The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
Rivergator Appendix IX
Mr. & Mrs. ‘Sippi
In 2009 I built a raft for a group of 10 Germans who wanted to raft the Mississippi River in the spirit of Huck and Jim, and they wanted to film t for a “documentary” to be called Mr. & Mrs. ‘Sippi. We put in at Piasa Creek (which is tucked into the Illinois Bluffs between Alton and Grafton), paddled through the Mel Price Lock & Dam and then past the Missouri River Confluence, the heart of America, and thankfully entered the free flowing waters of the Middle Mississippi. From there it was all downstream to the Gulf of Mexico. Here below is the excerpted section from St. Louis to Caruthersville.
Tuesday, July 7, Duck Island, Missouri River Confluence
The big muddy charging into the Mighty Mississippi. The Upper Mississippi from Piasa Creek, the maiden voyage of the raft, feeling its way tenderly into the big waters of America, wanbli Bald Eagle, flew off at dawn from Duck Island. I am suddenly thrown back to 1982, the last time I was on this section of river, on a raft under the bluffs of Illinois. Sean Rowe and I paddling the Mississippi on a home-made 12×24 foot raft, my shedwater Mississippi River experience. How far advanced this raft is compared to that one we built then out of found materials, scrap lumber & discarded oil drums. How ignorant was I then. And yet we made the journey, and the river is still allowing me life, liberty & the pursuit of further explorations! Regardless of how fancy your raft is, there are still the same dangers and the same hard work necessary to get through. Midnight madness full moon Mike & Tom & a bottle of whiskey.
Wednesday, July 8, Mosenthein Island, Mile 187
Big Muddy “Wanbli” Mike expertly guided us into a secluded series of alternating muddy & sandy shelves in the back channel of Mosenthein Island after a stormy run through & over the right central tongue at the Chain of Rocks, the river 17.91 @ St. Louis, the Missouri mad & muddy, and the Mississippi a little less so. Scott Mandrell made a run back to Piasa Creek to retrieve the anchor from John Cooper’s Angela’s Ark, which we had forgotten at pushoff. God Bless you Scott! What a useful addition that anchor turned out to be! We finished an agonizingly long film “shoot” at the canoe & kayak access at the base of Duck Island (Columbia Bottoms) and were finally underway at 3pm, a few swims along the way, some small isolated cumulus clouds growing & diffracting the light in yellows, whites, blues & blacks, the rounded bluffs upon which St. Louis sits & separates our southerly passage on the Mississippi from the approaching waters of the Big Muddy bouncing along in leafy elaborations, tenderly guiding the raft over the bosom of the meeting place of the great waters.
The clouds continued to congregate over North St. Louis like thugs in the alley, no horizontal motion but vertically rising & growing with alarming proportions as we approach I-270 and the roaring beyond, then soon rain drops, and then some full-out shimmering downpours dimpling the muddy waters in a dazzling mesmerizing display. Seth was shoved out of his position by eager Germans laying all over the prow of the raft suddenly energized by the storms. Just under the I-270 bridge and making our final approach to the 66 bridge and “what roars behind” when straight line gusting winds & rains hit us from the western bluffs and we are forced to retreat and hastily take shelter under one of the monumental Interstate Highway abutments where everyone huddles shivering & excited Voelker repeatedly jumping in-and-out with his submersible Lumix camera and grinning madly, my VHF marine radio crackling alternately German & English, Scott & Lutz can be seen high above but as small as fleas on the route 66 roadway Scott screaming “Run! Run! Run for cover!” and off they dash down the Western side of the bridge for protection while we are left in the exposed in the middle of the maelstrom — The wind thrashing us about as we hang on in our strange harbor. Only the river remains silent – & also warm. Those who don’t have proper clothing are huddled below the raft in the river. Patricia is shivering, and Sabine, Seth offers his rain jacket like a gentleman. Marcus looks like a wet puppy. We were saved from who knows what helpless descent by the chance location of this pylon and a shallow shelf of sand underneath. If there was any doubt before of the river’s benevolence it was here dashed.
