January 1, 2016 dawned cold but bright in Leasburg, Mo., with icicles decorating some of the rock outcroppings at Onondaga Cave State Park. I was there as part of the First Day Hike program promoted by America’s State Parks. The idea: to celebrate the beginning of another year and get some healthy exercise while enjoying the beautiful, winter-silent outdoors.
It seemed like a New Year’s resolution I wouldn’t mind keeping.
Onondaga Cave State Park had recently suffered record-breaking flooding, and parts of it were closed or showed water damage. But the trails up the hills and through the woods were open and inviting. The highlight for me was coming across dozens of frost flowers, which are formed when thin layers of ice are pushed out from long-stemmed plants. These thin, sometimes translucent ice ribbons create fanciful shapes that can resemble flower petals or blossoms.
This was the first time I’d seen the fragile wonders, other than in photographs. They’re rare and fleeting; conditions have to be just so for them to form. Yet, magically, they were all over the place. Sadly, as the sun rose and its warm rays touched the frost flowers, they melted and disappeared.
A treasured New Year’s gift, for sure.
Hiking on Day One
The First Day Hike program extends to all 50 states and consists of free guided hikes on New Year’s Day. Last year, almost 55,000 people around the country took advantage of the opportunity, collectively hiking more than 133,000 miles.
In Missouri, state, national and local parks have joined the First Day movement, offering a variety of activities to lure folks outside from day one. In fact, 32 state parks in Missouri had guided First Day Hikes last year, all free of charge.
At press time, the list of 2018 Missouri State Parks First Day Hikes had not yet been posted, although Crowder State Park had already listed three outings for that day. We also checked with Maria Potter, superintendent at Onondaga State Park, and she confirmed that it will again offer a First Day Hike. (Maybe this year’s Onondaga hikers will get lucky and see frost flowers, too.)
Officials recommend you visit mostateparks.com around mid-November to find a list of planned hikes. Click on the First Day Hikes icon, then click on the park that interests you for details about time, meeting place and whether reservations are suggested.
Paddling into the New Year
There’s more than one way to get outside on New Year’s Day, as demonstrated by a special partnership between the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Current River State Park, Echo Bluff State Park and Ozark Trail Association. The collaborators’ Winter Paddling Clinic and First Day Float will be held on December 30 and 31 and January 1.
Wait, a float trip on New Year’s Day? You bet!
Although the Current and Jacks Fork rivers are crowded with floaters from Memorial Day through Labor Day, the numbers drop dramatically in the winter. Dave Tobey, Upper Current River District Interpreter for the National Park Service, wants people to enjoy the rivers year-round.
The goal of the winter paddling clinic and float, Tobey explains, is to introduce paddlers to the proper equipment and safety precautions for cold-weather paddling, and then put them into practice on a guided float trip.
Winter paddlers usually see a lot of wildlife and landmarks that summer paddlers miss, he notes. “In the summer, the vegetation along the river is really thick. [In winter] the foliage is gone and you see things, different features that people float right by during the summer,” said Tobey. “It’s also an excellent time to see eagles. It’s possible you’ll also see deer, mink and even otters.”
About 40 people showed up for last year’s winter paddling clinic on New Year’s Eve at Echo Bluff State Park — yours truly included. Then, on New Year’s Day, we headed on the Current River.
Experienced paddlers were welcome to float any section of the Current or Jacks Fork rivers. Less experienced paddlers were encouraged to float the Pulltite to Round Spring section of the Current. Those preferring a little extra support could join a guided instructional float from Current River State Park to Round Spring. The same will be offered this year.
Those who prefer not to float can join an afternoon guided hike at Echo Bluff. Both hikers and floaters are invited to warm up by a bonfire and enjoy some hot chocolate at Current River State Park in the afternoon.
Due to the success of last year’s event, the Winter Paddling Clinic and First Day Float will expand this year to include a mini-conference, with a focus on the Missouri chapter of the American Canoe Association (ACA). A welcome reception and keynote address will kick things off on December 30 at Echo Bluff State Park. Then, on December 31, sessions on a variety of paddling topics will be held in the afternoon and evening, followed by a presentation by paddling clubs from around the state.
If you’d like to stay at Echo Bluff, you’ll need to make a reservation quickly. At press time, only one cabin and a few lodge rooms were still available; call Guest Services at 844-322-3246. There also should be lodging vacancies in Eminence, about 14 miles south of the park, as well as camping at either Echo Bluff or Round Spring.
On January 1, the guided instructional float from Current River State Park to Round Spring is free of charge, but registration is necessary. Call Dave Tobey at 573-323-8093 for reservations and information. Instructors for the guided float are certified by the ACA. If the First Day Float fills up, an overflow Last Day Paddle will be scheduled for December 31. For more information, visit nps.gov/ozar/ and click on the events calendar.
Whether you hike or paddle — or bike or run — getting outdoors on New Year’s Day is a great way to set the tone for the coming year. Studies have shown that spending time in nature enhances creativity and lifts our spirits. And you might burn off some of those holiday calories while you’re at it.