The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
Friday, July 10, Turkey Island, Mile 130
Jupiter near the moon. Floating through the cliffy bluffs of the Missouri Ozarks as defined by the Mississippi River, perhaps one of the most beautiful sections of the great valley, the morphology of the floodplain defined by the last major flooding of the last ice age, a broad valley shaped violently and then left to dry out and be richly vegetated & grazed and then populated as mankind grew and adapted and became one with the land. Beautiful bluffs, rising forests and steep ravines, old houses and old institutions, Catholics & industry, power plants, lead smelter (Herculaneum), concrete yards, bluffs being pulverized and pushed elsewhere to be converted into roadbeds, dikes & harbors, the forest predominates over the ridges. One bald eagle swung into view as it glided up the cliff near Trail of Tears.
Saturday, July 11, Grand Tower, Mile 80.8
A great run down the dancing ridge line of the Missouri Ozarks, mostly flood plain to the East until Grand Tower, a roller coaster ridge capped by maples, catalpas, oaks, ashes, beeches & sycamores of the woodlands region, a band of white limestone cliffs with caves crevasses and cracks, jumbles of boulders, deep ravines with steep rocky sides, springs & seeps & waterfalls, meanwhile down below the big belly of mother Mississippi flowing proudly, serenely & strongly down hallways of bluffs & ridges, striking mounds & mountains of rock & forest somehow sub-tropical in shape, subtly feeling more southern in the columns of ridges approaching 20 miles upstream Grand Tower, Volker exclaimed “its starting to look like the Amazon!” A lot of individual trees standing taller and with more character, more vines, more leafy exuberance, flowing through the island paradise now protected as result of the good work of the American Land Conservancy – Rockwood, Walnut, Wilkinson – all good camps at present water level. Rockwood a huge sandbar along the main channel, the others with smaller bivouacs top end or underneath wing dams. A steady south wind 5-10 all day gusting higher, we were afforded relief in the meandering of the Mississippi which dances around islands and dips back & forth in a slow dance on geologic time, orchestrated by the earth and the prevailing weather patterns, the flowing of water.
Sunday, July 12, Marquette Island – Cape Girardeau, Mile 50
Awoke to thunderstorms, most everyone crawled back into their tents for much needed sleep, but not Volker (who seems to become as electric as any storms around him!) nor Patricia (who feels claustrophobic in her tent in the rain). Mike went into town for coffee and egg-sausage-muffins for breakfast. Great campsite on a private sandy beach under the pipeline crossing at the base of Grand Tower. I disappeared for several excursions to Tower Rock, once alone, once with Popeye, once with Tom & Marcus. It seemed as if the rain was going to keep on. The film crew grew restless and finally decided to pack it up and head in to Cairo. Quapaws packed up and we struck camp after noon and entered the archipelago below Tower Rock, big gravel bars exposed full of natural limestone, Tower Rock approachable, but surrounded by ugly looking teeth, rocks sticking out of the water, not a good day to explore, the raft being buffeted by the wind, we kept on, but looked hungrily over as we passed – so many places to return to & explore. Limestone cliffs replaced with red cliffs below, an abrupt change, new geology, the river cut due south and the wind picked up. We stopped in a sheltered cove, the Quapaws promptly covered themselves with seating pads and fell asleep. A half-day paddle 30 miles leave 1pm arrive 9pm with a 2-hour nap 2-4pm to avoid the wind, 30 miles in 6 hours = 5mph in fairly stiff head winds (gusting to 25 out of the South).
