The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
Rivergator Appendix V
Over the Chain of Rocks with the Lewis & Clark
Bicentennial Re-enactment of 2006
Saturday, September 22nd, Columbia Bottoms
A happy thought this morning, my wife Sarah close by, soundly sleeping amongst the Chinook women in the Ft. Dubois Women’s Bunkhouse (I learn later, not so soundly, all are awakened by Willow’s arrival at 4:30am who commenced his usual roaring snoring in the women’s bunkhouse, having been kicked out of the men’s) Bug, Possum and the Mighty Quapaws in attendance nearby, opposite bunkhouse, Mara, Church’s mother is here, and I saw Scott’s Daddy, Mom & Daddy have safely arrived, the hoop is coming together, all of our friends and family who will join us on this day at the base of the Chain of Rocks
The repercussion waves of the rolling rapids rocking me to sleep – even a mile below the rapids where the canoes are pulled up for the night, parallel slicing waves rocking the LG2 Lee Squared raft where I erected my tent and lay my head, one last night sleeping on my waterbed the river, with the threat of rain Mike and I avoid the canoes, and so I’m happy to have the raft right here, the restless canoes digging against the muddy banks in restless impatience, snags breaking the rippling surface illuminated as black silhouettes by the orangish glowing of the downtown massif bulk, the breakdown of the last Missouri bluffs falling down like dominoes from the central plateau into shallow one-sided canyons carved by the various rivers, the Big Muddy breaking through the center of all in its unstoppable eastward stampede, like a rampaging buffalo herd running across the Great Plains, all bluffs, all prairies, all ridges and hilly features come to an abrupt halt where the Mother River the Mississippi works her way through the center of our nation, gently gathering her children one by one in her passage, the mesmerizing watery ways and moisture trails all brought together and deposited and dispersed one family into the Gulf of Mexico, in commensuration all of us gathering here today made one family by the river that brings us all together.
Underwater blue light visible in the thinning of the clouds overhead, the roaring of the Chain of Rocks and its rolling waves and repercussions resonating downstream – whew! – our last major obstacle, my work here completed, all last night I was tossing & turning in the wind worrying about the havoc-wreaking Chain, the entire Mississippi River falling over a nine-foot shelf, the tumultuous cascade of boils, frothings, giant waves & eddies, too powerful and expansive to understand in any one viewing, a mile-wide shelving over which the muddy water tumbles and is broken into a complicated maze of falls, tongues, powerful eddying places, transecting edges of limestone shelves extending inward and outward, criss-crossing each other, deep fall pools followed by shallows, no easy lines to follow, the whole cannot be scouted from any one vantage point, but must run in segments, the first being the most important, if you make a mistake on the entrance to the avalanche you and your crew might be strewn out over hundreds of yards of shelving, your canoe scraped and battered on boulders, wrapped around snags and other obstructions, concrete columns and raggedly strewn steelworks that lay like the teeth of an open mouthed shark, hopefully you pick the right entrance to begin the jump, if you chose wrong you might end up stranded on a stony shallows a half mile from either bank with thundering water all around you.
22 paddlers pushed off from Columbia Bottom on the 22nd, 84 year old Chinook elder George Lagergren in Mato Chante with Mike, Derek Lagergren, Tom & Kessina, Wanbli River Dancer once again was honored to bear Macaw Chief Lester Greene prow, Hannah at his feet (this made the big chief happy!), Tony Lagergren, Idaho Jimmy, Clayton and myself, six in Wanblee, the most people the Eagle has borne in her great wings, Scott with the 2 Lagergren sisters Peggy and Ellen, Church, Jay and Gunny in the Banana Boat, Ron and Steve in one Grumman courtesy of Randy Slow (Slow Canoe Rentals), and in another Willow paddling Nan and Patricia, and of course faithful Dory Doug and the “put-put-put” African Queen. “I’m stealing Chinook women!” Willow hollers from his Grumman and turns around against the current and the direction of all the other canoes, “I’ve taken your canoes and now I’m stealing your women! I’m heading back to camp with your women! Back to my tee-pee!” Everyone laughs and is in a good mood, a happy entrance to the confluence with the big river, Chief Lester sang a parting song and then erupted into a chant mid-way, his earthy singing echoing from the rip-rap & the last line of cottonwoods of the north bank Missouri which current we were riding, the trees lined up as if standing in our honor, standing and watching us paddle by after having followed the waters of this river for thousands of miles through untold bends and landscapes, and now to come out on this floodplain still happy and strong, this is something to see and be proud of!
