The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail


Rivergator Appendix XIX

Water Ram Dugout Canoe Journal 2002


Sunday, Dec 14

Coming around the top end of Pelican Island I could see the Illinois bluffs in the blue distance, the hills above the Illinois River where it joins the Mississippi. Ever since coming into St. Charles the Missouri River has widened and slowed. Free of bluffs on its northern bank it is now in the floodplain of its mother, the mother river to which all rivers flow, the mother Mississippi, my mother Mississippi, my river, the waters I was baptized in, the flowing that forever flows through my veins and in my dreams. Suddenly it is November 1982 an Sean and I are rafting into St. Louis. Another circle completed in my life. We had eaten pig snoot at a downhome café on the streets of Alton the night before and this day were passing the Missouri confluence. We overshot the entrance to the Chain of Rocks Canal. Following bad advice given us upstream we thought we needed to take the Chain (much later I learned this was not necessary). We laboriously backtracked up to the mouth of the canal, which involved hauling the raft along the loose banks of rip-rap, one of us pulling by rope, the other pushing with sweep oar. I clearly remember looking up the mouth of the Missouri as it came careening into the Mississippi, masses of brown water swirling violently out of its channel, causing the sedentary Mississippi much commotion, white water, boils and whirlpools. I thought to myself: “wow! Here is a wild river!” And now here I am canoeing down that same wild muddy expanse that opened my eyes and my imagination in 1982, the river the hands opening my mind the reluctant mussel shell.


This year the Missouri is much calmer, due to the low water and the drought. The water more greenish/sienna like the lower Mississippi, there isn’t much commotion at the mouth. Still, this is a wild river. You can feel its muscles bulging like those of the neck of a sleeping giant by the huge sandbars on the insides of its great bends. You can see it in the piles of driftwood jammed into the disheveled rafts at the tops of wing dams and the trees at the heads of the islands. The bends themselves are of such curvature and rhythm that only big water could have been their creator. If the Mississippi is the mother, the Missouri’s the father.


The current seems to be slowing as we near the confluence, the two great rivers looping in grand proportion as they ease their way towards each other, the Missouri entering the valley of the Mississippi as the bluffs fall away and the floodplain widens, the Mississippi straighter, more direct in its approach from the north, the Missouri meandering, less purposeful, equally powerful and sure of itself, just taking its time as it reaches the conclusion of its continental journey. Perhaps it is hesitant to relinquish its water to the Mississippi, not wanting to be the underdog, it the big dog on the block for the length of 2,500 miles and seven states, every river it has encountered unto this confluence, the Marias, the Milk, the Yellowstone, the Platte, the Kansas, the Grand, has been its junior. Perhaps uncertain that it wants its muddiness diluted with the green waters of the Mississippi, as the Mississippi seems to hesitate as it nears the Ohio prior to their junction at Cairo, and resists the occurrence in forming two great loops. The waters of the West mixing with those of the North, the Rockies with the Heartland, the Great Plains with the Great North Woods, the brown mud of Montana with the black tannin and humus of Minnesota, slowly they approach, then distance themselves, again turn towards one another, the turn away, sashay left, do-se-do, sashay right, until the last of the bluffs decompose on the St. Louis side and there is nothing bu the width of the floodplain that separates them, still the Missouri makes two or three big bends in its last five miles, and then there it is, the riverscape opens up, the two become the one, as the many always becomes the one, promenade!, the waters come together, run together, run into each other, the rush of air as the blackbirds stop talking in individual voices, a hush of sound, then they fly as one, there is no more conversation , no more in-fighting and squabbling, the motion of the flock distinguishes all. All of the coulees, washes, creeks & streams, trickles & seeps & springs of the all combine with the marshes, swamps, wetlands & watersheds of the North, and the many voices of the water, the trickles and swooshes, the tinkling of sandbar waves and the roaring of rapids, all become folded into one river, the mother river, and they become silent, but all the more powerful, “don’t say nothing must know something…” the babbling voices of a continent all become one solidified being, silent, moody, meandering, cold & mysterious, coy & dangerous, touched by many & unfathomable, served by all in its vicinity & slave to none.


Now I have traveled where before existed only dreams, and now my imagination is again enlarged and is spreading its canopy wide over the horizon.


Sunday, Dec 15

The Noise, the stench, the never-ending light, the assault on the senses, all senses, only my feet know some pleasure, I took off my shoes and walked barefoot yesterday, at sundown around he sandbar on which we’re camped, and then into the woods o watch the burning globe settle into the earth through the framework created by the trees and their branches. Little black knives of fish heads cutting out of the surface of the river, the eddy in which we’re camped, the seagulls flying over and eyeing the heads slicing outward, looking for an opportunity, splashing down when one arises near, sometimes coming out with a little squirming fish (the other seagulls crowd around and try to steal it away), sometimes not.


We have so distanced ourselves from the outdoors in our insulated lives that we have no comprehension of the physical assault our civilization makes upon the natural world. The steady throb of a diesel fuel pump alone pollutes miles and miles of river upstream and down. Spend a single night outdoors camped near a city or town and you will come to see the numbing effect we have on the rest of creation. The internal combustion engine is the bane of peace and enlightenment.


Yesterday afternoon Mike and I distanced ourselves from the oil barge offloading on the Illinois shore, but its steady hum infected me all night and I awoke in a foul mood, ready-to-kill. Anticlimactic was my arrival at the confluence, the Mississippi a mess of refineries and oil docks, a trapped raccoon seen in the muddy tannic waters, caught in the crawl of escape, its intestines distended through its furry belly, its hair falling off in clumps as it decomposes. Over Illinois are seen nothing but power lines, refineries, tugboats, dry docks, oil docks, empty grain barges and full oil barges.


How wistfully I have been looking up the swoop of trees an muddy banks of the Missouri, which leaves the channel of the Mississippi and curves slowly westward. This river which has caused me so much pain and duress, stress, anguish, tears. So many times I buckled down and paddled harder just to have the journey over and done with, moments of enlightenment framed within hours of misery. So often I have envisioned this confluence and first handedly experienced the pleasure of passing mile one and then reaching the sparkling waters of my mother Mississippi, I pictured the joy & euphoria I would feel, the relief of arrival, I would dance for sheer joy. Today I arrived and felt nothing but repulsion and numbness. Repulsion with the industrial wasteland created in this place that was once a place of beauty, the annoying engines, the disgusting way man has done the river, numbness from my aching arms and river-weary body, the exhaustion of the river overwhelming all other feelings. There is nothing to be happy about. We have left Wanbli. He saw us to the end, to the last mile of our journey. Every day to the last day he cried and watched over us. And coyote carried me on in my dreams and then led me to the river’s mouth. But the disturbing scene of the raccoon caught in the act of escape in an underwater tomb. It reminded me of the horrible glimpse of a trapped animal we had in Iowa, again a coon caught, this time in a hunter’s bucket, his back feet caught eternally in a struggle to back out. I wonder what trap I am sticking my head into? Will I be frozen into eternity, my arms and legs flailing and frozen in rigor mortis in my attempt to escape? What is trapping me an what is my freedom? Dear lord, please help me recognize the traps and my tormentors and lead me unto enlightenment.