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A Return to Flat Creek

Updated: May 28, 2023

Written by Marty Burke

Flat Creek in the southeast portion of the Missouri Ozarks was one of my earliest paddling experiences. Just a few years out of high school, I tagged along with a canoe club from Kansas City. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Ozark Wilderness Waterways Club members would set me on a lifelong passion for canoeing. Along the way, I was fortunate to benefit from the vast paddling experience of the club members and develop a deep appreciation for Ozark streams.

My first visit to Flat Creek was a weekend trip in March. It was cold and the leaves hadn’t begun to emerge from their buds. The creek was up that day but well within its banks. It struck me as a peculiar color of translucent green. It flowed through a countryside of farms, pastures, small bluffs and woods. Those days, a successful trip was measured by navigating the river without dumping. It was a successful day. I can’t remember much more about that trip beyond these mental images. I have paddled many miles of Ozark rivers since. It is said that you never paddle the same river twice. The sights, sounds, weather, water level and degree of difficulty are always different from one trip to the next. In this case I didn’t have a lot to compare from my trip decades ago so I was open to whatever to creek had to offer. It was surprisingly busy at the put-in.

On a beautiful Spring Friday morning there were people fishing, wading and camping or just relaxing on the adjacent gravel bar. Campfires from the previous evening smoldered. Unlike Kansas streams, the water and banks below the normal high water mark are considered public although they are often accessed through private land and permission is required. In this case a generous landowner had allowed access to the creek.

We were a group of eight solo canoes that day…no kayaks. Only one paddler, my adult daughter, didn’t qualify for AARP. Flat Creek was exceptionally clear unlike my first visit when it was swollen by recent rains. Every rock and pebble was visible while the deeper pools faded into a translucent emerald green. Fish were everywhere, mostly rough fish; various carp species, suckers and gar, but also a number of smallmouth bass. We weren’t fishing that day…just taking in the sites. Bald eagles were too numerous to count although many lacked their namesake adult plumage. Many immature eagles indicates a healthy population.

Beyond the put-in, there were frequent tree obstructions. Many banks had been cleared and floods had washed away what trees were left leaving bare clay cut banks. All Ozark rivers contain trees that wash in periodically. On popular streams with canoe and kayak rentals, outfitters clear out the most hazardous spots only to have them reappear after floods.

Flat Creek is only navigable during Spring and after heavy rains and no outfitters operate there. We saw only a few kayaks all day. Some down trees had to be portaged but fortunately the frequent gravel bars allowed safe passage. There was evidence of some less than environmentally sound erosion control methods.

We covered about ten miles with a good current throughout. In my early paddling days, we used to drive hours to a river hoping there would be enough water to float.

Now a sophisticated network of gauges takes out most of the guess work. Flow rates, gauge height, water temperature and recent rainfall are all updated in real time on the U.S. Geological Survey site: We took out at a river access maintained by the Missouri Department of Conservation with a gravel parking area and basic bathroom. My shoulders gave me a temporary reminder of the day’s journey. I don’t know when I will paddle Flat Creek again but it will be on my “to do” list. Until next time, keep your paddle in the water and your dry side up.


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