Paddleboarding Shoal Creek

When I first bought my paddleboard, I dreamt of paddling along quiet rivers like the canoe float trips that are so popular in midwest summers. I haven’t been canoeing in a long time and wanted to combine what I recall of those trips with the unique way a paddleboard allows you to be both closer to and farther from the water at the same time. I looked at places a short drive from home and set my sights on one of the rivers that runs just south of Joplin: Shoal Creek. (Is it a river or is it a creek? It certainly seems bigger than what I would classify as a creek, but I’m sure creeks and rivers have secret rules about their classifications the same way lakes and ponds do, which apparently has to do with depth rather than acreage, and how light reaches those depths. I read about it recently but it was more complicated than I could fully retain and I remain skeptical.)

The section of Shoal Creek that I was most familiar with is in the southern part of Wildcat Glades Conservation Area and has public trails on either side of the water. We have hiked the southern bank on a portion of the Bluff Trail a handful of times and waded into the water where the trail opens onto a little swimming beach. There’s also a little restaurant close to the parking area, and I often justify using their parking lot for a hike by purchasing an exceptionally delicious ice cream cone afterward. Carnivorous friends tell me that the burgers they serve are also tasty; I limit the meat that I eat, so I can’t personally verify this, but the ice cream is excellent. They also have an old postal train car you can sit in, and a smaller train for kids to ride. I have observed from the nearby footbridge, while tirelessly rescuing an ice cream from solar liquefaction, families playing in the waters below, floating several yards with the current and then wading back upstream to do it again. It looked like fun.

A couple miles downstream from the ice cream nature trails are the Grand Falls, flowing over a low head dam and several large rock formations. It’s a popular local swimming area in hot summer months, and even when it’s too cold to swim, visitors continue to walk on the dry sections and watch the impressive deluge. When this past spring was still trying to turn into summer, the flooding was among its most impressive at the falls, and we occasionally drove out to observe water levels there for an idea of when the river would feel safe enough to paddle. Kalen looked at the falls and my desire to paddle Shoal Creek with hesitation and skepticism.

Grand Falls in May 2022 (muddy and floody)

The months of hot dry weather have had the water levels lower for a little while now, but we finally found the time and the confidence in our novice paddling skills to paddle Shoal Creek. Our neighbors who have kayaked the area assured us that the current is very slow and said they often put in at one point, float and then easily paddle back up and take out at the same spot, but we didn’t want to risk stranding ourselves.

After examining the map and various places where we could leave our cars, we decided it wouldn’t be unreasonable to paddle from the Redings Mill Bridge, where we had eaten ice cream and watched people play in the water, to just above the falls. Google assured us it was just over two and a half miles (which I would love to confirm with tracking on my Apple Watch, but Apple hasn’t added distance tracking to paddling workouts yet 😒), and both areas have public parking where we could leave a vehicle rather than floating down and then paddling back against the current after we were already tired and dehydrated.

The water itself was marvelous. It was far cleaner and clearer than I expected, and we saw a lot of turtles, fish, and birds. While we saw a fair number of other people in the water, they tended to be playing by the shore, and most of the time we had the water to ourselves, which would be rare for a weekend float on an even slightly larger river. The water was also blissfully cool, and I suspect the river must be spring fed to remain so refreshing in the heat.

Shoal Creek’s current was, as promised, slow and gentle, but in a few places became shallow enough that the water flowed more quickly and the boards bottomed out. I guess these sections were technically “rapids” but that feels like gross hyperbole. The water was flowing, sure, but with more of a “babbling brook” feel than “white water rafting.” Had we been counting on paddling back upstream, the only way to deal with them would have been to walk through the water, either carrying or dragging our boards. They weren’t particularly rough, but I was glad to know that we only had to take them one direction.

Our biggest concern with these exciting sections of river was the fin on the bottom of our paddleboards. The fin is removable, though, for storage purposes, and we found that simply pulling over before the rapids and removing the fin significantly reduced our stress of anything bad happening. The steering was much more finicky without the fin, but it was good to get a feel for how much it really stabilizes the board. Navigating rocky shoals in an inflatable craft might seem unwise and riskier than necessary at first blush, but the interesting geology of the area meant that most of the shallows aren’t composed of piles of gravel or smaller sharp rocks that could move around. Instead they are massive formations of solid stone with the sharpest edges worn down by water and debris over time. It would be difficult (but not impossible) to puncture a sturdy inflatable on such rocks, and made bouncing and sliding through the shallows feel much more like riding down a water park slide in an inner tube.

My favorite part of the float was probably the low water bridge where Shoal Creek flows through McIndoe Park. The bridge is now closed to vehicle traffic, as its higher (read: more flood-resistant) counterpart has been opened about 300 yards upstream. Water levels on the river will obviously fluctuate, and we didn’t know what to expect when we got to the low water bridge. We assumed we would have to carry our boards out of the water and around it, but when we floated this weekend, the water was low enough that by lying flat on our boards, we could easily float right under the bridge, which was a thrill.

We actually ended up floating the creek on Saturday and then again on Sunday, learning and comparing what works and what doesn’t for a longer float on flowing water, as opposed to all our previous paddleboard outings, which have been on lakes. We rigged up a makeshift cooler for the second day to take some water and Gatorade with us, which we had been meaning to do since our excursion on Beaver Lake back in June. It worked fine, but we went on and ordered cooler more specifically designed for such a situation. We also were a little braver with some of the rapids on Sunday, successfully standing rather than kneeling as we splooshed along.

We also paddled along the shore to get a better look at the dam at Grand Falls. On Saturday, we had given the dam a wide berth to ensure that we didn’t get sucked over and pummeled on the other side. We were shocked by how slowly the water was moving above the dam and found a well-protected area that granted us a view of the falls we hadn’t had before.

Grand Falls from above the dam, August 2022 (less muddy, not floody)

Of course, after all our hard work on the water, we rewarded ourselves with a scoop of oatmeal cookie ice cream (in a waffle cone, obviously), and made the short trip back home. I’m sure this will become a regular summer outing for us, but I’m already looking forward to exploring new waters by paddleboard.

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