The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

Helena to Island 63

Floating underneath a bridge is one of the most sensational of Mississippi River experiences. For the paddler on the wide open Mississippi River it's difficult to get a sense of motion, speed, and the river current.  Sometimes it feels like you are sitting in a lake not a river, even though you are indeed floating within the throes of the biggest and most powerful river in North America!  That is until you pass underneath a bridge.  As you scoot downstream the water piles up high against the bridge pylons and then swirls around the backside with violent convulsions and contortions of water, and you will enjoy the distinct sensation of river motion as the bridge abutments mysteriously slide by and the geometric trusswork and solid concrete road bed swing overhead with surprising speed, the higher the water the faster the speed.  At high water this experience can be slightly disconcerting so fast the bridge slides by with sickening sucking sounds and explosions of agitated water.  If you entertained any previous doubt about the power of the big river it will now be forever dashed away!


[Insert: Helena Bridge Highwater Video]


Note: the bridge pylon is a very dangerous place for any paddler, regardless of river level.  Keep at least twenty-boat lengths away from it (~100 yards), and never try to enter the eddying waters below.  Passing towboats will make any already agitated places like the waters surrounding a bridge pylon to react even more violently.  Do not underestimate the power of water against piers or pylons!  My first journey down the Mississippi River ended in disaster at the foot of some huge concrete pylons similar to those found below the Helena Bridge.  After a 5 month journey from Minnesota's North Woods in 1982/83 my best friend and I wrecked our 12 x 24 foot raft on a pylon supporting a TVA Powerline crossing below Memphis.  The snarling water wrapped our invincible raft around the base of the tower and snapped it like a potato chip.  It was February and we weren't in wetsuits.  I shouldn't even be alive now to tell this story.


This is the only bridge in between Memphis and Greenville, over 200 miles of river.  And  such is the nature of the Lower Mississippi, and what makes this water trail such an attractive adventure for wilderness paddlers.  The wildness of the Lower Mississippi River is reflected by the fact that there are so few crossings.


657 LBD Yazoo Pass

You will travel near the historic opening of Yazoo Pass as you paddle around Montezuma Bend starting near mile 657.  The Yazoo Pass used to connect the Mississippi River via Moon Lake to the Tallahatchie River system, and was one of the many routes that Grant used trying to sneak behind the rebel stronghold of Vicksburg.  2300 men on steamboats churned their way through this pass in 1863, but were repulsed 123 miles downstream at Fort Pemberton by a small Confederate force shielded by a sunken steamboat fortified with cotton bales.


For more description of the phenomena of the River Pass: [CLICK HERE: River Passes]


How to get into the old entrance of the Yazoo Pass

As you paddle down into Montezuma Bend Mile 657-Mile 652 (Friars Point) and the water is above twenty on the Helena Gage (20 HG) you can sneak in behind a series of islands LBD that have grown up along the Montezuma Dikes.  There are a series of three long dikes starting with #1 opposite & a little below Fitzhugh Landing at 657.6, #2 at 657 and #3 at 656.5 all Left Bank Descending.  To get into the Yazoo Pass you will need to dive into the young willow islands formed behind #1 or #2.  By the time you get to #3 it will be too late.  Look for the buoys that indicate the ends of the dikes and pick the best-looking opening and charge in!  (Note: buoys are sometimes knocked out of place by high water or renegade tows running too close to the edge of the channel) You really can't go wrong, but beware water rushing in through the trees (snags) and accumulations of driftwood piled against stands of willows (strainers).  Pick your best opening and jump in for a backwoods view of a this interesting series of young willow-choked islands.  Oftentimes lesser & greater egrets roost on these willows alongside the great blue heron and other waders, in the fall & winter double breasted cormorants enjoy these wetlands and white pelicans sometimes make rest stops as they soaring through on their transcontinental migration.


There is a channel entering hard left all the way against the old revetment Mississippi Bank LBD below the last long dike at Mile 656.5.  The trained eye will see the opening by the subtle changes of trees lines, young willows closer, the older forest rising on top of the higher forest bottoms behind with a slightly different canopy of giant oaks, sweetgums, sycamores, cottonwoods, and others, the classic trees of the bottomland hardwood forest.  In higher water levels you will have to hug the willow treeline LBD to find the opening so strong does the water flow through, and once you go over the dike line it'll be too late to paddle back up into the Pass.


Warning: at medium waters this dike line (#3 at 656.5) will be an explosion of agitated water, fast swirling octopus arms of water motivated by blooming boils with following whirlpools, roughest between HG 20-25, it becomes smoothed over above HG 26.


Once you round the peninsula of willows, you will enter a strikingly beautiful narrow channel running north parallel to the tall woods along the Mississippi shore. The water calms out (except at high water when there is a gentle current) and you can paddle several hundred yards at med water.  The quiet & peacefulness of the setting is a welcome contrast to the boisterous main channel.   If the water's high and you want to do some exploring through the deep woods, you can paddle several miles following the remnants of the old channel, above flood stage you can paddle right up to the levee which now cuts the Pass off from its former route to Moon Lake.  Now imagine 2300 soldiers on fortified steamboats entering this same channel (which was about the same width at its mouth back then)!  At med river level the waters of the Pass will be a delightful clearish-greenish hue, much clearer than the muddy waters of the main channel.  If you are a strong swimmer and know how to self-rescue, it's a beautiful place to jump out of your canoe and take a refreshing swim.  [CLICK HERE: for Safe Swimming in the Mississippi].  At higher water levels, the muddy main channel submerges the islands and invades all the willow forests and spills into the Pass.