The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
Paddling downstream along Maple island:
Big Muddy Mike Clark: “For paddlers wishing to begin a trip at the start of the Middle Mississippi, the Maple Island Access directly adjacent to and on the downstream side of the lock and dam is a great one. The boat ramp is located within the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary and is on the Missouri side of the river. The strong and chaotic flows coming through the dam do not affect the put in since the boat ramp is situated in a cut out protected by a large rip rap wall. Entering the river from this cut out is a fitting first experience to the free flowing river. The chaotic flows created by the mass of water coming through the gates grab your boat and bounce it, sending tremors reverberating through the hull. Thus, giving the first time experience a bit of the “pucker effect” until you are turned downstream and moving outside of a large eddy along what is the top end of Maple Island. Just 100 yards downstream, the first opportunity to get off of the main channel and explore the wonders of the back channel of a Middle Mississippi island presents itself. A channel opens up at a 90 degree angle to the River and paddlers are able to turn into a magic bird land kingdom where in Spring and Fall seasons, the great migration of birds can be witnessed. In the winter, American Bald Eagles by the dozens come at sunset to roost in the cottonwoods, and silver maples of Maple Island along the channel and are easily viewed during the day time fishing in the unfrozen waters below the dam. This channel runs for 4 miles along the braided land form called Maple Island. This back channel has two cutouts to return to the main channel, and there are two low water dams which are only a concern in the low water flows. Low water flows can also cause this channel to dry up about 2 miles down. It is a great happy hour of paddling to put in paddle down and return back to the boat ramp. It is also a great circumnavigation trip, whereby you can paddle down the main channel and take one of the downstream cutouts into the back channel and its low flows allowing for a return to the ramp.” (Big Muddy Mike)
Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary
Maple Island and back channel are protected by Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary, 3,700 acres of wetlands adjacent to the Melvin Price Lock & Dam. Sites within the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary include Ellis Bay, the Teal Pond, the Native Prairie Restoration Project, and a 300-acre prairie-marsh complex. The area offers visitors the opportunity to view large numbers of resident and migratory waterfowl and shorebirds, as well as other wildlife that live in the wetlands. The Audubon Center is located in the Sanctuary and provides exhibits, spotting scopes, picnic tables and other facilities.
The Nat’l Audubon Society Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary has over 8.5 miles of trails with platforms and bird blinds. Explore on your own or take a scheduled guided tour with an naturalist. The trails bring you through prairies, marshes, and bottomland forest habitats, and provide great viewing opportunities for the great variety of birds that live in or migrate through this unique area.
The Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary is listed on the National Audubon Society’s Great River Birding Trail which reports that snipe, yellowlegs and American Golden-plovers can be seen on the marsh mudflats, while white gulls and waterfowl swim and feed along the river and in Ellis Bay. Thousands of American White Pelicans, Canvasback, Redhead, Ring-necked Ducks and Lesser Scaup migrate through here, along with sea ducks such as Bufflehead and Common Goldeneye. Also watch for Northern Harriers and Short-Eared Owls. During the coldest part of the winter when the river freezes over, American Bald Eagles line the banks just below the dam, taking advantage of the open water and upwelling currents. These are some of the largest wintering concentrations of bald eagles in the contiguous 48 states are found along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. The eagles usually begin to arrive in October and stay until early spring. Several adult eagle pairs remain throughout the year to nest and raise young near the river. Rare Glaucous, Thayer’s, Iceland, or Lesser-backed Gulls may also be present.
Other birds seen within Riverlands includeTrumpeter Swan, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Purple Martin, Northern Parula, Wood Duck, Belted Kingfisher, Barn Swallow, Fox Sparrow, Great Blue Heron, Red-headed Woodpecker, Black-capped Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco, Turkey Vulture, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Cardinal, Red-tailed Hawk, Hairy Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, Indigo Bunting, Killdeer, Northern Flicker, Carolina Wren, Red-winged Blackbird, Spotted Sandpiper, American Kestrel, American Robin, Eastern Meadowlark, Ring-billed Gull, Great Crested Flycatcher, Prothonotary Warbler, Brown-headed Cowbird, Rock Pigeon, Red-eyed Vireo, Common Yellowthroat, Baltimore Oriole, Eurasian Collared-Dove, American Crow, American Redstart, American Goldfinch, and Mourning Dove.
Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary: 301 Riverlands Way, West Alton, MO 63386, phone: 636-899-0090, Hours: Open seven days a week from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. except for major holidays. For more information please visit: http://riverlands.audubon.org
200 – 195 LBD Alton/Wood River Industrial Reach
This five mile stretch of river is an ungrateful way to say goodbye to the Upper Mississippi. But it’s an accurate precursor of what’s to come downstream in and around the St. Louis Harbor, and then recapitulated big time another thousand miles downstream in the Greater Port of New Orleans which starts below Baton Rouge and runs over 200 miles to Venice.
Paddlers stay alert: your best line of travel through this busy stretch is to stay near Maple Island right bank descending. Stay in close enough to avoid the big tows and heavy industry LBD along the Illinois shore but stay out far enough to get some flow, and to avoid the fleeting of barges against Maple Island. The action includes Illinois Power Plant, Koch Nitrogen, the Amoco Refinery, Marathon Refinery, Valero Refinery and Conoco Phillips Refinery. 15 petroleum pipelines dive under the river here to feed this frenzy of refineries. The Amoco installation was once the largest refinery in the world.
If the water is medium high (above 7 Mel Price Gage) your best route would be to dive behind Maple Island wherever you can find an opening and follow its muddy back channels through this section. Not only would you avoid all river traffic, but you would also enjoy the last experience of an Upper Mississippi slough and all of its wildlife. Once below Maple Island the Big Muddy Missouri slams in from the West, and the Upper Mississippi becomes the Middle Miss.
Big Muddy Mike: “Along the main channel side of Maple Island, you are forced to paddle opposite the first heavy industrial reach of the Middle Mississippi. The Conoco Phillips refinery sits midway down the reach from the dam to the Confluence, and there are often fleeted barges and tow boats parked along the island as they wait their turn to lock through on their way upstream. The navigation channel runs along the river left descending and is typically pretty busy, but the flow is fairly consistent all the way across to the island. Just one mile down this reach, Wood River empties in from the Illinois side, river left descending. It was on this small tributary that Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery built their first winter camp in 1803, of their three year expedition, Camp DuBois. A replica of this camp was built in 2001 and is located in a barrow pond just over the levee. Yearly rendezvous events are held there.”
“The Middle Mississippi River is narrow in width in its modern form compared to the pools above the lock and dam. The wing dikes assist in creating a challenging dance between paddler and commercial navigation. But here, in its first free flowing form, this challenge only lasts for six miles, to the Great Confluence, and the opening to the Chain of Rocks Canal, where a sign greets all boaters, “All Boats Must Go Here”, pointing down the canal. Of course, paddlers rarely follow that command, and rightly so. The reach from the Confluence to the Arch includes the only 11 non-commercially navigable waters of the entire River between Minneapolis / St. Paul and the Gulf. Two pristine islands punctuate this reach, Duck Island and Mosenthien Island. And its very reason for being non-commercially navigable sits just a bit more than midway down, the Chain of Rocks low water dam. This is the Big Muddy Wild and Scenic reach in the heart of the St. Louis metropolitan area.
“At Mile198, the last of the braided pieces of Maple Island give way to a wide open expanse in which the Great Confluence exists at Mile196. On the Missouri side, the Ted Jones State Park exists with its signature promontory point at the Confluence. This is a great place to stop and enjoy the views of the muddy waters of the Missouri River, fast flowing into its handshake with the tannin rich Mississippi River waters. A line of differentiation, marked by the distinctly colored waters is noticeable and remains so downstream for another six miles to the Chain of Rocks.” (Big Muddy Mike)