The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
Rivergator Appendix I
The Lower Missouri River Water Trail
The Lower Missouri is its own water trail, which can be explored online including great photos and a useful interactive map. Go to the Missouri River Trail Website: www.missouririverwatertrail.org Thanks to Missouri River paddler and author Bryan Hopkins for letting us include his writing in the Rivergator Appendix.
Paddling the Missouri River
It is worth pointing out that paddling on the Missouri River is often not as complex as is initially perceived from shore. The majority of the turbulent water is concentrated near river training structures. These are often referred to as wing dams or dikes and are reinforced with large rock. The dikes (wing dams) typically start from the river bank and can reach out several hundred feet towards the rivers channel. These structures are designed to deflect the rivers flow towards the main channel to promote a “self-scouring” channel. In most cases a paddler can maneuver to avoid these structures completely and thereby avoid much of the “pushy water” that can be generated by the dikes.
Paddling in the main channel is very much like being on an escalator or moving treadmill at an airport, where once you are up to speed, things are straightforward. Conversely, the rivers currents are most complex at the interface of the main channel flow and slower water surrounding the dike structures. As a result, a paddler is often best served by simply staying in the middle of the river on the straight-aways and trending to outside of the large bends in the river.
The Navigation section also provides tips on using the navigation channel markers to definitively locate the main river channel. This can be important, as paddlers will occasionally have to share the main channel with the large barges that operate on the river. Fortunately on the open river these vessels can be seen well in advance and appropriate evasive action taken. More information on dealing with barges is provided in the navigation section.
Paddling the lower Missouri River is in many ways analogous to being on a very long moving lake. The challenges to paddlers are similar to those found on open water lakes, such as the effect of high winds, exposure to storms and general isolation from shore. Almost without fail, first time paddlers on the Missouri River find themselves relaxing within minutes, as the intimidation felt from shore simply melts away.
Paddling on the Missouri river involves the same rules that apply to any prudent boating in respect to watching the weather, wearing a life jacket at all times and being vigilant of obstructions and hazards in the river. Please review the safety section on this site and remember that you are ultimately responsible for your own safety.
Safety on the Lower Missouri
The Missouri River is one of the largest rivers in North America. This statement may seem kind of obvious, but from a safety standpoint this is an important consideration. Unlike a trip on a smaller river or stream, if you capsize in the middle of the Missouri River, you may find yourself quite some distance from shore. Wearing a life jacket is recommended for any kind of boating activity and doubly so for paddling on the Missouri River. The Missouri River is sometimes described as like paddling on a big moving lake. This analogy is valuable, as many of the typical safety issues associated with paddling on a lake are especially relevant for the Missouri River. Wind can be a major factor on the wide-open Missouri River, resulting in waves that can make paddling a challenge. Cold water is also a factor that should be considered on the Missouri River. If you capsize, you may not be able to get to shore easily. During a significant portion of winter and early spring the water is cold. A wet suit is a good idea when paddling on any open body of water in the state of Missouri during these times. More boaters are killed by cold water, than any other cause, often despite wearing a life jacket.
Large barges travel the river corridor and these large vessels have no ability to steer around small craft such as a canoe or kayak. However, if you learn to recognize the location of the river channel that is indicated by the navigation marker system on the river, then you know exactly where a barge must travel. More information on reading the navigation markers can be found in the river tools section. When encountering a barge, a paddler should move to the side of the river and wait for the barge to pass and the waves to settle down. By pointing your boat towards the waves you should be able to let the barge and its waves pass with little trouble. It is worth repeating that barges have legal right-of-way and do not have the maneuverability to avoid your small craft. You must move aside and let them pass.
Another consideration is the hazard posed by barges moored on the river. Stay well clear of these, as the river is rushing under the front of the vessel and could pull a small craft under. The lower Missouri River is a channelized river system. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has constructed rock-reinforced structures along the entire lower river, used to direct the current into a central channel. These “wing dams” or “L-dikes” can create turbulence and strong currents that are best avoided by small craft.
The current averages between 3-5 miles per hour with a flow that can range between 30,000 -100,000 cubic feet per second. This gives the Missouri River immense power. Paddlers should keep alert and avoid logs, wing dams and other structures in the river, including navigation buoys. Currents are often strong around these objects and can create an entrapment hazard. When the river is rising, a significant amount of debris can end up in the water, such as logs, trash and even entire trees. It is advised to consider waiting until the river level begins to drop again, as much of the debris will hang up on shore or wing dams, making travel much better. When camping on a sandbar, it is a good idea to know what you would do if the river rises. A good local rainfall can bring the river up several feet in a matter of hours.
The Missouri River presents a special attraction for those who wish to get away from the crowds. However, the distances between access points can be 10 miles or more. It is important to plan your trip accordingly and understand that paddling down the Missouri River often involves an element of commitment. The surrounding bottomlands are largely agricultural or undeveloped and one can paddle miles without seeing signs of human habitation.
Katy Trail State Park
A truly unique aspect of the lower Missouri River is the synergy with the Katy Trail State Park. This hiking and biking trail runs besides the river for over 150 miles, and is the longest rail-to-trail system in America. This popular state park is the perfect companion to the water trail and has spawned a multitude of privately run campgrounds, bed and breakfasts, unique shops, restaurants and many other services along its course – all very close to the river’s edge. With a little planning, a paddler can even choose to use a bike to get back to their launch vehicle after some quality time on the river.
