The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail


Water Quality

In many places, the Lower Mississippi is as wild and pristine a river as you will find anywhere in the continental United States. However, the mighty Mississippi also serves as a super highway of commercial transportation and industrial manufacturing; increasingly so as you paddle further downstream toward the Gulf. With that in mind, the Lower Mississippi river paddler should be aware of environmental hazards that may be present from activities that contribute possibly harmful pollution into the river. Leaks and spills from barges and commercial vessels as well as outfalls from municipalities and industrial facilities have the potential to introduce dangerous pollution into the Mississippi River within the vicinity of paddlers. It is important to be aware and avoid these sorts of hazards. As a general rule of thumb, if you notice an unusual / unpleasant smell or water that just doesn't look right, AVOID IT!  Dangerous pollution can sometimes produce pungent smells, unnatural foaming, very dark or unusual colored water and oily sheens.  In extreme instances, the pollution a paddler may encounter on the Lower Mississippi could produce harmful fumes that irritate the lungs and eyes and water that could irritate the skin if contact is made. These sorts of environmental hazards should be given a wide berth by paddlers.  Do not swim, drink, wash clothes or dishes or even paddle within the immediate vicinity of these pollution sources.  This sort of pollution not only poses a risk to paddlers but diminishes the health of the Mississippi River and all its important uses downstream, including drinking water for cities like New Orleans.  As paddlers, you are part of a small group of people that witness all the nooks and crannies of the greatest river in North America.  If you see something of concern on the Mississippi river be sure to report it to the appropriate authority, such as the United States Coast Guard or the Mississippi or Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.  If you have a camera or smart phone, take a picture (with GPS if possible) and be sure to write down where and when the picture was taken.  The Mississippi River gives us many many blessings.  As paddlers we have the unique opportunity to safeguard the Mississippi by being its voice and speaking up when we see pollution or other concerns that need to be improved. 


The Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper

The Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper (LMRK) is a non-profit organization in Louisiana that works to identify and reduce pollution into the lower Mississippi River. Contact them anytime to report a concern, if you have questions or need help in addressing a problem you see along the river.  Contact LMRK through their website,, email or call (225) 928-1315.


Environmental Reporting phone numbers: 

United States Coast Guard

Anyone witnessing an oil spill, chemical release or maritime security incident should call the National Response Center(NRC) hotline:



Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality

(601) 961-5797


Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality

(225) 219-3640

 or toll free: 1-(888)-763-5424



All main channel and back channel descriptions, and all islands, points, landings, and all other features will be identified with the mileage system used on the 2007 US Army Corps of Engineer River Maps, which can be downloaded (PDF file, 89 MB, 316 pages) from the Memphis District US Army Corps of Engineers website link below:


2007 Flood Control and Navigation Maps

Mississippi River

Cairo, Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico

Mile 953 to Mile 0 A.H.P.


Left Bank and Right Bank

RBD = Right Bank Descending

LBD = Left Bank Descending


The Rivergator will use the standard left bank descending (LBD) and right bank descending (LBD) to indicate which side of the river the various landings, islands, back channels, and other features are located.  Because of the twisty nature of the meandering river “east bank” and “west bank” have little meaning because the river is rarely flowing north to south!  Ditto for state names.  This section concerns and Arkansas, Mississippi, and some of Tennessee.  But because of the dynamic power of the river there are pieces of each state on both sides of the river!  We’ll also use “left bank” and “right bank” or “left shore” and “right shore” to denote the same.


Towboats and Buoys


Red “Nun” Buoys = LBD navigation channel

Green “Can” Buoys = RBD navigation channel



Upstreamers = towboats going up the river

Downstreamers = towboats going down the river


Towboats and buoys provide endless fascination for Lower Mississippi River paddlers, but also present two of your gravest dangers.  Red “nun” buoys mark the left side of the navigation channel (descending) while green “can” buoys the right side.  To broadside a buoy would end in certain capsize.  Be ever vigilant of their position, and keep a safe 100 foot distance away.  Buoys endlessly twist and yank on their cables in the current and seem to come towards you at times. Watch for “diving ducks” the buoys that become submerged by powerful waters and unexpectedly bounce back up.  When towboats are present your safest route is outside of the navigation channel.  Towboat pilots might notice you on their radars, but they can’t tell the difference between a flotilla of canoes & kayaks and a pile of driftwood.  Their packets are so sometimes so long that the pilot might lose sight of you within a quarter mile away as you dip below their line of sight over the nose of the barges they are pushing.  Wherever possible the Rivergator will describe common lines of travel for towboats.  “downstreamers” refers to towboats steaming down stream with the flow of the river, and “upstreamers” refer to those plowing up the channel against the flow of the river.  Upstreamers normally create the biggest and most hazardous sets of wave trains, but there are exceptions.  Wave trains sometimes trail the passage of a tow for one mile or more.  The safest practice around any tows is to keep watching them for any changes in progress and give them wide berth.  Never cross the nose of a towboat/barge packet.  Make your crossings after they have passed and their waves have subsided.  The safest place around a towboat is far behind a towboat.  Towboats will use their horn on occasion to inform you of their presence.   The tow pilot may give the paddler a single short whistle which is a friendly “here I am” greeting.  If the tow sounds three loud blows of its horn, it means you are in the way of his intended route and he wants you to get out of the way.   Five intense blows of the horn means you are about to be run over (at least from the perspective of the tow pilot).