
- Elevation: 906 feet to Approximately 650 feet
- Launch Point: Cedar Grove (37.422087, -091.608381)
- Campsite 1: Gravel bar on river right (37.317191, -091.451783)
- Campsite 2: Big Creek gravel bar on river left (37.248444, -091.32647
- Pullout Point: Two Rivers (2nd landing) (37.189246, -091.268615)
- Songs Sung on the River: Half Moon Rising by the Yonder Mountain Spring Band, Fresh and Clean by Outkast and My Body Lies Over the Ocean (but replace Body with Trooper)
- Thanks to the guy that drove us up to the Cedar Grove. Also thanks to the owners of Shady Lane Motel for the nice clean affordable room and help arranging transportation. Finally, thanks to the Dairy Shack for years of tasty treats and the Double O Bar for the birthday shot!
- Wildlife Spotted:
- Birds: Bald eagle, great blue heron, green heron, mourning dove, cardinal, robin, swallows, kingbird, hawk
- Mammals: River otter, bats, cottontail
- Reptiles/Amphibians: stripped water snake, red eared sliders, small frogs
- Fish/decapoda: Gar, (little bottom ones), crawfish
- Noted Species: Ozark Hellbender, (endangered bats), blind salamander, black bear
- Dominant Vegetation: Sycamore, silver maple, pine, cedar
- Ecoregion: Ozark Highlands, (39h) Current River Hills
- Current Threats: Massive floods (like the 100-year-flood that occurred in the spring of 2017), which now occur more frequently due to the intensified “rain bombs” due to global climate change. Trash and pollution from tourism and runoff from local communities
- Trash collected: Beer cans, bottles, plastic bottles, cigarette butts and boxes, plastic bags, beef jerky wrappers
- Fundraiser for American Rivers: Halfway Home! Currently at $2541 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign