A true story: Stay out of the river, Part 1

Join me for a four-part story about the summer my best friend and I realized our lifelong dream (I was not yet 15) to follow the creek behind his house to the Gasconade River.

A perfect assortment of driftwood practically begged to become a make-shift raft, and a few minutes and several feet of rope later, we had a raft. My best friend, Mike, and I weren’t exactly Tom and Huck – only one could ride on the rough, roughly four-foot-square river vessel, while the other held on to the side, floating and guiding our creation – but our sense of adventure knew no bounds.

So much for the one edict from our moms: “Just stay out of the river.”

Just stay out of the water? Right. After all, Mike and I were making our long-dreamed hike from a creek off Highway 89 in Osage County to the Rollins Ferry Access about 10 miles away – as a crow flies – on the banks of the Gasconade River. Our mothers, finally worn down from two straight summers of pleading, finally relented and reluctantly agreed to give us three days to have a hike and a campout at the river.

“Just stay out of the river.”

July 27, 1978 – From the Black Book of Great Adventures (a.k.a. the personal diary I kept as a kid) … “Our hike to the river was a success. Sort of. I’ll explain later.”

The next entry didn’t come until Aug. 30, 1978, and it referenced a separate essay, “What I did on my summer vacation,” which detailed one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.

Mike and I hiked every inch of the thick woods behind his house about a mile north of Belle, Mo., off Highway 89. One of the coolest hikes we ever took – until that trek to the river – was a route south from his house, through the woods, across a county road (and countless private properties, no doubt), to a little slice of childhood paradise we called Horseshoe Falls, on the northern border of my hometown. Horseshoe Falls was so named from the creek that spilled out from under a pile of boulders, then forked into separate arcs that formed a horseshoe.

I’m not sure who named it Horseshoe Falls. There was a tiny waterfall, a thin stream that poured off the side of a boulder before splashing onto rocks about four feet below. And I suppose the creek formed a horseshoe. I was told – again, can’t recall by whom – that aerial photos showed a horseshoe shape in the woods behind the elementary school.

I didn’t see the aerial view for myself until several years later – and still can’t swear it’s a horseshoe – but by then a lot had changed. Several locals called the creek a wet-weather stream, and yes, it was much slower and much lower during dry spells, but I knew Horseshoe Falls. I knew that it was spring-fed and I knew when a nearby farmer suddenly had a pond when he dammed the creek way upstream. There were small fish in the creek: shiner minnows, small sunfish, crawfish, tadpoles and frogs, mean water snakes and a wonderful assortment of bugs that, years later, I identified as excellent indicators of good water quality.

Horseshoe Falls was not a dry stream. At least not until the spring was dammed.

Lewis and Clark followed the Missouri River. Jodie and Mike followed the creek. How could we get lost? A U.S. Geological Survey map and microfilm details of the area – just the things a nerdy 14-year-old managed to get from the USGS office in Rolla ‑ showed that the creek that spilled through Horseshoe Falls was the same creek that ran at the bottom of a valley behind Mike’s house, about two miles from Horseshoe Falls. The stream also seemed to be connected to the larger, wider Turkey Creek that flowed under a bridge on Highway 89.

Turkey Creek snaked and meandered back toward the highway and then northeast until finally uniting with the Gasconade River.

Our creek exploring/hiking trips almost always included a pause for pondering the yearning of our hearts: Someday we should follow this creek all the way to the river.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of “Stay out of the river”

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