The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
The sun is shining today even though the wind is still brisk and cold. The eagles fly over as if an ordinary day, while we cruise around Foster Island enjoying the views of the bluff neighborhoods like Herculaneum. In the distance you can see a large eagles nest, giving the optical elusion of being right amongst a heron rookery. The trees are wind blown , so all the leaves blanket the landscape and the bluffs seem to blend with the trees.
We stop at Calico Island for lunch and exploring. I find another persimmon tree with fruit at its base, so I get my fill and move on. We come upon Osbourne Island with a unique designed revetment and wing dikes. The dikes are notched for fish migrating to their natural spawning grounds. Fish like sturgeon, spoonbill catfish, and buffalo are sensitive when time to spawn having to travel long distances to reproduce.
We paddle along and see a large structure in the distant. We land to find an old barge(LBD) that has been silted in to the sandbar. Maybe landlocked during the 2011 flood, it was halfway buried with coyote tracts of all kinds scattered through the wreck. The sun starts to dim so we see a eagle sitting high in the trees on Salt Lake Island. We pick a campsite, while we marvel at the heron rookery in the distance that was 100 nests strong. The only time to spot these rookeries is in the winter after the trees have fallen.
We camp at the bottom of the towhead across from Fort Chartres chute, with a beautiful view of the River and the bluffs. We enjoy a meal of roasted pork chops and fried potatoes , while numerous coyote packs serenade each other in the distance.
I take a walk in the morning down the Fort Chartres chute and look to the sky to see over 50 herons leaving the rookery headed towards the River. When they spotted me , they “parted like the Red Sea.” This was one of my most spectacular wildlife encounters ever. -Mark River
The morning starts with a short paddle to Chester, Illinois. The day is misty and wet as we stop and resupply. River lovers are parked along the bluffs watching towboats and adventures past the home of Popeye the Sailor. The trees on the Chester bluffs are still holding leaves, contrasting beautifully with the surrounding colors of fall. A surveying boat pulls up to the ramp. Hired by the Coor of Engineers to find troubled spots along the towbaat channel. We strike up conversation and give them a poster of the water trail from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico.
The temperature is dropping so paddling is the best way to beat the cold and wet. We paddle past Rockwood Island headed for Liberty Bar and Jones Towhead. Even though it rained all day, the trees and bluffs were full of bald eagles. They produced thirteen sightings and made me deal with the elements better watching how nonchalantly the eagles handled the weather. During low water the top of the island is a big sandbar with a substantial distant to the trees. If you continue to the bottom, there is a back channel that allows entry to the same sandbars. There’s a old revetment dike, made of wood, that you can float over and enter. A small island, but lots of wildlife.A good place to camp to get away from the north wind. A large beaver the size of a small bear cub greeted us. A lone buck scampered up the cut bank. He was bedded down waiting out the hunting season. The back channel also has some type of wreck expose in the cut bank left bank descending along the back channel. Some very old woodworking structures. -Mark River
Jones Towhead to Cottonwood Island
We paddle around Mclean Point to along stretch consisting of a series of islands LBD. La Cours, and Hat islands bring you to Gills Point. Gills point opens into a Fountain Bluffs igneous out crop of boulders. During low water be careful of the slightly submerged boulders and a extensive set of weirs. Once cleared of the Bunge Corporation docks, you will see Tower Rock in the distance. Grand Tower Park is LBD with a beautiful manicured beach, with camping and extended stay set up for RV’S. Water is accessible. Grand Tower is a special section of the River. With its unique rock formations, Tower Rock being the monumental feature of the town. Even the sandbars have a combination of luscious beaches and gravel bars. Many of the gravel bars have outcrops compositions not seen anywhere else along the River. Just past Grand Tower and Tower Rock lies Cottonwood Island RBD with high bluffs sandbars. Sand bars that will have you exploring and studying all day . The bottom end of the island has a tall cut bank perfect protection from a northwest wind. -Mark River
Cottonwood Island to Burnham Island
