Rural Missouri Magazine
Big Muddy

The river that lent Missouri its name
may be the state's best-kept secret

by Bob McEowen

In town after town along the Missouri River this summer people turned out to see a reproduction keelboat manned by volunteers celebrating the bicentennial of the Voyage of Discovery, an 1804 journey up the Missouri in search of a water passage to the Pacific Ocean.

Emma Haenchen, 3, and her brother Jacob, 5, examine the rising Missouri River during a Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebration event at Jefferson City. The voyage of a reproduction keelboat, shown at left, brought many Missourians out for a rare visit to the Missouri River. Not so the Haenchen children, whose parents, Bill and Clara, live near the river in Hartsburg and fish the Missouri regularly.

The crowds turning out to see these voyagers would have been a curious sight for Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the leaders of the original expedition 200 years ago. The river, too, has changed dramatically. But one thing hasn’t. The re-enactors, like Lewis and Clark before them, had the river virtually to themselves.

Aside from an occasional barge and a few fishermen, it’s rare to see anyone plying the Missouri River — at least in this state, which claims 553 miles of the river’s 2,500 mile length. Called “Big Muddy,” the Missouri — a river Mark Twain described as “too thick to drink and too thin to plow,” — is rarely even considered by Missourians looking to spend time on the water.

“People just don’t think to themselves, ‘Gosh, I could get out there,’” says Brett Dufur, an author, publisher and now Missouri River canoe guide.

A veteran of a previous Voyage of Discovery reenactment, Dufur says he wrote his newest travel guide, “Exploring Lewis & Clark’s Missouri,” to encourage tourism along the Missouri River. But while the bicentennial provides Missourians an excuse to discover the river themselves, Dufur says he worries about what he calls the “Grand Canyon Syndrome.”

“People drive up to the edge of the river like they do at the Grand Canyon. They get out of their air-conditioned car. They take a picture. They jump back in their mini van and they don’t really interact with the river,” he says. “It’s just something you look at.”

A group of paddlers barges together to listen to their guide, Brett Dufur, read from Lewis and Clark’s journals. A Missouri travel guide author and publisher, Dufur is leading canoe trips on the Missouri River through his Mighty Mo Canoe Rentals in Rocheport.

To encourage people to experience the real Lewis and Clark trail, Dufur has begun leading canoe and kayak trips on the Missouri River.

While the Missouri might seem like no place for paddlers, a canoe actually gave the river its name. Missouri is an Indian word that means “town of the big canoes,” “river of the big canoes” or “he of the big canoes,” depending on which translation you read.

In any case, canoeing the river is not new for Dufur, who has paddled the Missouri since moving to Rocheport after college. Now Dufur’s Mighty Mo Canoe Rentals offers an easy, three-hour excursion which begins on a tributary two blocks from his Pebble Publishing Co. bookstore.

“We float 6.6 miles downriver to Huntsdale, which is right along the gorgeous towering bluffs along the Katy Trail. It’s just the prettiest spot, I think, in mid-Missouri,” says Dufur, who also authored “The Complete Katy Trail Guidebook” and numerous other Missouri travel guides.

“While they’re enjoying the view and the tree-lined banks it’s a great chance to stop a few times and tell the story of Lewis and Clark and read a couple of Clark’s journal entries about how the river looked 200 years ago.”

Jeff McFadden pilots his boat during a tour of the Missouri River near Kansas City. On board is Richard DeHart, director of administration in the Kansas City mayor’s office. McFadden’s Big River Tours recently offered tours in towns where the Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebrations were held.

Lewis and Clark’s Missouri River was wide, slow and shallow. Today the river has been narrowed and deepened to ensure clear navigation for barges and to create farmland.

Man’s efforts to reshape the river have created a sometimes-unruly neighbor. No one who lived near the river a decade ago will soon forget the floods of 1993 and 1995. But those deluges had as much to do with the levees man built as unseasonable rains or the river itself.

Even so, the Missouri River has developed a reputation for danger.

“One of the things that scares people is the current. People think this river is going incredibly fast,” says Jeff McFadden of Richmond.

McFadden hosts, a Web site that educates boaters about the Missouri, and now leads chartered tours on the river. Captain Jeff, as he’s known to customers of Big River Tours, says those fears are unfounded.

The Missouri river flows between 3 and 7 mph, he says. While faster than most Ozark streams, which run just 2-3 mph, the current is hardly raging.

"Capt. Jeff" McFadden explains the formation of sandy beach-like banks along the river.

“This river’s running so slow and easy that when you’re out here just drifting you can barely tell it’s moving,” he says. “But when you stand on the bank it really looks fast and it scares the dickens out of people.”

Something else McFadden commonly hears is that swirling water on the surface, caused by irregularities of the river bottom, are whirlpools.

“I’ve had people tell me that this will suck a 14-foot boat under.”

Not true, he says. Tree limbs and other debris — which McFadden says are only present in the channel while the river is rising — aren’t sucked under and boats won’t be either.

Instead, boating on the Missouri River is wonderful, says McFadden, who holds a merchant marine license issued by the U.S. Coast Guard and offers lessons for new big river boaters.

