The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
Maps, Navigation and Water Level Information
We carried paper copies of the Minnesota DNR maps (Lake Itasca to Hastings MN), and the Army Corps charts (Hastings to the Gulf).
All of these maps are available in pdf format from the links above. These maps are very detailed, showing features both on the river and in the surrounding countryside. River miles are marked so you can easily tell how far you have traveled and the maps show where the riverbank lights and mile-markers are located. In our opinion, these are necessary and sufficient in terms of paper maps. We carried them in a waterproof map case and consulted them frequently while paddling.
We also downloaded USGS topographic maps, and Google satellite images of the entire route and surrounding areas into our iPhone. We used Gaia GPS as our primary navigation application. We have carried this tool for many years and have found it to be reliable and quite useful. Of course it’s possible to paddle the entire river without a GPS device, but we found it very helpful on numerous occasions and we were glad we had it.
To communicate with the lock masters, we carried a Marine VHF Radio. You can possibly communicate with the lockmasters via telephone. Note that we tried to use a phone only once and on that occasion reached a message center and not a human.
These sites enable you obtain real time river flow data that is very helpful in choosing paddling routes and campsites and being aware of possible flood conditions:
- NOAA streamflow graphs – choose “Stage/Forecast Graph in the right column.
- River flow in Minnesota.
- River flow for the Upper Mississippi River.
- River flow for the Lower Mississippi River.
- USGS flow gages.
We also used iPhone apps to view river flow data, including the recent past and the 7 day forecast and found them to be easy ways to look at streamflow data. Rivercast, Streamflow Plus. There were other apps available that we didn’t try.
We also used this Army Corps site to check the status of locks.
RiverGator.org is an enormously useful website for the Lower Mississippi. It is the brainchild of John Ruskey, a long time river paddler who has been systematically detailing everything he knows about paddling on the lower river. As of 2014, he has completed documenting the stretch from Caruthersville to Vicksburg and has stated that he is working on finishing the rest of the lower river.
Ruskey describes the both the main channel and alternative back channels. The back channels are sometimes a bit longer and sometimes shorter than the main channel and provide routes in quiet backwaters behind islands where the tows don’t go. And most importantly, he includes information about what the water levels need to be to ensure that the alternative routes are passible. At low water, many back channels are closed due to emergent wing dams or sand bars and you need to know this before you commit to entering one, unless you like retracing your steps or doing unplanned portages. We paddled as many back channels as possible and never regretted it and found Ruskey’s data was invaluable.
RiverGator also recommends good campsites and includes a lot of interesting and relevant historical and cultural information about the river. We were extremely grateful for all the work that Ruskey has done.
There are two Facebook groups that are useful places to connect with other paddlers, both those currently on the water and those who have previously paddled the river. You may also be able to connect with people who live along the river and are willing to help paddlers with food, lodging, transportation, and/or advice.
About half of the 2014 thru-paddlers completed the trip in 8 to 10 weeks. Below is a list of reported trip lengths. The numbers are elapsed times, not the number of days on the river.
• 8 weeks: 4 parties
• 9 weeks: 4 parties
• 10 weeks: 6 parties
• 11 weeks: 3 parties
• 12 weeks: 4 parties
• 14 weeks: 1 party
• 15 weeks: 2 parties
• 16 weeks or longer: 5 parties
We took 58 days with an Atchafalaya exit; we took no zero days, paddled 8 to 10 hours a day and only lost a few partial days to bad weather. We think we had shorter than average delays at locks. We had a lot of serendipitous volunteer assistance for re-supply activities. We enjoyed socializing during meals and at campsites, but we didn’t spend much time off the water visiting museums or other points of interest. We rarely dawdled when paddling, however we rarely paddled very hard. We had good equipment, not a lot of it, and knew how to do everything except canoe before we started the trip. We were well prepared and carried a lot of navigational data so we knew what to expect downstream. We were two people paddling one canoe; a solo canoeist would likely travel more slowly; a kayaker might be a bit faster. If you travel on your own, then you have to do everything by yourself instead of being able to share community tasks.
Trip duration is highly dependent on water levels and wind. Depending on the water temperature and skill of the paddler, when the wind is strong enough to kick up whitecaps, it may be unsafe to be on the water. With mild headwinds and manageable choppy water, our daily distances were reduced by 20 to 40%. In strong winds we were forced off the river entirely. When the river is high, the current is stronger and faster, and there are more options to take the shorter route around inside curves over the top of wing dams and sandbars and to make use of backchannel shortcuts. High water also brings debris.
When should you start your trip? You may not have any idea as to how far you can paddle on a given day. Distances covered will be affected by current or lack of it, wind and weather, lock delays or not, resupply activities (that sometimes can be surprisingly time consuming), your physical and mental state and so forth. It is impossible to create a day-to-day plan for paddling this river.
Among factors we considered in deciding when to start were:
• day length: the days are quickly getting shorter in September.
• air temperature: it can get quite hot and humid in the summer, especially on the Lower Mississippi. On the other hand, it can be uncomfortably cool in April and November anywhere on the route.
