The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
St. Louis to Caruthersville
Middle Miss: 195-0
Lower Miss: 954-846
307 miles total
© 2014 John Ruskey
For the Rivergator: Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
The www.rivergator.org is a free public use website
presented by the Lower Mississippi River Foundation.
Re-printing of text and photos by permission only with proper credits.
I first explored this stretch of river on a 5-month raft trip that began after my high school graduation in 1982. My best friend and I decided that we had enough of traditional schooling, and much to the dismay of our guidance counselors we scuttled all college plans and instead built a raft in the Great North Woods of Minnesota and started downstream for the learning adventure of a lifetime. The river became my teacher, and the big floodplain valley my center for higher education. Fast forward 30 years and I am still on the Mississippi River, and still as much entrenched in it as I was back then. At present I am writing the Rivergator from my canoe base (called the “cave”) in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Clarksdale is located in the great floodplain of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, birthplace of the Delta Blues, and one of the wildest stretches of the big river along its length. I am hoping to share with you some of the secrets for safe paddling so that you can too can enjoy its wildness!
The Rivergator was born on that raft trip of 1982/83, and has evolved through three decades of other expeditions, the carving of dozens of dugouts and stripper voyageur canoes, the formation of a canoe company, the training of dozens of guides and hundreds of young apprentices, and lots of exploration and documentation. Rivergator contributor Mike Clark has been exploring the Confluence and the Middle Miss for over a decade (after canoeing the entire length of the river in 2001). He is considered the expert on running the Chain of Rocks. In 2002 and in 2006 Mike Clark and I spent 5 months exploring the entire Missouri River in dugout canoes, the second time as engages in Scott Mandrell’s “Then & Now” Lewis & Clark Re-enactment. Our experiences paddling dugouts to the confluence and over the Chain of Rocks are here in the Rivergator. In 2009 Mike Clark and I guided German film-makers from St. Louis to Caruthersville (and on down to the Gulf of Mexico) on a giant raft (actually a “canoe-ma-raft,” a 16 x 30 platform supported by 2 voyageur canoes as pontoons). Big Muddy Mike has made dozens of other Middle Miss voyages after the 2001 formation of his Big Muddy Adventures, which is based near North Riverfront Park in St. Louis (including a “Huck ‘n’ Jim expedition” where he paddled it all after dark just like Huck and Jim did — this is not recommended). Rivergator contributor Mark River Peoples was born and raised along the Mississippi River in St. Louis and East St. Louis. After a career in pro football, Mark River is now a full-time guide on the Lower Mississippi River, and writes a blog, appropriately called the “Mark River Blog.” Former Navy Chief and Rivergator Contributor Braxton Barden is a full time river guide and photographer with the Quapaw Canoe Company. Mark River and Braxton Barden explored St. Louis to Cairo one last time in the low water of Nov 2014 to verify everything. I will share many real-life dramas and river experiences along the way as one of the best way to illustrate the challenges and demands of the big river. Even though it was over 30 years ago, I still remember in vivid detail floating rowing our 12×24 foot raft past the Missouri River Confluence, and then down the awful Chain of Rocks Canal, and finally through the last lock & dam and into St. Louis. We continued on down the Middle Miss to the Ohio, and then on down the Lower Miss to the Deep South. Our odyssey ended in disaster, a raft wreck, as is related in the Rivergator Memphis-to-Helena Section. I am lucky to be alive. The river tried to kill me. But then it turned around and saved me. That journey did something to me. My imagination blossomed with the freedom of the flowing. It turned my eyes to the river, and the health of the free-flowing waters of America. My blood started flowing with the muddy flow of the Mississippi River, and continues flowing to this day now with the Rivergator: Paddler’s Guide to the Middle and Lower Mississippi River.
For paddlers there is nothing more fascinating than approaching and then passing the junction of two rivers, especially when the rivers are major rivers coming together from long distances apart. We all walk the land that was once dominated by dinosaurs, and we all breathe the air Caesar breathed. And yet none seem as tangible as the immediate connection a river gives us to the places and people who live on the other end, and in the tributaries and drainages along the way.
