Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Mississippi: St. Louis to Ohio River

Barge
We were both very much excited to start this new stage of the Mississippi, where the river is eventually free flowing again - and that meant that we would have a noticeable current for the first time. After a couple of minutes on the water I took out my GPS and checked. And for sure: Even without paddling we were going at almost 3 mph! Our new average speed from now on would be about 5 mph and despite the lack of daylight we would now average about 40 miles per day. Eventually we were making progress southward towards the warmer temperatures! Still leaving St. Louis was a bit stressful due to the amount of barge traffic. So far we had only encountered about 2 - 3 barges every day and now that has increased to 12 - 15 barges. Plus St. Louis is a busy port and tug boats were going ever which way. I was glad to leave frantic St. Louis behind.

The river had changed dramatically. Not only did we have current, the river was surprisingly small now. The Army Corps of Engineering has blocked off all the little side channels funneling the river into one relatively narrow river bed that is regulated by hundreds of wing dams on each side. The narrow river and the amount of barge traffic created a new problem for us: How can we avoid the huge wake of the barges? The wake had so far not been much of a problem. There had been few barges that all went at low speed with little wake and plenty of room to avoid them. But now the barges had become much bigger. Before St. Louis the biggest barges were pushing 15 containers, 3 wide and 5 long. Bigger barges were not possible due to the size of locks. But now, with no more locks to get through the barges were up to 35 containers big, 5 wide and 7 long. On top of all that the barges going upstream had to fight the current now which created an even bigger wake. In order to avoid the worst of the wake you want to be on the inside bend of the river or the one opposite the levy and all of a sudden we had to change sides all the time - always on the run from the barges. In the beginning I felt very uncomfortable and wondered what would happen if I got caught on the wrong side of the shipping channel in the wake. Luckily, the channel is relatively small in this section and therefore we could quickly change sides.

Morning fog
One morning we woke up and to our big surprise we could not see anything due to thick fog. The weather forecast had not predicted anything like it and the fog caught us completely by surprise. I retreated into my tent and decided to use the unexpected free time to call my paddling teacher Alan in Australia thanks to my T-mobile international flat rate. Again Alan was incredibly helpful and amongst other tips he assured me that my little folding kayak (or lump of canvas) can take a lot of waves. I started to calm down a bit and realized that the wake is usually not as bad as it seems. By now I have passed hundreds of barges and have gotten used to the wake.

Cape Girardeau from our campsite
Cape Girardeau was our town stop in this section. What to do with our boats during our town stay was the usual big question and we solved it by hiding the boats on the other side of the river, bushwhacking half a mile to a highway bridge, crossing the bridge and walking into town. Although our boats seemed pretty secure and we had a good camp site, the walk into town took an hour and was a horrible bushwhack back in the pitch dark night. We were delighted to find out that only a month ago a new casino had opened in Cape Girardeau - with an AYCE buffet. Locals assured us that the casino was only about 5 block away. These five blocks turned into a walk of more than a mile and proves that most Americans are not used to walking. But when we finally arrived at the casino completely exhausted we were rewarded with an incredible buffet where we spent most of the day stuffing ourselves and recharging our phones.

Unloading at camp
The stretch from St. Louis to the Ohio River turned out to be a mixed bag. It was nice and easy paddling in a protected narrow canal with a good current. Some stretches were actually quite pretty, especially the narrow bends. But on the other side we encountered a lot of industrial activity: Plants and quarries dot the river and the barge traffic is intense. Although still quite nice in places, this has been the most un-scenic stretch so far. At least the camping very good: The numerous wing dams create little sand bar that make for good beaching and great access to the elevated shore line with trees. You can camp almost anywhere - as long as you can get away from the industrial operations.


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