Float trip for the disabled full of water fights on the Niangua River

Squirt guns are a necessity for a group of Springfieldians on their annual float trip.

Of course, there were bottles of water, saran-wrapped sandwiches, potato chips, personal flotation devices and more, but the water guns were the main event. Before even launching from the embankment at Bennett Springs, everyone was bubbly with the excitement for a water war about to commence on the Niangua River on Sept. 18.

The float group has grown from five people to encompass even more paddlers with intellectual disabilities in a continuing effort to make the outdoors accessible for everyone since it started 28 years ago.

“It’s a well-oiled machine,” said Cyrus Taylor, accessible recreation supervisor with the Springfield-Greene County Park Board, between all the volunteers and paddlers.

Float for Independence participants and volunteers pause for a group photo on a gravel bar Sept. 18, 2022.

Volunteers with Ozark Mountain Paddlers team up with the Springfield-Greene County Park Board to coordinate the day float. Someone picked up the canoes Bass Pro Shops donates for the day; lunches were packed, and every participant was paired with an experienced paddler once on the river.

“We believe that everybody deserves access to everything that we have,” Taylor said. “We want to keep everybody included in everything.”

Having an accessible float means providing a fun and safe experience for everyone.

“Our rivers have always been a difficult thing because it’s a very daunting thing for anyone to go to a river and go on a float trip,” Taylor said.

Heather Ramsey smiles as volunteer JJ Heatherington sprays water during a canoe trip on the Niangua River Sept. 18, 2022.

Heather Ramsey is one of the original “Hot Babes.” Lovingly nicknamed by the late Tom Lewis, Ramsey and four others were the first Lewis organized to paddle in a group nearly three decades ago. Ramsey, 42, told the News-Leader these trips give her a chance to see her friends as well as enjoy nature, especially seeing fish in the water.

“They loved the nickname, of course,” said Terri Bradley, a volunteer with Ozark Mountain Paddlers, about being called the “Hot Babes.”

Float for Independence paddled into its 28th year as participants and volunteers took to the Niangua River for almost five miles Sept. 18, 2022.

Once Lewis was unable to organize the floats, volunteers with the paddling group took it over and the trips continued.Usually, each person in the group is armed with their very own squirt gun and many water fights break out as they float down the Niangua River. The annual float trip, rescheduled from mid-summer to Sept. 18 because of excessive heat, was no exception. Ramsey along with most of the others spent time loading their water guns, aiming and then firing either a straight or arcing shot to douse other paddlers.

“We usually get to the first bend, all the boats turn sideways, everybody draws the water guns and just goes nuts,” Taylor said.

Everyone had their own comfort levels when it came to actually paddling. Some spent time being the “motorboat,” as some volunteers described, while others had more fun spraying water on their friends.

Volunteer Zach Heatherington, left, paddles with Kathy Quinn on the Niangua River for almost five miles Sept. 18, 2022.

Kathy Quinn, 64, has been on many of the float trips over the years, only missing a few due to health reasons. Quinn said getting into a canoe can be hard because of her balance, but once she’s situated, it’s incredibly calming.

“Once I get used to it, it’s great,” Quinn said. “It’s so much fun.”

Her assigned volunteer taught Quinn to sit straight on the canoe seat rather than losing her balance if she leaned back.

“I can’t lean back just like in a recliner,” she added. “I gotta sit straight.”

Volunteer Terri Bradley, left,  canoes with Ashley Guyer on the Niangua River for almost five miles Sept. 18, 2022.

Bradley is into her second decade volunteering on the float trips, but it never gets old.

“I think I speak for all of (the volunteers) when I say it is just such an amazing experience because the relationship we have with them is so pure and so fun,” Bradley said.

The group ended their excursion with a treat from the campground store at Niangua River Oasis before heading back to Springfield.

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