The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

Shelby Forest to Memphis

The river illusion is not uncommon amongst the muddy floodplain rivers of mid-America, like the Lower Missouri, the Lower Arkansas, and here the Lower Mississippi -- rivers with big floodplains that squelch any serious bankside ambitions.  And by the very power of their unpredictable flooding waters which might jump and then fall 50 vertical feet in one season industry, suburbia, and most attempts at permanent infrastructure are kept at bay, and are tempered to a minimum.  The grain elevators, steel plants and power plants are confined to the few high banks, and the cities to a few high bluffs.  Otherwise, you can’t build it here, and as result the wild river rules a wild landscape.


The river illusion gets stronger the more time you spend on the river.  And if you make a long distance expedition you begin to feel like the heart and gut of America, the mid-South and the deep-South, is still a forested landscape like it was 200 years ago. That the land is still endowed with endless deep woods and the wild paradise they create.  That squirrels could still cross from the Ozarks to the Appalachians without touching the ground.


Two-thirds of the way down Loosahatchie Back Channel there is one last dike to cross.  In medium water this could be a waterfall and you will want to stay river left (towards the island) where most of the water pours through a narrow notch and its surroundings.  At high water there will be some turbulence, and by flood stage the dike is buried so far under muddy water that it becomes completely blown over and you can’t distinguish any extra fluid motion amidst the sea of motion.  Downtown Memphis will eventually appear over the bottom of the island with a dreamlike quality.  You might be surprised to find yourself directly opposite Mud Island with the Pyramid not far below!   After three miles of floating or paddling, you can now curl around the bottom of the island and prepare for the long crossing over to the Bluff City.


737.5 Ferry Crossing to Memphis from the Bottom of Loosahatchie Bar

If you are coming down the back channel of the Loosahatchie Bar and intend to make a landing in Memphis, you will have a fairly high pressure crossing that will require a combination of hard paddling and big river know-how.  Keep reading below for some tips to help you get safely across.


Here’s the challenge: a one mile crossing one mile above a bridge with a half mile below to get into the harbor.  There is usually lots of traffic along the Memphis riverfront.  Recreational boaters, the Memphis Queen Paddle Boat, Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency Rangers, Coast Guard vessels and work boats, local tows, resupply tows, crew boats, Army Corps vessels, and of course the omnipresent big tows going long distance.  Anytime there is a bridge to maneuver under, tow pilots get edgy, and with good reason: they have very little room for error.  If they are forced to make the difficult decision they will most certainly choose to run down an unsuspecting kayaker over hitting one of the I-40 piers possibly causing the entire bridge and all of it vehicular traffic to fall into the river!  The best approach in this area is to let them pass before attempting any crossing.  Especially the downstream tows, who have the least amount of ability to maneuver.  If you see a big tow coming down the main channel at the top end of Mud Island, stay back in an eddy, or hold position under the long dike and let them pass.  On the other hand if they are as far upstream as the Mouth of the Loosahatchie or above, go ahead and cross.  You will be over and up the Harbor before they even see you.  Upstream tows move slower, so you have more time to get there if you see one, but remember the river is carrying you towards their upstream passage.  It’s going to be difficult to clearly see any upstreamers downstream of the lower bridges, the Memphis & Arkansas Bridge/ Harrahan Bridge.  Monitor VHF Channel 13 if you have a marine radio.  If you can’t see any upstreamers steaming towards you above the lower bridges, you should be good to go.  On the other hand, if you do see one above the lower bridges halt your crossing until they reach you and pass upstream.  Remember, the safest place around a towboat is behind a towboat.