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Peacefully Adrift as the Mississippi River Just Rolls Along

By Paul Schneider
January 10, 2010

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THE same drifting log had caught up with our kayaks again. It was sometime during our third day on the Mississippi River, or was it the fourth day, or the second or fifth? I’d lost myself again in a silent reverie, allowing my kayak to spin lazily along the great river’s western shoreline, like a bright yellow leaf with some kind of exotic beetle in a life vest perched in the middle of it.

The current turned the bow first toward the unbroken line of trees and the muddy banks covered with mysterious animal tracks. Then to the downriver view, with my son’s kayak similarly gyrating a hundred yards ahead, beneath the limestone bluffs of the Missouri shore. Then across the nearly mile-wide glassy black river to the line of hazy sky and thin band of flat green on the far side that looked more like an Amazon shore than Illinois. Countless swallows dipped and dived. How much time had passed on this particular spiral drift? A half-hour? A million years? Who knew? Who cared? “Peace, like a river,” goes the old hymn.

The Mississippi is full of driftwood, large and small, but I thought I recognized the log passing by in the current of the main channel, 75 yards away, because its stumpy branch sticking up aft and a smaller one forward had reminded me of the George Caleb Bingham painting of a fur trader and his cat in a flatboat. Now it had somehow found a sweet line of lesser resistance and was cruising in mid-river right past me, as if it were late for a board meeting down in Memphis or Baton Rouge.

I dug in with my paddle. “Come on,” I said as I passed both son and log, “let’s put some muscle into it for a while.” With surprisingly little effort, barely more than letting the weight of the paddle fall into the water on either side, a sea kayak can be kept fairly ripping along in the Mississippi current at a very satisfying seven miles an hour. In no time the fur trading log was far behind us and we were speeding on toward ... toward ... toward ...

The truth is, my 15-year-old son and I didn’t have specific destinations in mind on this kayaking trip in June. We hadn’t come to the Mississippi to prove or conquer anything. We just came to see what the most storied river in America had to offer a couple of supplicants with plastic boats and a week and a half with which to play.

We put in a few miles south of St. Louis but we didn’t know precisely how far we were going to go down the Father of Waters. We didn’t know whether we were going to camp every night on islands and sandbars, or stay in the small towns along the way. We didn’t know whether we were going to paddle hard to put miles under the hull or drift along like Huck (him?) and Jim (me?). It didn’t matter. The point was to experience the Mississippi from water level.

The Old Man, of course, was rolling on toward New Orleans, but we had no intention of going even a tenth that far. All we knew for certain was that we were headed toward that next corner there, and then around it to whatever lay beyond. With our holds full of power bars and instant oatmeal, we were hoping for sunshine but ready for rain.

Having no strict plan in place did not mean no planning was done, of course. With about 2,300 miles of river to choose from, we had to decide which section to paddle. We settled on the stretch just below St. Louis, in part because above St. Louis the Army Corps of Engineers has bottled up the river with locks and dams that stretch all the way to Minneapolis, making it more of a series of extremely pretty lakes than a rolling river.

What’s more, Missouri and Illinois are where, in a 190-mile stretch, the three great tributaries of the Mississippi come together. The Missouri, the Upper Mississippi and the Ohio can each lay some claim to being the true source of the mighty lower river of myth and mud: the roughly 1,300-mile Upper Mississippi, the river of the Great North Woods, has the historical claim to the name, but the Missouri, the “river of the West,” is, at more than 2,000 miles, the longest of the three by far.

The 980-mile Ohio, meanwhile, the line between slave and free and more recently the corroding keel of the industrial heartland, brings more water to the party than the other two combined. So we chose the stretch from St. Louis downriver to Cairo, Ill., where the Ohio comes in.

For weeks before our departure I amused myself plotting waypoints into my little hand-held GPS unit. I selected likely stopovers from topographical maps, looked up satellite photos and downloaded navigational charts. I cut and pasted and Googled, creating a personal guide with likely campsites and historical places to visit. Then, a few days before we were set to leave (driving from the East Coast), I called Hoppies Marina in Imperial, Mo., where I hoped we could park the car while we were on the river.

“This is Hoppie,” said a friendly male voice belonging to Charles Hopkins. “I suppose it would be fine to leave your truck here,” he said. “But, you know, that river is up. It’s just about at flood in St. Louis right now, and the Corps says it will be at flood tomorrow.”

Flood? Blithely assuming that by mid-June the river would be down in its summer mode, I had not even bothered to check the Corps of Engineers Web site that gives daily water levels. A quick check confirmed that the reading at St. Louis was 29 feet and rising toward flood level, 30 feet. The “technical” flood level does not mean water in the streets of river towns, but Mr. Hopkins explained that it did mean that all the pretty sandbars and campsites I had scoped out online would be underwater.

It meant as well that the current would be swifter and angrier about the countless submerged rock groins, jetties and other “improvements” constructed by the Corps of Engineers to keep the lower river navigable. It meant, in Mr. Hopkins’s opinion, that we shouldn’t be getting on the river in human-powered boats. “You want that reading at around 15 feet in St. Louis,” he advised. “That’s when the rock dikes come out of the water.”

