When our flotilla of five canoes pushed off from Louisiana, Missouri, on a Friday afternoon in September, the sky was flat gray, and a promising forecast had turned into warnings about heavy rains coming our way. This wasn’t the introduction to the joys of paddling on the Mississippi River that I had hoped for.
Six of the ten people in our group had never been in a canoe on the Mississippi. Each had plenty of experience on long canoe expeditions, but paddling a big river offers different challenges than drifting across lakes. The Mississippi demands your attention—it can flip from placid to life-threatening in a flash—but it also rewards you with unexpected pleasures that open up around the next bend.
Despite the gloomy weather, we couldn’t restrain our excitement as we paddled our fully loaded canoes into the current and under the Louisiana Railroad Bridge. We kept a steady pace as we got comfortable on the big water, then took a thirty-minute break while we waited for the green light to enter the lock at Clarksville, Missouri.
When we exited the lock, light rain was falling and the late afternoon sky had turned darker and looked more threatening. We didn’t want to get caught in a thunderstorm while in the middle of the river, so we settled for a campsite at a less-than-ideal spot at the lower end of Clarksville Island.
We sloshed through the muddy bank as we unloaded the canoes, but just up the slippery slope, the land was flat, sandy, and thick with trees. We set up our tents just before the deluge began. Some of us waited out the rain in a tent, while others set up a big tarp for cover and talked deep into the night. When the rain finally stopped falling the next morning, we didn’t have time to dry out. We had to pack and go to stay on pace to reach Grafton for a Monday takeout.
On the water after the rain ended, we had Old Man River to ourselves. The air was still and the surface of the river like glass. We paddled by flocks of American white pelicans and watched bald eagles soar above us. More than once, we gave in to the temptation of a sinuous sandbar or riverbank and stopped for a quick swim in the chilly water. A few times as we floated toward shore, the sound of our paddles striking the water excited silver carp just enough to induce them to jump out of the water around us—and sometimes into us.
In late afternoon, we began looking for a place to camp for the night. After passing on a few less-than-ideal options, we spied a long, sandy peninsula on the Illinois bank and pulled up for the night. After setting up camp, we enjoyed a brilliant sunset over the river and swapped stories around the campfire.
On our third day out, we woke to a bright sun that quickly burned off the thick dew that had settled around us overnight. It was a Sunday, so the beautiful weather enticed more people to get on the water. After passing through Lock #25 near Winfield, Missouri, we pulled ashore for lunch and to see what fish might be biting. (None, as it turned out.)
After leaving Winfield, we paddled a few quiet miles, then hit pleasure-boater rush hour around Two Branch Island and Dardenne Slough. Boaters who had been enjoying the river on that warm, late summer Sunday were packing up and leaving from their sandbar rec rooms. A few boaters motored over to our flotilla to say hi and chat.
We navigated through the traffic, then paddled for a while longer to find a good spot to camp for the night—a postage stamp-sized sandy landmass at the upper end of Iowa Island. We chatted with a welcome party, a couple from across the main channel who stopped by to introduce themselves. With camp set up for our last night, we pulled our chairs around the campfire and enjoyed another glorious river sunset and more time to get to know each other better.
We ended up canoeing sixty-five miles over four days and enjoyed some of the best camping spots in the Midwest. I’ll take a Mississippi River sandbar over a Gulf Coast beach any day (except maybe from December through February). At times we shared the river with barges and pleasure boaters, at others with geese and bald eagles. Ultimately, we got what I had hoped for: a trip on the Mississippi that offered just enough of a challenge to keep the paddling interesting but one that showed off the glory of the river’s world.
Paddling on our big rivers might be one of the most underappreciated experiences in middle America. It’s a completely different vibe than floating down an Ozark stream. While it takes more preparation (and some paddling experience), the quiet, the wildlife, and the splendid isolation will keep you coming back.
The Mississippi River, in spite of how much we’ve engineered it, offers a unique collection of habitats that support a diverse range of wildlife, birds especially. When you travel it in a canoe, kayak, or stand-up paddleboard (SUP), you’re going slow enough to take in the details of the riparian world around you. Gliding along quietly, you get closer to wildlife than you could with any other boat. And much of the river’s world is just a short drive from St. Louis. We forget we don’t have to travel to the mountains for a wilderness experience.
Maybe best of all, a little time on the Mississippi just might change how you feel about St. Louis. That’s certainly true for Mike Clark, founder of Big Muddy Adventures: “When you’re out there and you get this look back at the city…the old buildings… and then the Arch, but then you’re coming to that from this natural place. It is a really unique experience… You’re thinking, wow-what a majestic city this is because the river is here.”
Want to learn more? Check out this article in Terrain Magazine for tips about where to paddle and what you need to know about paddling on the Mississippi. Even better, join the Mississippi River Water Trail Association (MRWTA) or the St. Louis Canoe & Kayak Club and learn first-hand from people with experience. Both organizations offer safety classes and group paddles.
The MRWTA works with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to encourage safe paddling on the Mississippi, with a focus on the 121 river miles from just south of Hannibal to St. Louis. The MRWTA website offers tips about safe paddling and routes for different levels of paddling experience. If you’re considering paddling on the Mississippi River south of St. Louis, Rivergator offers detailed tips you’ll find invaluable.
If you don’t own a boat and just want a taste of a paddling experience, Big Muddy Adventures (BMA) offers dozens of public trips throughout the year, mostly in twenty-nine-foot voyageur-style canoes. Their Full Moon Float includes a “campfire gourmet” dinner on an island. BMA also offers public trips from North Riverfront Park to the Arch, in the Grafton/Alton area, and on the Missouri River.
What are you waiting for?