By Nancy Milton
I could wipe the cobwebs off of my long-stored kayak, but I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as I gathered paddles, life jackets and coolers from my garage shelves. My husband, Joe, and I had just become empty nesters and he suggested we celebrate our daughter’s entry into Mizzou—the University of Missouri—and exit from our house with a long-awaited break just for ourselves.
We strapped the orange kayaks onto the roof rack and hit the highway to rediscover our couple-hood by exploring one of our favorite places—Central Missouri’s beautiful Lake of the Ozarks. Named the 2016 Best Recreational Lake in the Nation by USA Today’s 10Best poll, it had long been a favorite of ours.
The desire to re-visit the Lake we once frequented was raised to a fever pitch recently when Joe flew over the lake on the way home from a business trip. From his window seat vantage on the plane, the Lake looked like an otherworldly place, he said. It’s often compared to the outline of a mythical dragon thanks to the five different channels and coves along its 92-mile length. “Maybe it’s more like a feature on the map of Westeros from Game of Thrones,” I suggested. “Without the real dragons."
Early night, early morning
We checked into our lakeside lodge, enjoyed some time by the innkeeper’s cheery evening campfire and grabbed a casual dinner on our first night at the Lake. The early morning alarm was set so we could catch the best part of the day on the water. Our plans called for the entire day dedicated to kayaking the 9.7-mile Aquatic Trail from Grand Glaize Beach to Public Beach #1, with plenty of time for bird watching and rest stops in between. A power rower can cover the stretch in about two hours, but we wanted to savor the getaway and conserve our energy for the return trip.
Birds were singing their dawn songs as we pulled into the parking area, untied our kayaks and stocked them with water, sunscreen, hats and food. We buckled our life jackets and scooted out into the calm water. Following the trail has been made easier by the placement of orange buoys along the route that mark notable sights. A family of little ducks followed us out into the Lake, quacking their goodbyes. I suspected they were angling for some snacks, but we resisted.
Tall limestone bluffs line sections of the Lake and the first sight on the official trail is called Nature’s Window—a cutout in the looming cliff that took my breath away with its beauty.
Paddling alongside wildlife
Herons commuted to their daytime wading spots during the morning and we spotted several turkeys dining along a wooded shore area. Turkey vultures—not something you’d want on your Thanksgiving table—circled overhead as we paddled along. We saw Canada geese and more ducks along the trail and graceful but fierce hawks surveyed their domain from the treetops. I used a small pair of binoculars to look for additions to my Audubon birding list.
We glided by other boaters, some out stalking fish and others following the trail with us, passing soil slides and making our way to a rock wall filled with so-called pigeon holes. These natural bird bungalows formed over time as different kinds of rock dissolved at different rates, or so said Joe. That college geology class finally came in handy!
The sun was climbing higher in the sky and I reminded Joe to put on his hat and rub some sunscreen on his face. We almost passed a gravel beach before deciding to pull over and enjoy an energy bar along the rocky shore. A lounging turtle plopped back into the water rather than share his peaceful spot with us.
Kayakers can only get to the trail from the water—there’s literally no driving or walking access—so the people we encountered were like-minded adventurers. We exchanged comments about the weather and about sights along the way with others we met throughout the morning.
Even though we chose to “hike” the water trail in a kayak, not everyone wants to travel at our quiet pace. Along the way we saw modern explorers on jet skis, motorboats, bass boats and even an intrepid group of well-balanced visitors on paddleboards.
The Aquatic Trail has been documented by Missouri State Parks in a small but informative guide with lettered stops that correspond with the buoys that bob in the channel. I got my copy of the brochure in the camp store at the trailhead and noted that stations range from A to N. We started at N from Grand Glaize Beach and worked our way up to stop A at a place the locals call the Lumberman’s Logging Chute. In the 19th and early 20th century, loggers would cut lumber to be used for railroad ties and toss the lengths down this chute into the river where they were transported to the railroads.
At Public Beach #1—the other end of the trail from our starting point—we took another break, chatted with fishermen about their day’s catches and had a picnic at the scenic stop. By mid-afternoon we were back to our car, loading the kayaks onto the roof rack and congratulating each other for getting our paddles out of storage and back into our lives.
“We can do this again any time now,” I said to Joe.
He smiled and said, “Next time on paddleboards?”
I just laughed.
Plan your own outdoor adventure in Lake of the Ozarks.