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How to Paddle the Mississippi River
[2022 Update: These notes are 10 years old. I honestly have no idea what has changed in the last 10 years, but I think there is way more information available. Probably a good Facebook group and more blogs. I always think back fondly of the Mississippi River even though it was a bit torturous with my kayak issues and weather].
How to Paddle the Mississippi River
One of the strange things about paddling the Mississippi River (the “MR”) is that there is very little information on the internet yet there are actually a fair amount of people who do it. I found it very difficult to get a lot of good information on the MR or read any good blogs to get a feeling for what the trip might be like. I’ll try and summarize what is out there, some tips and tricks and some other thoughts on paddling the entire MR.
I’m not going to repeat some of the basics of the MR as there are already 2 very good sources out there that do a better job than I could. I’m going to try and provide useful and new information here or things just from my perspective.
The following by far are the 2 best sources of information:
Bucktrack’s website is the best source of overall information. He has nice pictures with short discussions, a very good FAQ page and some other information. Also his guestbook has lots of questions and comments from others that are informative.
Ron’s journal is by far the best journal I have come across. If you want to get a feeling for what paddling the entire river is like then read Ron’s journal. I honesty couldn’t find another even semi-decent journal that had enough detail to get a feel for the MR. Fortunately Ron’s journal is fantastic.
ONE BIG CAVEAT: I paddled the Mississippi in a record low water year and I also started at the end of September which was too late in the season. Both of these issues had a huge impact on my trip. Therefore, my experience will be different from your experience. I’m going to try and keep that in mind when writing this and will make a comment if I think my experience was unusual, but since I’ve only paddled the MR once I don’t know for sure!
SECTIONS OF THE MISSISSIPPI
Paddling the entire MR really has 4 distinctive sections.
1) The Source (Itaska) to Minneapolis: This section is fantastic. The River is mostly narrow, remote and gorgeous. There is no commercial boat traffic and I rarely even saw pleasure boaters. In a low water year this section can be a problem. The section from Itaska to Lake Bemidji can be a problem in even a normal year and in a low water year is a real issue. I paddled in a record low water year and had major issues off and on all the way to just about Minneapolis. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has a website with water monitor gauges that are helpful. If the monitor says “scrapable” then you most likely will have an issue. Even “low” can be an issue. I hit many spots where there were rocks all the way across the River and no way through without hitting them. Anyway, this section otherwise is great. Lots of wildlife like beavers, otters and tons of bald eagles. There is not much current in this section. Occasionally you will get some “riffles” but otherwise it’s just flat water and I paddled at about 3 mph. The beginning does have some lakes which are interesting and scenic but mostly the MR is a nice narrow river.
2) Minneapolis to St. Louis: This was the toughest section in my opinion. The River is controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers using about 30 locks and dams. I hit a lock and dam about once a day. The dams create giant lakes of water behind them and essentially reduce the current to zero. Most journals I had read talked about this but they made it seem like there would be a big lake for maybe 15 miles before the dam and of course no current but prior to the 15 miles before the dam there would be current. This definitely was not true for me. There was essentially no current from Minneapolis to St. Louis. It didn’t matter how close or far away a dam was. I paddled 3 mph the entire section. (My experience was possibly impacted by the low water year). The MR in this section was still quite nice though. It still felt remote and still was very scenic. There are also a ton of islands and side channels to take which is really, really nice. Usually there were houses lining the banks prior to the dam where the water is always more of a lake but I still felt like this section was quite nice. This is also where the barges start which I will talk about more later. The tough part about this section is the no current. The River most of the time was really like a huge, wide lake and paddling with no current into a headwind can be grueling. And it’s a long section. So it can start to wear you down.
3) St. Louis to Atchafalya turnoff: The locks and dams are done and the River is free flowing although not uncontrolled. There are no more islands and no side channels to paddle anymore. I picked up a current here of about 3 mph and had an average paddling speed of around 5 mph. The River is fairly narrow from St. Louis to the meeting with the Ohio River and then the MR gets real wide again and also gets twisty. Getting the current can be sometimes challenging and I usually paddled just inside or outside the shipping channel for the best current. Surprisingly the MR continued to feel remote, even more than before primarily because the River floods so people really can’t live on the banks. Most towns are usually set back from the River so it continues to be a nice quiet River.
