The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
The Mississippi River is the main stem of the largest drainage system in North America. The river currently runs about 2300 river miles from its source at Lake Itasca in Minnesota to its termination at South Pass in the Gulf of Mexico. The river passes through or borders ten states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The average discharge at its mouth is 590,000 cubic feet per second; this is equivalent to over 1840 tons of water passing a fixed point in one second or well over 100,000 tons of water per minute. For more information on the river see Wikipedia.
From a paddler’s point of view, the river divides into five logical segments: the Headwaters, the Upper Mississippi, the Middle Mississippi, the Lower Mississippi, and the Outlet. Each segment has its own distinct characteristics and flavor.
The Headwaters is the most scenically diverse portion of the river and runs 484 river miles from the put-in at Itasca (river mile 1338, measured north from the confluence with the Ohio River) to river mile 854 at Upper Saint Anthony Lock in Minneapolis, the largest city on the river. Narrow and shallow early miles, extensive marshlands, coniferous-forested riversides, some huge lakes, easily accessible towns, the longest unpopulated stretch of water, and many portages characterize this stretch of water. There is significant recreational use, primarily on the lakes behind the dams.
The Upper Mississippi runs 664 miles from the first lock (river mile 854) to the last lock (river mile 190) in St. Louis. This section includes 29 sets of locks and dams that must be negotiated by the paddler. The river gets big and carries commercial traffic in the form of tows (see the Tow section below). Towns are relatively frequent and are usually easily accessible. There is lots of recreational use on this section of the river.
The Middle Mississippi runs for 190 miles from Saint Louis to the confluence with the Ohio River. The Army Corps of Engineers designates this as part of the “Upper Mississippi” however, from a paddlers point of view, it is similar in nature to the Lower Mississippi.
The Lower Mississippi runs from the confluence with the Ohio River (Upper River mile 0, Lower River mile 954) for 650 miles to the Old River Lock (river mile 303.8). It is really big, having absorbed the Missouri, which doubles its flow and the Ohio, which doubles it again. We encountered many big tows every day, but almost no recreational users. There are neither locks nor portages. Towns are much less frequent and resupply access to them is more complicated.
At the Old River Lock, a paddler can chose between two Outlet options. Transiting to the Atchafalaya River is one way to complete a Mississippi River trip to the Gulf, and this is the route we chose. Details about this are in the Atchafalaya Exit section below. The second option is to continue on the Lower Mississippi River through Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The stretch of the river from the Gulf of Mexico up to Baton Rouge is navigable by ocean-going vessels and is the busiest port in the Western Hemisphere, moving some 400 million tons of cargo a year. Many paddlers have reported the river from Baton Rouge south can be very intimidating.
We drove a one-way rental car from California to Bemidji, MN. We dropped our canoe and gear at the southern end of Lake Itasca, Jim returned the car and hitched back to Itasca. At the end of the trip, we were given a ride to New Iberia, got a one-way rental car, and drove ourselves home. We thus avoided having having to ship our canoe and gear. There is no public transit between Bemidji and Itasca.
Some people finish their trips at river mile 100 in New Orleans. Some finish at Head of Passes Junction at river mile zero. Some paddle further south approximately 15 more miles all the way to the Gulf. Some finish via the Atchafalaya River, either at the Gulf or at Morgan City. There are many other possible variations, since the region is an intricately interconnected series of waterways. By finishing our trip at Burns Point Recreation Area (see the Atchafalaya map), we were able to easily hitchhike to a sizeable town from a staffed boat ramp. Other destinations may require arranging a boat pickup, hoping to hitch a ride on a passing boat, or paddling back upstream to a boat ramp.
We know of three parties in 2014 that had a ground crew. One was a group attempting to set a speed record. The second was a high-budget trip using rowboats and hotel accommodations. And the third had a professional film crew making a documentary movie. We believe that all other paddlers travelled without dedicated ground support.