In addition to the Katy Trail State Park there are several state conservation areas, state parks, federal lands and city parks adjacent to the river. Many of these offer access points and camping opportunities and information on these locations can be found by viewing this sites series of interactive maps. An additional section with additional river tools has also been provided to help you plan and prepare for a paddling excursion on the lower Missouri River.
For those new to paddling the Missouri River or perhaps paddlers looking for a quick weekend adventure, check out the featured areas. Here you will find several highlighted sections of the water trail, with a detailed itinerary and even driving directions to set up a shuttle. These portions of the water trail are perfect for getting to know the river and all it has to offer.
We believe you will find the river an untapped resource right in the heart of the state of Missouri. The lower Missouri River is an impressive, ever changing and dynamic river. As a result, every paddling trip presents a new adventure. However, paddlers should keep in mind that the Lower Missouri River is a very large and powerful river with the potential for significant changes in both river level and paddling conditions. As a result, the best way to get on the Missouri River for the first time is often to accompany a paddler who is familiar with the river or with an organized group or guide service. When boating any body of water, paddlers are ultimately responsible for their own safety. It is important that you familiarize yourself with the challenges presented and some additional information in this regard can be found in the river safety section of this website.
There are a series of gages on the Missouri River that provide real-time river level information. The gages are all relative to the site they are located. When the Boonville gage reports 14 feet, it does not mean the whole river is 14 feet deep, rather this value is simply the depth at the location it is measured. However, these gages will allow a paddler to determine a general river stage as guidance when planning a paddling trip. View current river levels and level forecasts
The actual depth of the river channel typically ranges from 10-20 feet, with sharply decreasing depth outside of the channel. Lower Missouri River paddlers often take note of the river level at which the wing dams/rock dikes are exposed. When the tops of these structures are out of the water, the current is often more predictable. The faster water will be found in the channel and conversely the slower water is confined to the areas behind or immediately downstream of the rock structures. Conversely, higher river levels often will overtop the wing dams and can result in much stronger eddy lines, boils and reverse hydraulics across a greater portion of the river.
Paddlers are encouraged to become familiar with the effect of river levels on the section they intend to paddle. Every stretch of the river is different and tributary input can greatly affect local river levels. However, as a very general rule of thumb, when the Boonville gage is 10 feet or lower, most of the wing dams/dikes become exposed on the stretch from Kansas City to St. Louis.
There are numerous sandbars that will appear on the stretch of river from Glasgow to Weldon Springs at river levels below 7-8 feet on the Boonville gage. These sandbars can range from being a few hundred feet long to covering multiple football fields in size and often have fine white sands that rival a Caribbean beach.
These are ideal places to camp or take a break and are one of the jewels of the Missouri River paddling experience. Sandbars located between the river’s banks are typically open to public use. The lands beyond the river’s banks are mostly private property. Careful review of the maps provided on this site will help to avoid trespassing on private lands. When camping on a sandbar, keep in mind that the river can come up fast and be prepared for what you would do if the river wants to take your sandbar back!
Trip Planning and Distances
A special attraction of the Missouri River is its remote setting. However this means a paddler must plan carefully and be prepared to be self-reliant. The current on the river is typically around 3-5 mph, and this can help your craft to travel down the river. However, even a slight upriver wind can slow down your boat dramatically and negate the boost the current is providing. Given ideal conditions, an experienced paddler who keeps the paddle moving and does not stop too long at any point could cover 15-30 miles in a day. However, a better trip is perhaps 5-15 miles, which allows a group to loaf around on the sandbars and let the current do most the work. Keep in mind that night on the river is for expert paddlers only, so plan your trip accordingly.
With experience you will begin to find what distance is right for you. A good strategy is to start with small trips and work your way up. Many expedition paddlers, traveling long sections of the river, will routinely paddle over 40 miles in a day with favorable conditions. However, keep in mind that there are often no practical ways to cut a trip short. Access points can be over 10 or more miles apart and most of the river bottomlands are agricultural lands or are undeveloped. A trip on the Missouri River involves a certain amount of commitment.
Winds often blow up the river valley. Wind speeds can at times be greater on the river than reported for surrounding land areas, due to the fetch offered by the open river. An upriver wind can slow your progress down the river substantially. Be prepared to factor this wind effect into your trip planning. It is not unusual for a canoe to have to be “worked” down the river, regardless of current, as a result of a strong upriver wind.
Another weather factor to consider is fog. Any time of year a fog can build up on the river. This is especially pronounced in the evenings and mornings of autumn. It is not unusual to wake up on a sandbar and find the river socked in with fog. In such an event, you will have to wait several hours for the fog to clear before you can safely get underway. Traveling the river in a heavy fog would be a folly and should not be attempted. It is a good idea to factor this into your trip planning and allow a time cushion for overnight trips, in the event you are fogged in one morning.
Severe weather can be a major factor on any open body of water. The Missouri River is a big wide open river and is more like a lake in this respect. A Missouri River paddler needs to take the same weather precautions that apply to lake or ocean travel. Please review the safety section for more information. The water trail maps have a weather button you can activate for local weather near your section of river. You can also access a long range forecast at http://www.weather.gov/forecastmaps