Although most of St. Louis straddles short bluffs and terraces 100-200 feet high, it is defined by its waterways. St. Louis sits like the center hub of a giant wheel. You find rivers every direction you go, big rivers, the rivers that define the very heart of America: the Upper Mississippi, the Illinois, and the Missouri. And the Middle Miss gathers them all together and off they go slipping and sliding southward through an elegant, graceful glacial-carved valley ten miles wide. You could depart by canoe from downtown St. Louis and without leaving water reach such far flung locales as Omaha, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Billings and Bismarck. Of course downstream will eventually bring you to Memphis and then further downstream to New Orleans. In the acceleration of the internal combustion engine most St. Louisans have forgotten their water roots. LaSalle paddled through here, as well as Joliet and Marquette. Later came Lewis and Clark, and then Schoolcraft. St. Louis is actually an island when viewed from the perspective of rivers, encircled by the Missouri, Mississippi and Meramec (and their tributaries like the Bourbeuse). Big Muddy Mike Clark has proved this four or five times in the past decade. Out of 66 square miles, water covers 6.2% of St. Louis water, most of which is found in the flowing rivers.
While the Rivergator is only concerned with the south-flowing water down the Middle Miss from the Missouri Confluence, it opens the imagination to entertain the watery geography of the biggest city in the heart of America.
Big River Crossroads
For instance, by the reality of geography all expeditions must pass this Big River Crossroads. The Missouri River Trail and the Mississippi River Trail are the obvious biggies and create the N-S and E-W axis of the Crossroads. The Lewis & Clark Trail extends this axis to the Pacific (via the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia) and into the Alleghenies via the Ohio and Middle Mississippi (if you follow Capt. Lewis’ start place: Pittsburgh). The Joliette & Marquette route adds in the Great Lakes via the Wisconsin River, and creates a new end place at the mouth of the Arkansas River where the two Jesuit Priests turned around after deciding they had gone far enough down the river to determine it went to the Gulf (and into hostile Spanish territories!). Lewis & Clark and Joliet & Marquette also exemplify the upstream and downstream possibilities. But they are following the Native peoples, who used the rivers as their highways, going upstream or downstream as their needs demanded. 99% of modern day paddlers go downstream, but you can of course do both! You could paddle UP the Mississippi from New Orleans. To my knowledge only Verlen Kruger has completed the upstream challenge, although at publishing time one group of 6 paddlers have started their way up the Mississippi en route to the Arctic (Jan 2015, the “Rediscovering North America” Expedition). You would learn so much more about the river having done so. Upstream paddlers have to hug the banks. You get close to all of the wildlife and interesting topography you otherwise miss from the middle of the river going downstream. Other expeditions add the Illinois route to the Northeast. And a tiny fraction add in other smaller tributaries like the St. Croix, Meramec, Iowa, Wabash, Red, or others, and customize their own creative expedition routes according to their interests and personal connections along the way. For instance this year (2014) one particularly creative adventurer came down the Missouri, followed the Mississippi to the Atchafalaya Exit, and then turned up the Red to paddle upstream into the Southern Plains and conclude the trip at hometown Dallas, Texas. More and more paddlers are turning down the Atchafalaya, and with good reason: you enjoy the best of the deep south’s cypress/tupelo gum forests and avoid Cancer Alley, all of the industry and chaos of the Greater Port of New Orleans. A surprising number of paddlers follow the 6,000+ mile Grand Loop (Circumnavigating all of Eastern United States via the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Seaway, Intercoastal Waterway, and the Mississippi). A small fraction of paddlers come down the Mississippi, turn up the Ohio, and enter the Tennessee, to lock through over to the Tombigbee and follow that river down to Mobile Bay. That is the route most powerboats follow to the Gulf. But unless you like flat water, you’re going to want to stick to the Mississippi and let the Rivergator be your guide.
Further downstream the Ohio River Trail adds in many more permutations to the possible routes, adding in the Cumberland and Tennessee, and many others, but we’ll speak of this later when get down to this confluence, further along in the Rivergator.