The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
When we paddled out in the back channel of Mosenthein we thought at first a deer, but a coyote was swimming from the left bank to the island. We watched him or her climb out and then run along the sand into the willows. Mostly I have seen tracks of coyotes in the wet sand, sometimes near turtle trails, sometimes beside holes dug in the ground and of course heard them at night. I knew they forced many a deer to jump into the water and swim away. This morning’s predator’s motives were unknown.
We paddled through the harbor section of St. Louis, passing industry on the river banks and going under bridges. Being Memorial Day it was amazingly quiet. The Eads Bridge, named for designer and builder James B. Eads, in 1874 was the longest arch bridge in the world. Fifteen workers died from “the bends” or decompression sickness from sinking the supports. We docked briefly at the restored Riverfront in front of the 630-foot steel Gateway Arch commemorating westward expansion of the United States built in 1965 before paddling downstream under the pair of bridges called the J.B. Bridge, named for the nearby Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery originally part of the oldest operating military installation west of the Mississippi River, Jefferson Barracks Post.
Where the Meramec River enters the Mississippi we paddled into its mouth and rounding the corner I saw an old baby blue fishing boat up in what looked like the trees, a real life image as from the movie Mud. Really it was beached on the bank, looking like it had been there a very long time. As we paddled closer John pointed out the For Sale sign taped to the windshield. On our way back we met up with a fisherman in his john boat. Friendly, and definitely curious about us and the canoe, we exchanged river stories and he gave us a few big, fileted catfish which we were happy and able to accept and store in the cooler. Did I mention the food Quapaw manages to bring? Stored in a huge cooler it is delightful, healthy, often organic, resupplied along the route with fresh Kale, peppers, carrots, spinach sometimes lettuce, organic milk and yogurt, including special requests like cookies, more garlic, a certain kind of apple. We also carried enough staples to make various kinds of salad, dressings, and sauces. John picked lamb’s quarter to go with our fish, a wild green growing along the way. I also picked mulberries and blackberries whenever we found them which were quite often added to breakfast or dessert.
We paddled down to Calico, a sandy island with a narrow back chute where we camped and swam from the northern side as in a pool where the current kept you in the same place. After dinner including some deer sausage from the kayaker, Layne Logue cooked with the rest of dinner on a driftwood fire, I talked with Bill Pretsch of Memphis and more specifically his 17 year old son, Ethan about his high school history teacher. Apparently the teacher walks around Memphis in bare feet and in other unconventional ways instructs his students in a way that resonated with me maybe due to my own education in New Hampshire during the 1970’s. Ethan admired his young, eccentric teacher and recounted his stories in terms that I understood and was happy, with my body language, to normalize. In my experience such teachers are the best one. I have had them and feel now that a kid can get along without great parents, but is impoverished and lost without a great teacher. Ethan also assisted me in tying a tarp over my little tent, which I greatly appreciated, and considerably reduced my anxiety over rain.
After coffee, breakfast and a morning stretch we continued downstream beside limestone cliffs that looked like Les Eyzies, France along the Vezere River. My husband and I visited those Pleistocene caves in 1996 when you still could view their prehistoric paintings and I remembered the drive along the ancient river bed. For some reason I was unprepared for the sight of rock cliffs along the Mississippi river. Other than the loess bluffs from Vicksburg to Angola particularly spectacular at Natchez the landscape of the lower Mississippi was more flat, humid, floodplain and remained that way in my imagination. Here the middle Mississippi is lined on the right bank by impressive bluffs of either loess, limestone, and a section of red slate-like rock that tumbled into broken down pieces looking close to reddish sand.
We camped at Rockwood Island, another eagle nesting place, bought in the last ten years by the now disbanded American Land Conservancy. Because of this the island is a sanctuary looked after by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service as part of the Mark Twain National Wildlife Refuge Complex, full of eagles, geese, deer, turtles, frogs and other wildlife more delicate and shy. This conservancy also bought Buck Island at Helena, Arkansas and I was sorry to learn they had gone out of business so to speak. Gail Guido, who paddled to Cape Girardeau, MO, and I walked some distance to edge closer to the eagles for pictures and walked back an equally long way as the sun began to set. All night and early morning I listened to squawking geese and calls of other birds that are safe on Rockwood Island.