4) Around mile 300 the MR continues on through Baton Rouge, New Orleans and then the Gulf. Or you can turnoff and paddle about 140 miles to the Gulf on the Atchafalaya. Looking at the maps for the MR it looked like a nightmare. From about mile 250 on there was nothing but industrial buildings lining the entire River and levee walls on both sides of the banks making camping difficult. Apparently the section is nicknamed “cancer alley”. The Atchafalaya, on the other hand is much narrower and barely has any commercial barge traffic (although the small hunter/fishing boats like it). The Atchafalaya would actually be the Mississippi if the Army Corps wasn’t doing everything in its power to prevent the Mississippi from jumping channels which it wants to do and leaving New Orleans dry. The Atchafalaya was pretty slow although I think this was due to the low water. I finished at the last town, Morgan City, 120 miles from the turnoff. You could paddle about 20 more miles to the actual Gulf. Morgan City was a shitty town but the Atchafalaya was definitely nicer than the industrial wasteland of the Mississippi through Baton Rouge to New Orleans.
WHAT TYPE OF BOAT
I won’t profess to be an expert on this. I paddled a folding kayak. Others I saw or read journals mostly paddled canoes. I think this is primarily since a canoe is cheaper and easier to get your hands on and you can pack a lot more gear into a canoe. The primary benefit of a kayak on the Mississippi is the wind. The MR can be seriously windy and having a lower profile is much better in the wind. Also, in the waves a kayak will feel more stable and won’t take on water. Several of the canoeists had occasional trouble with taking on water from barge wakes or wind waves. The primary benefit of a canoe is that you can bring a lot more stuff and it’s easier to load and unload. You can also abuse it more. I’m not the best person to recommend a boat as I this was my first big trip. A folding kayak is a whole other story. It wasn’t great in low water bouncing off rocks but it was nice to just pack it up at the beginning or end and fly with it.
Most of the River towns are long past their heyday. Some are nice in an old, small town way and some are just plain rundown and crappy. Some have nice main streets with well kept parks and most have a lot of vacant storefronts. The southern towns in particular were pretty run down and very poor feeling. But there are always a few hidden gems and each person will like or dislike a town depending on what they like and their mood for the day. There was lots of good restaurants in the towns and the motels were typically pretty cheap, especially in the south (although also dumpy for the cheap one’s).
Resupply was fairly easy. There are a lot of towns along the River until Memphis. I usually had a week’s worth of food and just stocked up when I was in a bigger town with a good grocery and supplemented my food in smaller towns. Having a cell phone with Google Maps was really helpful. I just spotted the towns on the maps and then using Google Maps could see if the town was actually right on the river and then what type of grocery store, etc the town had. From Memphis on the there are very few towns actually on the River. I carried 7-10 days of food a couple times. Most of the towns are several miles away from the River behind the levee system.
This is pretty easy. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources produces an excellent free set of maps from Itaska to Minneapolis. You can download them from their website although they are kind of big and a pain to print. For the rest of the River you can download for free the Army Corprs of Engineers maps. They come in 2 sets, the Upper Mississippi and the Lower Mississippi. I printed these double sided in black and white. Color would be nicer but really isn’t necessary. They are several hundred pages so color would be pretty expensive.
I also carried the Quimby’s Guide which is a book for boaters that shows all the marina’s along the River. This is helpful because the marina’s are super friendly to kayakers. They are a good place to safely leave your kayak, get a snack or send a package if needed. Unfortunately there are almost no marina’s south of St. Louis but it was nice to have from Minneapolis to St. Louis.
I also carried the small Great River road guidebook. The Great River Road is actually a historic/scenic road route that generally parallels the MR. Kind of like Route 66. The book has a lot of information of the towns along the way which also of course coincide with MR towns and neat historic information. For $ 10 on Amazon it was worth carrying.
This is one of the bigger pains of the trip. The biggest problems were the trains and the jungle. Finding a quiet nice camp spot isn’t easy on the Mississippi. From Itaska to Minneapolis it’s pretty quiet. I had such a low water year that beaching at the designated DNR campsites was tough. The banks were muddy and steep and the other than a picnic table the campsites not that impressive so I usually picked an easier beaching spot. After Minneapolis there are no designated camp spots. Quiet camping was toughest from Minneapolis to St. Louis. The River is fairly straight so the train tracks frequently parallel the River and blow their horns all night long. Sound travels far across water and the trains could be pretty annoying. Finding a spot was pretty easy though as there are so many islands and island camping is nice. From St. Louis to around Mississippi (the state) camping was easier. The River winds a lot and floods so the trains are far, far away. Also there are wing dams everywhere. Wing dams are rock structures built by the Army Corp that jut out into the River and direct the current to the center to scour the bottom for a deeper shipping channel. They also create sand bars behind them that make for good access to camping. Also the big bends in the River create massive sand bars and the beginning and end of the sand bars frequently have good access to camping. Also, usually the outside bank of the River has a “revetment” which is like a rock wall built by the Army Corp. The beginning and ends of these usually have a small sand bar with access to camping. Usually the woods are pretty decent and I could find a spot to pitch my tent. It seemed that at some point around Mississippi the woods became more like a jungle and camping was sometimes hard. Plus the wing dams went away and the sand bars I usually depended on to help with camping went away. From Minneapolis to the end the barge noise will be constant. You can hear them for miles at times and if you camp on the back they get closer to they will be louder than if you camp on the opposite bank. I got used to the “hum” of the barges but it was nice on the Atchafalaya at the end with no barges.
