The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
414 RBD Palmyra – Togo Island Crossroads
At right bank descending 415 the riverbank suddenly yawns up with a big mouth hundreds of yards wide that reveals a watery crossroads where Togo Chute, Palmyra Chute, the Big River Upstream and the Big River Downstream all intersect. A large bay is always found here, regardless of river level, and you could count on this for a quick exit in bad weather. In high water the back channels are of course flowing, and you might have to hug the trees to find the calm place. A powerful eddy forms in high water where the back channels return to the big river, and a gentle eddy at low water. This lovely harbor forms the nexus of the cross. You could paddle up the Togo Chute, up the Palmyra Chute, down the Mississippi, or up the Mississippi. (Up the Mississippi? Sure why not?)
The nineteen mile long Palmyra Chute (which you passed upstream opposite the big cranes at LeTourneau — mile 426) comes out at this crossroads after meandering around 45,000 acre Davis Island. Thriving with wildlife such as gators, deer, boar and black bear. Kayaker Jake Anderson spotted a black bear swimming side-to-side across the main channel of the Mississippi over to the top end of Davis Island. Not sure what that crawling pile of wet fur was, a beaver or a boar or a long-haired river rat, Jake paddled hard to catch up. He was amazed that this wet dark mass was swimming so fast, and didn’t realize it was a bear until it turned and looked at him. The round shape of the ears, and long snout made a self-identification! Being a good opportunist that he is, Jake caught up with the bear, but not too close, and snapped a series of photos, and even a video, which he shared with the greater world through Facebook.
Big Black Bluff, The Grand Gulp (Mississippi Loess Bluff #2)
As you come out of Togo the river downstream carves opens the forested floodplain surrounding like a cleaver carving meat, and the paddler is offered a delicious point of view over Middle Ground Island (four miles downstream) over the mouth of the Big Black River (six miles) to the high bluffs rising behind (seven miles). This is the return of the Mississippi Loess Bluffs that we left at the Vicksburg Bridge. We’re told that the Grand Gulp is the highest of the bluffs in between Baton Rouge and Vicksburg. It’s hard to tell, this one sits a little further back than the others.
Why the name Grand Gulp? Back then the main channel of the Mississippi slammed hard into the Big Black River, and the bluff rising behind. Steamboat pilots, flatboatsmen (like 19 year old Abraham Lincoln, keelboatsmen (like Jim Bowie), river-rats all, they said that the confluence of the Black River and Mississippi River caused strong whirlpools in the river here that would catch a river boat, twirl it around like cotton candy around your finger, and suck (or gulp) it down in its vicious vortex of a throat. The hard edges of the bluff added power to the turbulence. The riverboat men named the place “Grand Gulp.” Later the Vicksburg paper started calling it Grand Gulf and the name stuck. A town arose along the base of the bluff, and then was destroyed by the river. Everything in this area is called Grand Gulf, including the remains of the town and now the nuclear power plant. But for the purposes of the Rivergator, canoeists and kayakers, we’ll retain the original riverman’s designation, the Grand Gulp. Paddlers beware!
410 RBD Middle Ground Island
Middle Ground is one of the big mid-channel islands that splits the river cleanly in two (during high water). When you come upon it from above in high water it’s hard to tell which side is main channel and which side is back channel. Back channel remains open year round except when the water drops below 10VG when it closes up and becomes reattached to the Louisiana shore. Giant sandbars emanate outwards from the top end like the feathers of a peacock’s tail, but disappear bottom end where a deep ravine cuts behind the island affording year round deep water access. Like Choctaw Island two hundred miles to the north, Middle Ground is fat and wide. Unlike Choctaw, it is a private hunting club. Respect private property, especially during hunting season. Best camping is top end at high water, along its outside edge during medium water, and bottom end in low water. There is a high shelf of sand with mature willows along the bottom end, which makes for an ideal protected winter camp with a frontal view of the Grand Gulf nuke towers.
Of course you can camp anywhere you find sand at low water, but as always keep an eye on the horizon for any approaching storms. Middle Ground is considered a “first order island” on the Lower Mississippi River. First order islands are so big they create their own environments, and often provide habitat for unique species not found on the shore in the batture, and not found on any other nearby smaller islands. And Middle Ground indeed has its own special biota with the golden orb weaver spider, which I have never seen on any of the other islands. Not so unique, crab spiders thicken the spaces between its woods. There is nothing unique about blue holes, which are formed during high water and become present during low. But on Middle Ground there is a blue hole so deep that it never dries out. This long lake of a blue hole is tucked into the woods near the bottom end and is periodically refreshed and replenished during high water events. It takes a flood stage VG43 to get over its banks and scour out the sand anew in the endless cycle of rises and falls. The back channel feels like the Mohave Desert in the heat of the summer, but more like the Gobi in the winter. I’ve seen gator tracks cutting across Middle Ground like a log being dragged through the sand, and others report frequent gator sightings. First order islands on the Mississippi are those with 2,000 acres of forest or more.