The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail


Rivergator Appendix IV

Mike Clark: Alton to Arch


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 and 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 Cahokia Mound Builders established their civilization in a setting able to sustain more than 20,000 people, one of the largest cities in the world at 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.


Technically, the Middle Mississippi is part of the Upper Mississippi River, as it is recognized on the US Army Corps maps for the UMRM, however, it is entirely free flowing, and thus in behavior, control systems and chaotic flows much more kindred to the Lower Mississippi River.  For the paddler, the dramatic change of the river is very noticeable.  It is like graduating from middle school and going straight to college.  The current immediately picks up speed, advancing from a typical 2-4 mph on the Upper Miss to 4-7 mph on the Middle Mississippi river.  In terms of paddling proficiency, this is where the learning curve of navigating amongst the tow boats becomes more complex.  


The Middle Mississippi River is narrow in width in its modern form compared to the pools above the lock and dam.  The wing dikes assist in creating a challenging dance between paddler and commercial navigation.  But here, in its first free flowing form, this challenge only lasts for six miles, to the Great Confluence, and the opening to the Chain of Rocks Canal, where a sign greets all boaters, “All Boats Must Go Here”, pointing down the canal.  Of course, paddlers rarely follow that command, and rightly so.  The reach from the Confluence to the Arch includes the only 11 non-commercially navigable waters of the entire River between Minneapolis / St. Paul and the Gulf. Two pristine islands punctuate this reach, Duck Island and Mosenthien Island.  And its very reason for being non-commercially navigable sits just a bit more than midway down, the Chain of Rocks low water dam.  This is the Big Muddy Wild and Scenic reach in the heart of the St. Louis metropolitan area.


For paddlers wishing to begin a trip at the start of the Middle Mississippi, the Maple Island Access directly adjacent to and on the downstream side of the lock and dam is a great one.  The boat ramp is located within the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary and is on the Missouri side of the river.  The strong and chaotic flows coming through the dam do not affect the put in since the boat ramp is situated in a cut out protected by a large rip rap wall.  Entering the river from this cut out is a fitting first experience to the free flowing river.  The chaotic flows created by the mass of water coming through the gates grab your boat and bounce it, sending tremors reverberating through the hull.  Thus, giving the first time experience a bit of the “pucker effect” until you are turned downstream and moving outside of a large eddy along what is the top end of Maple Island.  Just 100 yards downstream, the first opportunity to get off of the main channel and explore the wonders of the back channel of a Middle Mississippi island presents itself.  A channel opens up at a 90 degree angle to the River and paddlers are able to turn into a magic bird land kingdom where in Spring and Fall seasons, the great migration of birds can be witnessed.  In the winter, American Bald Eagles by the dozens come at sunset to roost in the cottonwoods, and silver maples of Maple Island along the channel and are easily viewed during the day time fishing in the unfrozen waters below the dam.  This channel runs for 4 miles along the braided land form called Maple Island.  This back channel has two cutouts to return to the main channel, and there are two low water dams which are only a concern in the low water flows.  Low water flows can also cause this channel to dry up about 2 miles down.  It is a great happy hour of paddling to put in paddle down and return back to the boat ramp.  It is also a great circumnavigation trip, whereby you can paddle down the main channel and take one of the downstream cutouts into the back channel and its low flows allowing for a return to the ramp.


Along the main channel side of Maple Island, you are forced to paddle opposite the first heavy industrial reach of the Middle Mississippi.  The Conoco / Chevron refinery sits midway down the reach from the dam to the Confluence, and there are often fleeted barges and tow boats parked along the island as they wait their turn to lock through on their way upstream.  The navigation channel runs along the river left descending and is typically pretty busy, but the flow is fairly consistent all the way across to the island.  Just one mile down this reach, Wood River empties in from the Illinois side, river left descending.  It was on this small tributary that Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery built their first winter camp in 1803, of their three year expedition, Camp DuBois.  A replica of this camp was built in 2001 and is located in a barrow pond just over the levee.  Yearly rendezvous events are held there.


At UMRM 198, the last of the braided pieces of Maple Island give way to a wide open expanse in which the Great Confluence exists at UMRM 196.  On the Missouri side, the Ted Jones State Park exists with its signature promontory point at the Confluence.  This is a great place to stop and enjoy the views of the muddy waters of the Missouri River, fast flowing into its handshake with the tannin rich Mississippi River waters.  A line of differentiation, marked by the distinctly colored waters is noticeable and remains so downstream for another six miles to the Chain of Rocks.


-Michael F. Clark