Not including the travel costs to get to Bemidji or to return home from New Iberia, our trip cost about $23 per person per day. One could easily spend less or more, depending on how you chose to feed yourself. We stayed in a hotel only once, and we paid for a campsite only once; the vast majority of our expenses were for food. We ate in restaurants or cafes about 20 times; the rest of our meals came from grocery stores.
People have paddled or rowed the Mississippi in kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddleboards, rowboats and rafts. In the headwaters upstream of Minneapolis, in order to paddle from Lake Itasca to Minneapolis you must be able to portage your craft numerous times to get around beaver and power dams. Because of this, kayaks and canoes are the most viable watercraft options. South of Minneapolis no portages are required. Some people use canoes in the uppermost reaches of the river and then switch to kayaks or rowboats in Minneapolis. Here is a summary of the watercraft used by 2014 thru-paddlers that we know of:
• 16 people used two-man canoes (eight parties of two).
• 9 people used solo canoes (all were traveling solo).
• 2 people used a double kayak (one party of two).
• 18 people used single kayaks (in parties of one to four).
• 6 people used pairs of two-man rowboats (one party of four, and a second party of two that had guests join for short stints to fill the additional seats).
When we decided to paddle the Mississippi we did not own either a kayak or a canoe, and had no basis for choosing one over the other. We knew we wanted to share one boat, and initially considered a tandem kayak. However, we eventually decided that a canoe would be a better choice for the two of us. The key factors for us were ease of access to gear, ease of ingress and egress into the boat, paddling position variability, and the smaller length and lighter weight of our chosen boat. We did not regret our choice at any point in the trip.
We bought a used Kevlar Souris River Quetico 17 canoe. With various modifications we made to the boat, it weighed about 44 pounds, making it easy to carry on portages, at campsites, and town stops. We are novice canoeists so cannot compare the performance of our boat against other canoes, but were extremely happy with the Quetico. It was roomy, stable, fast, and easy to maneuver. In the roughest water we paddled, we took on minor amounts of water only on a couple of occasions and which just required a sponge to bail out the boat.
We designed and built a fabric cover that protected the center portion of the canoe. It was supported on a lightweight fiberglass wand attached to the two secondary thwarts. The cover shielded all of our gear from directly sunlight and shed a lot of the rain and splashing so less water collected in the canoe. It also helped deflect crosswinds that might catch on the inside of the boat. It was very easy to attach and detach using a cord that wrapped around small buttons we screwed to the gunwales. We were very satisfied with the cover’s performance.
We also bonded nylon tie down loops to the inside of the canoe and used them to clip a cargo net over all of our gear. This was very easy to attach and detach and enabled us to tightly secure our load to the bottom of the canoe where it couldn’t shift around.
We used Zaveral (ZRE) Power Surge Flatwater Medium paddles and we liked them a lot. Made of carbon fiber, these bent shaft models weighed about 10 ounces. Given that a Mississippi trip will require well over a million individual paddle strokes, having a lightweight paddle makes a difference.
We used the same lightweight tent, pads, and sleeping quilt we use on our backpacking trips. We packed everything in light duty dry bags that we put inside lightweight frameless packs so we could easily portage our gear. We carried our food in a 20-litre dry bag and a 30-litre mesh bag.
We carried a SPOT tracker, 2 iPhones, an iPod, a marine radio, and a camera. We kept these charged with a Suntactics solar charger.
Many paddlers do not carry a VHF Marine Radio. We carried a Standard Horizon HX300, a model we chose simply because it was rechargeable via USB. We used the radio to communicate with the lockmasters, and it was worth it for that purpose alone. Also, we listened to channel 13, used by tow pilots to communicate with each other. After listening to channel 13 for a few weeks, and after learning from a retired barge deckhand that it is appropriate for recreational boats to speak on channel 13, we did speak with tow pilots on a few occasions. Finally, the VHF radio is by far the most effective way to request assistance if you have a life-threatening emergency in the water.
Our entire load, skin out, including canoe, paddles, electronics, camping gear, all clothing, repair kit, PDF’s, dry bags and so forth weighed 116 pounds. Food and water added to that. A lot more weight than lightweight backpacking, but not heavy compared to what we understand other people travel with.