The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
Rivergator Appendix XXII
Full Length Mississippi River Paddling Information
This originally appeared in the BackpackingLight.com Forum in November, 2014, written by Amy Lauterbach, after her expedition paddling the entire length of the Mississippi with her companion James. We include Amy’s writing in its entirety as an excellent synopsis paddling the length of the river, of what challenges long distance paddlers face, and how to deal with them, from the perspective of a person starting Mississippi source point, Lake Itasca, Minnesota (as opposed to Rivergator start place at the Missouri River Confluence).
From August 12 to October 8, 2014, we (Amy and James) spent 58 days canoeing the Mississippi River from its source to the Gulf of Mexico. This document focuses on information for those who might like to take this journey someday. We were inspired to take this trip when we read GermanTourist’s trip report on BackpackingLight forums. Our report does not include a day-by-day log of our adventure.
We both learned to canoe as children. Amy spent a week paddling in Quetico thirty-odd years ago, but that is the extent of our overnight canoeing experience. We had never canoed together. We are very experienced hikers and are used to living in a tent for many weeks at a time, but canoeing a big river was an entirely novel undertaking. This is the context for our report: we have assembled information we found useful based on our particular trip, but we are by no means experts on this river or on the craft of paddling a canoe.
Why Paddle the Mississippi River? We are hikers, not paddlers, so the decision to paddle the Mississippi River caught us by surprise. Jim read a trip report about paddling the river, came into the room where I was sitting, said “Christine paddled the Mississippi, and she says it’s a trip that a well prepared, fit, novice paddler can complete. Let’s do it.” I read her trip report and agreed. The decision making process took about five minutes.
As Americans, the Mississippi River is our river. It is one of the world’s grandest rivers, and it’s possible to paddle the entire length without serious risk and with very few hassles. Mark Twain put it on the map as an American literary landmark. It passes through diverse physical and cultural landscapes. The economic impact of its barge traffic is enormous. The river is a magnificent juxtaposition of intense commerce and intense isolation. The trip is easily achievable in a single season, even at a leisurely pace.
In 2014 there were at least 70 people who set out to paddle the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca to the Gulf. At least 50, and likely more, completed the trip. John Sullivan attempts to maintain a list and publishes it on the Mississippi River Paddlers Facebook page. Paddling the river is a significant undertaking, yet the trip is not complicated. Many millions of people live within 100 miles of the river, yet few people make the journey. In 2013, 658 people summited Mount Everest, 700+ thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, and perhaps 50 paddled the Mississippi River from its source to the Gulf of Mexico. Because few people paddle the entire river, it still has the feeling of a grand adventure.
James’ Personal Summary
I entered this trip as a highly experienced long-distance backpacker, reasonably experienced dirt-road bicycle tourist, and completely novice canoeist. The trip seemed like an ideal way to try out a new means of human powered travel and a chance to see a part of the country I didn’t know very well and we were unlikely to travel in otherwise. We were inspired by our friend Christine (GermanTourist), who we met here on the BackpackingLight forums; she paddled the river in 2012 in a folding kayak.
Our trip was fascinating to me. The entire river corridor was so much wilder feeling than I ever imagined. We essentially traveled through riverine forest for the entire trip except where towns and cities are located. The forests look healthy and are not marred by clear-cuts. No corn or soybean fields or cow pastures down to the water’s edge. The settled areas were mostly very compact and in the Lower Mississippi often were frequently not even visible from the water. Outside of the tows below Minneapolis and weekend powerboats above it, there is extraordinarily little river traffic. In the headwaters section, we once went three days without seeing a single other person either on the water or on the banks. We were pleasantly surprised by how much of our trip felt like more of a wilderness experience than that of traveling a watery freeway through civilization.
I enjoyed the process of paddling and soon became very comfortable with our boat. I felt safe, secure, and felt we could control it well enough to deal with any situation we were likely to have. Although at times various bits of my body hurt, I never felt debilitated and rarely felt worn out at the end of a day’s paddling.
We were fortunate with generally great weather, few delays at locks, helpful and friendly people we met along the way, and no breakdowns of equipment. We had decent campsites every night and very often had great ones. The only real hassle were the mosquitoes.
