From time to time over the years we’ve gone on several float trips. A cultural institution of the Ozarks, the float trip is a little slice of summer recreational heaven. You get some friends together, pack canoes with coolers and picnic lunches, coordinate someone to get you at the other end, and off you go. Since rivers flow downstream, as long as you can keep your canoe from tipping over as you navigate the riffles and downed trees, there’s little to do but enjoy the cool water on a hot summer’s day.
On a couple of float trips we rented kayaks instead of canoes, and they were fun. Also, it seemed that no matter how well we communicated or how much experience we had on the water, Gary and I just could not make a canoe go in the right direction. Yes, we were that couple who put their marriage at risk with every canoe trip. His and hers kayaks sounded immensely appealing.
Can you do this?
When we originally thought about buying kayaks and going out on the lakes, I’ll admit at first I was petrified. Paddling on the lake along with fast boats? The water’s deep, what if I tip over? It sounded like hard work, and I had this idea that the lakes are dirty. What if I got wet with fish water? Yet there was just something so appealing about having my own kayak, with my own paddle, that I could go wherever I wanted. Yes, you can do it…
Once we got on the water I soon discovered that all my fears were groundless. Unless you do something stupid, you’re not going to tip over. Though the first thing we did when we got out kayaks was take them down to Table Rock Lake and try to tip them over. With our very wide and stable Ascend kayaks it wasn’t easy, nor was getting back in. So we tried things out and worked out how to do it. Lake water isn’t nasty. And unless you’re fighting a substantial headwind, paddling takes remarkably little effort once you get the hang of it. In fact, on our first big trip out on Stockton lake we ended up going seven miles without even realizing it.
Advantages of Lake Kayaking
The best thing is that you can just stop paddling and for the most part you’ll stay put. You might drift a bit but then you can easily paddle a few strokes and get back where you want to be. Gary has fitted a small grapnel anchor to his kayak, so we can stop almost anywhere, regardless of wind and current. With all the stopping to look at the scenery and wildlife, you can cover amazing distance without getting tired. Since Ozark lakes normally don’t have a current, you can do round trips, so you don’t need two cars to do the drop-off and pick-up like you do with river floats. No scheduling, no wasted gas.
Fishing is popular with kayakers, and no wonder. You can drop your anchor and fish til your heart’s content. Gary likes to fish. I tie up to his boat and read a book. Or daydream. It’s very relaxing.
But best of all, I think, is the freedom to go wherever you want. What is that thing sticking up out of the water over there? What’s behind that ridge? Is there anything in this inlet? Sometimes there’s a swampy area where creeks meet the lakes and you can go places in your kayak that a boat can never go.
Where to go lake kayaking in the Ozarks
The Ozarks are blessed with dozens of man made reservoirs with clean water, healthy fish and easy access. Any of them would be fantastic for kayaking. We personally find the quieter areas of the lakes to be a bit more relaxing. Incidentally on both Stockton and Truman lakes the Corps of Engineers maintains a perimeter of land around the lake which means these lakes are less developed and perhaps a bit less trafficked. You can read more about Harry S Truman Reservoir in these articles.
Don’t rule out smaller lakes, either. Springfield has two smaller lakes, Lake Springfield and Fellows Lake that are used for water and power supply that are quite nice for a few hours’ float. Check for posted regulations, though. We got caught out at Fellows Lake when we didn’t realize that kayaks did, in fact, need a paid sticker ($35 per boat per year – 2012). We thought we were exempt.
Be safe. Wear your life jacket (PFD). It is law that all boats have a PFD for each passenger, and that includes kayaks. We are strong swimmers, we’ve tested the stability of our boats, and we have a plan for what to do should we get swamped or capsized. When the water and weather’s calm and the visibility is good we don’t always wear our PDFs – but we do keep them easily accessible strapped loosely to the deck of our boats. This is a personal choice, not a practice we’d recommend.
When out on the water we always carry our backpacking emergency kit, a flashlight (we use a headlamp), and we often carry two-way radios – much better than shouting; all in a watertight container.
Just like hiking and backpacking – it’s a good idea to tell people where you are going and when you expect to arrive – The Official Boating Handbook of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, Water Patrol Division recommends a Float plan.
Stay visible. Being a kayak on a lake is a bit like being a cyclist on the road. You have every right to be there. But the other boats are much bigger and faster. So stay out of their way and make sure they can see you. Also, don’t kayak at night without a proper navigation light. You may not need lights to see, but the other boats need to see you.
Regulations for Lake Kayaking
All watercraft must have a PFD on board for each person. Kayaks do not need to be licensed, though, because they’re not motorized. Use of the lakes themselves is free in most cases, but be aware of local regulations. Some city lakes may require fees. You can use the same lake accesses and launches that boats use. Just be considerate to other boaters and try to move on as quickly as possible.
When we last checked, we found that day use area fees are not charged for non-trailered vehicles in Corps of Engineers boat launch areas. But don’t hold us to it, that may not be universal.
Go for it!
As you can see, we have found lake kayaking to be rewarding and fun. We are mystified that more people aren’t doing it. We think it makes the fun parts of kayaking more fun and the hard parts are minimized. We like it so much we even kayak in the winter!