The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
200.6 RBD Maple Island Access Ramp
(below the Melvin Price Lock and Dam)
Last public launch on the Upper Mississippi, and good place to begin your Middle Mississippi Expedition. This narrow concrete ramp descends into a hollowed-out back channel between the topmost of the Maple Island archipelago and the mainland above. At low water, there is no flow, but the pool is deep and murky, in the summer full of turtles, in the winter full of fish. In high water you will put into an eddy here, with some waters flowing down the back channel, and powerful waters boiling out from the Lock & Dam. Your best and most interesting route downstream is to follow the back channel. If it is flowing, go for it. If there is no flow, you might be in for a dead end round trip, but you won’t have to paddle far to find out. The boat ramp drops from river’s edge at a steep angle. Huge parking lot above. Easy year-round access. Maple Island Ramp bottoms out in a bowl of mud below 8MPG. Good up to Flood stage 21 MPG. Parking okay for daytrips, but don’t leave vehicle overnight. Arrange shuttle. Contact Big Muddy Adventures for assistance.
200.7 LBD National Great Rivers Museum
The National Great Rivers Museum is a must-see for all river travelers, if nothing else than a warm bathroom and a place to purchase those hard-to-find Army Corps river charts! The National Great Rivers Museum is located on the Illinois (LBD) bank of the river adjacent to the Mel Price Lock and Dam. Unfortunately, it is only accessible from land. To date no landing or other river access point has been built. But paddlers (being the infinitely resourceful people they are) will always find a way. You can beach your vessel top end above the lock and dam (on the Alton side) and climb over the rip-rap. Or you can lock through Mel Price, and before continuing on downstream, hook a sharp left into a protected harbor created in between the lock wall and the rip-rap bank. Coming around the lock wall on the down stream side, the river bank is predominantly mud-covered rip rap however paddlers can make landing and walk up in places where the rip rap has separated. At anything but high water it will be a very, very muddy, which will be a fitting entrance into a “muddy” museum! Leave your boots outside.
The National Great Rivers Museum, opened in October of 2003, is one of eleven planned regional visitor centers operated by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. Located adjacent to the Melvin Price Locks and Dam, this 12,000-square-foot facility is the result of a collaboration of the Corps and the nonprofit Meeting of the Great Rivers Foundation and tells the story of the Mississippi River. The Museum features state of the art interactive displays and exhibits that help visitors understand the many aspects of the Mississippi River and how it affects our lives. The natural ecosystem of the Mississippi River and how humans interact with it is one of the major themes of the museum. A large model of the bluffs (photo right) of the region is in the center of the museum and provides information on the various wildlife from prairie plants and trees to birds and other animals. An aquarium displays the various species of fish that inhabit the Mississippi River. The mechanics of the river and how soil is made, erosion and how working models of the river help scientists make decisions affecting the river are explained. At one station visitors can estimate how much fresh water their household uses a day and at another visitors can send e-mail postcards from their hometown.
Another theme is how the Mississippi River has been home to many people throughout the ages, from the Mississippian culture that called nearby Cahokia Mounds home to the time when European settlers began arriving. Before the paved highways of today, rivers were the preferred mean of transportation and one display explains how the Mississippi has been used as a highway, not only by humans but by migrating waterfowl, and chronicles the different the types of vessels used from canoes, through keelboats and steamboats, to modern day barges. The Pilot House (photo right,) a simulator based on software actually used to train river pilots at the Center for Maritime Education in Paducah, Kentucky, allows visitors to see what it’s like to guide a 1,000-foot tow of barges under a bridge or through a lock. The construction of the Melvin Price Locks and Dam is explained and working models explain how the system of locks and dams make river traffic possible on the Upper Mississippi. Free tours, accessible by wheelchair, of the Melvin Price Lock and Dam are conducted daily at 10 am, 1 pm, and 3 pm. Also explained are what causes floods, with emphasis on the Great Flood of 1993, and how the Corps of Engineers fights these destructive acts of nature, and what future strategies are being developed to limit their impact.
The Illinois Esplanade Park is along the entrance road to the Museum and has picnic facilities. The area is especially popular in the winter for Bald Eagle Watching as the eagles congregate below the locks and dam looking for easy food. The Confluence Bikeway runs by the complex and connects with Lock and Dam #27 in Granite City and the Lewis & Clark State Historic Site in Hartford to the south and Alton to the west. The Riverlands Environmental Demonstration Area is just across the Mississippi via the Clark Bridge. Two video presentations are presented daily in the 105 seat Discovery Theater that is located in the Museum. “Power of the River” tours the river from its source to the mouth exploring the culture that lives along its banks. “Lewis and Clark: A Confluence of Time and Courage” tells the story of the Corps of Discovery from an Army and Native American perspective. The Museum also operates a bookstore and gift shop where you can purchase Upper Mississippi River Charts (while supplies last).
No charge to visit the National Great Rivers Museum. Contact info: National Great Rivers Museum, Melvin Price Locks and Dam, #1 Lock and Dam Way, East Alton, Illinois, 877-462-6979, Open daily 9 am – 5 pm, Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
200.7 LBD National Great Rivers Research and Education Center
A half mile downstream of the Mel Price Dam paddlers might discern a mound of grass and limestone laid out with intriguing intersecting lines. This low-lying earth structure is the home of the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center. Founded in 2002 as a collaborative partnership between the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Illinois Natural History Survey and Lewis and Clark Community College, the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center is dedicated to the study of great river systems and the communities that use them. The center aspires to be a leader in scholarly research, education, and outreach related to the interconnectedness of large rivers, their floodplains, watersheds, and their associated communities. National Great Rivers Research and Education Center, One Confluence Way, East Alton, IL 62024, Phone: (618) 468-2900.
200.5-197.5 RBD Maple Island
Three Mile archipelago of forested Islands along the right bank (Missouri side) of the main channel. Possible forest camping throughout, but the only sand is found along the bottom end below RBD199, and then only at low water. Fleeting area: barges are often tied up to shore top end along main channel (east side of island). Watch for towboat activity as these are “cut loose” and added to bigger tows headed up river or down. Top end Maple Island opens up at 11MPG. The side channels and back channel are well open to shallow draft canoes and kayaks around 6MPG (but watch for rocks), with gentle flow at 8MPG and strong flow at 12MPG.
Maple Island abounds with young vine-draped forests full of willows and cottonwoods, and other trees more common to the Upper Mississippi like ash, sliver maple, and alders. Canoeing is the best way to get close to birds and wildlife. Put in at the boat ramp and follow the back channels as much as possible to quietly approach white pelicans and other waders that migrate through this area, and songbirds in their season. Pileated woodpecker are common in Spring/Summer months, and occasionally bald eagle. When the river freezes over in cold winters the turbulent waters below the dam create a bald eagle free-for-all. Winter-hardened paddlers will witness flurries of eagles fishing these waters that never freeze while fishermen pull in the catch from the bank. If you are brave enough to venture forth in the winter, be sure to wear a wetsuit or drysuit, and prepare yourself accordingly for emergency exit. Our recommendation: Expert paddlers only in wintertime, capable of self rescue in cold water situations.
Unfortunately Maple Island is located opposite the noisy conflagration of the Alton/Wood River Industrial reach and your visit will be accompanied by 24 hour whining, grinding, wheezing, and whooshing factories churning out petroleum products and making electricity. It’s okay for a picnic, or maybe an emergency overnight. But otherwise, you will want to avoid this hellish cancer hole and look for more peaceful camping not far downstream on Duck Island, Chouteau or Mosenthein. Maple Island is included in the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, and is the southernmost island of the Upper Mississippi Conservation Area.