We delayed our departure a few days and then did some exploring on land. In Davenport, Iowa, we ate krautdogs and watched the Quad Cities River Bandits play their Clinton, Iowa, rivals, the LumberKings, before a nearly sold-out home crowd. With the river as a backdrop, Modern Woodmen Park is arguably the prettiest modernized ballpark in all of professional baseball. “We don’t have to look retro,” says the team owner, David Heller. “Our ballpark was built in 1931 with W.P.A. funds. We are retro.”

We made the Mark Twain pilgrimage to Hannibal, Mo., where we saw and genuflected at “the house,” “the fence,” “the cave” and “the cabin.” Our favorite part was the homemade root beer and biscuits with gravy at the Mark Twain Family Restaurant.

By the time we got to St. Louis, the river was at 19 feet and dropping. We gave it one more day, going first to the astonishing Gateway Arch, which, like the moonshots of the era when it was built, leaves one wondering whether it is the technical or the political achievement that seems the more improbable by today’s standards. The architect, Eero Saarinen, supposedly wanted to build a monument that would last a thousand years.

In the afternoon we drove across the river and headed to Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville, Ill., to see what was left of a city of mounds built a thousand years ago by members of what archaeologists call the Mississippian Culture. Their city was larger than London at the time and was (and still is) dominated by Monks Mound, a terraced earthwork comparable in volume to the Great Pyramid of Giza. For a long time, the Cahokia Mounds were essentially ignored, and many of them were flattened for farming and development, but now there’s an impressive visitors’ center. We walked the ancient plazas mostly in silence, trying to imagine them full of people.

AT last the morning came when we put the kayaks in the river at Hoppies and pointed them downstream. Hoppies is a classic sort of place: a house, a barn, a boat shop, a couple of outbuildings, a ramp and a dock where you’re more likely to find friendly guys working on their own well-traveled boats than a line of gleaming fiberglass trophies with bad puns for names. Hoppie and his wife, Fern, are usually around, talking or lending a hand. And, of course, there’s the river, brown and beautiful, rolling by without a care.

Human-powered trips — walking, hiking, paddling or cycling — usually begin with a warm-up period — hours or days of getting into the rhythm of the trip, letting go of where you came from, falling into the vibe. But that is not the case with launching a small boat on the Mississippi.

As soon as you are in the water, you know immediately that you belong to the river. It commands every sense. There’s the sound a truly big river makes — not loud, but nonetheless vast and soothing, more like a wind over grasses than a waterfall. There is an odor to the river as well, vaguely sweet and earthy, though oddly more like the sea than like a mountain lake. In no time Hoppies was lost far behind us, as if removed not just geographically, but in time as well. We were away.

Three sounds regularly punctuated the background music. One was the occasional wail of freight trains along tracks parallel to the river on the Missouri side. The arrival of trains is said to have been a death knell for the era of fabulous steamboats, but their songs today are neither unpleasant nor particularly lonesome; with miles of river bank on both sides undisturbed by houses or other signs of human impact, the occasional passing trains seemed to be friendly, if oblivious, fellow travelers.

The same could be said for the barges that ply the river in both directions, emitting a low, diesel roar and loaded with grain, gravel, giant rocks, oil and other commodities. Visions of these football-field-sized beasts swamping and slap-chopping our tiny boats had cost me sleep in the weeks leading up to our trip, and I certainly would not advise playing chicken with one in a fog, or traveling around a bend in mid-channel. But without diminishing the importance of vigilance and common nautical sense, there is nothing in their wakes to alarm a moderately experienced sea kayaker.

The most common sound is the surprisingly loud complaining of the river when it drops over and around the various contrivances of the engineers. It seemed to us that an Army Corps reading of 17 to 19 feet at St. Louis was actually better for paddlers than 15 feet, because the higher water covers the miscellaneous rock works, giving the visual impression of a free river. What’s more, once a paddler is comfortable with the current, the quickening drop, followed by the clot of whirlpools and eddies, creates interludes of adrenaline, which is to say fun.

The higher water also assured us that the chutes and sloughs that pass behind and around the various islands would have adequate water for passage, and it was along those narrower passages — though they were often big enough to be important rivers in any other part of the country — that we occasionally spotted deer, beaver, small water snakes, large herons and birds of prey. We looked for, but never saw, the coyotes we heard howling at night, sometimes closer to our campsites than we might have liked.

One afternoon we surprised a local family out catfishing; they were the only other recreationists we saw on the entire voyage. “Hey, come on over,” they called out from their campsite, a cluster of wall tents hidden almost entirely in the woods. “We got fresh fish frying and cold beer.” A very good combo indeed.

We might have seen more wildlife had we gotten up with the dawn and paddled till dusk, but we chose instead to read into the nights by the lights of our headlamps and sleep late; whether this was the influence of my teenage companion or the lull of the river I can’t say. We also might have covered more miles, but we stuck to our plan of no plan and dawdled with abandon.

