Friday, December 28, 2012

Mississippi: Tips and tricks

Fall in Minnesota
Start date:  We started our thru paddle Sep 29 and that was too late. It could have been done (and other paddlers who started around the same time did it) but it gets awfully cold at night and sometimes even during the day. We solved the problem by skipping a 400 mile section and this saving 2 weeks. Ideally you should start first week of September. This avoids most of the mosquito problem, gives you glorious fall colours and avoids the heat in the South. You should have decent day time temperatures but still count on temperatures around or even slightly below freezing at night. The biggest problem though is the lack of daylight that will limit your daily progress. A summer trip on the other hand will give you much more flexibility with day light, but the heat and mosquitoes might be intolerable.

Trip duration: With skipping the trip took us 77 days. This includes a start at Lake Bemidji instead of Itasca, the Atchafalaya in the end and limited seasonal daylight. Without skipping it would have taken us 90 days and this is what you should calculate as a minimum. People have paddled it in as little add 67 days, but this was without town stops and with long summer paddling. For a relaxed trip including days for sightseeing calculate 90 - 100 days depending on where you start and finish.

Lake Itasca
Start point: The official source of the Mississippi is at Lake Itasca. We drove up there and it is incredibly beautiful. Due to the record low water levels this year the rangers advices against starting there and therefore we put in at Lake Bemidji instead, 60 miles downstream. Even in a normal water year expect a very slow trip between Lake Itasca and Bemidji. The Mississippi is sometimes a trickle only and you'll have to carry your boat plus you can get lost in the swampy reeds.

Finish point: Before Baton Rouge we turned off onto the Atchafalaya and would definitely recommend that to other paddlers. After Baton Rouge the Mississippi turns into an industrial nightmare with increased barge traffic and plants everywhere. The Atchafalaya instead is incredibly peaceful, has hardly any barge traffic and is over 100 miles shorter. The only down side is that there is no public transport from Morgan City, the last town on the river. If you cannot arrange a private shuttle like us your only resort is the Hertz car rental there.

Maps: You don't have to pay anything for the maps for this trip! Excellent maps for the whole river can be downloaded for free from the DNR and US Army Corps of Engineering website. These maps are great and all you need. If possible try to print them in colour. You'll be able to see the different shades of white and blue for the shipping channel and the brown and green for sand bars vs land that can be useful for choosing a campsite.

Lock phone numbers: All the locks on the Mississippi can be reached by phone. Definitely download the lock phone numbers onto your phone. AT&T has the best coverage along the river. Being able to call the locks will save you a lot of problems if you get stuck behind a barge at a lock or if the water gets too choppy to pull the lock cord inside the lock walls. Believe me: you will want these phone numbers!

Town stop with Alex
Theft or going into town: Unfortunately, theft is a big problem for Mississippi paddlers. This year alone a paddler had his boat stolen in New Madrid while it was locked to a rail at the public boat ramp over night. Another couple had their boat stolen while camped on a sand bar close to Memphis. And fellow paddler Alex reported that someone had gone through his dry bags while be was portaging his boat before Minneapolis. Theft therefore was a huge concern for us especially since you cannot really lock up a foldable kayak. But we found a good solution and did not have a single problem. When going into town we were scooping out the maps for sand bars and/or wing dams around town. We would then beach there and HIDE our boats in the woods or grass so that they could not be seen from land or river. When possibly we would also lock them to a tree and camouflage them with a green tarp. We would leave most of our gear inside the boat but take all our valuables and expensive gear like electronics. The big cities were more difficult: In Minneapolis and St. Louis we disassembled our boats. Only Memphis had a secure marina where we could leave the boats over night.

Bank reinforcement
Securing the boats over night: We were almost anal about that. Every night we would carry out boats as high up as possible AND tie them to a tree. We felt vindicated for our efforts when we heard from our fellow paddlers mishaps. The three amigos lost their boat twice: Once they could retrieve it with the help of a friend, but the second time the fire brigade had to come and rescue them - luckily their boat had been found drifting downstream by a fishermen who had alarmed the sheriff. Paddlers Kevin and Sharon were not that lucky:  They lost their boat to rising water on an island and had to wait two days in desperation before they were  rescued - and their boat was lost.

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