The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

Cairo To Caruthersville

896.5 - 894.5 RBD Hotchkiss Bend Dikes and Bar

Four beautiful skinny sandbar islands form along the Hotchkiss Dikes with extensive beaches along their full lengths in low and medium water levels. The islands and their surrounding beaches gradually diminishes with rising water rise until nothing remains at bank full 35CG. Best and highest ground is found on the biggest island RBD 895. When the water starts flowing between the islands (around 20CG) you can slip in behind for private campsites and back channel exploration. The top island displays thick layers of old mud, evidence of some past island or bankside that the river has exposed in its ceaseless scratching and gnawing.  

 

890.5 - 889.5 RBD Morrison Towhead

Morrison Towhead consists of a short bulbous island less than a mile long that sits along the right bank descending and is subject to intense turbulence when the river is high. This is seen in the piles of driftwood smashing the top end forests, and also in the deep back channel pool that carves itself deep into the mud below a massive dike. Lastly, this turbulent places expresses itself in a very large and very powerful eddy that occurs in highwater above the top of the island in the cut-out bank at RBD 891. The eddy that forms here in highwater sucks in massive amounts of driftwood of all shapes and sizes including large logs, and slowly rotates them in a never-ending circle, with upwellings of turbulence violently strafing its edges.


890.5 RBD Sleeping Giant Eddy

Sean Rowe and I got pulled into this eddy in Dec 1983 and could not get out. We were approaching New Madrid around noon on that cold day, after several days of rain, and looking forward to a dry day in town, partly to resume our never-ending search for the best hamburger in America. Every town we stopped in between the North Woods and the Gulf of Mexico we intended to find the best burger. We weren’t paying attention to eddies. Once we got pulled in we didn’t think much of it - at first. We’d been sucked into similar situations before. You get sucked in. You work your way out. You continue on downstream. Except this time it was different: we couldn’t get out. Our 12 x 24 foot raft seemed tiny compared to the massive piles of loose driftwood that were stuck in and was churning end over end, rolling over with sickening crunching sounds and gulping squishing sounds. We were caught amongst huge logs, and barrels, refrigerators, paint cans, 5-gallon buckets, sides of a building, a section of dock decking, some telephone poles, and everything else spinning around in this maelstrom. We pushed and pulled. We thrashed with our long sweep oars. We broke two oars. We switched out our spare set. We broke those. Our spirits, which had soared high all day with the prospect of town now plummeted to the bottom of the river. Around and around and around we revolved. It was dizzying. It was un-nerving. It was comic. We rotated around for several hours with our broken oars tossed aside on deck. We gave up at times, and lay panting on the floor of the raft wondering what would become of us. And then sometime towards sunset something changed. We suddenly found ourselves pushed to the edge of the mess where giant boils were billowing upwards, and then one of those open water boils completely surrounded us and pushed all the driftwood away. And then it seemed to breathe in deep and long, and then exhale in a long upwelling of water, and then it spit us out. It was like being ejected from the belly of the whale. We spun around as the downstream current grabbed us and then propelled us on down the bank towards the New Madrid riverfront. We were free! We still had to get to shore with mangled oars, but at least we could once again maneuver our cumbersome raft. Those burgers we found that night in New Madrid were indeed the best burgers in America!

 

This sleeping giant of an eddy is quiet until the water rises above 30CG. The Morrison Towhead islands are connected to land until the river rises well into medium stage, around 25CG, when the dikes start overflowing. When the river rises above 30CG paddlers can skirt around the eddy, and jump into the opening below, and enjoy a back channel entrance into New Madrid with a close up glimpse of the mouth of the infamous St. John’s Bayou.

 

890 - 883 LBD Kentucky Point Bar

Beautiful creamy yellow beaches surround Kentucky Point Bar at low water and medium water, but the choices become limited to high dunes closer to the bank in high water. Kentucky Point Bar wraps around the entire top of the Kentucky Bend, seven miles in all in low water. Pick the place that most appeals to your senses. There are several inlets with sandbars behind and off the main channel. Duck behind any of the clumps of willow-topped islands for more privacy and spectacular campsites and exploration. If crossing back to New Madrid for any logistical purposes stay as far upstream as you can for any easier crossing. If you are continuing downstream, follow the flow around the bend for many more miles of choice spots. In high water you can stay left bank descending around the entire perimeter of Kentucky Point Bar for an incredible safari paddle in and out of beautiful islands full of birds and beavers (if you are not making landing in New Madrid). You might want to avoid camping in the stretch around or below 885, however, because of the very noisy power plant and aluminum smelter, and other industry across the channel.


889.5 RBD St. John’s Bayou

St. John’s Bayou enters the big river right bank descending just past the bottom of Morrison Towhead. Curious canoeists & kayakers could make a quick exit here and take a half-mile paddle up to the base of the levee where the St John’s Bayou gate is located. This gate is closed in high water, to keep the Mississippi from back filling the Bootheel, and opened in low water, to allow the bayou floodplain to drain. The pool below the gates is a popular fishing hole for locals. You might notice another waterway joining St. John’s Bayou just below the fishing hole, and a dead end levee beyond it. On Google maps its identified as “Mud Ditch.” The reason the levee dead ends here is that this peaceful place is the exit channel for the famous New Madrid Floodway. In 550,000 cubic feet per second of floodwater flowed through this opening and helped save Cairo, Illinois, from the flood of 2011. This innocuous waterway is turning southeast Missouri and southern Illinois, namely Cairo, into embittered foes in a battle over the floodway. Bootheel proponents want this location sealed permanently by levees, with the construction of a giant freshwater pump to remove rain water from the basin. This would lead to the eventually destruction of Cairo, by flood. But the Bootheel sentiment was voiced clearly by their former Rep Dewey Jackson Short, who once stated that his constituents “do not want to see southeast Missouri made the dumping ground to protect Cairo, much as we love Cairo...”