Where has the year gone?
It’s nearly the end of May already, which means Memorial Day is upon us, as is the unofficial start to summer.
With the extended holiday weekend, many from across Southeast Missouri and the surrounding areas will join family and friends and head out for some fun in the sun on one of their favorite Missouri waterways.
The Current and St. Francis rivers, as well as Wappapello and Clearwater lakes, are all within a short drive from Poplar Bluff and provide the opportunity to spend a relaxing day boating, fishing, tubing, canoeing, kayaking or swimming.
As the summer heats up, the number of floaters and boaters will grow exponentially each weekend.
Making sure everyone has a good time and makes it home safely at the end of the day are the officers with the Missouri State Highway Patrol’s Marine Division and the Ozark National Scenic Riverways’ park rangers.
Through the years, one of my favorite assignments here at the Daily American Republic has been when I’ve had the opportunity to ride along with these officers as they patrol the waterways each summer.
What I found was each river or lake had its own unique atmosphere and users.
Those ride alongs, first with the Missouri State Water Patrol (prior to its merger with the highway patrol) and National Park Service, and later with the highway patrol, also have provided me with a chance to watch these officers in action.
Although not always seen, Marine Division troopers keep a watchful eye over the river in the Doniphan and Van Buren areas.
From their covert locations, the troopers check each passing canoe, kayak, boat or tube for potential violations, as well as watch the activity on nearby gravel bars.
While the officers patrolling the rivers are on the lookout for drug and alcohol offenses, their counterparts on the lakes primarily are watching for boat-related violations.
For the troopers, it’s not all about writing tickets. It also about public relations.
I watched last summer as patrol Cpl. Shayne Talburt stopped a raft filled with an Illinois couple and four children, who were floating the Current River north of Doniphan for the first time.
The floaters hadn’t done anything wrong. In fact, they had done something very right — each child was wearing a life jacket.
As he handed a T-shirt to each child, Talburt told them how “we appreciate you wearing your life jacket” and encouraged them to be safe.
Safety should be paramount, especially on the water.
Unlike in a vehicle, there are no seat belts to protect boaters or floaters, who can easily be ejected. All it takes is one wrong turn or a collision with an unforeseen obstacle.
Also, unlike on the road, there are no center lines to keep boats on their side of the river.
On a typical Saturday or Sunday each summer in Ripley County, there will be 300 to 500 boats running between Arkansas and Gooseneck.
Along with the boats, the outfitters in Doniphan estimate they typically launch between 500 and 800 tubes and rafts.
That’s a lot of people on one stretch of river at the same time.
And, unlike the stretches of the Current River within the Ozark Scenic Riverways in Carter and Shannon counties, there is no horsepower limit for boat motors in Ripley County.
During my ride along with Talburt, I watched as boats with big motors ran at high speeds up and down the river narrowly missing floaters. I cringed each time I saw one passing by, fearful an accident was about to happen. Thankfully, none did that day.
What I learned from my ride along is that the lower portion of Current River in Ripley County definitely has heavier boat traffic than the upper portions in Carter and Shannon County.
In comparison, on any given weekend on Current River in Carter County, there will thousands, I mean thousands, of floaters who will put in to make the all-day float back to the Van Buren bridge.
Along with high volume of tubes, officials say kayaks are everywhere now.
Based on what I’ve seen during my various ride alongs, it can be nearly impossible, at times, to motor a boat through the mass of floaters that sometimes span the width of the river.
To ensure the safety of everyone enjoying the river in Carter and Shannon counties, NPS park rangers work hand-in-hand with the troopers on a weekly basis.
It’s been their consistent law enforcement presence within the riverways in recent years that has helped curb the rowdiness once prevalent on Current River and in the park’s campgrounds.
During about a 10-year period from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, portions of the Current River had a Mardi Gras atmosphere. Excessive drinking, blatant drug use, profane language and nudity were prevalent during that time.
I’ve seen it all firsthand.
On a long-ago ride along with NPS rangers on Current River, north of Van Buren, I witnessed the beer bongs and excessive drinking, including one man who was hanging over the front of his canoe. I’m not sure how he kept from drowning as his head was just barely out of the water. He was so inebriated, he practically had to be carried to the gravel bar.
But, during a 2018 ride along, I found a much different environment. Yes, there still was drinking, but gone are the days of the beer bongs and the rowdiness.
Like the troopers, a team(s) of park rangers continue to work covertly, watching the float traffic from the brush, but there also is a visible law enforcement presence on the water.
Having that visible presence is all about ensuring safety.
I lost count of the number of times Lindel Gregory, ONSR chief ranger, warned tubers and rafters not to be tied together. Each time, he emphasized it was for their safety.
On several occasions, Gregory also stopped to speak with floaters whose radio was blaring as they floated downstream.
“We don’t have a problem with radios,” Gregory told each group. “Keep it a reasonable level within your group, so you don’t ruin anyone else’s trip. …
“Their right to have fun, it ends when it interferes with someone else’s rights.”
What Gregory was asking of the floaters was not so outrageous and actually makes a lot of sense.
It comes down to common courtesy. Missouri’s waterways belong to everyone, and every man, woman and child should have the same right to enjoy them without fear for their safety or having to tolerate other people’s bad behavior.
So, if you decide to head out to a waterway to celebrate this holiday weekend or later, after summer officially begins, remember if you see a trooper or a park ranger, know they are not there to ruin your fun … they are there to make sure you safely get home to your family at the end of your day.