The Grand Adventure
Every year more canoeists, kayakers and paddleboarders set off down the big river on life-changing adventures. After canoeing the Mississippi in 2014, Amy Lauterbach wrote a very useful synopsis with data gathered by John Sullivan: “As Americans, we feel the Mississippi River is our river. It is one of the world’s grandest rivers, and belongs to no one but itself, so powerful and pervasively it commands its valley and surrounding floodplain. Mark Twain put it on the map as an American literary landmark, but it has been woefully bypassed by paddlers and outdoor lovers in the last century. It flows 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.”
The Mississippi River Trail
“Goin’ down the Mississippi’s something people want do. They’re gonna do it. That’s the way it is in this country…” (Capt. Ware, The Elroy, 1953)
The North-South journey down the main stem Mississippi Upper-Middle Lower has become the water equivalent of the Appalachian Trail. Like the Appalachian Trail, (or the Pacific Crest Trail, or the Continental Divide Trail) the Mississippi River Trail connects the continent North and the South along the wild lands straddling a distinct and major geographic feature. Every year the Mississippi River Trail grows in popularity with more and more paddlers committing themselves to the challenge. There is a certain amount of attrition, for sure. Many paddlers start out from one of the headwaters, and few actually paddle the whole thing. It is a long and demanding challenge, normally requiring months and months of hard paddling. You could paddle it in one month if you paddled 20 hours a day and the water was high and flowing fast. You could do it in 2 months if you were a monster paddler who felt no pain. But most paddlers seem to take 3 months or longer. This is the most humane approach, and the timeline that will yield the most rewards for the effort made. The Mississippi prepares source start paddlers lovingly, and gently teaches them the ways of the river and river commerce incrementally from the Minnesota marshes downstream. We call this the “School of Hard Knocks,” or the “2,300 Mile School of River Navigation.”
2,300 Mile School of River Navigation
You could start out as a beginner paddler in the marshy Mississippi River headwaters of Lake Itasca and be nurtured by the river in the ways of water flow as you glide along through wetlands and braided channels and across ponds and small lakes. This is elementary school, where you learn the elements of the river and your vessel passing down it. 500 miles downstream in Minneapolis you would have gained a good feel for the sometimes confusing ways of river currents around its bends with boils, shoals and whirlpools. Take that knowledge and graduate to commerce as you paddle through St. Anthony Lock and Dam and are introduced to towboats and barges. Small tows at first, one or two at a time, the pilots tend to be friendlier in the North. Slowly and gently the river teaches you how to paddle amongst tows and safely past industrial sites. The current is slow, the tows small (but getting larger) as you continue downstream. If you get as far as the Mel Price Lock and Dam in St. Louis you are doing something right! You have learned to navigate shipping channels amongst medium tows with up to 12 barges at a time. Time to graduate to college, the Middle Mississippi, the free-flowing muddy waters with even bigger tows, now 30 barges at a time. Getting through the dangerous St. Louis Harbor is a crash course of what’s to come below Baton Rouge. If you continue down the Middle Miss, the next advancement is at Cairo with the biggest tows on the entire Mississippi, up to 48 barges at a time. Big 3-screw tows pushing upwards of 10,000 horsepower churn the big river into rolling mounds of 8-foot tall standing waves that ricochet back and forth across the channel creating a maelstrom of currents and crashing waves. But you can handle this. You are now advanced degree. Challenging for sure, but the river has given you all the skills you need to make it through. If you make it 700 miles downstream to Baton Rouge you are offered the very last grade in the school of river navigation, and that is paddling down the busiest inland port in the world with ocean-going freighters! If you have taken your time and studied your real-life lessons, you will be fine. The river has prepared you for this. Add on everything you have learned up to this point, and paddle down the last 235 miles to the Gulf of Mexico for your doctoral graduation in big river navigation with a splash-down in the salty waters of the Caribbean!
The Middle/Lower Mississippi River Trail
Welcome to the longest free-flowing river in the continental United States! And welcome to the longest water trail, your guide: the Rivergator. Everything changes at St. Louis. No more locks and Dams. No more picturesque towns crowding the pretty banks. The good news for paddlers is that it is all free-flowing water all the way to the Gulf. Free flowing, wild, and unruly. Towns have to be built far from the river’s edge, or get flooded. It’s a long way between landings and bridges. No more casual paddling. You have to pack and prepare for the worst, and adopt the attitude of survival paddling.
“There’s also a dream-like geometry to things. The shorelines are more distant. The air itself is different. Blow St. Louis you become aware that you are no longer in the North. On the northern river what you see is what you get. On the southern river there are intimations of something beyond what the eye sees.” (Charles Dee Sharp)
Advanced paddlers only on the Middle/Lower Miss. Sure, beginners could start at the headwaters and learn as they go along. But just like you wouldn’t start a toddler in High School, beginners would not do well learning to paddle at the Missouri River Confluence. Paddlers putting in on the big river for the first time in St. Louis will have to enroll in the Chain of Rocks/St. Louis Harbor Crash Course. No beginners here. The river would not be so kindly as it was up in the great North Woods. You should be at least an intermediate paddler with experience in turbulent big volume waters and paddling amongst big commercial vessels. Read the Rivergator, and remember the three Rs: 1) Make sure you have the right kind of skills/experience, 2) the right vessel/equipment and 3) make the right preparations to get through the St. Louis harbor. Otherwise, your experience will literally be a “crash course.”