The River Less Traveled

The River Less Traveled

By Eli Hartley

If you are an Oklahoma native, then you have surely heard of the Canadian Rivers. There are two of them (North and South Canadian), and you probably drive over them every day on your way to work; both I-35 and I-44 run right over their red, muddy waters. Oklahoma City has done a lot in recent years to reclaim these seemingly “Canadian” waters. The state has even gone so far as to rename an 8-mile stretch through the middle of OKC, the “Oklahoma River.” The River District has popped up in recent years with the addition of the Devon Boathouse, Riversport Rapids, Regattas, and miles of trails. If you have not seen or heard of this, then I encourage you to check out Core to Shore, and Maps 3, both are worth a Google; or just put on a hat and get out of your house for once.

            If this is all old news so far, great, because I am not here to regurgitate Oklahoma’s official tourist spiel and this article is not about the North Canadian River. Don’t get me wrong,  I like the North Canadian/Oklahoma River as much as the next guy or gal, but this article is about the more elusive South Canadian River. When considering these two rivers, it is easy to liken them to the two halves of a yin-yang. There is the clean-cut, Devon Boathouse, concrete, northern, “Oklahoma River” - yin; and then there is the wild, southern, off-limits, dirty -yang. Coincidently, the “dirty yang” (also a well known Oklahoma sex act) is the reason many people are here, reading this today. 

It is not entirely clear how the Canadian River got its name. The Oklahoma Historical Society cites that the river may have been named by early French explorers who used it to travel west; believing it ran north to Canada. Apparently, nobody ever bothered to find a better name, so today the river is still elegantly and accurately known as “Canadian River” (French Accent). As the catfish swims, it is a 900-mile river that starts in the foothills of Colorado and ends roughly at Lake Eufaula. The river flows through New Mexico and the Texas panhandle, but the longest stretch flows through Oklahoma. Through the metro, it runs roughly south of OKC, Moore, and Norman. Most of us cross it heading south on I-44 towards Newcastle, or on I-35, heading south out of Norman.


Outside of a quick drive-by, this river is mostly out of sight and incidentally, out of mind for most. It is a hidden gem that seems almost entirely off-limits to the uninitiated. There are no public access points in or around the metro (that I am aware of). I lived two miles away from this river for years before it ever occurred to me to explore it. I found that getting to know this river was a frustrating task. I spent days studying Google Maps and driving around in search of good access points. Every perfect point on a map would turn into a blocked road or locked gate with a “no trespassing” sign. It did not take long for me to realize that this whole river is surrounded by private property and good access points are both hard to come by and very protected. Finally, with a bit of luck, (and a bit of trespassing) I found my way.

Since finding this muddy mecca, I have explored its shores and roamed its waters. Just recently my gal and I kayaked about 10 miles from Moore to Norman. Not knowing exactly what to expect, we set off on our adventure about one week after a good April rain. We learned quickly that it would have probably been better to do it within a couple of days of a good rain. We found that much of the river was too shallow to float in, but there is a channel within the river that is deeper than the rest. This “river within a river” is hard to see, but after a few miles and a mantra from Bruce Lee, we learned how to read the water and “be like water.” When going with the flow, our float was surprisingly scenic. Most of the time we felt like we were truly away from it all. We saw catfish, ducks, deer, turtles and even a massive beaver (insert bad joke). On the less flattering side, the river has patches of quicksand, trash and some tornado debris in places; it is Oklahoma after all. Other things to be cautious of are poison ivy, snakes, too much rain, dead bodies and dueling banjo music.

It wasn’t until I started sharing my interest with others that I realized that the South Canadian is riddled with local legend. It seems like every old timer I talk to has a river story to tell. I have heard stories about everything, from big fish to Bigfoot. I am surprised that so many people have (or once had) a relationship with this river, especially considering how inaccessible it seems. Likewise, I have found very little “official” information about this river on any state or city websites. I have many speculations about why this is so. I have reasoned that maybe I’m just a city slicker that doesn’t know the good ol’ “river ways.” My conspiracy theory friends think that Oklahoma politicians are probably hiding something or are being paid to keep the river private for the Oklahoma elite. I have also heard people say that younger generations just don’t give a damn about rivers or nature anymore. I suppose any or all the above could be true to some degree, but it’s also possible that there is no good reason at all.


Regardless, It is my understanding that “navigable” rivers are public property and the Canadian River is by all legal definitions navigable. Unfortunately, this federal law comes with a few state caveats. For example, floating in the river is legal, but once you touch the bottom of the river, or the shore, you are trespassing. Because of this vagueness, i guess that local law enforcement will likely enforce these rules however they want.

The fact that there is so much red tape and no good access to this river is bullshit in my opinion. It can be hard to find a good slice of nature living in OKC. We don’t have mountains or oceans, so I find that rivers are my remedy. Rivers offer relief from the everyday techno-hustle, they offer refuge when I need a hard reset. If this is also true for you, then I encourage anyone with a flair for adventure to explore this for themselves. If you are truly interested, have a look at this Canadian River Map that I made based on personal research and experience. This map outlines various access points south of the metro along with brief descriptions and pictures. I also have included possible rafting routes, distances, and links to topics about legalities and water quality. This map is far from comprehensive, but it's a start.    

            The South Canadian certainly isn’t for everyone. It’s inconvenient, unpredictable and too messy for some...and that's okay. If you want Olympic rowing, and straight lines then you will probably find that the Oklahoma River downtown is a fine place. If, however, you want red dirt and a river less traveled then you will be right at home in the muddy southern waters of the South Canadian.


If you have a South Canadian River story or suggestion you want to share, tell us in the comments, I would love to hear about it.