The limestone cliffs continued and we passed at least one huge mining operation where railroad tracks follow the river carrying cargo to and from energy and limestone industry. We camped that night on the left bank across from Trail of Tears State Park and another impressive cliff. We talked a bit about the mental aspect of paddling. Again, bow paddler, River was ruminating that eighty percent of the physical is the mental. I contemplated this for the reminder of the trip. He had told me that he trains for expeditions and he recounted thoughtfully while cooking and setting up the kitchen that he started kicking an empty plastic bag around for 30 minutes or so, keeping it from hitting the ground. Things like this make me chuckle. Life can be so interesting. That reminded me of a leg exercise from Contact Improvisation dance classes in New York City. One dancer while on the ground uses just the legs to keep in physical contact with the legs or feet of a partner dancer who moves and dances remaining upright. It was fun, energizing, sometimes aggressive and somewhat exhausting. Then we would switch roles. I remembered how it stimulated fiery, useful strength in the legs as well as balance and agility. I’ve heard of football players taking ballet too, for the same reasons, I guess I like to think I have something in common with the disciplines of the NFL.
In the morning I was tired and woke up taking my time. From the campsite sitting on a huge fallen tree I could contemplate the cliff across the river, the stopped train, and the Trail of Tears. John had been discussing a previous trip this February taking Google Earth people mapping the Apalachicola River in Florida. I’m not sure how that works, maybe they needed to be at canoe level to see the banks of the river. Some things you just have to see for yourself. His casual mention of it captured my imagination. The current five year project on the Mississippi entitled Rivergator, to map it for paddlers, is named after a best-selling book, a bible for pioneers, Navigator, by Zaduk Kramer written for people from the East coast heading to the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys. It outlined how to make your way into that wilderness. It was an early nineteenth century Google Earth maybe, or maybe another guide against other people’s bad advice.
We headed downstream exploring Heiman Chute a long back channel alive with wood ducks, big fish, one that made a marked moving V on the surface, as other people were talking, and a dark shape underneath. John saw it too. We resupplied at Cape Girardeau, dropped off Gail and headed toward the Delta which John pointed out as the lower tree line ahead. We camped on an unnamed island just above Commerce, Missouri. John commented on this unnamed island that obviously someone was dumping trash into the river from Cape Girardeau, that there was more of it than in St. Louis. We saw orange construction fencing, large plastic pails, even prescription drug bottles.
In the morning we headed across the river to the right bank, the Missouri side, looking for the boulder outcropping at Thebes Gap also referred to as the little chain of rocks where an ancient red quartzite quarry provided the raw material used to make Cahokian chunkey stones used in an important spiritual game played by the Mississippians. We got out of the canoe looking at the boulders for an ancient petroglyph mentioned in Timothy Pauketat’s Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi “a meandering line, a large eye, a moccasin print, an eagle or a falcon glyph and a host of other unusual lines and clustered marks” he thinks suggest an ancient map depicting the Mississippi River. What I am intrigued by is that this petroglyph is mostly submerged by all water levels. We didn’t find it. I don’t know if that was submerged in ancient times, and if it was, that is pretty interesting.
We picked up Mike Clark and camped that night just upstream of Boston bar in a lovely flat, sandy mulberry and willow grove where I saw an incredible show of what looked like loads of twinkling lights in the trees. I got out of my tent at night when I saw them. Normally lightning bugs are flying around but these remained in what looked like the same place and lit the trees in an arresting, silent display of otherworldly brilliant white lights crowded tightly together and blinking on and off like a forest of lighted Christmas trees or sparks from a fire or maybe shooting stars, I could hardly tear myself away.
From Boston Bar we had a pedal to the metal kind of day going along the back channel of Boston Bar, we spotted an old eagle, grey, tired-looking, didn’t move as we passed by. When we were approaching the Ohio confluence Mike and John talked of floods by year. Mike saw the river flow backwards in 2011, sycamore logs coming toward him from the Ohio not far from Boston bar. John floated from Memphis to Vicksburg in 2011 when the water level was the highest ever in many Lower Miss locales (Caruthersville one of them) and would have gone further but the State Governor closed the river with the rumor of a “shoot to kill” order.