The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
Camping along the river is one of the great pleasures of the journey and is also necessary because there are long stretches with no commercial accommodations. We never had any significant problems finding at least adequate campsites, and frequently had excellent ones.
In Minnesota, the DNR has established a string of canoe camps along the river, many of them accessible only by boat. These vary in quality from tiny plots with barely room for a tent to sites with a shelter and pit toilet. There are also some commercial and municipal sites further down the river and these are usually marked on the river maps. Mostly, though, the paddler will need to improvise and find suitable rough campsites. Long stretches of the Mississippi are actually in public ownership so riverside camping is quite legal. Along the lower river at normal water levels, a multitude of sandbars provide very fine places to camp. When we were in view of a building, we asked permission (granted everywhere but in Bemidji), otherwise we simply set up camp. Nobody ever questioned our use of any place we camped, and we were often welcomed with open arms and good company.
The usual camping rules apply: leave zero trash; don’t make new fire rings; be extremely careful with fires if you build them; don’t cut vegetation; don’t make a lot of noise; leave the place cleaner than you found it. The river may rise while you are sleeping, so set up high enough where you won’t be awakened by water sloshing into your tent. Make sure that your boat is well above any possible rising water, including waves created by passing nighttime tows and wind, or tie it securely to something that can’t possibly wash away, or preferably, both. There have been paddlers whose boats washed away during the night and this can really mess up a trip.
Safety on the River
In addition to the standard water-safety guidelines (always wear a PFD, don’t drink and paddle, etc.), there are five safety factors that one ought to consider when paddling the Mississippi:
• There are three large lakes in the Headwaters section: Bemidji, Cass, and Winnibigoshish. Although the lakes may appear to be calm, experienced paddlers recommend NOT taking straight-line routes across these. Very strong and dangerous winds can arise suddenly and produce large waves that have capsized and drowned other paddlers. Prudence strongly suggests following the longer route around the shorelines of these lakes.
• Capsizing into cold water is a safety consideration. Since capsizing is not a planned activity, those paddling in cold water conditions might seriously consider wearing a wet or dry suit.
• Flood stage flow can be very hazardous, as described by RiverGator.org. One has the option of staying off the river when it’s flooding.
• Wind can create waves that may capsize a boat. One has the option of staying off the water in these conditions. As RiverGator says, this river should be likened to paddling on the Great Lakes: when the wind is calm it’s easy, but when it’s blowing it is a different beast. This video was taken on the Missouri River, but there are big expanses of water on the Mississippi River which can have similar conditions.
• Boat traffic can kill you if you don’t take it seriously.
Other than those five factors, paddling the river is straightforward and there was nothing else that caused us significant concern. RiverGator also has a useful section about river safety.
Security off the River
One issue that all river travelers must face is security of their person and their goods. At a personal level, we never felt threatened in any way by anyone we met. Maybe we were lucky or maybe that is just the way it is along the river. There might be unsafe locations along the river, particularly in settled areas; as always, be aware of your surroundings and if things don’t feel right, leave.
Security for your boat and equipment is another matter. Here we experienced a problem for which we never found a completely satisfactory solution. We had read stories before we left of river travelers who have had gear or worse yet, their boats, stolen during their trip. In three towns, Saint Cloud, New Madrid, Caruthersville, we heard from locals that a river traveler’s canoe or kayak had been stolen in the area. In 2014 we know of at least three paddlers who had some gear stolen. We elected to always leave one of us with our gear unless we were absolutely sure we had a safe place for the boat such as a staffed marina, campground, somebody’s yard, or at a ramp where locals were present and willing to watch the boat while we were away. Solo paddlers often hide and lock boats in the brush, away from public boat ramps and other places people are likely to be.
Our approach limited what we could do on shore. We did not take off together to visit stores, restaurants, parks, museums and so forth unless the boat was, in our belief, truly secure. In many places this meant only one of could leave the boat. Paranoid yes, but the risk of losing the boat and thus the trip outweighed the obvious disadvantages of our solution. For us, this was probably to most significant downside of the trip and we wish we could offer a better solution.
