We found the perfect put in point. In St. Louis on the river bank 300 feet north of the Arch, there are a set of sandstone stairs that lead down the grassy river bank to the road running along the river. The major flood conditions of the swollen river had brought the waters up to a level where they were completely covering the road and were lapping at the base of the wide lower stairs. The thick stone railing of the staircase curved at its lower section and provided a pocket of sheltered water to enter the river. Street signs standing in the water framed our route like colorful channel markers. In the background the Arch stood proudly gleaming. This was a spot worthy of embarking on a great adventure.
Despite standing at the perfect put in point with our gear at the ready, as we looked out at the river we briefly reconsidered our intentions to put in at St. Louis. The mid channel current of the river was whipping by at around 8 miles per hour. That kind of velocity in itself is not alarming but as you watch dozens of full sized cottonwood tree more than 40 feet in length and 2 feet in diameter, some complete with massive roots attached, being hurled along at that speed and occasionally twirled like bathtub toys by small eddies, it makes you consider the insignificant size and weight of a kayak. Patrick, Sarah and I all have experience kayaking in the ocean, on the Great Lakes and on different rivers and are all confident paddlers. Staring at the spectacle of the Lower Mississippi in the midst of a historic flood stage was humbling to say the least. For the sake of my parents and Patrick’s wife Molly, who stood looking on and who all had graciously volunteered to deliver our team and our gear to St. Louis, we tried to down play any doubts that we were having as we decided that the flood conditions, although warranting serious caution, were within our combined ability levels and decided to stick to our decision to begin paddling in St. Louis.
We began assembling the kayaks and loading the food and gear. After nearly three hours of preparations on the sandstone steps under an increasingly hot sun. We were nearly reading to say our good byes and put our boats in the water. At that moment a man who worked for the National Park Service and carried a badge but no gun walked down the steps and delivered news we had been hoping not to hear. “You aren’t planning to launch those kayaks are you?” This was a ridiculous question given that we were loading two kayaks about 5 feet from the waters edge. We had no response. So he quickly followed his opening line with “The River is closed to all recreational vehicles as far South as the Jefferson Barracks Bridge.” We offered a few weak dejected looks of disappointment but the man made it clear that he would be watching us until we moved to haul the gear and the boats away from the river. We strapped the boats to the roof of my parents’ car and headed for the Plattin Rock Boat Club marked on the nautical charts as 33 miles South of St. Louis and just south of the Jefferson Barracks Bridge.
Day 2: Southern Hospitality, Crystal City, MO to Chester, IL (41 river miles)
When we arrived yesterday at the Plattin Rock Boat Club, we had no idea what to expect. What we found was a river spilling over its banks by nearly a quarter mile and a small town boat club deeply in love with the river and very supportive of our trip. After being kicked off of the steps of the Arch in St. Louis, we were a bit wary of asking permission to launch our boats. We timidly approached an older man named Lou who stood fishing on the grassy knoll that was being slowly swallowed up by the rising water of the river. He immediately told me that he thought we were crazy and that the river was much too dangerous for paddling at the moment; his biggest concern was that with the banks of the river nearly 6 to 10 feet underwater, we would only be able to stop for camp or even a brief rest at flooded boat ramps where we would find a break in the trees leading to the roads that serviced them.
In nearly the same breath that he called us crazy he also invited us to make camp near the train tracks behind the boat club and get a fresh start in the morning. We took him up on the offer and pitched our tent on the shallow rise below the tracks and hoped that the water would not rise the nearly 4 more feet that it was predicted to come up in the next 24 hours. We bid farewell to my parents who needed to head back to Chicago, and went about the task of organizing our gear for the next morning and conducting our first water tests.
For the next 4 hours there was a steady parade of people driving down to the river to see the biggest flood in fifteen years. Inevitably people would see our boats and ask about our trip. They nearly all called us crazy but they wished us a safe journey and asked if there was anything that they could do to help. One man who seemed genuinely worried for our safety presented us with a wood and silver crucifix that he said belonged to his mother. He told us to keep it with us during our journey. Patrick mounted the gift on his kayak and Jesus on the bow has been with us for every mile of the trip.
