Recreation services on the Jacks Fork and Current rivers that were suspended in April due to the coronavirus pandemic have started to reopen. As of May 9, the National Park Service (NPS) has authorized canoe rental outfitters to open for business if they are able to meet CDC guidelines. Camping on gravel bars and along the Ozark Trail is allowed, and restrooms are open at many river access points and day use areas. The spring branch hiking trails at Big Spring and Alley Spring and the staircase into Devils Well have reopened as well.

Visitor centers at the Ozark National Scenic Riverways remain closed, but park rangers are available to answer questions by phone at (573) 323-4236 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day.

Campgrounds and designated campsites in the national park remain closed but are expected to reopen on May 22 with the exception of group campsites. Picnic pavilions and group campsites are expected to reopen on June 5. Most private campgrounds are open now.

Jack's Fork River bluff view.

Jacks Fork River bluff view.

“We are following state and local guidance, as well as the White House guidelines for Opening Up America Again, and will follow a phased approach to reopening our facilities and bringing back our summer workforce,” said Acting Superintendent Jason Lott.

All concessionaire outfitters are required to clean and disinfect surfaces on float vessels, vans, buses, and public spaces. They must get approval from the park service on their plans to prevent spread of the coronavirus and inform customers about their health and safety practices.

“To mitigate danger, we’re not going to haul groups together,” said Armand Spurgin at Windy’s Canoe Rental in Eminence, Missouri. “Customers can do their transactions by phone with a credit card, so they don’t have to come into the store. We’re limiting our occupancy inside the store to 10. We will also spread out put-in times. People can start as late as 5:00 p.m. and stay out until dark.”

Businesses must follow the state requirements for cleaning, sanitizing, and maintaining 6-foot social distancing. Most businesses are making the use of face masks a matter of personal choice. Akers Ferry Canoe Rental is one exception.

“I will be wearing a face mask,” said Paul Dale at Akers Ferry. “We are asking people to wear a mask, wash your hands, keep your distance, and be patient with us. We have had days on summer weekends when you couldn’t walk in the store because it was so crowded. This summer, they’ll have to wait on the porch and send in one person. We’re going to fire up the larger buses, so that we can keep parties apart, or run numerous short buses.”

At Carr’s Canoe Rental, Running River Canoe Rental, and Current River Canoe Rental, plexiglass is installed at the registers. Signs state limits on the number of people in the stores, and masks will be offered to staff and guests. Groups will be shuttled in separate vehicles or separated on buses.

Other outfitters are developing their health and safety plans for reopening. Authorized concessionaires are listed on the Ozark National Scenic Riverways website. Call ahead to find out their plans.

Staff at Echo Bluff State Park are wearing masks. Guest Services, a national hospitality management company, is the concessionaire for the state park and sets the policy.

Echo Bluff State Park

Social distancing at Echo Bluff State Park.

“Our company policy is to wear masks anytime we are around customers, including in the Creekside Grill.” said Stefan Mende, general manager at Echo Bluff. “We’re hitting all the touchpoint areas for cleaning. We want people to feel comfortable.”

At other restaurants in nearby Eminence, masks were rarely seen in the first week after the stay-at-home order ended May 3, and 6-foot distancing was uneven.

Most of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways is in Shannon and Carter counties. As of May 11, Shannon County had no cases of COVID-19. Carter County had three cases in March and none since then. Now that the stay-at-home order has been lifted, an influx of visitors from St. Louis could change that.

Keeping the Rivers Safe
While paddling is a great outdoor activity for being physically distant from others, precautions are necessary to prevent spreading the coronavirus in Ozark communities. Here’s how you can do your part when visiting the rivers.

  • Wash your hands and use hand sanitizer when soap and water is not available.
  • Keep your group size small.
  • Paddle on a weekday to avoid crowds.
  • Keep your distance from other groups at put-ins, take-outs, and trails.
  • Wear a face mask when you can’t maintain 6 feet of distance from others.
  • Don’t share food or water with other people.
  • Don’t touch other people’s equipment.
  • Bring your own life jacket. While outfitters will sanitize their PFDs, having your own is an added safety measure.
  • To reduce the risk of injury and need for rescue, paddle well below your skill level.
  • Stay home if you are sick.

Author: Janice Branham is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Photos: By Janice Branham.