Usually, though, McFadden offers two-, three- and four-hour scenic and educational tours in an enclosed pontoon boat. On the third Saturday of each month McFadden also sells 30-minute boat rides at Fort Osage near Sibley. Regardless of the length, Captain Jeff’s tours are more than mere sightseeing excursions.

“I talk a lot about the natural environment, the changes that have been made in the river, the threats that it faces and also the hopes that it represents,” he says. “I try not to stress too heavily on the threats. I try to see this as a river of opportunity.”

A visitor to Cooper’s Landing watches a barge makes its way up the Missouri River. Barge traffic on the river is rare enough that even regular patrons of this Columbia area hotspot stop to watch.

Opportunities abound on the river, McFadden says. Besides recreational boating, the Missouri River offers excellent fishing and access to terrific hunting ground within the 10,000-acre Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge and other public lands created since the 1990s floods.

“I think this is the most underutilized recreational resource in the state of Missouri,” he says. “This river flows by the front doors of all the big cities in Missouri except Springfield. The vast majority of all the people in the state could use this river.”

Mike Cooper has made his home at a small marina and campground 25 miles upstream from Jefferson City for the past 20 years.

“For the people who have discovered this river, they would never be satisfied with boating on the Lake of the Ozarks again,” says the owner of Cooper’s Landing.

That does not mean, however, that inexperienced boaters should flock to the river, says Steve Mellis. A longtime river hand and educational coordinator for Missouri River Relief, which conducts clean-ups along the river, Mellis says the Missouri needs to be treated with respect.

Rick Gebhardt hoists a channel catfish caught in the Missouri River near Glasgow. A tournament catfish angler, Gebhardt guides fishermen in search of trophy blue cats as well as flathead and channel catfish.

“This is not the Lake of the Ozarks. It’s not for everyone,” Mellis says. “This is not the place for an inexperienced boater to come without doing some research, without having the charts, without having somebody experienced go out with him the first time.”

The main concern, Mellis says, is water depth. Outside the main navigational channel the river is often just a few feet deep or less. During high water, boaters can unexpectedly discover hidden obstacles such as submerged sandbars or wing dikes.

But Rick Gebhardt of Glasgow says there’s nothing to fear. “I don’t think it’s dangerous if you use common sense. It’s all obvious,” he says.

“If people stay off the alcohol and pay attention they’re not going to have any real trouble.”

Gebhardt grew up skiing and tubing on the river and says the rewards are well worth any challenges.

“This is the best skiing in the state. It’s always just like this,” Gebhardt says as he points to the placid surface of the river. “It’s wonderful. You don’t have to fight all the boat wakes like you do at the lake.”

The setting sun casts its glow on the Missouri River. Boaters often have the river to themselves.

But more than anything else, Gebhardt, a tournament catfish angler and fishing guide, says the Missouri River offers fantastic fishing. “The fish are a lot stronger here. I can catch a fish of equal weight in a lake and he doesn’t have half the fight in him that they do out here,” he says.

Gebhardt’s Catfish Adventures guide service offers eight-hour day trips or overnight fishing excursions and supplies all the bait and tackle. His trips have been featured in outdoors magazines and on fishing videos and have attracted clients from as far away as California and Maryland.

Most of Gebhardt’s customers come to pursue flathead and blue catfish, which can reach 75 pounds or more. The steadiest action, though, is for channel cat.

“Once the river gets down we’ll be doing 200 to 300 bites a day. That’s action, now,” Gebhardt says. “No one’s bored. They’re usually on their feet the whole day.”

Although Gebhardt refuses to guide for locals for fear they’ll take his prime fishing spots, he says word about the Missouri River has gotten out. He can tell by the number of trailers parked at Glasgow, an unusually popular river access.

“Some weekends we’ll have 70 boats on the water. That’s only been the last two or three years. Ten years ago you’d be lucky if there was five.”

A paddler makes her way toward the I-70 bridge near Columbia during a guided trip offered by Mighty Mo Canoe Rentals.

While still virtually deserted compared to Missouri’s lakes and popular float streams, the Missouri River does seem to be attracting more use. Brett Dufur’s Mighty Mo Canoe Rental has taken off faster than he expected. He originally planned to offer trips just on Saturdays but has expanded to Sundays and occasional weekdays.

“We must have really hit a nerve there,” Dufur says. “We’ve seen a lot more interest than we thought we would see.”

And why not? Even with slightly increased use the river offers something rarely found any more — a chance to get away.

“It’s peaceful. It’s relaxing. You can sit here and think you’re part of nature,” says Mike Cooper. “It just becomes part of your life.”

For information about Brett Dufur’s Mighty Mo Canoe Rentals call (573) 698-3903 or log onto Capt. Jeff McFadden’s Big River Tours can be reached at (816) 470-3206. Call Rick Gebhardt’s Catfish Adventures at (660) 338-2340.

The wide Missouri River dwarfs a group of paddlers.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

Photo Contest

Rural Missouri Merchandise Out of the Way Eats Subscribe to Rural Missouri Rural Missouri Prints Store

Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives

Rural Missouri
2722 E. McCarty Street
P.O. Box 1645 • Jefferson City, Mo. 65102

Subscribe to Rural Missouri's RSS FeedRural Missouri's YouTube ChannelRural Missouri's Facebook PageRural Missouri | Pinterest Homepage