PADDLERS ON THE RIVER
Well, this is hard to estimate. There are definitely a fair number of people paddling the Mississippi based on what the locals say. Maybe 50 a year. Just a huge guess. But since everyone leaves at different times and everyone is going the same way you won’t see many other paddlers. I met 3 other paddlers the entire trip. That’s not many.
HOW TO TIE UP A KAYAK OR CANOE
For the love of god, don’t be lazy overnight with your boat. It’s frequently a pain to get your kayak far enough from the River to tie it to a tree or high enough up a bank or high sand bar point. But there is always a chance that overnight the River will rise and take your boat away for good if you are lazy. We heard two first hand stories of this happening just this year and I’m sure it’s happened a lot. You never know when the River might rise. I was always super anal about it and it was a bit more of a pain to carry my kayak every night and back in the morning but I still have my kayak which someone else this year can’t say.
WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR KAYAK IN TOWNS
One of the most annoying thing about paddling is that people like to steal your boat. Going into towns is part of the fun of any long trip and it’s nice to spend time in towns, but dealing with the kayak or canoe is a huge pain in the ass. We heard 2 different stories of Mississippi River paddlers having their boats stolen just this year and there are probably more. One, a guy chained his canoe to the railing at a public boat ramp overnight, and someone came overnight and stole it. The other was crazier. 2 guys left Memphis and camped in the woods while there kayaks were on the sand bar out of the River. Someone came in a boat overnight and stole their kayaks. This is pretty rare but the other story is unfortunately not as rare. You could take a chance a leave your kayak locked or unlocked at a public boat ramp and get lucky or you might be unlucky. I was too nervous to take this chance. Here’s what I did and I think this worked well. As close as possible to town, but always before (or after) I would pull my kayak out and into the woods and lock it to a tree. Then I would walk/bushwhack to town. This way my kayak was in the woods with no road access and no one knows it is there. It’s always possible someone could stumble across it but this would be unusual and they would still have to cut the lock and then figure out how to get the kayak out of there. The downside of this strategy is that sometimes getting to town is a pain and involved some short bushwhacking which isn’t fun. Mostly though this strategy worked well and I would recommend it. I even left it overnight like this several times.
AMOUNT OF TIME TO PADDLE
This is a tough one. If I hadn’t skipped 2 weeks it would have taken me 3 months. I also paddled in the late fall with very short daylight hours. If you paddle in the summer you will have a lot more daylight to paddle. I never felt like I had enough time in the late Fall. Also I had a low water year and probably a slower current so that might have made me slower as well. I think Bucktrack did it in like 67 days and others in about 3 months. For me, from the beginning until current after St. Louis I could only at best do 25 miles per day with the short daylight. With current after St. Louis I could eek out 40 or so miles. But if I had had more daylight, physically I would have easily been able to paddle more miles daily.
From St. Louis on barges will be ever present. A barge is really a container but I just call the whole thing a barge which is a tugboat pushing a set number of barges. Because of the locks and dams from Minneapolis to St. Louis the barges can be a maximum size of 3 wide by 5 long but after St. Louis I saw some that were up to 6 wide by 7 long. This is probably around 1500’ long or almost a 1/3 of a mile! The big one’s are very slow and actually don’t put up a big wake from the side. I would sometimes paddle pretty damn close to this huge beast and be perfectly safe.The wake comes from the engines of the tug boat and behind the tugboat for a couple hundred feet can be incredibly dangerous and you definitely want to avoid this (which is no problem to avoid). An upstream barge will have a much bigger wake than a downstream barge as the upstream barge is working harder to fight the current. Usually when a barge passed I would get these large swells that gently raised me up and down. It wasn’t a big deal. Sometimes the barges are small with only a few attached to a tugboat and then the tug can go faster and have a bigger wake. The worst were actually the tugboats themselves. Typically near a major city the tugboats speed around the River taking apart and putting together barges. These things move fast and put up big wakes and don’t seem to care too much about kayakers so watch them.
