The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

St Louis to Caruthersville


At least half of the St. Louis Harbor is lined by wharves (and docks) of various sorts, shapes and sizes. For paddlers this means that you have no place to easily pull over in case of wind, waves, or the need to relieve yourself. At low water you might be able to sneak into any number of places between wharves and docks, or in between fleeted barges and docked tows. But in high water it would require expert paddling with a high degree of precision and little room for error to safely maneuver through all of the fast currents, swirling eddies, whirlpools and cross-currents, and dive in between the concrete piers and creosote pylons of the wharves, and find that safe water behind that idled 3-screw towboat. The dangers are obvious: hydraulics, sweepers, and strainers. Anything stationary in the river becomes a potential place for becoming stalled, impaled, and rolled over. This is all to say, don’t stop. Don’t try and pull over because you need to pee. Hold it and keep paddling until you are well beyond any of these man-made hazards, and then find a safe location to make landing.


Chevrons have been placed several hundred yards offshore RBD between the Merchants Bridge and the Stiles Bridge (RBD183-182). The Chevron is a new method of river engineering added to places where navigable access is needed on both sides of the channel. Here, the docks RBD and the main channel LBD both need a good channel for year round deepwater access for towboats and others. Wing dams are not possible in this situation because they can only create deepwater on one side only. The chevron points upstream. In low water 6-12SLG you might see the actual rock structure as you’re paddling downstream under the Merchants Bridge. The water boils up along the top end and then sheds around the edges. You can follow the flow and find refuge underneath the chevrons, on their downstream side. Chevrons become most dangerous in medium water when the rocks disappear underwater and chaotic, turbulent upwellings result, especially around SLG 15-25. You can’t see the physical structures at all and the area becomes an unpredictable and indecipherable mess of currents and cross-currents to the unsuspecting. Best route: paddle around chevrons (preferably on the inside RBD if there is no traffic) not through them or over them. Waves from upstream tows will rise taller and crash over louder in the turbulent chevron area. In high water their influence is diminished. You will hardly notice any change between 25-30SLG and can freely use any part of the river you feel like paddling watching for traffic, and making adjustments according to your intended destination.


Boat Inspection by the US Coast Guard:

As you are paddling into the St. Louis Harbor your vessel will probably be inspected by the US Coast Guard, St. Louis Fire Dept Water Rescue Unit, or the St. Louis Harbor Patrol. They will be checking your vessel for freeboard, safety equipment, and anything relevant to what they consider safe navigation on the Mississippi River. Most aspects of the inspection you will have prepared for your expedition anyway, including life jackets, rescue bag, 1st Aid Kit, and an extra paddle. Be sure you are not overloaded on the day you paddle out of St. Louis (or any day you are paddling on the big river!). Pack one life jacket for each person on board. Keep an extra paddle handy. Make sure you have your bow and stern lines tied appropriately and ready to use.   Clip an emergency whistle to your pfd.   Show the inspection guys your VHF radio and your Upper Mississippi River Charts if you are carrying them. For rescue purposes you will be required to carry a rescue bag, life ring on a rope, or a throwable (type IV) life jacket. You will be required to have running lights if you are found on the river after dark, red and green forward, and white to the rear. You might be required to carry these if you are a large group, or a big raft.


List of Boat Essentials

Here is a complete list of what you will need to keep safe and pass a Coast Guard inspection with flying colors, and safely get down the river:


1) Type II pfd (life jacket), one for each person on board

2) Rescue bag

3) 1st Aid Kit

4) At least one extra paddle

5) Bow and Stern lines

6) Emergency whistle (clip to your pfd)

7) VHF Marine radio

8) Rescue flotation (For rescue purposes you will be required to carry a rescue bag, life ring on a rope, or a throwable (type IV) life jacket)

9) Running lights: red (port) and green (starboard) forward, and white to the rear

10) Sponges and bailers


Not required, but a good idea to always have on hand:

- 2 Water Bottles (filled)

- Fire Starter Kit

- Survival Kit

- Mississippi River Charts

- Cell Phone in waterproof case


You will need to demonstrate plenty of Freeboard. This is subjective to your vessel. What is enough freeboard for a paddleboard? For canoes, one foot is good, but it depends on the canoe. For kayaks, four inches? Six inches? Depends on the kayak.


Security at Landings

Unfortunately in these modern times, people are not as respectful of private property along the river as they used to be. It used to be that any vessel wasIn recent years there have been stories of vessels and paddling goods being stolen off of landings from Davenport, St. Louis, New Madrid, Caruthersville, Vicksburg and Memphis. You can hide your vessel somewhere. An inlet makes a good place to do this, or a flooded piece of woods or bushes. Paddle into the flooded thickets and tie it securely. Wade to shore and go to town. But your best practice might be to leave someone with your vessel or carry it with you. If you can’t carry or portage, pull your vessel all of the way out of the water and lock it up with a chain. Remove all valuables. Even then, it might not be safe. One paddler had chained and locked his canoe to the handrail in New Madrid to resupply. When he returned to the boat ramp several days later the chain had been cut and the canoe was gone. Sometimes your best alternative might be to camp on the river by your vessel instead of taking a hotel room, or enjoying a night on the town.


Big Muddy Mike intro:

Mike Clark of Big Muddy Adventures knows the river around St. Louis better than anyone else. His special name for the very busy St. Louis Harbor below the Arch is “The Gauntlet,” which is appropriate to the physical abuses you might suffer. Here is his introduction to this stretch of water: “Like a race horse at the starting gate of the Derby, the Mississippi River begins its 1156 mile free flowing run to the Gulf of Mexico at the Mel Price Lock & Dam in Alton, IL.  The churning waters exit and leap forth, barreling their way into a magnificent valley set between two great long lines of bluffs stretching from just above St. Louis at the Great Confluence all the way to Cape Girardeau.  On the Illinois side, river left descending, it becomes the great American Bottoms, one of the oldest and most fertile agricultural lands in the world.  It is where the great Cahokian Mound Builders established their civilization in a setting able to sustain more than 20,000 people, one of the largest cities in the world for its time, 1000 A.D.  On the Missouri side, river right descending, the  river exhibits its connecting mannerisms to its Confluence with the Big Muddy Missouri River.  Bottled up by levees, the two rivers parallel each other for 17 miles until they meet in an often turbulent mass of water marked by large boils and whirlpools.”

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