The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

Cairo To Caruthersville

922 - 921 RBD Dorena Towhead

The Dorena Towhead rises out of the river bank right in a long shelf of sand at low and medium water levels, with generous but narrow sandbars along the forests in high water, all the way to bankfull and even a few slivers of sand here and there at high water. Leaving out of Hickman this is your first best choice for picnicking and even possibly camping. Great campsites on tall sandy bluff, good and dry up to Flood Stage 40CG. The forests are all private however and should be avoided, especially during hunting season.


918-915 RBD Seven Island Conservation Area

The state of Missouri has protected 1375 acres of bottomland hardwood forest, old back channels and swamps in the Seven Island Conservation Area, with 3.5 miles of along the big river. In addition to providing important habitat for waterfowl during periods of high water, Seven Island Conservation Area is home to deer, turkey and various songbirds and furbearers. The area also hosts two rare species, the swamp rabbit and Mississippi kite.  


917 - 916 RBD Island No 7

Heading downstream out of Hickman the paddler rounds Dorena Towhead and is presented with a forest lined channel bank left and punctuated by a series of islands bank right. These are an archipelago of islands that have accumulated along the Island No. 7 Dikes, with giant Island No 8 looming in the background. If a tow is coming up the channel it will most likely be hugging the slow water RBD along these islands. Go with the flow and wander into the middle or left bank of the channel, then cut back across after the tow passes for exploring the islands. Or stay with the best currents right channel if continuing downstream. If the water is 15CG or higher you can cut behind the islands for back channel passage. You will find possible low water camping among these islands, but the landings are often muddy.


Bald Eagles

Bald eagles are common to this stretch of river, many of whom roost in nearby Reelfoot Lake. Those big birds you see standing on the outside branches of some tall bankside trees could be hawks, or osprey, or bald eagles. Look for the tell-tale white head in the adults. The immature eagles carve the same silhouette in flight, but lack the brilliant white head and tail. Their feathers are splotchy black brown and white, in the air they look black or brown, and might be mistaken for a vulture except for the flight pattern is unique. They tend to hold their wings even with their bodies, but in a double recurve, like a recurve bow, the tip feathers slightly curled up. Turkey vultures make V-lines, and are nervous in flight, shaking back and forth even as they glide. Great blue herons have bing wide wings like eagles, but they chop the air differently when beating their wings, and of course they have their long legs trailing behind. After watching enough eagles in flight you will be able to distinguish between them and all the others.


916 - 911 RBD Island No 8

Everything about Island No 8 arouses wonder and appreciation. It is the biggest, wildest, and most inspiring island in this stretch of the Lower Mississippi, habitat to big herds of deer, and thriving with wildlife of every sort. It is important habitat for songbirds and waterfowl in their annual migrations, and the back channel is a favorite for fish, amphibians, and bald eagles. From the air Island No. 8 seems to leap upstream like an overgrown walrus humping the Kentucky shoreline. The main channel used to go around the outside of the island, but an excess of sand and gravel accumulated during the floods of 1927 and 1937, and the Army Corps engineers decided to direct the flow down the back channel. Hence the two have reversed roles.   As you approach the top of the island in high water the back channel and main channel roll down either side equally, but as the water levels drop a series of tall dikes emerge like castle walls with extensive sandbars below. The best beaches and sandbar camping are found down the back channel. The best highwater camp is top end where the waters split ways, or another high point following the back channel. This beautiful bluff of high sand is approximately two miles down, you will be far from the endless rumblings of the tows, and surrounded by owls, eagles and deer.   Other possible highwater camps are strung along the main channel side of the island, but they are limited in size, and subject to the all-night scrutiny of tow spot lights. Below 20CG the best flow over the topmost dike is through the notch in the center of the dike. Go with the strongest currents and avoid scraping submerged rocks on the edges. Barely flowing at 15, some flow at 20CG, good flow at 25CG or higher. In low water miles and miles of pristine sandbar beaches are found topside, with a second giant beach halfway down the backside. The main channel makes an unusual zig-zag jog at the bottom of Island No 8, which makes a challenging turn for tow pilots.


RBD 917 - 916 Big Oak Tree State Park

While not easily accessible by foot from the river, paddlers should be aware of this natural wonder that lies just over the levee, with state and national trees such as the pumpkin ash, rusty blackhaw, eastern cottonwood, slippery elm, shumard oak, bur oak, swamp chestnut oak, pawpaw, persimmon, possumhaw, swamp privet and black willow.   (Note: some of these champions have died). The black willows that we paddlers see on the river islands, which rarely are over 50 feet tall and maybe 36” in circumference. The champion black willow is found here measuring 148 inches in circumference, and 113 feet in height!  


Big Oak Tree State Park is the last remaining piece of continuous hardwood bottomland forest that once covered the entire ‘bootheel’ of Missouri. A series of drainage canals facilitated the conversion of swamp forest into agriculture land. A visit to the park will allow exploration of the major habitats within the park. The major habitats include the bottomland forest, swamp forest and shrub swamp. It is easy to find the progressions between sections dominated by oak trees and areas dominated by bald cypress. Big Oak Tree State Park is known as the park of champions. Several trees have the status of being state champions for their size. Champion trees are measured in girth, height and crown spread. These numbers are plugged into a formula that generate a point total. The points are then used to determine which nomination is the biggest, or champion, for that species. Big Oak Tree State Park currently has two champion trees. The number of champions changes due to storm damage or the death of a tree. One state champion, a persimmon tree, is 132 feet tall. The average height for a persimmon tree is 60 feet.


Some of the wildlife that live in the park include deer, opossum, raccoon, mice, turtles, lizards and snakes. Although the park has a lot of water snakes, there has never been any verified and documented identification of any venomous snakes such as the cottonmouth (also known as a water moccasin). The park is in a great location for many bird species. Mississippi kites may be seen in the summer and bald eagles in the winter. Many migratory birds including warblers, ducks and geese may be seen during the spring and fall migrations. A visit to Big Oak Tree State Park is a visit to Missouri as the first explorers saw it. Towering hickory trees and oaks form a canopy that averages more than 120 feet in height and the soaring trees and marshy terrain translates visitors back to when southeast Missouri was dubbed “Swampeast Missouri.” The trees and wetlands make the park a prime place for wildlife as well as picnic sites and shelters that are shaded by trees that have seen centuries of history. A self-guided boardwalk trail and an interpretive center tell the story of this rich landscape. (From Missouri State Parks Website).