Paddling St. Louis’s Forest Park

Paddling St. Louis’s Forest Park

“Gently rock along the sacrum,” cooed the yogi, “as you fold your leg across and hold.” A dozen disciples, backs on yoga mats, moved into reclined pigeon position. Meanwhile, I slipped into my Pyranha Fusion and pushed off into the Grand Basin.

I veered under misting geysers in the reflecting pool below the St. Louis Art Museum. Passersby stared. Children stopped running to point. A couple, posing for engagement photos against the balustrade, leaned in for a kiss. Entering their shot, I tastefully waved and wondered if I’d make the reception slide show.

A decade after the initial idea, I was finally paddling across Forest Park.

My original plan was different. As a grad student in the mid-2000s, my cohort followed lofty discussions about mimesis and meta-fiction with cheap beer and goofy activities. In winter, we joined hordes sledding down Art Hill. Gathering speed once, I impacted the “safety” hay bales and sailed 15 feet onto frozen ground. I probably hit my head, because I immediately envisioned building a snowy ramp, rocketing downhill in my yak, launching into the reflecting pool, and paddling off into the sunset. The inebriated high school students would cheer. One day, they’d tell their kids the legend while huddling around bonfires under the statue of old St. Louis on horseback. But, when I approached water’s edge to scout the landing, I stared at solid ice patterned with footprints.

Years later, my buddy Woz suggested we explore the underground river beneath the park. Since white settlers founded the city in 1764, the River Des Peres has been a troubled waterway. Malarial mosquito clouds. Feces-filled pools. A cholera conduit. In 1894, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch declared it an open-sewer. During the early 20th century, the city buried the river in pipes. Meanwhile, the surface channel was transformed into enclosed pools and canals, fed by the city water supply.

Not up-to-date on my tetanus shots, I didn’t crawl into the sewer with Woz. But I realized—with significant portaging—I might cross Forest Park by water. Granted, it took seven years to follow through. But lately, I’ve embraced a philosophy of stepping out my paddling. Saying YES to Forest Park seemed a perfect step.

bridge montage

Turning southeast, the Grand Basin narrowed to a channel lined by limestone blocks. Nearby, an exercise club sprinted in unison up the hillside. A stone bridge arched upward. Walking across were dozens of chattering boy scouts. They pointed, took smart-phone photos, pretended to toss stones. One asked, “Are you kayaking?”

What possibly gave me away?

A scout master with DSLR and potentially ADHD hustled over, prodding the boys to move along so he could get a shot. He gave me a mischievous look. “I could spit on you,” he joked. When I didn’t laugh, he apologized and continued snapping different angles.

The lesson seemed clear. The visitors posed more threat than the waterway.

Beyond the bridge, I circumnavigated Picnic Island, a lovely hillock with little shade where people rarely picnic. I took out and crossed a swaying suspension bridge. Portaging a gravel path, I slid my kayak into a more natural channel that I suspected was the original River Des Peres.

Selecting the route was a challenge. The river originally entered the park in the northwest corner, but that quadrant is now a golf course. The channel is so narrow if I turned sideways, I’d stick bow to stern. Plus, having ducked errant golf balls while walking, these weren’t the world’s finest golfers. I preferred a visor to a helmet.

So, I opted to put-in at the Grand Basin. During the 1904 World’s Fair, it offered a promenade of porticoes, columns, and exhibition halls. Art Hill wasn’t a grassy incline but a series of stepped waterfalls and ornamented domes. While most structures were temporary plaster, several still remain. My next destination was an island pagoda in the pool fronting the MUNY outdoor theater.

portage montage

After a half mile, one portage around a rocky trash pile, and a low bridge, I entered Pagoda Lake.

But paddling past, I realized it wasn’t technically a pagoda, lacking multiple sloping eaves. It was actually a neoclassical pavilion. A perfect place for weddings—if the couple didn’t mind swimming over.

The outlet from Pavilion Lake involved an even lower bridge, so I dragged across grass around retention weirs. I noticed a photographer shooting from behind bushes. He appeared to be following me.

A silver-haired man approached with a stern look. In a judgmental voice, he demanded, “Are you allowed to be doing this?”

I wasn’t sure. I’d asked a park employee, one I thought was a ranger but later realized was a similarly-dressed arborist. She replied, “It’s probably fine. People can ride their horses here, and it’s not like you’re shitting all over the place.” An unequivocal endorsement.

“Sure am,” I answered the silver-haired man.

“Should’ve done it myself,” he mused, seemingly jealous.

final montage

Reentering the channel, I dragged over several rocky ledges, before being flummoxed by the Great Falls of Forest Park. I carried around, past another man-on-horse statue—clearly a theme. Massive hospitals, with construction cranes, came into view. Around the corner was a gothic tangle of vines surrounding a wrought iron bridge. I emerged into a lagoon near the ice rink. An annoyed Canada goose trumpeted at me and took flight.

Another drag and another lake. This one offered the tops of Christmas trees sunk for fish habitat—a symbolic feature given that today, paddling a few blocks from home, felt like a holiday. My final and longest portage included crumbling stairs, possibly circa the World’s Fair. Beside the last lake, there was an outdoor wedding. Two dozen members shifted up-hill so their group photo would exclude the sunburned paddler in giant yellow boat floating just over the maid-of-honor’s shoulder.

I’d come nearly three miles with six portages. Suddenly, I realized I’d forgot a shuttle. I took out at the park’s southeastern border, alongside Interstate 64, and began my return hike under a hot midday sun.

Photos by Shannon Koropchak, Ina Seethaler, & Mike Bezemek

More from Mike Bezemek’s ‘Regular Paddler, Remarkable Waters’ series

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The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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