Monday, November 12, 2012

Paddling the middle Mississippi: Conclusion and tips

The Mississippi River is usually divided into three very distinct and different parts: The upper Mississippi from the source to Minneapolis which I have already described in a separate post. Next is the "middle" Mississippi from Minneapolis to St. Louis and the lower Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans. This post will deal with the "middle" part which is dominated by about thirty locks and dams. These locks solve the low water problems that we had encountered on the upper Mississippi. From Minneapolis on you will not encounter any rocks or rapids any more as long as you stay in the main shipping canal. The main canal is marked with buoys - red on one and green on the other side. The rule to remember is "red on right upstream", meaning that going upstream the red buoys is on your right side and the green on your left.

The river is very wide in this section and provides plenty of very scenic side channels. In order to prevent to main channel from shifting over these side channels are blocked off by wing dams. Usually these wing dams are under water and pose no problem for paddlers. But this is a low water year and occasionally we ran into problems with those dams. The most dangerous scenario is that the wing dam is just barely covered with water and you get stuck while crossing it. This never happened to us but we had to drag our boat over a wing dam once. Usually you can tell where the wing dam is by observing the ripples in the water. They are also marked on the river maps. Sometimes the wing dams are so big that the are sticking out of the water. They don't pose a problem then because they are easily visible but they can block off otherwise interesting side channels. Various times we had decided to go down a nice side channel but could not get into it because it was blocked off by the wing dam and/or the sand bar these dams usually create.

Although camping was generally very easy in that section these side channels provide the most scenic camping options. Just look for a nice island or a shoreline with no roads or railways and you will usually find a pretty camp site there. You might have to paddle for a while to find a flat spot where to beach and "park" your boat but you'll find a suitable spot soon. Once you have climbed the little slope you will usually find gorgeous forest with great camping. As we are back in fall colors we had some very scenic camp spots. The river maps show public land and private property in different colors but they do not show the location of the numerous duck hides. With some bad luck you can end up next to one and that means you will probably be awakened by gun shots at 4 am. The bigger problem is to get away from the railway lines as the trains will blast their horn all night long while passing through. Choosing the opposite side of the river helps to reduce the noise, but keep in mind that sound carries very far on a river.

Resupply is easy, too. Several little towns dot the river with Nauvoo being a real highlight. Not only is it a very pretty historic little town, but all the sights are free! Most of the towns are relatively small though and you will not find a big supermarket but only a gas station. If you are only after water just stop a one of the many marinas. They are generally very friendly and will let you leave your boat while going into town, give you water or just advice on where to get food. I also used a marina as a shipping address for my replacement paddle. Some marinas offer camping or accommodation, too.

The barges turned out to be much less of a problem than expected. Usually we passed only 2 or 3 barges per day but this might be due to the fact that we are paddling late in the season. The barges transport a lot of corn and soy beans and therefore there might be more barge traffic in summer. But the river is so wide that passing a barge is not a big problem. Barges due not create a very big wake - but pleasure crafts do! So you have to much more careful with the big sport boats that can create waves so big they can swamp you. And not all boaters are very polite....

The biggest challenges in this section are the wind and the locks. The wind can create huge waves on such a big body of water and if the weather forecasts predicts winds higher than 15 mph you better don't plan on paddling much, especially if you cannot hide in a small side channel. The locks can be a big time obstacle. It takes 2 hours for a big barge to get through and if you are stuck behind one that can ruin your day. Also locks become a big danger in high winds as the waves reverberate from the lock walls and can create extremely choppy conditions. See for more information about the locks in the next blog post. And watch out for those duck hides!

Conclusion: This section has by far exceeded my expectations. I had expected a rather populated and industrialized river with a huge amount of barge traffic. Instead the river turned out to be almost as remote and pristine as the upper Mississippi north of Minneapolis. Most of the time you feel far away from civilisation and you will still see plenty of wildlife like pelicans, bald eagles and deer. The water is still very clear. And as an added bonus you can visit lots of charming little towns along the river. I can definitely recommend paddling this stretch.

1 comment:

brat gitarre said...

Hi Christin,

du bist ja ziemlich umtriebig und mit allen Fortbewegeungsmitteln unterwegs. wie kommt man an soviel Freizeit für diese Trips?
Vom Yukon habe ich auch begeistert und habe dort schon 2 Kanutrips gemacht. Ansonsten bin ich in good old Europe mit dem Faltboot unterwegs. Ich habe auch einiges an Freizeit zur Verfügung. Wenn dir mal der geeignete Paddelpartner fehlt steht unter meine Emailaddy.
weiterhin viel Spass und gute Reise