I wish we had found a way to be comfortable with leaving our boat and gear unattended so we could have explored the riverside towns more than we did. To me, that was the biggest negative of the trip.
Overall, the trip was a great experience and I am very glad that we did it. I would unhesitatingly recommend to anyone with a sense of adventure and a willingness to try something out of the ordinary to take this trip.
Amy’s Personal Summary
Most of what Jim said is true for me too.
I love the rhythm of moving forward along a path, day after day. It is the same satisfaction I get from a long-distance walking or biking trip. Much of the day is very routine – sleep, eat, pack, move forward, stop a few times to eat, find a campsite, setup camp, eat, sleep. Repeat over and over again. Superimposed on top of that very stable routine are the unexpected highlights and memorable events.
On this trip, my most satisfying highlights were the people we met along the way. Fun, outgoing, gracious, generous, cheerful, encouraging people at every place we stopped. Many times we went for two or three days without seeing anybody, and then we’d stop somewhere and inevitably be greeted by the nicest people we could hope to meet.
And then there were many isolated unpredictable highlights that mean so much. Weeks of being surrounded all day by hundreds of migrating swallows feeding near the surface of the water. A single full albino Barn Swallow, looking magical as it swooped around our canoe. The ethereal calls of loons in the northern reaches of the river. Hours of floating down glassy calm water surrounded by floodplain forests, nary a care in the world. Flocks of hundreds or thousands of White Pelicans. Many five-star campsites on beautiful huge sandbars. Dozens of beautiful sunrises and sunsets. The view of bridges from below delighted me every time.
I was very pleasantly surprised by the minimal industry on the river, as I expected far worse. In fact, the industrial areas on the river are very limited and isolated. In the headwaters section the river corridor was beautiful and most of it felt wild. In the Upper River, each lock and dam was a massive structure, but once away from a lock, the river corridor was most often surrounded by riparian forests with little sign of human activity. On the lower river, the wingdams and revetment were essentially always present, but for 90% of the miles those were the only signs of human activity. Visually, I found this to be a very beautiful trip, however I was irritated that the Army Corps has so thoroughly messed with the river south of Minneapolis.
North of Saint Louis I enjoyed everything about the trip, except the tough Blanchard Dam portage where I slipped and hurt my back. I enjoyed the diversity of habitat, from the Spruce forest to the marshes to the lakes to the maple floodplain forests. I enjoyed the paddling itself, the small towns, the swimming, and the campsites.
South of Saint Louis, I had a love-it / fear-it relationship with the river. I never got comfortable with the giant river and her giant tows. There were tows between Minneapolis and Saint Louis, but they were smaller and less frequent, and the river itself seemed more manageable. South of Saint Louis, and especially south of Cairo, I simply could not shed the fear that we would capsize and find ourselves in the shipping channel. I felt we had full control of the canoe, and we had fabulous weather nearly every day on the big river, with glassy calm water nearly every day, so we never came close to capsizing. I’m sure my fear was grounded in the fact that we had no river paddling experience prior to this trip, and I did not feel “at home” like I do when hiking or riding my bike.
Two things likely exacerbated my fear. First was that the river went into flood stage when we reached Saint Louis, the volume doubled, the current increased noticeably, and the load of logs was substantial. Second was the absence of recreational users south of Saint Louis. Given the abundant recreational use of the river north of Saint Louis, I was shocked by the near total absence of recreational use to the south – in 800 miles of river travel we saw perhaps a dozen people using the river recreationally, either from pleasure boats or fishing from shore.
Once we crossed from the Mississippi to the Atchafalaya, I relaxed again and enjoyed that final week very much. I enjoyed the Cajun bayous, the small towns, the alligators, and the scenery. I am 100% sure we made the right decision to take the Atchafalaya River to the Gulf, instead of paddling through the heavy boat traffic areas south of Baton Rouge.
Overall I’d summarize this as a five-star trip for its combination of scenery, cultural diversity, fabulous encounters with local people, great campsites, and relatively easy logistics. I regret that I carried the fear while on the Lower River, as it interfered with an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable and magnificent outing.