In the morning we broke camp and said our goodbyes to Molly and cautiously paddled down the flooded street out into the main channel. We found strong currents and pockets of swirling water but paddling it was manageable and within the first ten minutes Sarah, Patrick and I felt good about our decision to begin the trip in a flooded river. We made miles fast and around 5:00 pm we fought our way out of the current and pulled into the boat club at Chester, IL. This evening we had no visitors; all roads leading to the boat club had been flooded, completely cutting the clubhouse off from the rest of the town
Day 3: Chester, IL to Trail of Tears State Park, Missouri (47 river miles)
We ran into a disconcerting patch of white water late in the afternoon but paddled through without incident. Trail of Tears State Park seemed eerily abandoned due to the surrounding flooding. Again another night of no human visitors. A raccoon did come by in the middle of the night to investigate our food bag. Patrick and I promptly ran the raccoon into a tree and proceeded to bombard the animal with projectiles. I think we really scared it because it urinated on Pat’s face as he was trying to film it.
Day 4: We still have a lot to learn. Trail of Tears State Park, Missouri to Scudder Light (51 river miles)
This ended up being our toughest day so far. Throughout the morning we made quick miles and were starting to feel like we knew what to expect. Around 5:00 pm we began to close in on Thompson boat ramp which was our chosen landing point for the night. As we approached our destination a commercial barge more than 300 feet in length started coming around the bend. We pulled closer to the outside edge to avoid the barge but as we moved over to the edge we moved into a thick belt of fast moving trees and debris.
We were concerned that the wake from the barge would toss us into waves carrying this debris but assumed that the Thompson boat ramp would come into view at any moment. The ramp never appeared and we hurriedly ducked in behind some trees to get cover from the waves and debris. Almost immediately we realized that this was a mistake. We were trapped behind a precarious log jam and a vicious swirling counter current that threatened to release the log jam and pummel our boats with heavy tree trunks. On land the river abruptly ran against a dense jungle like patch of forest infested with mosquitoes and lacking any space free of downed logs to pitch a tent.
We debated a solution to our situation and decided to make a break for it. We watched the three swirling holes that blocked our exit and followed the paths of logs heavier than our kayaks as they circled into the center of the holes and were briefly pulled under the water. We definitely wanted to avoid those spots. We planned to ride the counter current back up river for about 30 feet and then use the swirling edge of the pool to sling shot us back out closer to the main channel. With pulses pounding, the three of us in our two boats paddled as hard as we could into the current.
We successfully avoided the largest of the holes but paddled right into a smaller one that had remained hidden to us from the shore. We quickly rafted our kayaks together and floated over the hole with a good speed and plenty of steerage way moving over our rudders. For a brief moment I could begin to feel Patrick’s kayak get sucked down into the water. It was a huge relief as soon as I felt it come back up with two inches of freeboard to spare.
We now had only two hours of daylight remaining and more than 20 miles to the next boat ramp. After three miles we found a tiny sliver of sand on the opposite bank just behind a signal light. It wasn’t nearly big enough for two tents so while Sarah cooked dinner, Pat and I cleared a patch of beach with a machete. This proved to be a fool's chore as we developed horrible cases of poison ivy over the next 24 hours.
Day 5: The Ohio joins the Team. Scudder Light to Columbus, KY (34 river miles)
We cut it short today because of a brutal heat. The confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers proved to be a very easy patch of water. When stopped at Columbus we were adopted by a man named Tony and his family. They hung out with us for hours and brought us cold drinks.
Day 6: Columbus, KY to Linda Boat Ramp (61 river miles)
Very long day and we are extremely tired. We camped beside a soybean field and were treated to the kind of sunset that you don’t easily forget. Kind fishermen and fisherwomen gave us cold sodas and a pack of hot dogs.
Day 7: Linda Boat Ramp to Island #21 (46 river miles)
Island number 21 is the most beautiful spot in the world. We pitched our tent on a white sand beach that stretched for miles and although the shorebirds might disagree, it was our own private island.
We stayed on the water all day today. The current is slowing down and our speed has been slower. We camped beside a newly planted field atop a steep eroding bank.
We arrived in Memphis and were greeted at the Memphis Yacht club by members of the Mississippi River Corridor and the Memphis chapter of the Sierra Club. They interviewed us and watched us do a round of water testing on the docks. We were pleasantly surprised to hear that they were interested in our trip and had been following our progress. They are posting information about our trip and our research. Look for links to these organizations on this blog in the future.
A short while later after tying the boats to the docks, we were picked up by a good friend’s mother who is quickly becoming a good friend herself. She has graciously taken us into her home. In Memphis we have restocked supplies, visited a doctor seeking treatment for multiple heat related skin conditions, and been treated to some of the best barbecue around. Rest day tomorrow.
High School Biology Teacher, Aaron Reedy