Mike oversees a crazy canoe crawl returning up the back channel at sunset to retrieve the last two members of the film crew, poor Tom & Jadwiga, the ground crew, who missed out on all of the fun of the day! Popeye the Canoe Man is with Mike. In my 4-man canoe is Darius “Dare Devil,” one the newest Mighty Quapaws. Like his name indicates, he has no fear. But his parents do: in the past they have denied him participation in our adventures due to the notorious history of the hungry Mississippi River. As we were rounding one point a full-grown (but still immature) bald eagle jumped off an overhanging branch and heavily clopped its way in front of us over the top of the island in the last light of the day. Darius started and then yelled, “John! What was that!”
Hee-hee-hee! That one experience made this whole mad dash worth it!
It required a full 3 hours of hard paddling, mostly by the light of the moon, to scoop Tom & Jadwiga up at the completely mudded-over Riverside Park Landing and then return around the base of the island, Tom paddling like a mad-man – now I see where the name “Monsta” Movies comes from! He is a monster paddler if nothing else. Producer of this production & Co-owner of the film company, Tom plays canoe-polo back home, and his skillful & tough handling of the canoe from the prow demonstrated this “prowess!”
Later that night, after we were safe at camp and had eaten supper and were drinking around the fire, Lutz approached and hugged me and thanked me for saving his wife. I was confused. I thought he said “life.” I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not, but then later realized what he had said. But it wasn’t I who saved his blue-eyed beauty Sabine (also camera-woman for the production) it was the river.
Thursday, July 9, Palmer Creek Island, Mile 168
The back channel barely open over a rip-rap dike cap, a beautiful camp of sand flung onto a bluff below the first wing dam, a wild place created during high water, full of big logs, sculpted big-scale driftwood, and a selection of river-scoured topography, flats, bluffs, ridges, and a frog pond created behind the highest bluff – where 10 Germans set up 11 tents (one tent just for cameras – by order of chief camera woman Sabine) – and Mike proclaimed “New Berlin!” Well, we crossed off three more items on our list of the 5 most difficult obstacles yesterday. 1) Chain of Rocks, 2) entering St. Louis, 3) Coast Guard Inspection, 4) Exiting the St. Louis Harbor. 4 out of 5 in two days! Just in case we start getting smug with ourselves, our nights still had another nightmare to contemplate – the riverman’s worst nightmare: our single most difficult challenge is one we won’t see until the very final days of the expedition – and is actually the longest & most dangerous – the combined (and also contiguous harbors of Baton Rouge & New Orleans).
St. Louis was bad enough. Could it get worse? Well, yes and no. It felt like we were caught in a pinball machine – us the pinball, the harbor tugs the flippers, the long lines of fleeted barges the pinball banking walls – The St. Louis Harbor downstream of the Arch – a 15 mile long industrial park land laid out along the main channel of the river, perhaps the most concentrated & busy section of inland waterway anywhere in America? – not busier than New Orleans, by any means, but a lot narrower – someone made a paranoia phone call and we were escorted into the city by a squadron of St. Louis finest. Lights & sirens and all. I thought something big was going on in this industrial wasteland, then I realized with a falling heart that it was us. We were the focus of their attention. Dear lord, river Gods, why can’t we just paddle and be allowed to pass on peacefully? Can things get any more difficult? One guy chased us to the end of a rocky jetty along some warehouses and then screeched to a halt and jumped out of his patrol car blue lights flashing and hollered out for us over his bullhorn “stop!” And then “Pull Over!” We had a clear and unobstructed view of the river shore line here, all tall trees long ago cut and floated away. It was almost like watching a movie. I wanted to laugh, and then I realized we were actually making a movie. Strange, to be in a movie and to be experiencing a scene as it unrolled itself. It was the most comical thing I think I have ever seen on the river. It easy to laugh now, but I wasn’t laughing then – as we tensely maneuvered our still virgin raft through the throes of industrial wasteland with our charge of Germans. No one else was laughing either. Mike looked like he could eat steel and spit out bullets so angry was he as he paddled one of the Northshores alongside and then cut into shore to try to calm the guy down. Thank you Mike Clark! His father is a distinguished veteran of the Chicago Police, he knows how to talk to these guys and not be intimidated. Silly police. Did they want to cause us a wreck, trying to come to shore in such a cluttered place? There could be capsize and loss of life if we tried to obey those orders. Strong current pushing through parked barges. I didn’t budge one degree of rudder angle. None of the Mighty Quapaws even flinched hearing those irrational screams, but tersely kept the tiller pointed downstream and the oars kept chopping away in rough rhythm as we floated on down underneath the railroad bridge, and then the McKinley Bridge, the Eads Bridge now in full view, our safe refuge, the Eads Bridge never looked so beautiful! Our home base! If any place is home along this jumbled waterfront its here below the oldest bridge on the Mississippi River, built by a guy who just might have been crazier than us!
