By Barbara Gibbs Ostmann
“Watch out! There’s a strong current in this curve …” About that time, the canoe flips, dumping the two novice paddlers into the Niangua River. The water is shallow and it’s only a few yards from the take-out point at One-Eyed Willy’s sandbar, so the only harm done is a bit of wounded pride. The first-time canoers had hoped to make it all the way without dumping, but getting wet is just part of the fun on a float trip – and a great way to cool off on a hot summer day.
While many people visit Lebanon, Mo., for its Route 66 heritage, for its antiques and outlet mall shopping, or for one of its many festivals, others come specifically for Bennett Spring State Park and the Niangua River that runs alongside. The upper sections of the river or the section immediately below the park are the most popular for floating. Numerous outfitters provide canoe rentals and campgrounds or cabins.
Bennett Spring State Park a big draw
Called the “eye of the sacred one” by Native Americans, Bennett Spring www.bennettspringstatepark.com gushes forth more than 100 million gallons of water a day, making it the fourth largest spring in Missouri. More than 320,000 pounds of rainbow and brown trout are released at the park annually, resulting in a fisherman’s playground. Water from the spring travels 1.5 miles through the park and flows into the Niangua.
Fly fishing is a big attraction at the park, due in large part to park concessionaire Jim Rogers, a fly fisherman extraordinaire and director of the Jim Rogers Fly School www.jimrogersflyschool.com. Rogers has been teaching the fine art of fishing and casting since 1975 and holds a Masters Certification in fly fishing instruction from the Federation of Fly Fishers.
In addition to fishing, the 3,100-acre park offers 12 miles of hiking trails, a fish hatchery, a nature center, swimming pool, canoe outfitters, cabins and campgrounds. Many of the park’s rustic stone structures were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), including the beautiful dining lodge. The park is about 10 miles west of Lebanon on Highway 64A.
A river float offers a relaxing diversion from a fishing trip at the park. You can get up early and start fishing when the whistle blows at 6:30 a.m., catch your day’s limit of trout, have a hearty breakfast at the park’s dining lodge, then relax in the afternoon with a leisurely float down the Niangua. The Osage Fork and Gasconade rivers are also serviced by Lebanon area outfitters. Hiking, bird watching and horseback riding are options for the non-floaters in your group.
Sandbars and bulldogs
Meanwhile, our novice paddlers have joined their friends at the concession trailer on the sandbar at One-Eyed Willy’s www.oneeyedwillys.com, one of the many river outfitters in the area, and are busy comparing tales about the day’s float. Who spotted the most herons, or turtles, or maybe a snake? Who took a swim – intentionally or not? Who is sunburned, and whose arm muscles ache? Who caught the biggest fish? Everyone has a tale and a favorite memory of the day.
Hot dogs, hamburgers and cold drinks taste best when enjoyed at a picnic table in the shade alongside the river. Tossing Frisbees, playing horseshoes, and toasting marshmallows for s’mores are part of the entertainment. Owner Brian Wilson often brings a few of his beloved bulldogs down to the beach to join the fun.
One-Eyed Willy’s offers canoe, tube and raft rentals, camping, cabins, and occasional live music entertainment.
Fueling the fun
Top off a day of floating the Niangua River with a hearty barbecue dinner at Ollie’s BBQ & Steakhouse. Located on Highway 64 between Lebanon and Bennett Spring State Park, Ollie’s is a local landmark. With her warm smile and outgoing personality, Oliva “Ollie” Kennedy makes her guests feel right at home – and feeds them well.
Although pie and barbecue are the main attractions, steaks and prime rib are also big sellers. Fish, seafood, hot dogs, burgers, BLTs, chicken strips and breakfast (served all day) are also on the menu.
Ollie’s barbecue restaurant www.creelinn-olliesbbq.com was the first of a string of businesses for Ollie, which now include the Creel RV Park and Creel Inn.
Planning your visit
For more information about Lebanon area outfitters and float options, visit the Missouri Canoe and Floaters Association at www.missouricanoe.org. Another handy guide is the free listing of Missouri Guides and Outfitters, published by River Hills Traveler www.riverhillstraveler.com. This print and online directory includes canoe rentals, camp areas, resorts and hunting areas, including the Niangua River and Bennett Spring. Most outfitters rent canoes, kayaks, rafts and tubes.
Be sure to check out upcoming events and attractions in the Lebanon area at www.lebanonmo.org.