The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

St Louis

The Chain or the Canal?

Also, after passing the confluence (adjacent to Maple Island) all paddlers must make a choice: to take the Canal or the Chain of Rocks. Please know that any paddler can take the free-flowing waters of the Chain at any water level and make the short portage if necessary (if the river is below 16SLG). But keep reading, you won’t have to portage if certain conditions are met. If you are an expert paddler who can handle Class III waves and some hydraulics including boils, eddies and whirlpools, and it’s at least medium water (above 16SLG), the choice is easy: take the Chain!   As stated above, if you are moderate paddler, you can still take the free-flowing Chain route, and portage. You will have plenty time to make a calculated approach to the take-out point and portage over.   If its med-high water or higher (above 20 on the St Louis Gage SLG), the choice is easy: take the Chain! Unless you just want to torture yourself with a nine-mile slog sharing a boring rip-rap canal with diesel belching tows and ornery pilots and facetious crewmen, it would be senseless not to go with the free-flowing waters and enjoy the only tow-boat free stretch of river on the entire length of the Mississippi. Anyone can safely paddle the Chain in higher water levels. However if it’s below these levels, the choices get more complicated. Keep reading below why, and how to make the best choice (and when to call in the experts for assistance or guidance).


195.6 RBD The Great Confluence!

Now you can enjoy the incomparable feeling of bliss floating into the meeting of big rivers, here at the confluence of two of the biggest and longest rivers in North America, the Upper Mississippi and the Missouri River. There is an elegance in the experience, which can only be fully enjoyed at river speed. Us paddlers think this is best done in a canoe or kayak, but some people swim into this confluence and swear that swimming is the only way to fully feel the waters. Viewed from the air, the rivers curve inwards and outwards around Portage de Sioux, and then at last curve together around Mobile Island, and in the tenderest last double swoop their concurrent trajectories of slightly different angularity bring them gently together at one of the sharpest angles possible, like two dancers spinning and spiraling around each other on stage, to finally join hands as their individual orbits and gracefully come in contact. Like dancers, the two rivers join hands, bow, and then exit downstage now joined together as one.


The experience can be spiritual. Paddlers are often awed by the power of these two big rivers meeting each other.   Acclaimed classical composer Eve Beglarian kayaked into the confluence as “a wave materialized before me, deep down in the water, a real breaker like you see on the ocean shore, and that breaker somehow transformed into a spiral, and it circled first down and then rose up and pulled me into it and I lifted my paddle above my head to let it take me around, amazed, and after it had let me feel it, let me know its power, it released me downstream and I soared into the meeting of these two great streams, exultant beyond anything I have ever experienced before. I think this must all sound pretty over the top, I wish I could fully articulate the ferocious beauty of this water, this complex and ravenous flow. I had always thought real power resided in the circular, but this river, with its braids, both horizontal (in its sloughs and meanders and coursings) and the invisible multiply braided currents and knots that flow vertically, beneath the surface, creates an unbelievably complex directed line, made up of all these uncountable curves and circles that knit together to make this inexorable directed flow. It is counterpoint on a vast, overpowering scale — counterpoint that you can’t subdue or resist, can’t even comprehend or encompass.”


But sometimes the meeting is not so friendly and equitable. After big snowmelt and heavy rainfall the Upper Mississippi might charge into the confluence and put the plug on the Missouri, succumbing the surly brash muddy mess of its Western brother. Sometimes it seems to consume the Missouri in a all encompassing embrace as it pushes it back upstream into muted stillness all the way up to the 365 bridge (7 miles upstream, as witnessed by Michael F. Clark). Big Muddy Mike says he has seen the Upper Miss do this to the Missouri, but he has never seen the Missouri do the opposite to the Upper Miss.


Another way of looking at from the air is in the shape of a bird’s beak. Some say it reminds them of an eagle for all of the bald eagles in the area. Others say it’s a red tailed hawk. To me it looks more like the beak of a turkey or a vulture.


What Color is the Mississippi River?

In 1721, French explorer Father Pierre Francois de Charlevoix wrote of the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, “I believe this is the finest confluence in the world. The two rivers are much the same breadth, each about half a league; but the Missouri is by far the most rapid, and seems to enter the Mississippi like a conqueror, through which it carries its white waters to the opposite shore without mixing them, after wards, it gives its color to the Mississippi which it never loses again but carries quite down to the sea....”


What Color is the Mississippi River? Paddlers can entertain this question as they approach the Missouri/Mississippi River confluence because the changes are so noticeable. Writers, painters, poets, and us paddlers are more sensitive to the changes than land dwellers whose experience of the river is from a bridge through the windows of the cars.


The Missouri is called the “Big Muddy,” and it seems like the Middle Miss takes on similar muddiness, and later the Lower Miss.   But what is the color of the mud?   Its muddiness is of course most often associated with the most basic earth tone --brown.  But which brown?  TS Elliott found the river to be a "strange brown god" in his Dry Salvages, and did not offer any further elaboration.  William Faulkner saw darker brown tones in the river "rippling placidly towards the sea, brown and rich as chocolate between the levees who inner faces were wrinkled as though in frozen and aghast amazement…” (Old Man). Poet Langston Hughes saw the river from a train window crossing the St. Louis Ead’s Bridge and wrote "I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln/ went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy/ bosom turn all golden in the sunset."


Any confluence renders an interesting contrast which can be seen on the face of the water where the two rivers meet.  With a little preparation paddlers can approach one of the many confluences on the Middle/Lower Miss and enjoy the constellation of patterns which erupt at these meeting places, spirals and boils and eddies of varying water colors, the colors often stay to the side of the river they came from and swirl alongside the other river for a long ways downstream until one color finally predominates.  The collision of colors can be seen at the mouth of the Missouri, the Meramec, and of course the Ohio. For some reason the winning color is always the muddy color.  And not just because of volume. This muddy truism comes from the original Big Muddy.  If you hear someone call the Mississippi "the big muddy," this is only because its color derives from the Missouri.  The true Big Muddy is the Missouri River.   Its nickname is due to its rich silt laden waters which carry the sediments of the western and midwestern deserts, prairies and mountains.


In fact the power of mud is first expressed here at St. Louis where the normally smaller Missouri joins the Upper Mississippi and together they flow downstream through St. Louis to Cairo as the Middle Mississippi.  Even though the Missouri is the smaller volume river, its muddy water colors overwhelm the darker & clearer tannin-rich colors of the bigger volume Upper Mississippi, and together they finally combine as a muddy brown river, in essence an expression of the colors of the Missouri.  180 miles further downstream the Ohio flows in from the East to join the muddy Mississippi.  The Ohio normally carries twice the volume of the Mississippi.  And yet its greenish waters become muddied by the Mississippi.  It requires several dozen miles of side-by-side flow.  The Greenish waters hug the Kentucky shoreline and the muddy brown waters hug the Missouri shoreline.  But eventually they collide and revolve around each other and get stirred up into one homogenous mix.  And which color predominates?  Muddy brown of course!


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