Float trips on the Dismal River, Platte River, and Niobrara in Nebraska, the Gasconade, Little Piney and Big Piney in Missouri and the North Platte in Wyoming make up some of my fondest memories. On every one of those float trips, without fail, nature calls on somebody in the group and a decision has to be made as to where can we stop, and how long can we stick around?
This issue came to a deadly end in Missouri on the Meramec River over the weekend of July 21st. A group of tubers pulled off on a sand bar for a pit stop, wherein a landowner had posted a Keep Out sign. The landowner confronted the tubers and an argument ensued. During the argument the landowner shot and killed one of the tubers and was subsequently arrested and charged with second degree murder.
Nebraska had similar episode a while back when a landowner set up a firing range next to the Long Pine Creek which was routinely floated by families. The landowner got himself in trouble when he fired bullets striking the embankment in front of a family tubing the creek, and fired more shots when the family attempted to walk back upstream. The landowner was eventually convicted of making terroristic threats and sentenced to 18 months probation and a $2,000 fine. They also took away his guns.
So that begs two questions, what are the rights of those floating the rivers and those owning the land along the waterways? While confusion remains in Missouri, the Nebraska rule is fairly clear.
For canoers, kayakers and tubers:
An individual is allowed to navigate all Nebraska rivers and streams even if such rivers and streams flow through private property. The landowner owns the land adjoining and underneath the river and stream. Therefore, an individual is trespassing if he/she gets out of the canoe, kayak or inner-tube, or drops anchor. However, an individual is allowed to access private property if the individual is required to portage or otherwise transport their canoe, kayak or inner-tube around any fence or obstruction in the river or stream.
(This was also the rule as I understood and lived by in Wyoming.)
Landowners can string fences across rivers and streams as long as they don’t violate regulations set out by the Corps of Engineers. Landowners can also use force in protecting their property if such force is immediately neccessary. However, landowners cannot generally use “deadly force” to protect a sandbar, river bed, or embankment. As the Nebraska landowner found out, firing a gun in the direction of another constitutes deadly force.
Quoting the Missouri attorney from the St. Louis Dispatch, “we don’t have a stand-your-gravel-bar-law yet.” No matter what your rights are, landowners and float trippers must realize that civility and courtesy is the best way to protect those rights.