We met only four other individuals or couples on long distance paddling trips of one kind or another. We heard about other paddlers from people on shore and found websites for a couple of them. We passed at least one group but never saw them; the river is big and people stop at different times and places. Reading other traveler’s blogs, we have learned that people do run into each other on occasion and sometimes elect to paddle together for periods of time.
People Along the River
We found one of the best parts of the trip was meeting people along the river. Almost everyone we ran into was enthusiastic, friendly and interested in what we were doing. Many immediately offered us help: food, showers, places to stay, transportation to stores and so forth. Their spontaneous generosity was both unexpected and greatly appreciated. Long-distance hikers call these people “Trail Angels”; we called them “River Angles”. In reading other paddler’s trip reports and blogs, we learned our experiences were not unique. Trip reports from many other paddlers report the same thing happened to them time after time during their journeys. Although most of our assistance was serendipitous, we learned late in our trip that by posting on either the Mississippi River Paddlers or Lower Mississippi River Paddlers Facebook groups, you may also get offers of assistance from people who live along the river.
As an example, we met a woman on our first day as we portaged from Itasca across the little rock stepping-stones into the shallow start of the river. She offered to give us a place to stay when we reached Brainerd, which would be over a week in the future. She met us at her daughter’s house on the river where we stored the canoe and drove us all over the place for supplies and a meal and then took us to her house for showers and a bed. The next morning, we borrowed a drill from her son-in-law to make a small modification to our boat and mentioned we were going to add some pads to the rear gunwales. We would buy the pads in a town somewhere downstream. Lo and behold, after we had paddled off and portaged the Brainerd dam, there was our friend waiting downstream beside the river with the parts we needed.
One form of assistance that was incredibly helpful was offers of rides to grocery stores. As discussed in the Resupply section, in many river towns the grocery stores are located some distance from take-outs. Getting rides to stores meant not spending an hour or two walking to and from the store and also meant we could buy a lot more food since we didn’t have to hand carry it from the store back to the water. We greatly appreciated those rides.
Residents let us sleep in their yards or in their guest rooms. Campground hosts let us stay free in their campgrounds and use the picnic shelters to set up out of the rain. Cafés refused payment for our meal. People invited us to picnics. A bartender drove us to a distant laundromat and the laundromat owner drove us back to the river. Many dozens of people provided us with great conversation, good cheer, and encouraging words. Day after day we encountered this outpouring of generosity. Our experience was humbling and gave us a renewed belief in the innate goodness of so many people.
Birds, Bugs and Other Critters
We enjoy watching birds and had hoped to see a lot of species during our trip. However, we found birding from a moving canoe was difficult. We were usually too far from shore to find small birds and if we did, couldn’t identify them before we were carried downstream by the current. Mosquitoes often made birding near campsites difficult. We did see a lot of Bald Eagles, Belted Kingfishers, Canada Geese, Spotted Sandpipers, White Pelicans, migrating swallows, egrets and herons. We frequently heard woodpeckers and occasionally saw Pileated Woodpeckers flying across the river. Our most exceptional sighting was of a pure albino Barn Swallow foraging over the water.
We saw many deer in the Headwaters section. People have seen Black Bear along the river, but we didn’t. We did see a few River Otters cavorting in the Headwaters section of the river. Along the lower Atchafalaya, we saw dozens of American Alligators, both on the banks and in the water. They never bothered us.
We experienced mosquitoes on shore at some point on every single day of the trip. Generally they were less of a problem during the day, but after sunset they sometimes became intolerable and drove us into our tent. We never had problems while on the water although other paddlers have reported being attacked by biting flies while paddling. Mosquitoes, wood ticks, and biting flies are reported to be very problematic May through July, especially in the Headwaters section, and by paddling in August and September we believe we avoided the worst of it. At earlier times of the year many paddlers carry and use headnets to reduce insect problems. (Amy Lauterbach)
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 excellent synopsis in its entirety, but it can also be seen online with photos at: