The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

St Louis to Cairo

163 RBD St. Mary’s Convent

The Missouri Bluffs rise to their highest prominences below St. Louis topped with healthy woodlands of oaks, sycamores, walnuts, elms and maples, and a few mansions. St. Mary’s Convent tops the highest prominence towards the mouth of the Meramec with carefully trimmed lawns, austere limestone buildings, a limestone chapel, and more beautiful trees.


161.6 RBD Ameren Meramec

First big power plant below St. Louis. Creamy yellow. Long dock, long intake structure. Four robust smokestacks emerging from 2 giant power generation units. At night time a spectacular array of sound & light. Ameren Meramec has been in operation for 61 years, since 1953, but plans to shutter the Power Plant in 2022 due to the rising costs of efficiency and clean air compliance.


161 RBD Meramec River

The major right bank tributary the Meramec enters the big river through a slot in the forest at 161 RBD, and meets the big river in a steep downstream angle (like so many of the Mississippi tributaries do).   No other major tributaries come in from the west downstream of here until you get to the mouth of the St. Francis, (which not coincidentally is another Missouri Ozark stream).  We’re talking 442 miles downstream!  


Why is this?  The reason is because of a divide of sorts created by the Ozark Mountains.  This divide runs parallel to the Mississippi, and begins below Fenton and runs southward making a wandering line passing the Ozark towns of Otto, Hillsboro, Potosi, Farmington, Frederickstown, Marble Hill, Sikeston, and back to the Mississippi at New Madrid.  From there it follows the levee south down to the mouth of the St. Francis River.  Nothing crosses that levee until the St. Francis breaks through where Crowley’s Ridge forces it into the big river above Helena Arkansas.   Sure, there are a few minor waterways like Joachim Creek, the Saline, Cinques Hommes, the Apple, and St. John’s Bayou, but all the bigger Ozarkan waterways like the Black, the Current, the White, the Eleven-Mile, and the St. Francis all run south parallel to the big river for hundreds of miles until breaking through.  The abused Castor River is the exception.  The Castor used to run southward to eventually join the St. Franny (as we paddlers call this waterway).   But the poor abused Castor was ripped from its natural channel by flood-fearing engineers, and forced through the lowlands eastward by the digging of the Castor River Diversion Canal, the Headwater Diversion Canal, and then the Ducktown Ditch, to meet the Mississippi at Cape Girardeau.


The confluence makes a nice place to get out of a West wind, or seek shelter from SW thunderstorms, or seek a little shade underneath some of its overhanging willows.  It would be crowded trying to make camp along the scrubby banks here, but on a cold winter’s night the dense foliage would feel good to the paddler who has been battling the elements all day in the middle of the big river and is ready to get out of the wind and make a fire.  Normally clear running, after a heavy rainfall, or snowmelt, the Meramec can run swift and murky, full of debris and the trash of the city. The Meramec is one of the longest free-flowing waterways in Missouri, draining 3,980 square miles while wandering 218 miles from headwaters to confluence.  One of its tributaries is Meramec Springs, which contributes 100 million gallons per day to the flow, and is the fifth-largest spring in Missouri.


The River of Ugly Fishes?

The first European explorer of the Meramec was French Jesuit priest Jacques Gravier who traveled the river in 1699–1700. The name likely means 'the river of ugly fishes' or 'ugly water' in Algonquin.  Early variant spellings of the name were Mearamigoua, Maramig, Mirameg, Meramecsipy, Merramec, Merrimac, Mearmeig, and Maramecquisipi. Early on, the river became an important industrial shipping route, with lead, iron and timber being sent downstream by flatboat and shallow-draft steamboat.  Today, the river is used commercially by tourboats, sand and gravel mining barges, canoe outfitters and ferry boat excursions. Numerous trails travel along the river and up over the bluffs, giving the hiker a glimpse of ducks, herons, beavers, and other species of wildlife which may be seen along the river.


