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RIDE THE DUCKS IN BRANSON MISSOURI

Story and photos by

We're four hours from St. Louis, Missouri, in the Ozark Mountain town of Branson, sitting in an amphibious vehicle called a DUKW.

Captain Mark Frisby stands next to his amphibious vehicle.
Captain Mark Frisby stands next to his amphibious vehicle.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"Do you want to go into the lake turtle-style or Dukes of Hazard-style?" asks Captain Mark Frisby.

"Dukes of Hazard!" yell the passengers. Mark guns the engine and we land with a great splash in Table Rock Lake.

"General Motors built these seven-ton, 9.5-metre-long army trucks to carry 25 Allied troops or 2300 kilos of cargo for ship-to-shore combat," says Mark. "They were virtually responsible for the success of the Normandy Invasion in 1944."

After Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, Ride The Ducks volunteered their amphibious vehicles to rescue and evacuate stranded residents in New Orleans.

"Why are they called ducks?" we ask. "General Motors gave them a model code DUKW, which eventually became known as DUCK," he replies.

"GM built 22,000 DUKWs between 1942 and 1945. Most were assembled by women in factories in St. Louis, Missouri and Pontiac, Michigan. The ladies say that's why they're still running after all these years - but the guys say it's because the ladies never drove them much!"

It soon becomes obvious that half the fun of riding these vintage vehicles is listening to Mark's commentary.

Ride the DUCKS tour locations

We boarded our duck at the Ride The Ducks headquarters, in Branson's theatre strip, on Hwy. 76. The attraction began with three ducks. It now has nearly 20 vehicles at Branson. The total fleet includes more than 75 vehicles in Boston Seattle, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Stone Mountain Park, Georgia, and Memphis Ride The Duck locations.

Captain Frisby pilots an amphibious DUKW vehicle.
Captain Frisby pilots an amphibious DUKW vehicle.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"One of these ducks was the one John Wayne rode in the movie Guadalcanal. He actually drove it ashore," claims Mark. "We bought the duck from Paramount Pictures." (You wouldn't recognize it, because its military green exterior was coated with bright white paint.)

While searching for additional ducks, owner Bob McDowell came across other unusual military vehicles. Many can be seen when the ducks drive through his military museum, at the beginning of the tour.

Mark shows us an amphibious Studebaker "Weasel," designed in 1943 for over-snow operation and special missions, a 13-ton M5 International tractor, used for artillery towing, a cargo truck, called a "Gamma Goat," and a half-track, which was General Patton's favorite vehicle.

There's newer equipment, as well. "See that blue and white experimental vehicle from the Vietnam era?" he asks. "It cost the government $9 million, but no one knows what it's supposed to do. We don't even know if it's right side-up or not."

Leaving the military museum, Mark talks about the flora of the Ozark countryside. "Those poke plants are good to eat," he explains. "We hillbillies used to make them into salad, but now that all these movie stars have moved to town, we've become too sophisticated for that. Nowadays, we just stack up them poke leaves in the outhouse. It can be a real rough experience, though, if you forget to clean them chiggers off."

Amphibious vehicles bring visitors on Branson tours.
Amphibious vehicles bring visitors on Branson tours.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Mark points out several local attractions: theatres, a potato chip factory, and a riding stable. "I went there yesterday and rode a quarter horse. It started bucking and kicking and scared me half-to-death. Boy, was I glad when that quarter ran out," he says, straight-faced.

"We have a big hill to climb ahead, before we dive into the lake, and it's going to be scary. I'm going to take a run at it, so go ahead and scream if you want to — I intend to. Ladies, if we start rolling backwards, you'll have to jump out and stand behind your work."

The duck handles the hill steadfastly. "It has a maximum land speed of 80 kilometers an hour and a maximum water speed of 10 kilometers an hour," explains Mark, who's a Coast Guard-certified captain.

Once we're in the water, he invites passengers up to steer the vehicle. "Everybody who drives my duck today gets a free ducky driver's license as a souvenir," he promises.

Table Rock Lake State Park

After we've taken our turns, Mark maneuvers the vehicle out of the lake past the picnic tables and barbecues in Table Rock State Park. We stop in front of Table Rock Dam.

A young passenger steers a DUKW on Table Rock Lake.
A young passenger steers a DUKW on Table Rock Lake.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"You can take a free tour, here," he says. "The dam contains over 1.2 million cubic yards of cement, which was poured continuously for four years. The 10 flood gates have only been opened four times in the past 35 years."

He then shows us Shepherd of The Hills Fish Hatchery. "It produces over 300,000 pounds of fish every year," he tells us. "The facility offers free tours."

As our 70-minute, 30-kilometre ride comes to an end, Captain Mark starts singing his duck theme song, to the tune of Rawhide: "Rolling, rolling, rolling... keep them duckies rolling. Duck Ride!"

He turns around and looks at us. "You all have a brand new hair-do. It's called the ducky-do," he observes. "If you want to achieve the same wild, wind-blown look at home — just use a Weed-eater on your hair!"

When you buy a sightseeing excursion on Ride The Ducks, the hair-styling comes free — along with a healthy dose of history, and a generous helping of Captain Mark's wisecracks.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Ride The Ducks: www.bransonducks.com

More things to see and do in Branson:

Andy Williams Show at Moon River Theatre Branson Missouri

Branson Missouri - Live Shows, Entertainment, Silver Dollar City