On the Missouri side of the river we stopped once to check whether a dark spot in the bluff was the opening to a cave — it was not. We stopped another time to take a close look at a long row of boxcars on a siding. I will neither confirm nor deny that we climbed a ladder and ran along the top of the cars, high over the Mississippi, jumping from car to car, pretending to be Ernest Borgnine and Keith Carradine in “Emperor of the North Pole.”

On the Illinois side, we stashed our kayaks partway up One Mile Race Creek and walked along the levee about a mile to Fort de Chartres. Constructed in the 1750s and now fully restored, the fort was the military and administrative center for what was the breadbasket of French Colonial activity in North America. A few weeks before we arrived, the fort had been stuffed to the turrets with “living historians” dressed up as fur traders, native trappers and French infantry come for the annual jamboree, but when we got there it was deserted, except for the friendly woman in the gift shop who sold us ice-cold Sprites and told us about her technique in the tomahawk-throwing competitions.

“Pretty much everyone around here throws a little,” she told us.

Ducking out of there, we headed down the river to Ste. Genevieve, where we again stashed the kayaks in the woods and walked into town. We checked into a hotel, took hot showers, ate big steaks followed by enormous bowls of homemade ice cream, slept in beds and watched ball on television, but we were otherwise very well behaved for a couple of boatmen just in off the river.

Once a rival to St. Louis as the most important French community between New Orleans and the Great Lakes, Ste. Genevieve is a remarkably well-preserved town of historic houses, antiques shops and art galleries. Like virtually all of the towns we visited, however, it appeared to be highly detached from the river that was its original reason for existence: except for a sign showing historic flood levels, you might not know you were in a river town.

While we tarried in Ste. Genevieve, and the tiny towns of Tower Rock and Herculaneum, and spent a day hiking the bluffs at Trail of Tears State Park, and the better part of another day goofing around trying to catch fish, the river was rising. By the time we left Trail of Tears, the best camping sandbars were gone and the river was up in the trees in many places; the word was it was still coming up. When we got to Cape Girardeau, which has a wall to keep the river out of the town, it was no longer as much fun, and I took a Greyhound bus back up to St. Louis to get our car.

“What are you so worried about?” said my son as I hemmed and hawed and generally second-guessed our decision to get off the river a few days early. “We thought we might do 150 miles of the Mississippi,” he said, “and we did about 105. No one else we know has even done that.”

He was right, of course. But later that day we drove down to Cairo, a town that doesn’t look as if it’s been hit by the recession; it looks as if it’s been hit by a bomb (think Jimmy Carter in the South Bronx in 1977).

We sneaked into the seemingly abandoned and overgrown Fort Defiance Park and stood at the tip, where the massive Ohio River coming in from the East makes the Mississippi look more like the nephew of waters than the patriarch. It’s a surprisingly peaceful confluence of giants — one seemingly clear and dark, the other chalky with mud. We stood there until we worried that someone might break into our lonely car, loaded with our kayaks, up in the parking lot.

“I’ll be back,” I thought as we turned and jogged back. “There’s more drifting to do.”

NAVIGATING THE FATHER OF WATERS

PLANNING A TRIP

The Army Corps of Engineers posts Mississippi River levels at a variety of locations (mvs-wc.mvs.usace.army.mil/dresriv.html) and also has downloadable navigational charts (www2.mvr.usace.army.mil/NIC2/mrcharts.cfm).

Hoppies Marina is across the tracks at the end of a road in Imperial, Mo. (6018 Windsor Harbor Lane; 636-467-6154), but you should call ahead and make sure there’s room by the barn if you plan to leave a car there. The owners may not quote you an official fee, but a reasonable traveler will give something in return for the privilege of launching and parking at the marina.

WHERE TO STAY (AND EAT)

While traveling on the river, you can camp anywhere that isn’t posted as private property. On the stretch between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., the sandbars that form at the ends of islands are often good spots. Because mud is a fact of life on the Mississippi — even on top of sand — campers should take plastic tarps for ground cloths and plenty of fresh water.

There are public campsites at Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site (4372 Park Road, Ellis Grove, Ill.; 618-859-3741; www.illinoishistory.gov/hs/fort_kaskaskia.htm) and at Trail of Tears State Park (429 Moccasin Springs, Jackson, Mo.; 573-290-5268; www.mostateparks.com/trailoftears.htm).

The Hotel Ste. Genevieve (Main and Merchant Streets, Ste. Genevieve, Mo.; 573-883-3562) is a serviceable place that didn’t question our arrival in water sandals. Doubles from $55. At the nearby Inn St. Gemme Beauvais (78 North Main Street, also in Ste. Genevieve; 573-883-5744; www.bbhost.com/innstgemme/), doubles start at $89.

The Anvil Saloon (46 South Third Street, Ste. Genevieve; 573-883-7323) has been restoring river travelers since 1855. The Anvil steak (ribeye) comes with memorable onion rings for $18.95.

<i>PAUL SCHNEIDER is the author, most recently, of “Bonnie and Clyde: The Lives Behind the Legend.”</i>