The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail


As you get into the belly of the island the long walls of rock called wing dams (that we are normally paddling over) now look like the Great Wall of China, and downstream below the walls they have created expansive bays of water then mud and finally sand behind.  The water-loving willow trees have suffered and appear off-color and withered, especially the lines of willows on the higher ridges of sand.  In previous years I have seen whole willow forests die to never recover from this kind of drought in low water.


Everywhere dead fish are seen or smelled, in the mud, in the sand, in the water, piles of fish bones now bleached by the sun litter the beach, and on the water, it sometimes feels like a macabre parade of dead fish as you paddle along, so thick is the main channel full of fish bodies.  Every time you paddle past one you can look ahead and see the next dead body bobbing in the rippling waves, gleaming white in the sunlight reflecting off their wet skin, rotting carcasses being attacked by other fish, turtles and turkey vultures.  When they wash ashore they become coyote fodder. 


One year ago we were recovering from the highest water of the century.  Now this year we’re seeing the lowest waters since 1998, and it might be dropping lower, the low water season is just begun.  Of course, for the towboats there’s only one season, and that’s grain season.  Everyone from the farmers to towboat pilots are very nervous about the fate of this year’s crop.  But farmers and river pilots have always gambled with the weather, right?  9Why the radical changes from extreme highs to extreme lows?  This is another one of the river’s mysteries.  But it has at least one historical precedent: the 1936 heat wave & drought were followed by the 1937 flood.  Only 2012 has been hotter & drier than 1936.  And only the Great Flood of 2011 came higher and bigger than 1937.


Finally, on a sobering note, the Mississippi River is certainly not too low to drown in.  Far too many people have been swallowed up this year.  If anything, the extreme low water demands greater vigilance and precaution.  Weird things always happen on this mysterious waterway, and even more weird things happen during any extreme conditions.  The river seems to garner the fascination of the nation, in the press corps if nowhere else.  A man drowned last week near the river hamlet of Louisiana, Missouri.  The story hit Google news from -- not from St. Louis, nor Chicago, nor Des Moines, indeed not any regional paper, in fact not any paper within the entire Mississippi River drainage -- the story hit Google news from the Sacramento Bee.  We see lots of Mississippi River stories coming from that great newspaper of the capital city of the great bear state.  Someone at the Sacramento Bee has interest in the river.  Maybe because of their own river floodplain and the similarities.  The river brings us all together, even in times of loss and heartache.  Our condolences go out to the family of the bereaved.

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