A very long, strait section of the Mississippi River. All the islands are LBD while the bluffs and the San Francisco Railroad border to the right. Big Muddy, Crawford, and Hanging Dog Islands are beautiful islands with clean beaches, plenty of drift wood, and deciduous forest full of wildlife. A great section of the River to view the majestic bald eagle. The high bluffs are ideal for this preditory bird. Trail of Tears State Park has a lookout tower over looking this beautiful stretch. Passing Vancill Towhead, Dusky Bar, and Devils Island will bring you into Cape Girardeau. Beware of heavy towboat traffic coming into Cape Girardeau. The channel is very slender and the infastructure of weirs and wing dikes cause very confusing water. From there, two small bends around Marquette Islands and Rock Island bring you into Thebes. A quiet town with hunting and fishing being a way of life. Very interesting outcrop is exposed during low water with igneous boulders. One special boulder has ancient indian writing. Camping along this stretch is challenging with most spots being accessible by locals. Continued to paddle Burnham Island where you can enjoy quiet camping with the animal and stars. -Mark River
We awake in the morning after enjoying our first night above freezing. The sun is shining , but the wind is prevalent as we paddle through long bends and endless towboat traffic. It’s a very uneventful day as a lone eagle relaxes in the tall trees along Turkey Island. Their demeanor correlates with our moral as the water is confused and choppy from the combination of wind and towboat traffic. Eventually making our way towards Baustark Towhead , headed for St. Genevieve Bend..
We pick a camp destination of Beaver Island. It’s located on the right bank which is usually Missouri, but the River has change its course over decades so the island is in Illinois. Located across from the Kaskaskia River State Park. The tall trees are great protection from the south wind. During low water, a gravel bar appears along with long stretches of sand as you get closer to the trees. During deer season, don’t be surprised to see hunters with boats tied to the wing dikes. The Illinois season starts the third weekend in November. Gravel beds filled with lithified mud, crinoids, and rare fossils like septarian concretions and the rare carnelian. The town of Chester, Illinois is 9 miles downriver where you can resupply or go into town and take a picture with the statue of Popeye the Sailor! Chester is the home of this cartoon icon. -Mark River
The day starts to end as we paddle pass the Meramac River and Hopper’s Marina. Since passing the Meramac River we had already spotted nine bald eagles soaring high the sky, some perch high in the abandon dead trees overseeing river activity and guiding us along the way. Three different kinds of gulls and two osprey remind me of how bountiful the Mississippi River is to humanity and the wild kingdom.
My heart is warm, even though it’s very cold out, being able to feel my mother’s presence as we paddled by Jefferson Barracks Cemetery . Her bodies buried there , but her soul lives through me. A red tail hawk stands tall in the trees approaching Beard Island, a symbol that she’s watching me. I adopted hawks when I was young because every time I would sit along the cutbanks downstream from Chain of Rocks, I would see one. Later on through college, hawks would be along Highway 70 headed towards the University of Central Missiouri. We come upon the bottom of the island and the sun is setting. There’s a lone eagle in the trees. This looks like the spot.
We exit the canoe , going in different directions, exploring the possibilities for camp that evening. I walk into the woods slowly and in the distant a broad of turkeys 20 deep are foraging the forest floor, while the Tom struts for the females. They feel my presence a slowly disappear into the woods. Pilated woodpeckers carve into the stumps of dead trees. The sounds of the woods is vibrant.
We decide upon camping in the forest to block us from the frigid wind. Our view is highlighted by the homesteads on the rolling hills across the channel. Small authentic neighborhoods like Glen Park, Bushberg, and Riverside make a beautiful silhouette when the sun is setting .
The fire is warm , while the stew simmers in the pot. Coyotes comb the beach close to our canoe, while raccoons fight in the forest. Sounds of life rule the night. A large buck walks through camp snorting and displaying characteristics of the rut. We wake in the morning with everything frozen, while a lone eagle sits high in a old cottonwood. I take a sip of ginger tea and let it flow through my bloodstream and say cheers to my friend.
– Mark River