I had the pleasure yesterday of acting like a tourist and riding the Branson Ducks. There are several of these tours throughout the country, but I can’t imagine any more beautiful than the one here in Branson. A “Duck” is an amphibious vehicle that travels on both land and in the water. My friend, John Fullerton, set this up for me and I can’t wait until I write the chapter in the book on this wonderful guy. Not only is he a historian, uber talented musician and devoted family man, he has also been associated with the Branson Ducks since he was a small child. Not only did I get to see the sights and ride in this unique attraction, but I was also privy to a history lesson on the origins of these trucks.
Yes, they are technically trucks. Originally designed in 1942 under the military auspices of Sparkman & Stephens and General Motors Corporation, they were used to transport troops and goods over land and water. The DUKW 2 1/2 ton, 6×6 was instrumental during World War II including during the Normandy Invasion in 1944. Maximum land speed is 50 m.p.h. and maximum water speed is 6 m.p.h. For land operation, the Ducks utilize six wheels powered by a six-cylinder valve-in-head engine. When in the water, the Ducks use a marine type propeller powered from the engine through the transmission and a water propeller transfer case.
Something that you don’t see often in our world anymore is the repurposing and reutilization of items that are no longer needed in the capacity in which they were built or manufactured. The DUKWs were built solely for short term use by our military and served that purpose well. Thankfully, years after the war ended, these unique vehicles were refurbished and repurposed and became known as Ducks. There will be an entire chapter of the book devoted to the story of the Ducks made possible by the man that knows more about them than probably anyone else in history, John Fullerton.
Yesterday, however, was not about the history of these amphibious vehicles, it was about doing something fun and unique. So, I pulled down my shades, hung my “quacker” around my neck and grabbed the front row seat directly behind our driver and guide, Capt. Reno. We pulled out of the loading area and proceeded directly down Hwy. 76, which in Branson, is known as “The Strip.” We quickly turned off and took a more leisurely route which can be easily missed if you’re in town visiting. There are no windows in the Duck and it made for an incredibly fun ride through town with the wind blowing everyone’s hair. Made me feel a bit like a kid again and riding with all the windows down.
The tour winds through the beautiful country-side before carrying us to the top of Baird Mountain. Not only is it a breathtaking view of Table Rock Lake all the way to the Arkansas line, but they also have a display on top of the mountain honoring our military history. This is Branson and the tribute was touching and so appropriate. We are called the most patriotic city in America with good reason. Branson Ducks have created a salute to our armed forces that includes a hill-top display of the Stars and Stripes.
Capt. Reno was engaging and knowledgeable while he drove the Duck and pointed out things of interest. He had some funny stories and some historical references that told us more about this area. He knew exactly where to stop to get the best pictures and he made sure to encourage us all to use our quackers when another Duck pulled to the top of the mountain. The two drivers had a comical exchange about the fastest way down the mountain that made most of us laugh and a few of us apprehensive about what route Capt. Reno would decide to take.
The trip down the mountain was done by the usual road and not the short cut that was mentioned. We came to a tree with a fork and as we were slowly ambling along, the driver stopped and there to the side of the road, not twenty feet from where we were, was a young deer. It was awesome to see one of these beautiful creatures up close and in the wild. This is a protected wilderness area and thankfully, no hunting is allowed, so this little guy showed no fear as we all snapped his picture and oohed and aahed over him.
Not long after descending down to the highway, we turned off where the Branson Belle is docked. Capt. Reno turned off the motor and seriously instructed us on how to use the life jackets in the unlikely event that we needed them. After a fairly quick demonstration, Capt. Reno started the Duck back up and then proceeded to drive through the trees. The launch leading down to the water is very narrow and until we were right upon it, it looked like we were just driving through the trees into the lake. The weird part was that even once I could see the launch, my stomach still flip-flopped a bit as I realized we were driving right into the lake. It was explained that because Table Rock Lake is at such a high level, that we had to enter very slowly as to not veer off and crash into one of the numerous submerged trees.
Soon after we hit the water, Capt. Reno said it was his break time and asked for volunteers to pilot the craft. I was the first to raise my hand and quickly took my place at the helm. What a blast! We were not going fast, but the water was a little choppy which made for a quicker heartbeat. However, with the wheel in my hands and an explanation about how I was steering the propeller, I felt like a true maritime captain. At least for a couple of minutes.
The captain allowed some others to try their hand at piloting and though they were good, they hadn’t sliced through the clear lake water with the same enthusiasm as I had, so I really have to say I was the best honorary captain of the day. I even got a certificate proving that, once we got back to land.
Back on dry land, Capt. Reno blasted the stereo with Willie Nelson’s, “On the Road Again.” Once again, just perfect. We gathered up speed and flew down the highway back into Branson with most of singing along to Willie.
Once back in town, we drove the length of the strip and our guide told us about some of the theater’s and their history including the Baldknobber’s and The Presley’s. We quacked at passing Ducks and road workers before we finally pulled back into the station. What a great day in the Ozarks with picture perfect weather and views that just took my breath away. I might live to be 100, but one of my fondest memories will always be of driving my first Duck.
There are so many things for visitors to do and see while they are in town, but I doubt any of them will be as much fun as the Branson Ducks. So, next time you’re in town, stop in and take a couple hours out of your afternoon for a one of a kind sightseeing tour of Branson and Table Rock Lake. The Branson Ducks also has a station on the Branson Landing where they tour that end of town and splash into Lake Taneycomo. Don’t forget to get your own set of “duck lips” so that you too, can quack with the best of them.