Monday, July 13, at the head of Brown’s Bar (Dogtooth Bend), Mile 24
Noon start. Mike and I paddled into the Cape for medical supplies for Seth (ear infection), Mike finished an online update while I located a doctor who would make prescription over the phone and then found a ride to the Hwy 61 strip to a drug store. Thank you Laura Stricker of Cape Girardeau for your hospitality! We floated half the day and paddled half the day according to the wind, buoys and tugboat activity, a plethora of upstream tugs pushing empties yesterday, perhaps preparing for the upcoming grain harvest season. We floated on buffeted southeasterly by an all-afternoon progression of gentle straight line winds with bellowing & billowing storm clouds undulating & evolving & mysteriously emerging from a massive slow-moving system straddling the hills of southern Illinois & the Missouri Ozarks, gentle rain showers sweeping through & slow winds until about 6:30pm when the trees north bank began thrashing & bending side to side and low scuddy clouds were skirting fastly overhead as if something big was coming in, we hugged the north bank for protection and curled into the first possible camp, which turned out to be a beauty, the river blessed us again! A beautiful protected camp at the head of Brown’s Bar, a calm inlet to beach the raft with a steep bank and deep waters, completely isolated from the main channel, no tugboat waves beating our baby tonight! Dinky & Popeye made a delicious pasta supper under Mike’s direction. I awoke in the middle of the night listening to a far-off train over the forests somewhere deep in the Missouri Bootheel, on the Illinois side a truck rumbling up Hwy 3, and in between: the roaring of the river as it rolled over the shoaling at the top of Dogtooth Bend. 26 ½ miles in 6 hours paddling from 1pm to 7pm means we made about 4mph, the river must be slowing down after it exits the steeper gradient of the bluffs below St. Louis and it enters the broad floodplain below Thebes
Tuesday, July 14, Moore Island, Lower Mississippi Mile 926
Voyageur’s wake up & start at dawn, breakfast on the water. We broke camp at 7am and enjoyed a breakfast on the water, a call to oars and then an “at ease!” around Dogtooth Bend, then Greenleaf Bend, two of my favorites in the entire river basin, the evidence of previous high water flows in the massive piles of driftwood pushed against the edges, in some places un unbroken tangle of jumbled logs & branches woven tightly by the mighty Middle Mississippi, like some giant sheep herder’s fence line, all of the rocks & wing dams ravaged by the current, some rock work now in progress at the end of Greenleaf, a rock barge & crane & tow anchored and huffing away loudly & laboriously, the landscape sliding by, our first view of the Kentucky Bluffs visible from the top of Greenleaf as we swirled around and looked far over the deep forests Eastward, the somber Ohio approaching from its run out of the Alleghenies & the Blue Ridges & Cumberland Plateaus, and similar to the dance of the Missouri & the Mississippi at their confluence above St. Louis, the waters of the Middle Mississippi and the waters of the Ohio approach each other, then retreat, then approach again, turn away again, and then at long last after many miles of this courtship the more elegantly dancing Middle Mississippi at long last succumbs to the sheer Suma wrestler weight of the Ohio and slams into the bigger river at a blunt angle, pushing all of her water far over bank left against the Kentucky Hills in a surprise maneuver that forces the green waters of the Ohio into a much narrower band which hugs the Wickliff Bluff in terror while the much more turbulent waters of the Muddy Mississippi churn along its edges and slowly infuse the sparkling green channel into brown. The Green flood might have the volume but the Brown has the color. Within ten miles all is a golden brown, and thirty miles later the sinuous meandering character of the Missouri/Mississippi also prevails, the lower Miss becomes a dizzy course of rolling meanders below Hickman. We’re now on the home river! The Lower Mississippi, the wildest, the brawniest, the baddest river in North America!
Big Muddy Mike relinquished his command of the vessel and the Mighty Quapaws and I celebrated our return home. We were still hundreds of miles from Clarksdale, but it felt like home! Wanbli appeared in the early evening to lead us to camp. This morning I awoke to find Venus in Taurus and Pleiades the sparkling sisters cheerfully dancing above.
Day 10, July 15, New Madrid Missouri, Mile 891
Another voyageur’s start, raft style, a little late. The Quapaws slow in awakening. A long hot languorous day, Seth in misery, his ear infection becoming an constant pain, thrown off balance by this complication near his internal gyroscope, adding to the misery of the hot day he is unable to swim for fear of worsening his condition, the Quapaws in low morale, the feeling of mutiny in the air as we slowly, ever so painfully slowly wind our way through island Nos 8, 9 and 10, paddling against mostly head winds and then finally into Bessie’s Bend where our hard work is rewarded with a long tail wind, actually the wind feels like it has died the northerly direction of the river around the first part of the bend negates the effect of the wind – regardless we get a break, and we float along each silent and wrapped in our own thoughts, and sweating in the heat. We round Bessie’s Bend, having entered Tennessee, and then exited again, a short return into Kentucky before we leave it for good, the Mississippi playing its never-ceasing tricks on us. After we locate a doable campsite in a small lagoon half mile above the New Madrid poor Seth announces “I’ve had enough. I can’t take any more of this!” And we make a couple of phone calls and find him a ride. Ellis & Melvin, our trusted shuttle drivers, are on the road before we get the raft secured, if anyone was ever ready to roll its these guys! Mike strides into town for another update, and the Quapaws disappear into the streets of New Madrid with $10 each I’ve given them to go find some supper. I remain at the raft to lay out wet tarps & gear, and to make a final shopping list for re-supply, the Germans to re-join us in the morning.