So we floated on and made a landing on a small spit of sand that had been formed in the last river’s rise just below the tall arches of the Eads Bridge abutments. The cop cars appeared, no longer running lights, and parked above us along the riverside drive below the arch, and sat. And watched. It was kind of eerie. No one came out and asked questions. I tried to remain as calm as possible. The Germans seemed unfazed, but I noticed that all cameras had been put away. A Rescue boat with the St. Louis Fire Department arrived and told us that someone had called 911 and reported us. Wanbli Mike jumped to attention and with great animation explained our mission. They eventually powered off, I’m not sure if they were enlightened or more confused by Mike’s display. The US Coast Guard eventually appeared. Finally someone who would understand! We were inspected and questioned by 2 different groups of inspectors, and asked for nautical things that made good sense like “What is your freeboard” and “What is your capacity?” and “How many will be on board?” and “Will you run at night time?” And then we were asked to physically verify that we had enough life jackets, and 1 st aid kits, bailers, running lights (just in case), VHF Marine Radios, and etc, all done very courteously and politely with questions thrown in about who we were and where we had come from and what the Germans were doing, and all that, and then Capt. Bill _____ who has been on the St. Louis waterfront for over 18 years was called, and he layered on several more floods and high waters of fresh questioning. There was a lot of talk back & forth. It seemed like this could go either way. I was getting a little nervous. What would we do if they told us we couldn’t continue? Finally something clicked and someone at the other end of the line far off somewhere in some office finally was satisfied that we had met all demands, and the barrier was lifted, permission granted. But wait! Photos! Yes, we had met all demands, but then we were further detained as digital cameras were produced and photos made for documentation. Finally, finally we could reboard, the Quapaws laden with sub sandwiches and the film crew setting the stage for a St. Louis departure, literally, the raft became a floating stage as we pushed off from the Arch, the glistening stainless steel curving high overhead as Patricia & Volker talked into the camera, 4 men at oars, me at the tiller, 2 each in the Northshores, I was elated, we received the official stamp of affirmation from the St. Louis sector of the US Coast Guard, the toughest marine test we could be subjected to. So many rafts & other home-made contraptions they have turned away at this point. Capt. Bill said they have halted more rafts than allowed. He also said that this was the best designed & constructed raft that he has seen in his 18 years in St. Louis.
Of course, this didn’t mean we were bullet-proof. Mike and Seth and I shared a few high fives and congratulations, and then it was time to snap back into attention. After leaving the Arch we entered the main channel and entered the busy, busy St. Louis Harbor, a fifteen mile run through a constricted stream of fleeted barges, big towboats, and dozens of small towboats making bigger tows. We ran the gauntlet through the afternoon and made landing on the high blown dune of sand bank left below the JB Bridge at the head of Palmer Creek Island.