George has a big smile on his face every time I look back, I would have like to have sketched the canoes, and Mato in particular with George, our Grandfather of the West, but the wind demanded too much attention. George, the wise Chinook Grandfather who has sustained us with his gentle but persuasive attitude, who gave us canoes and now we are giving him a place in our canoes to tell his story, even though he is 84 years old he doesn’t need any helping hand. Mike told me later that as Mr. George was entering the canoe from the slippery rip-rap rocks at Columbia Bottom he offered his hand and asked him, “can I help you?” and George waved him off. He is a force of nature. He paddled non-stop, requesting only once quick break, to snap a few photos (!). Upon arrival Mike offered George a log to step on so that he wouldn’t get his boots muddy, to which George responded “I can get out!” and proceeded to plunk both feet in the water and exit.
Now the fun is over and the work begins, we can’t actually hear the thundering Chain of Rocks seven miles downstream and far around the long bend of the mother Mississippi, but we can feel its presence, and with awful gravity it pulls at us relentlessly. The wind has calmed, thankfully, and the three foot crashing waves that Norm Miller earlier reported when he paddled through the confluence have settled down, and now there are only periodic flushings of wind. We rearrange ourselves, those who don’t want to face the fearsome Chain of Rocks get out, we pull out two aluminum canoes, Capt. Ron stays stern in one with Gunny Prow and Bison princess. I lose Chief Lester, Tony and Hannah, but gain Cathy. Mike pushes off with three smokestacks, Moose, Willow and Tommy. The old threesome Scott, Church and Jay reunite again in the Banana Boat which has served them so well and is still slipping gracefully through the water.
As we are pushing off, what’s this? A long glowing wooden canoe appears from upstream the Missouri, sliding through the mingling waters of the confluence and crosses our bows in the current, it’s none other than the irrepressible Jim King – towing his 35 foot long composite barge in preparation for tomorrow, we engage our paddles and dig into the waters, now a mixture of western mud (the Missouri) and northern wetlands (the Mississippi), and quickly catch up, and paddle alongside the determined engineer who exits left into the Chain of Rocks Canal and we continue on downstream, the gargantuan boils of the Mississippi reaching hundreds of feet around, the river is speaking to us, gently, whispering things only the canoes understand completely (and us rivermen try to guess at) Clayton is enthralled and amazed at the newly enlarged scale, and I feel humbled. Only Cathy paddles continually and says nothing, this fact I point out to Tommy “One-Stroke” Eier, whose paddling comes and goes in coughs & fits of thrashing water in between smoke breaks.
Almost all watercraft avoid the chaos of the Chain of Rocks as instructed by a huge US Army Corps sign with an arrow pointing left several miles upriver:
My first and last time in this deadwater canal (imagine a 12-mile long toilet bowl lined with rip-rap) was back in 1983 when Sean Rowe and I labored through it in our 12×24 raft by sweep oar, a grueling 24 hour ordeal beset by passing tugboats and headwind, we lost most of our gear which didn’t float when a tug upset us in the middle of the night, a corner of the raft got hung up on a rock, the changing water level tilted us out of our sleeping bags (along with all gear not stowed away) into the oily backwater. The memory still disgusts me.
Any paddlers who pass this ominous sign and continue downstream (under the ugly I-270 bridge, and then the rusty & elegant Highway 66 Bridge ) portage river left amidst the roar and spray – and with good reason: at the Chain of Rocks the entire Mississippi River spills over a 10 foot limestone shelf. Imagine the total combined flow of America’s biggest volume river falling smoothly at first quickly pulsing and fragmenting into powerful tongues of water, huge waves, dangerous ripping eddies, whirlpools, and etc. It is a deadly place for paddlers and motorcraft, as demonstrated an hour prior our arrival: as we approached the crescendo from upstream we could see several Coast Guard cutters performing a rescue – it was an foolish motorboat who got caught in the eddies and was stuck there and spun around and around (but luckily not flipped over) until their rescue. Every year paddlers get sucked into the unforgiving hydraulics and are never seen again.
The Captains in the Banana Boat hug bank right contrary to our plans, but what can we say? They are the Captains, they can do whatever they want. Dory Doug (with Video Len) waivers between us and them, and then follows their course, perhaps to ensure their safety (as if they need any help after the thousands of impossible miles they have already logged!). We follow Norm Miller’s advice and stay bank left, completely sheltered from the wind in the lee of Chouteau Island, and slowly make our way towards our inevitable obstacle below, Mike and I remain casual, so as not to alarm anyone, but we alone know the what watery danger lurks beyond the oncoming bridges and what fate might there await us, I make several prayers to wanbli to watch us and guide us, and touch the water gently with my out-stretched hand to feel its motion, its spirit. I hope and pray that our thoughts, our actions, the things we say and our relations with the nations is pleasing to the Great Creator and the Great Creator’s lifeblood, the rivers that we know so well and have seen from 10 inches of freeboard. Bill and Karina paddle alongside us initially, following the curve of Chouteau Island and its tall forest, but then we pull away towards the center, and begin our gradual crossing to line ourselves up with the smoking roar of falling water below. As we cross the river they get smaller and smaller, if not for their red canoe they would have disappeared completely, such is a single person’s spatial influence in a landscape this big.