Rivergator Appendix III
Mike Clark: Chain of Rocks
Big Muddy Mike Clark is the owner of Big Muddy Adventures of St. Louis. This originally appeared as a posting in the River Miles online forum, from March 19, 2010. Used here with permission of author.
Given that I professionally outfit and guide the Mississippi River, notably the section from the Winfield Dam to Cairo, I generally hesitate to offer too much information since it is my livelihood to paddle folks through such places as the Chain of Rocks, the St. Louis port, and on down. And generally speaking, there is a touch of professional responsibility and liability to do so. However, the friends herein are not my clients generally speaking and in fact many are my friends and fellow members of the River Rat Union, so here's some thoughts.
As suggested, the Chain of Rocks is relatively easy to navigate when the river level is above 15 feet gauge height at St. Louis. The falls and whitewater disappear under the 250,000 - 700,000 cfs that flow over. Below that level, you should use great caution. Manitou Paddler has a good description of the conditions at these lower levels. I will add to that with the caveat that the common advice of "river right" may no longer be the best. The immense power of the rising and falling water has changed the river right passage quite a bit. I have run the Chain at below 12 feet gauge height well over a dozen times in the past six months and have found that the river right run is now at least as tricky as the left side. Before this past year, I would say that the river right was indeed the safer and easier route, however today there are three sets of falls river right, smaller yes than the left side where there is generally just one big one, and considerable chaotic hydraulics and standing waves. There is a "safer" passage way that flows through just to the right of the Missouri side intake tower that does not engage the falls or the big whitewater. The first part of this actually runs a bit perpendicular to the channel. You can see it well from on top of the bridge which is one of the two important scouting positions for running the Chain, the other being from the sand bar and bank on the river left side, Choteau Island. It requires a ferry crossing style move with a catch of an eddy line created by the wing dike just above the treatment plant and below the intake. Catching this eddy then allows you to set up to paddle downstream in a line between the falls and whitewater that remain close to and along the river right bank and the huge stuff which exists directly below the Missouri side intake tower.
And on another note of caution, the Chain may not be the trickiest or most dangerous stretch of the Middle Mississippi. My experience now says that the section from the Poplar Bridge to the JB Bridge which is 18 miles below the Arch is a very difficult stretch to navigate. This is the port of St. Louis which is as busy as it gets with commercial traffic moving 24/7 down a very narrow navigable channel with mid channel anchorage, line boats moving up and downstream pushing up to 15 barges, and harbor tows buzzing in and out between the anchorages and industrial St. Louis side. The turbulent waters they create, with barge wakes rising 5 to 8 feet and then crashing into each other, and the bank and then returning back across the channel.... Well you get the picture. This stretch makes me nervous every time. It is especially difficult if it is windy. And whatever you do, you should not run left of the mid channel anchorage. The harbor tows and rake barges at anchor create a very, very dangerous obstacle course, much of which is unseen as you paddle. Stick to the main channel, a bit on the river right side, put it in gear and paddle, paddle, paddle til you get to the JB Bridge. I recommend a marine radio to help identify what is going on both in front and behind you.
From the JB Bridge heading south, you will find the river quite lovely. Yes, there is quite a bit of tow traffic, but generally speaking the river channel allows for both tows and canoes to navigate in harmony. Under calmer day conditions, tow wakes are generally like ocean swells. You ride up and down without having them break on top of your bow. They are spaced nicely apart. This is not the case when it is windy however.
Anyway, for my first post to the Forum, this was much too long, and now it is time to head out for a trip on the flooding waters. See y'all on the river and give a call when you get to town.
Big Muddy Mike