The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
If you need to overnight in Cairo, your choices are limited. You can camp in the grassy fields at Fort Defiance, but it is a depressing place, and not very friendly nor safe feeling. You could also find refuge in a small protected shelf of sand hidden below the West side of the Cairo Bridge. If you are planning on stopping in Cairo for any length of time, this camp is a doable option for a safe place to camp, stash your gear, and walk across the bridge into town. The only downside is that it’s a long walk, and a narrow bridge with no walkway. But ultimately your best bet would be to plan things so you don’t have to camp here. Plan your last camp at Angelo Towhead above town, or the giant sandbars at Bird’s Point opposite Cairo going downstream (or Island No 1, or Wolf Island further downstream).
0.8 LBD Fort Defiance
The Mississippi and Ohio Rivers confluence around Fort Defiance. It is the southernmost piece of the State of Illinois, and simultaneously the northernmost mile of the Lower Mississippi River. This strategic location has been a military stronghold since the Mississippian era, and figured importantly in the Civil War. At 279 feet above sea level, for downstream paddlers “it’s all downhill from here!”
Say “goodbye” to the Middle Mississippi River with a wave of your paddle. Say “hullo” to the Lower Mississippi River, and enjoy paddling into the biggest confluence comprised of the two biggest rivers in North America! You can pull up to the exact place where the two big rivers meet at Fort Defiance, which is the best place to enjoy the meeting of waters, and take some photos. Climb the tower above you for views upstream the Ohio into the heart of the Cairo industrial reach and harbor (but be sure to tie your vessel securely to shore first, and be wary of the crashing waves that come in from passing tows). The Fort Defiance/Cairo boat ramp is several hundred feet up the Ohio River, but is often socked in by mud. Best access to confluence off the muddy rip-rap at or near the point.
Maybe you’ve followed the muddy water flowing out of the Big Muddy Missouri above St. Louis 195 miles upstream. And maybe you noticed the normally clearer Upper Mississippi turned muddy by the Missouri. The same thing happens here. Reaching Fort Defiance, the land portion of the confluence of the these two great rivers, is like making landing at the Ed Jones Confluence Park several hundred miles upstream at the mouth of the Missouri. The muddy Middle Mississippi turns the (normally) clearer and greenish Ohio River into another muddy river. The mud always wins! Why is this? I don’t know. Another curiosity: The mile marker at the confluence point says 0.8. Shouldn’t it read zero? Well, even though you are at the confluence, mile “0” is actually somewhere out in the middle of the water flowing through this confluence, 8/10ths of mile downstream of the land confluence!
Continuing Downstream from Cairo
When you push off to continue downstream look carefully first for approaching tows and service boats from all three directions. Be especially vigilant of big tows turning themselves around as they come down the Ohio, or coming down the Middle Miss, to make the turn up the other river. Tow pilots get very edgy in these situations, and they should be, powering millions of pounds of goods around a busy confluence and two bridges to negotiate.
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 Middle Mississippi and the Ohio 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, Mississippi seems uncertain about the meeting, but the Ohio flows in from the east purposefully with little change of trajectory. The Mississippi curves inwards and outwards around and above Cairo, and then makes one last curve around Angelo Towhead, and then finally surrenders to the implacable Ohio, but does not give up any of its grace or color. Indeed, downstream paddlers will soon see that the Ohio takes on the color and the curving nature of the Middle Miss.
Keep reading below for Rivergator continuation on the Lower Mississippi River.