The tugs have very little quick control over the barges, they are enormous and take a long time to stop so it’s 100% up to the paddler to avoid the barges. This really isn’t too hard but there are some complications. The MR has a shipping lane denoted on maps and by red and green buoy’s on the River. The barges have to stay in this shipping lane so as long as you are out of it then you are fine. This issue is that the lane moves from side to side generally following the outside bend of the River. So the paddler has to frequently cross the River from side to side to stay on the inside bend as the barges always take the outside bend. This can be challenging if a barge is coming from behind or in front or barges are coming both ways. Also barges usually can’t pass each other in bends so the upstream barge will wait at the entrance of a bend in the River. All of this can make it difficult to get back and forth across the River but I got used to it quickly and became an expert and guessing exactly what a barge will do since they are generally very predictable. I spent most of my paddling time just outside of the buoy’s so when I needed to cross to the other side it was a short distance to just outside the buoy’s on the other side. Occasionally a barge would blow its horn at me for a warning but this was just because they didn’t think I knew what I was doing and thought I might just paddle in the shipping lane forever when I was just trying to cross over. I was never in danger.
Overall, the barges weren’t too problematic and always kept things interesting!
LOCKS AND DAMS
Here’s a brief summary of how to get through a lock. I was super nervous on my first one as I didn’t exactly know what to do! A lock basically lowers you down to the water on the other side of the dam. When you are paddling towards a lock you will see a “chute” which is denoted by the ends painted in yellow called bull noses. You go in this chute. This is not the lock. About halfway down the chute will be a pull cord which rings a buzzer to signal the lockmaster. Pull this and wait. Usually someone will come out to tell you what is going on. If the water is already at your level then the doors will open, wait for the big horn to signal you can come in and you will paddle into the lock. If not, they will take 10 minutes to fill the water in the lock and then the doors will open. You paddle in and usually they will throw you a rope to hold onto for safety although it’s not really needed and not all locks gave us a rope. DO NOT tie anything from your kayak to the lock wall or you will be hanging in mid air in a few minutes. They will then slowly lower the water, sometimes 10 feet, sometimes 30 feet. Then the doors will open, the horn will blow and you will paddle out.
Real easy but here are the few issues:
· If you have a big tailwind then the waves will be going forward, will reverberate off the lock door walls and the chute will have huge waves which could possibly capsize you. This almost happened to me. Big tip here….CARRY THE LOCK PHONE NUMBERS (they are on the Army Corp website). I actually backpaddled, called the lockmaster, told him I was out in front and to please fill the water, open the doors and I would paddle furiously through as fast as possible. This worked well and there was no way I could have waited in the chute being bounced around for 15 minutes.
· When leaving the lock if the dam is releasing water then there might be a lot of turbulence and this can be a little scary too.
· Barges are your biggest issue. Unless the barge is small (rare) or the lock is a double lock (also rare) then the barge has to be taken apart into 2 sections and locking through takes 2 hours for the barge. Waiting for this sucks. There is usually no decent boat ramp in front of a lock so you either have to wait in your kayak or get out on the levee rock wall. However, again, carry the phone numbers. Several times I was almost racing a barge down the river and since they take so long to slow down I actually could have gotten to the lock first but I can’t just do that. Barges have locking preference but the lockmaster usually will put a kayak through first if they know you are there. So I called the lockmaster, told them I was there and they begrudgingly let me go through first. One note, frequently a barge will be waiting outside a lock. This is typically because there is a barge on the other side coming through so if you pass the barge without calling you are going to piss everyone off.
I can’t speak too intelligently on this subject but I can tell you one thing. Leaving on September 30 was way too late. I had a ton of cold nights and a ton of cold days. I paddled through snow on Day 8 and it still was dropping below freezing at night in Louisiana with just a few days to go. Others were on the River and we all suffered. I’ve read other journals and the summer seems equally brutal. Being on the River in the 90 degree heat plus humidity plus the sun reflecting off the River is brutal. There are also insane mosquitoes in the summer. This did not sound like fun at all. I don’t know much about the Spring. Personally, based on my experience, I think Labor Day would be a perfect start date. It would be mostly on the cool side but still very comfortable, the bugs would be mostly gone and you would catch decent weather most of the way down.