At one time, the river was listed as one of the most polluted rivers in Missouri. Local and state government along the river have taken tremendous steps in cleaning it up. Today the river is one of the most diverse waters in Missouri. The river is plentiful in black crappie, channel catfish, flathead catfish, largemouth bass, paddlefish, rainbow trout, brown trout, rock bass, smallmouth bass, walleye, white crappie, and some of the richest mussel beds in the state. The endangered Eastern Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) also lives in the river.  The Meramec River includes one of only three Red Ribbon Trout Areas in the state of Missouri, hosting healthy rainbow trout and brown trout populations where large springs flowing into the river provide the cool water required by these species. Red Ribbon trout streams are managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation to produce trophy-sized fish.  (adopted from Wikipedia)


2 miles up Meramec River: Flamm City Access Ramp

2 miles up the Meramec an excellent ramp with parking can found at Flamm City Boat Launch.  This ramp is located below and a hundred yards downstream of the Hwy 231 crossing on southeast side (RBD) of the Bridge.  Good ramp at all water levels down to low water.  Its water levels are often directly affected by the water level in the Mississippi.   It bottoms out on a wide sand/gravel bar at extreme low water and paddlers will have to portage their canoe or kayak across the bar to get from the water to their vehicle. This would be an excellent pace to start your expedition if you wanted to avoid “The Gauntlet,” the very dangerous Port of St. Louis.


St. Louis Circumnavigation

St. Louis is an island?   Looking at google earth you will see that St. Louis is indeed surrounding by water, an almost unbroken shoreline running the perimeter of its greater metropolitan area, if you connect the Mississippi, Missouri, Meramec and Bourbeuse, (and then follow the narrow tributaries of the Bourbese to the narrow tributaries of the Missouri in the highlands above Washington).  For paddlers this means a nine-mile portage from Union City to Washington.   Big Muddy Mike Clark has proven this fact four years in a row with a 193-mile ring of the city using the four rivers as a learning adventure for his students at St. Anne of Normandy.  The mission is to highlight the beauty of the rivers, the interconnectedness of all residents of this region to its rivers, and the myriad of issues which face St. Louis’ greatest resource, its water.


You could start anywhere along the perimeter for the circumnavigation. But since we are here at the Meramec confluence, here’s how the route works: paddle 103 miles up the Meramec to the Bourbese. This might take a week. You have to fight fast currents, and shallow gravel shoals as you zig-zag through the southern suburbs of the big city. The current gets faster with less bankside eddies to help you on the Bourbese. Paddle up the Bourbese to Union City (3 days).  Portage nine miles to Washington using hwy 47 and put in on the Missouri (1 day).  Paddle 69 miles down the Missouri to the Mississippi Confluence (3 days).  Turn down the Mississippi, go over the Chain of Rocks, under the JB Bridge and back the Missouri (2 days).  This 193 mile circumnavigation involves the biggest river in the USA (Mississippi River), the longest river in the USA (Missouri River), the Meramec River, the Bourbese River, 6 dozen bridges, 4 dozen communities, and several national landmarks like the Great Arch. It might take two weeks to complete. You could do it faster, of course, but then you miss some of the surprising scenery, amazing architecture, urban decay, industrial wastelands, wildlife and amazing side trips along the way.


Mark River Peoples grew up in St. Louis and as a kid was old enough to stay away from the Meramec and the towns below, because of their reputation of intolerance.   “Growing up in the St. Louis North Suburbs, we always would hear wild stories about the Meramec River. The Meramec symbolized the divide between North and South counties, somewhat like how the railroad tracks separate the cultures of the Delta. During the spring, wild party boats from towns like Festus, Fenton, Kimmswick, and Barnhart littered the boat ramps. Before the crackdown on excessive partying, this was the place to be for lawlessness. The River's channels become fierce during high water, with the water rushing between high bluffs. Every year, sadly, there are accounts of novice swimmers being swept away wading in waters with a deceptively strong current. During the VP Fair in St. Louis, most of the boaters avoid the busy downtown access and use the Meramec access.” (Mark River)


Entering the Mississippi River from the Meramec, and headed downstream, you come across one the oldest marinas on the River. Hoppie's Marina has been harboring and supplying boaters for 80 years. This is the only marina between St. Louis and Memphis, and is located just below Kimmswick on the main channel right bank descending.