The Midwest’s favorite lake lures visitors with world-class boating
By Suzanne Wright
Living in the Arizona desert makes you long for water. So when my friend, Erin’s, parents suggests a group trip to the Lake of the Ozarks, it’s an immediate yes. Erin’s parents, Helen and Bill, are the kind of 70-somethings who breed bullmastiffs, brew their own beer and regularly drive their RV across the country (they left the big rig at home this time). In short, they’re exactly the kind of people I love to hang out with.
The watery heart of Missouri
The Lake of the Ozarks is a large reservoir that was created more than 80 years ago by the construction of the Bagnell Dam in the northern Ozarks of central Missouri, and is the only major lake in the state not controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers. By impounding the Osage River, the 54,000-acre lake which runs 92 miles from end to end, was created.
The lake has a staggering 1,150 miles of shoreline. Though it was originally constructed to provide hydroelectric power, the lake quickly became a Midwest tourist destination. Today there are more than 70,000 homes, many of which are vacation homes that double as rentals. Good thing, too: more than five million people visit annually.
Erin and I flew into St. Louis from different landlocked sides of the country, and rented a car to meet Erin’s parents, who’d flown in the day before.
“Did you remember your swimsuit?” I ask after a hug.
“I packed three,” says Erin.
It’s a cloudless mid-afternoon when the shimmering lake comes into view and the view is commanding: deep blue water ringed by the deep green of forests, hills and bluffs. Boating season is in full swing and we see craft of all size plying the glassy water.
We rented a lovely home on the north side of the lake and with dark polished hardwood floors, an expanse of windows overlooking the lake and the kind of shabby chic, nautical-themed décor that telegraphs a sense of peace. Color me happy.
After depositing our luggage, we head to town to pick up provisions for the week, which entail wine and beer, cheese and crackers, fruit and buckets of ice cream.
Fun for everyone
Time unfurls at a slow, sun-soaked pace over the next few days. One day, Bill takes us out on a speedboat and we explore coves, numerous coves and creeks. Another day Helen pilots the rented pontoon boat as we warble along to “Born Free.” Yes, Helen likes Kid Rock.
“Last summer, Aquapalooza took over the lake with an all-day, all-night free concert,” says Helen. “It was our first big event; there were hundreds of boats and thousands of people, one big outdoor party. I think I embarrassed Bill with my dancing.”
With her Midwestern charm, I doubt it. Bill is enthralled with Helen, who moves like a senior Shakira.
Erin and I rent WaveRunners and chase across the water. We swim and toss an inflatable beach ball. We take a narrated cruise aboard a climate-controlled yacht that skirts by beautiful waterfront mansions. We try stand-up paddle boarding.
There are bare toes, bottles of Coppertone, plates of fried catfish and walleye, afternoon naps in the hammock, paperback books, daiquiris, board games and silvery moonlight. I feel as carefree as an eight-year old. I sleep like a baby, too.
Throughout the season, there are lake races and something called a “duck drop” that involves bright yellow plastic duckies raining down from Bagnell Dam. There’s swap meets and dinner theater and fireworks and festivals. Talk about a jam-packed social calendar.
The need for speed
Capping off our visit is the Lake of the Ozarks Shootout, which is held at Captain Ron’s Bar & Grill. It draws more than 100 racers—at speeds that top 240 mph—and attracts 100,000 spectators, making it one of the biggest events of its kind in the country. Proceeds benefit lake area rescue teams and other charitable organizations. In conjunction, there’s a treasure hunt, a golf tournament, poker runs and live entertainment.
“I’ve been coming here since it started in 1988,” says a lean, muscled guy named Doug.
“Which part of the lake do you live on?” I inquire.
“I live in Tulsa,” he says with a smile. “My dad used to bring me here and now I bring my kids. It’s one of the best places for folks who just wanna relax.”
I had to agree.
Later when we’re back at the house and we’ve slipped into pajamas, we feel that happily spent hazy high that comes from a successful vacation in a spectacular destination.
Relax on the water at Lake of the Ozarks!