The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

St Louis to Caruthersville

Your route: Main Channel vs. Back Channel

Rivergator will detail Main Channel which is almost always the fastest route on the water, but full or traffic, and Back Channel, which is slower but is full of wildlife and big trees. Main Channel is always open regardless of river level, but back channel is dependent upon river levels. Most back channels are closed in low water, open with slow flow in medium water, and full of strong flowing currents in high water. Main channel hazards are buoys and towboats. (Avoid both!) In the back channel your main hazards are waterfalls over dikes (dependent on river level), snags, strainers and channel blockages (driftwood piling against trees or low bridge).   Rivergator will detail all known waterfalls and blockages. But on the river things are in constant flux. What one year is an uninterrupted flowing back channel might next year be blocked by a pile of logs and tree removal dropped by some logging operation. Two things: 1) be a smart paddler and use you own best judgment about what’s safe to paddle and what isn’t. And 2) let us know if you discover something of importance not listed in the Rivergator, like a dangerous waterfall or a blocked channel. That way we can update Rivergator descriptions and keep other paddlers informed about these difficulties and possible hazards! Dikes present special challenges to the back channel paddler. At low water they are exposed, and you can paddle around any dike, but you will often discover strong eddies with ripping cross currents and whirlpools.   At medium water you can paddle over most dikes, but that is when the waters are at their most turbulent. You may not see any solid evidence, but you will know they are there by the exploding boils, whipping currents, whirlpools and agitated turbulence. In high water most dikes get swamped over by smooth flow and you hardly notice their influence. In medium water back channels waterfalls sometimes form over a dike, with significant drops (2-3 feet), strong v-line tongues, standing waves, and turbulent side waters. If you hear the sound of rushing water and see the plane of the back channel disappear and drop a level, and see leaping whitewater beyond -- Be especially cautious!   Remember the paddler’s mantra: when in doubt, stop and scout!


Mississippi River Maps:

Middle Mississippi: For best navigation on the river and also while reading the Rivergator, use the The 2011 Upper Mississippi River Navigation Charts include the Middle Mississippi and can be downloaded from:


Lower Mississippi: And the US Army Corps of Engineers 2007 Maps of the Lower Mississippi River, which can be viewed or downloaded from the following website:


All Rivergator mileage refers to the number of mileage used on these maps.


Consider the Atchafalaya (845 miles downstream)

Gulf-bound paddlers are advised to start planning now for their journey completion by adding in the possibility of a wonderful alternate route. And that is by following the Atchafalaya Exit through the 1.2 million acre largest river swamp in North America, the famed “River of Trees.” This option opens up at the Old River Lock and Dam, which is 845 miles downstream of the Missouri River Confluence. Many paddlers are not aware of it, but the Atchafalaya is definitely the most beautiful possible completion of your epic adventure down the biggest river in North America. Instead of more industry and very dangerous river conditions through Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Venice on the big river (including poor campsites with toxic air and water conditions), consider taking the Atchafalaya River through its paradise of wild variegated bottomland hardwood forests, tupelo gum swamps, and marshy coastal plains. It also coincides with the heart of cajun country. To be completely honest, there are some pipelines, and a few small oil storage and processing installations, but they are few and far in between. Almost 1/3 of the Mississippi River is diverted here as a way of protecting the City and Port of New Orleans, creating the 4th largest and the shortest big river on the continent. Why not go with the flow, and take the Atchafalaya? You have almost a thousand miles to mull over this delightful opportunity. We wanted to alert you to the possibility now so that you have plenty of time to debate your choice.


River Speed and Trip Duration

The Lower Mississippi River averages 3 mph at low water, 5 at medium water, and 7 at high water.  An average paddler can add 2-3 mph to river speed. As such, you could easily make 10mph paddling down the Mississippi in high water! Then again, if you were paddling against a head wind in low water you might only make 2 or 3mph. Making adjustments for wind speed, stops along the way, and any alternate exploration, you can use the above to roughly estimate your time of travel on the big river. The last unknown factor is towboats.  You might lose time due to necessary waits for passing tows.  Never try to outrun a tow, and never paddle across their line of travel.


Expert paddlers only!

Expert paddlers only on Mississippi River. You must be very familiar with your canoe or kayak, its abilities and its limitations. Should be able to self-rescue in your vessel if necessary. Your canoe should have high enough sides (recommended min. 13") and ends (recommended min. 20-22") to handle waves. No racing canoes. Kayaks should be made for big open waters. If your kayak has an open cockpits you should bring and wear your spray skirt during inclement weather. Sea kayaks are the best for the Mississippi because they are made for the big waters. Shorter kayaks are okay, but playboats are generally not recommended unless you are a very strong paddler, and don’t plan on going long distance, because they are slow. You should be strong enough to paddle through big waves, strong winds, and make long-distance ferry crossings from one side of the Mississippi River to the other (usually a mile or more). You should be comfortable paddling in the vicinity of 1/2 mile long towboat/barges. You should be able to negotiate big strong boils, powerful eddies, and possible whirlpools. You should strong enough to paddle through transitions of fast currents (such as coming out of an eddy into the main channel). You should be strong enough to handle long sets of wave trains, sometimes a mile or longer, with waves coming from multiple directions.


Some of the Challenges for Paddlers:

You might buck around in some of the big waves, but if you are a competent paddler you'll have no problem.   The biggest obstacles for paddlers are tugboats, buoys, dredges, wing dams, piers & industrial docking. As with all rivers, any stationary object creates bad eddies, possible whirlpools, and should be avoided. Please leave a wide margin between you & any stationary object, and be prepared for unexpected changes of current direction and/or large violent boils. You’ll want to give tugboats plenty of maneuvering room as well. Paddle defensively around tugboats! Even though they are slow monsters (5-15mph), and you’ll see them from a long way off, but they often won’t see you, or if they do, they won’t have any choice in their navigation. They are slow to stop and slow to move. But beware of winds and/or water currents blowing you into their fronts or sides. The most dangerous place is in front of a tugboat, the safest place is behind it, or far from its sides.


Also be prepared for erratic & chaotic waves that sometimes erupt along powerful eddies on a windy day, or following the passage of one of the big tugboats pushing 42 barges. We commonly see 4-6 foot waves behind the bigger tows, sometimes 8 footers. Usually these are nice rounded waves (which you can actually paddle into and surf) but be ever vigilant for crashing waves, haystacks, and other rapidly changing conditions. Lastly, tie up canoes after making any landings. Fluctuations in river levels and waves will steal your canoe & gear otherwise!