The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail


St. Louis is the River Hub of America:

St. Louis spins around and around like the hub of a giant water wheel of many water passages, the rivers flowing together and pouring over the water wheel from far-flung distances in almost every direction of the compass. Whichever way you turn, a long river is coming in from somewhere far away. The Missouri River leads westward to the Rocky Mountains. The Upper Mississippi leads north to Great North Woods. The Illinois spoke leads north-eastward to Lake Michigan. The Meramec leads southwesterly into the heart of the Ozarks.   Using a little artistic freedom, you can envision the Ohio River leading east to Appalachia. (The Ohio doesn’t come into St. Louis, but in the big picture it comes in close). All of these rivers come together and confluence along the central hub of rivers, the Middle Mississippi, and then the final and decidedly most grandiose and bellicose of all waterways, the Lower Mississippi flows grandly southward, the accumulation of all rivers in the big heart of America, the great artery of the lifeblood of this quadrant of mother earth.  


The journey begins with a bang. Within twenty miles on the Missouri River Confluence you will 1) paddle on three major rivers 2) over (or around) the only waterfall on the big river, 3) under its most famous bridge, 4) by its most famous monument, 5) alongside its largest population center, and 6) through its most dangerous waters (until you reach Baton Rouge). You’ll pass by everything so quickly you could never absorb it all. Hopefully it will go smoothly. The bad news is that it is very dangerous and very demanding, and for expert paddlers only. More paddlers and motorboaters have died in this particular stretch of river than any other. The Chain of Rocks is a wild whitewater feature in the middle of the big city, and has claimed the lives of more than one unprepared paddler. The good news is that you will enjoy a ten mile stretch with no towboats or commercial traffic, with public parks and lots of incredible views of the big city and its architectural wonders and industrial sprawls.


Also, to your benefit, a legendary guide appropriately nicknamed “Big Muddy” and a river company known as Big Muddy Adventures is there to assist you if you so desire. Owner Big Muddy Mike Clark has become something of a gatekeeper at the Chain of Rocks for long distance expeditions coming down the Missouri and Upper Mississippi to or through St. Louis. He will give your vessel a pre-Coast Guard inspection, and will provide valuable assistance as to what you will need from here on downstream, and what you should leave behind. If he takes a liking to you he might accompany you over the waterfall. Otherwise, you would do well to hire him for the service, or expert advice as to where and when to run. He can also supply you with whatever you need or are missing from the list of essentials for the journey downstream including everything from bailers to sponges to neoprene boots, ropes, paddles, and even a canoe.


Imagine paddling the last five miles of the Upper Mississippi (this connects you to the Great North Woods Minnesota through the heartland of America to the Great North Woods, Babe the Blue Ox and Paul Bunyan Country) past the confluence of the “Big Muddy” Missouri River this connects you to the Rocky Mountains of Idaho and Montana, the Continental Divide (as Lewis & Clark so famously pioneered). Several of the Missouri drainages reach into the Great Plains of Canada (Alberta and Saskatchewan) . The Illinois spoke leads to Lake Michigan. Chicago and hence the North Atlantic by canals to the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway). Not far downstream the Ohio River comes in from the east draining the rain drenched Appalachians, with side branches reaching up to Nashville (the Cumberland) and Chattanooga (the Tennessee).


So buckle tight your pfd, check your knots on your bow and stern lines, adjust your VHF Marine Radio to channel 13, strap your maps down to your vessel in a waterproof viewer, get a firm grip on your paddle and strike out down the greatest waterway in America starting from its greatest inland port.