The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
RBD 80 Tower Rock
As you come around Fountain Bluff, and then past Wittenburg, a hulking fang of Tower Rocks juts out of the right hand side of the channel big and dark and brooding, not far off the right bank, rising alarmingly like the biggest snag you have ever seen. Paddler’s beware! This sight causes distress to your heart for a reason. Many a good steamboat has met its demise Tower Rock or the other rock prominences found around it. At low water it is a minefield of rocky ledges. At high water giant whirlpools form around the base of the rock which caused trouble to steamboats, so imagine what it would do to you in a canoe! River levels for access to RBD Missouri shore: 5 SLG completely dry, standing water at 10SLG, turbulent water at 15 SLG, wild water at 20SLG, extremely chaotic at 25SLG and above.
Tower Rock stands around one hundred feet high above river level at low water (and of course less at high water), Tower Rock is one the most striking landmarks along the Middle Mississippi, and yet very few paddlers come near it, and so have little appreciation of its size and unusual nature. There are no other cliffs like this one anywhere along the Mississippi. There used to be, but they were all blown out or the river shifted and left them dry. When the river is between 10 and 20 ChG confident paddlers can sneak into interesting rock harbors and find a campsite on a rock ledge. Above 20 this area turns into a maelstrom of thrashing currents and canoe flipping currents and cross-currents. At 30 you can dive in well above or well below the rock and gain a sandbar against the right riverbank, about 300 yards below the rock.
Large blue holes form in low below Tower Rock, the largest of which is an old abandoned limestone quarry, probably some enterprising contractor for the USACE wing dam project. Rusting iron tracks and wheels and other artifacts of the industrial age can be found scattered around. Excellent swimming in the blue holes at low water, but don’t be tempted to dive unless you first very carefully plumb the bottoms for unseen rocks or ledges. A stand of persimmons grow on the Missouri river bank closest to Grand Tower. It is considered a Missouri Natural Area, and protected by the Dept of Conservation, which extends to the woods surrounding. You can follow a footpath up the bluff to a lookout platform above the rock for a unique view through the hickory-oak woods.
If you have made landing at Devil’s Backbone Campground and want to get to Tower Rock, you will have to wait for the right opening between towboats and then paddle hard! Your best route would be to jump in the eddy below Devil’s Bake Oven (Grand Tower) and follow it upstream as far as you can and use its circulatory motion to sling shot you into the current. Maintain a ferry line angle for the crossing until you are well across the main channel and confident you will reach the far side without losing too much ground. Downstream towboats tend to go mid channel here, and and upstreamers tend to stick to the left bank (Illinois).
79.7 LBD Grand Tower Boat Ramp/Seawall
Grand Tower is a true levee town, only the tops of the buildings rise above the green grassy sides of the levee and gravel road on top. In the middle of the Grand Tower levee a boat ramp is conveniently located opposite downtown. This is a good all-season, all-water level ramp which never bottoms out except in extreme low waters like those of 2012.
80.7 LBD Grand Tower, Illinois
Grand Tower is a small river town that has managed to hold on to its river roots. At the sandy landing between Devil’s Bake Oven and Devil’s Backbone lies a state park with camping available from Spring until late Fall. With the weather deteriorating, Mark and I needed to make this stop quickly. I walked to the park looking for water, but everything was shutdown for the season. Several vehicles passed by, however, they didn’t stop or wave. A red pickup truck with ladder racks was stopped near the river. I approached the truck, explained my situation, and lucky for me the driver was willing to help me out on my water supply run. His nickname was Shorty and he had spent his whole life in Grand Tower except for the time he worked on the barges that ply the river. He took me to the nearest gas station for my supplies. En route he pointed out the town’s River Museum and the old river Pilot House that has been maintained throughout the years. After purchasing a couple of gallons of water, we made our way back. I asked him about the ghost of Tower Rock. His story was told to him when he was young by his grandfather. Prior to telling Shorty’s ghost story, I think a brief description of the town is in order. Grand Tower was once a bustling river town complete with two iron work foundries, a lime kiln, a box factory, and a shipyard. The superintendent of the iron works had his house perched atop of Devil’s Bake Oven. All that remains today of the house is part of the foundation. By all accounts he had a beautiful daughter and that’s where the ghost stories agree. Shorty’s version started with a wedding of the daughter and ended with her haunting the area especially the old home site. It was a beautiful day and the wedding party crossed the river to visit Tower Rock. At nightfall, the party attempted to cross the river, but were caught up in the violent water created by Tower Rock. Everyone in the party survived except for the bride. The moral of the story that Shorty’s grandfather emphasized was stay away from the river and especially Tower Rock. (Braxton Barden)
79 – 76.5 LBD Grand Tower Island
The State of Missouri crosses the river at mile 79 to the Illinois side and continues downstream until the bottom of Grand Tower Island 76.5. At least that’s how it looks on the map. The river, in its one of it’s creative capricious moods jumped the old channel at Big Muddy Island and cut off the bend, isolating it as an oxbow lake (here in the shape of a half moon). This effect is seen in many places on the lower half of the Middle Mississippi, and even more so on the Lower Mississippi, where the hundred mile floodplain is a thick layered tapestry of old channels and oxbow lakes in various states of decay.
The levee has separated Tower Island for the main channel of the big river, hence losing all of the regenerative qualities of the seasonal rises and falls of the big river. That said, it is some of the best fishing around, and its clearish green waters a favorite place for picnickers. A small chunk of the original bend is found through the woods near the river below the dike at mile LBD 76.6. For a fascinating walk through floodplain woods and great wildlife viewing, pull over into the eddy here, and walk due east through the woods. Eventually you will come to the opening. Walk quietly and carry a pair of binoculars and have your camera ready for a surprise visit to unsuspecting cranes, storks, and other waders, amphibians, and possibly river otters or beaver. There is an egret rookery on the island, and terns frequent it during their nesting season (May, June, July). There is public boat ramp on the SW end of the lake, off the levee. Good concrete but no access to the river.