The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
Portaging (or Paddling) over the Chain of Rocks:
Portage the Chain in Low Water:
below 16 SLG: Portage LBD
At 4-10 feet SLG the Chain is a deadly ten to fifteen foot drop over rock, concrete wreckage and steel reinforcement. Keepers follow your capsize. If you ran it and capsized you would be recirculated in the rotating turbulence at the base of the waterfall, and even if rescuers were on hand, a rescue would be impossible. Go to shore at the fish access bank left and portage. The shortest portage is found bank left along Chouteau Island, but be very careful not to overshoot the pull-out. Make landing at the top end of the rip-rap. (Warning: The falls bank left are keepers. Capsize means rolling over and over in a tumbling vortex of re-circulating water that wouldn’t let you go). Make landing on the rip-rap at the top end of the Chouteau Island Fishing Area. Secure your vessel and start portage. If you’ve never done this before, it’s simple: carry all your gear to the landing below the rip-rap below the waterfalls. Carry your canoe or kayak to the same. Re-pack your vessel and push off downstream. It’s a 200 foot portage across the parking lot, but carry your vessel well beyond the bottom of the waterfall to avoid being pulled back into the falls by the strong eddies below Chain. Medium sized waves roll into shore. Repack your vessel as it sits in the sand, or be sure to securely tie to a sand anchor (such as your paddle buried deep into the sand) or run a line up to the bankside trees).
As the water rises 10-16SLG the falls become shorter but are still very dangerous. The LBD keepers are still active. (Keeper means you won’t be able to swim out if you capsize). The few possible lines of passage become an obstacle course of boulder-sized rocks and industrial waste, and are followed by an imposing series of 10-foot-tall trains of giant haystacking waves that local paddlers have colorfully named “The Humbacks” or “The Trolls.” Many a boat has been swamped here, and at least one paddler lost. You are strongly advised to portage at any level below 16SLG.
Expert paddlers only: you might find a route far bank right, directly below the Missouri shoreline, far to the right of the water intake structures, and revolving around a large eddy. Best practice is to stop and scout first and determine your best line of progress and assess your personal ability to make the run. (Long-distance paddlers: you can always portage gear first to lighten your load). If you are unsure of this deadly challenge, by all means stay LBD and make the Chouteau Island portage. For more reading about running the Chain at this deadly level, go the Rivergator Appendix II and read the informative essay by that grizzled sage of the Middle Miss, Big Muddy Mike Clark, or Rivergator Appendix XVII: Water Ram Dugout Canoe Journal 2002.
Paddling the Chain in Medium Water:
16 – 24SLG: Stay Middle Channel
At 16 feet SLG advanced paddlers can easily negotiate the Chain of Rocks by staying in the broad central tongue of flow found to the right of the old intake structures and riding the rollers over the break. The biggest tongue of water seems to form to the right of the two intake structures (which look like 2 isolated castles standing in the middle of the river). Use paddler’s common sense and go with the smoothest line of water entering the widest V-line, and keep your eyes open for any last-minute adjustments that might become necessary. As with all things on rivers, the conditions change from year to year, especially after big floods.
In head winds the waves will pile higher than in tail winds. Stay with the central tongue of water where possible for the best route. Follow the fast water exploding outwards and downstream from the Chain and paddle on to your next destination whether it be camp on Mosenthein Island, or on downstream to the Arch and the St. Louis Harbor.
As the water rises above 16SLG the falls flatten accordingly. The biggest waves and most turbulent waters are still found against either banks, Missouri RBD or Illinois LBD. Safest route is to stay in the middle and pick out the smoothest V-line tongue. At 20SLG the best flow is directly behind and in between the two towers. At 24 feet SLG any intermediate or advanced paddlers can run the Chain with only slight disturbance.
High Water: 24 – 30SLG: Open Channel
At 25 feet SLG the Chain becomes a smooth undulating field of fast-flowing water with minor turbulence. Maybe you will see some big boils and notice a slight undulation in the water as you slide over the ledge, but otherwise you can run through almost anywhere you feel like paddling. Stay bank right if you want to reach North Riverside Park. Stay bank left near Chouteau Island if you want to make a landing at the Fishing Area or jump into the back channel of Mosenthein Island. Stay middle river for the optimal route downstream to make landing at the top end of Mosenthein Island — and the best picnic spots and campsites in the area.
Be forewarned: even though highwater has made the Chain an easy run, dangerous swiftwater conditions await you not far downstream in the St. Louis Harbor around all of the docks, wharves and bridge piers!
190.3 RBD Water Treatment Plant City of St. Louis
The residents of St. Louis, along 13 million other inhabitants along the Mississippi River, draw their water resources directly from the big river. The City of St. Louis Water Division maintains two water treatment plants that draw water from the area’s two main rivers. The Chain of Rocks Plant is located on the Mississippi River about eleven miles north of the center of the City and about five miles south of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. The Howard Bend Treatment Facility is located on the Missouri River, 37 miles above the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and 15 miles west of the City limits. Combined, these two plants have the capacity to treat and distribute 380 million gallons of water per day. From their website, the City of St. Louis Water Division state: “In our dedication to provide the highest quality water to our customers, we continually monitor, test, and purify this water. The Water Division always maintains a sufficient amount of chemicals on hand for use in purifying and disinfecting the water.”
As you paddle through St. Louis (or maybe as you look over neighborhoods from the Hwy 66 Bridge) you notice some tall elegant towers, skinny like a minaret, brick & stone, obviously old, well engineered and architecturally striking — but they seem to serve no purpose. They look more like church steeples than anything. They don’t bulge out, like a new water tower would. Perhaps you have wondered what these are. These three structures are the old “standpipe water towers.” These towers are remnants of another time; each is at least a century old. Before modern pumping methods, the steam-driven pumps that were used to send water throughout the city created large surges in pressure, often causing the pipes to rattle and shake. This also caused multiple-story houses to have difficulty getting water to upper floors. Standpipes (large vertical pipes in which a column of water rose and fell to prevent surges) were built to equalize water pressure. For aesthetic purposes, towers were built to hide the standpipes. In times past, nearly 500 of these towers dotted the cities and towns of the United States. As technology advanced, however, standpipes became obsolete, and most of the standpipes and the towers surrounding them were torn down. Today, only seven remain, and St. Louis has three of them. All three have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since the early 1970s. They are the Grand (“Old White”) Water Tower, the Bissell (“New Red”) Water Tower and the Compton Hill Water Tower.
Grand (“Old White”) Water Tower
Described as “the only perfect Corinthian column of its size in the world,” the Grand (“Old White”) Water Tower on 20th Street and Grand Avenue was built during the waterworks expansion led by Thomas Whitman (brother of poet Walt Whitman) following the Civil War.