Thunderstorms can also be a big issue and the summer would definitely be bad for this. I only had 2 thunderstorms in my late Fall paddle. Fog is also a big issue. Sometimes it is so thick you can barely see in front of you. You could probably avoid the barges but a hunter or fishing boat could run you over. I have no idea about the seasons for fog or if there is any but I only had a few days and I noticed the summer journals had a lot more. Not sure if this is the way it is or just lucky for me.
This will be your biggest problem on the River. Wind is evil to paddlers. Especially on a big river. It can be most problematic from Minneapolis to St. Louis. The wind on the MR not only can slow you down but it will kick up some serious waves. Not only can you have a big head or tailwind but when the river is wide you can have a big sidewind which is the worst. Headwind waves were usually the best. My kayak would bob up and down and bury its bow into the next wave but it never felt dangerous. A tailwind while fun felt a little more sketchy as the waves were coming from behind and kind of washed over the kayak in a strange way that was disconcerting and the bow seemed to point more steeply down. A sidewind is the worst as the waves can feel like they might tip you. Sidewinds were only a problem from Minneapolis to St. Louis as the river was wide and the wind had enough room to whip across the river from the side. From St. Louis on the river wasn’t exactly narrow, but narrow enough to prevent sidewind wave issues. And of course wind can just slow you down and make paddling very hard. So you definitely might have times or days where you just won’t paddle.
This was my first paddling trip and I had a couple of kayak specific injuries. Early on I had tendonitis in my wrist. I was able to paddle but at night it stiffened up and I could barely even roll a drybag. I read that this was most likely due to gripping the paddle too tightly and with all 5 fingers instead of the first 3 which is more recommended. Later, the middle knuckle of my middle finger developed an arthritis like condition. Same as my wrist I could paddle but at night when it stiffened up I couldn’t even bend it. Other than this I had no issues. My arms occasionally hurt but I found paddling all day to be pretty easy. The wind usually made things harder. When it was windy I would paddle harder and usually things would hurt more.
I’ll just mention a few items specific for this trip:
· A big tent was nice. The wind can pin you down sometimes so having a nice place to relax was great.
· A good paddle is important. I estimated I took over 1 million strokes. Get something light and don’t skimp.
· A good life jacket is necessary. I thought I would be lazy and not wear it much. I never took it off. The Mississippi is a big river and I wouldn’t want to fall in without a life jacket. Can you swim a mile to the nearest shore across a river with current?
· Sunglasses are very important. The reflection off the river can be very intense.
· A synthetic sleeping bag is better for paddling trips than a down one for obvious reasons.
· A comfortable rain jacket. Because of the cold I wore my rain jacket pretty much every day. Plus my paddle stroke seemed to splash myself a lot so wearing a rain coat kept me dry.
· In a kayak having a good spray skirt is important. The waves occasionally swamped me but the sprayskirt kept me dry.
· A big sponge is great to soak up any water that does get in.
· MUD BOOTS!!!! This is the most critical piece of gear I didn’t know about and I quickly bought them. It was impossible to get in and out of the kayak with dry feet and it was so cold that my feet were numb without the mud boots. Plus the Upper Mississippi had insane mud or muck that my feet would sink into when getting in or out of the kayak. The mud boots were key.
· A cellphone with internet and google maps was helpful to research resupply points along the way. I had AT&T and had reception most of the time. Usually at least once a day I would have a good enough signal to use it.
· A big frameless backpack was helpful to carry gear from the kayak to the woods to camp or into town to carry my valuable stuff.
· You’ll need to carry a lot of water for certain stretches. The bladder from the inside of wine boxes is a great cheap way of getting large water carrying capacity. I carried several of these.
· GPS – This isn’t necessary and I never used it south of St. Louis (except to measure the current speed!) but it was helpful the first couple weeks and some other times until St. Louis.
· Get good dry bags and make sure they will keep your important stuff dry!
· A lock for your kayak or canoe.
· Have a repair kit for whatever you are paddling.
· Have an extra paddle or oar.
Mississippi River Thru-Kayak
The Mississippi River is the chief river of the largest river system in North America. It rises in northern Minnesota and meanders slowly southwards for 2,530 miles to the Mississippi River Delta at the Gulf of Mexico. With its many tributaries, the Mississippi's watershed drains all or parts of 31 US states and 2 Canadian provinces between the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains. The Mississippi ranks as the fourth longest and tenth largest river in the world. The river either borders or cuts through the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
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