• water temperature: during August the water temperature north of Saint Louis is in the mid to upper 70’s; the temperature drops during September from the 70’s to the 60’s, and in October from the 60’s to the 50’s, and in November to the 40’s and even into the 30’s. RiverGator.org recommends a wetsuit when the water temperature is below 60; south of Cairo this occurs starting sometime in November. We read of two parties in 2014 that capsized in the Lower River. Capsizing in 75? degree water is a bother; capsizing in 55? degree water can be very serious. And remember that you will be having at least your feet in the water on a daily basis as you land and launch your boat.
• mosquitoes: likely worse earlier in the season than later.
We chose to start in early August in order to: 1) enjoy relatively long days; 2) avoid the worst of the heat as we headed south; 3) travel when the water temperature was warm; and 4) minimize the worst of the insects. This worked well for us and we have no regrets other than missing the autumn colors.
In 2014, of the successful thru-paddlers we know of:
• 8 parties started in mid to late May
• 4 parties started in June
• 3 parties started in July
• 9 parties started in August
• 6 parties started in September.
In 2014 one party attempted to start in mid April, but snow and ice forced them to start at Grand Rapids instead of Lake Itasca.
Due to the record-breaking cold streak in November 2014, the parties that started in September faced many frosty nights and many days where the daytime high temperatures were in the 30’s or 40’s. On the other hand, the parties that started in May had cold weather early in their trips.
Between Lake Itasca and Bemidji, there are both beaver dams and downed trees blocking the river. We were able to push and/or drag our canoe over all of the beaver dams. Water levels will affect your experience at these dams. The number and location of fallen trees varies over the years. In some places other river users had come through with chainsaws and removed some of these obstacles. We were able to run or drag our canoe over some of the trees and had to portage our boat up the bank and around others. Getting trapped by these obstacles could be possible in high water conditions so caution is advised. There is also an obstacle about seven miles from the put-in called Vekin’s Dam, an ancient low wood and rock logging dam, that requires a short portage to get around.
Below Bemidji, there are 11 man-made dams that must be portaged. Behind these dams will be lakes of varying size; there is no current in these lakes so paddling requires more work than on the open river. Most recreational use along this portion of the river is found in these lakes.
The portage routes are marked on the Minnesota DNR maps. The portages ranged from simple to real pains. Problems included: unmarked take-outs and put-ins; take-outs and put-ins that were essentially piles of big rocks with no sandy place to land or launch your boat; unmaintained portage trails that were wet, muddy, steep, and/or had encroaching vegetation. Some portages require traversing pavement through towns and crossing busy streets.
The first portage is at the exit of Cass Lake at Knutson Dam. Depending on the water level, you may be able to paddle over the shallow spillway; we did this, but scout carefully ahead of time from shore.
In Grand Rapids, the Blandon Dam operates a free portage service. Prior to getting to Grand Rapids, you arrive at the Pokegamma Dam about 2.7 miles below Cohasset. At this dam there is a signboard offering portage service from either here or from Sylvan Lake in Grand Rapids. There is a phone number on the sign; call and make arrangements with the dam’s management. You can get a ride around both dams, but then you will miss paddling to Grand Rapids. The portage at Pokegamma Dam is just a couple of hundred yards and is easy. The portage in Grand Rapids is over 1.5 miles and crosses a very busy street. We used the service in Grand Rapids; a friendly driver showed up at the take-out with a canoe trailer and helped us load our gear and drove us to the put-in below the dam. He then gave Jim a ride to the grocery store.
In Sartell, you portage across the parking lot of the Riverside Depot café. You can stash your gear behind the very friendly café and stop in for a meal. We had the best burgers on our trip here.
Be very cautious at the Blanchard Dam portage; this was the most difficult portage, with some people reporting taking three hours to complete it. You will have to carry your gear almost 2000 feet and, in doing so, climb up and down several steep embankments with very loose footing.
Some people portage the short section of rapids below the town of Sauk Rapids. These are rated Class 1 to 3 depending on water levels. We were able to run them without incident on river right.
Portaging some locks on the Middle Mississippi is possible, but not required. See the section Locks.
Portaging on the Lower Mississippi is limited to voluntary crossing of wing dams or emergent sandbars while using back channels. There are no portages on the main channel.
Many recreational river users between Bemidji and St. Louis are weekend warriors with powerboats or jet skis. The powerboats are often equipped with huge engines and sometimes drunk captains. Anti-social and rude behavior on the river is unfortunately frequent among this group of boaters: generating huge wakes, unnecessarily close encounters, and occasionally deliberate harassment are not uncommon. Note that this only occurred on weekends, especially holiday weekends, when the river was crowded with recreationalists. We never had problems on weekdays, or with the local fisherman who would usually slow down when near us so that we didn’t have trouble with their wakes.
We spoke with more than a few local river residents who commented about the weekend boaters in very negative terms. They often told us that they never use the river on weekends due to the morons and their behavior. Although we were told that there are special police river patrols to mitigate bad and dangerous behavior, we never saw evidence of it.