Canoeing Mississippi River

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    Amy Lauterbach
    BPL Member


    Locale: San Francisco Bay Area

    Note to BackpackingLight readers: We have posted our report on this forum even though it is not a backpacking expedition. However, the trip was human powered and we used many of the techniques we have learned in lightweight backpacking to make our travels easier. We believe some readers may enjoy learning about how a trip like this can be done and perhaps some of you might be inspired to make the journey.

    Mississippi River Trip: Paddling Information


    From August 12 to October 8, 2014, we (Amy and James) spent 58 days canoeing the Mississippi River from its source to the Gulf of Mexico. This document focuses on information for those who might like to take this journey someday. We were inspired to take this trip when we read GermanTourist’s trip report on BackpackingLight forums. Our report does not include a day-by-day log of our adventure.

    We both learned to canoe as children. Amy spent a week paddling in Quetico thirty-odd years ago, but that is the extent of our overnight canoeing experience. We had never canoed together. We are very experienced hikers and are used to living in a tent for many weeks at a time, but canoeing a big river was an entirely novel undertaking. This is the context for our report: we have assembled information we found useful based on our particular trip, but we are by no means experts on this river or on the craft of paddling a canoe.

    Why Paddle the Mississippi River? We are hikers, not paddlers, so the decision to paddle the Mississippi River caught us by surprise. Jim read a trip report about paddling the river, came into the room where I was sitting, said “Christine paddled the Mississippi, and she says it’s a trip that a well prepared, fit, novice paddler can complete. Let’s do it.” I read her trip report and agreed. The decision making process took about five minutes.

    As Americans, the Mississippi River is our river. It is one of the world’s grandest rivers, and it’s possible to paddle the entire length without serious risk and with very few hassles. Mark Twain put it on the map as an American literary landmark. It passes through diverse physical and cultural landscapes. The economic impact of its barge traffic is enormous. The river is a magnificent juxtaposition of intense commerce and intense isolation. The trip is easily achievable in a single season, even at a leisurely pace.

    In 2014 there were at least 70 people who set out to paddle the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca to the Gulf. At least 50, and likely more, completed the trip. John Sullivan attempts to maintain a list and publishes it on the Mississippi River Paddlers Facebook page. Paddling the river is a significant undertaking, yet the trip is not complicated. Many millions of people live within 100 miles of the river, yet few people make the journey. In 2013, 658 people summited Mount Everest, 700+ thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, and perhaps 50 paddled the Mississippi River from its source to the Gulf of Mexico. Because few people paddle the entire river, it still has the feeling of a grand adventure.

    River Amy and Jim Paddling from Carol

    James' Personal Summary

    I entered this trip as a highly experienced long-distance backpacker, reasonably experienced dirt-road bicycle tourist, and completely novice canoeist. The trip seemed like an ideal way to try out a new means of human powered travel and a chance to see a part of the country I didn’t know very well and we were unlikely to travel in otherwise. We were inspired by our friend Christine (GermanTourist), who we met here on the BackpackingLight forums; she paddled the river in 2012 in a folding kayak.

    Our trip was fascinating to me. The entire river corridor was so much wilder feeling than I ever imagined. We essentially traveled through riverine forest for the entire trip except where towns and cities are located. The forests look healthy and are not marred by clear-cuts. No corn or soybean fields or cow pastures down to the water’s edge. The settled areas were mostly very compact and in the Lower Mississippi often were frequently not even visible from the water. Outside of the tows below Minneapolis and weekend powerboats between Minneapolis and Saint Louis, there is extraordinarily little river traffic. In the headwaters section, we once went three days without seeing a single other person either on the water or on the banks. We were pleasantly surprised by how much of our trip felt like more of a wilderness experience than that of traveling a watery freeway through civilization.

    I enjoyed the process of paddling and soon became very comfortable with our boat. I felt safe, secure, and felt we could control it well enough to deal with any situation we were likely to have. Although at times various bits of my body hurt, I never felt debilitated and rarely felt worn out at the end of a day’s paddling.

    We were fortunate with generally great weather, few delays at locks, helpful and friendly people we met along the way, and no breakdowns of equipment. We had decent campsites every night and very often had great ones. The only real hassle were the mosquitoes.

    I wish we had found a way to be comfortable with leaving our boat and gear unattended so we could have explored the riverside towns more than we did. To me, that was the biggest negative of the trip.

    Overall, the trip was a great experience and I am very glad that we did it. I would unhesitatingly recommend to anyone with a sense of adventure and a willingness to try something out of the ordinary to take this trip.

    River fog and clouds

    Amy's Personal Summary

    Most of what Jim said is true for me too.

    I love the rhythm of moving forward along a path, day after day. It is the same satisfaction I get from a long-distance walking or biking trip. Much of the day is very routine – sleep, eat, pack, move forward, stop a few times to eat, find a campsite, setup camp, eat, sleep. Repeat over and over again. Superimposed on top of that very stable routine are the unexpected highlights and memorable events.

    On this trip, my most satisfying highlights were the people we met along the way. Fun, outgoing, gracious, generous, cheerful, encouraging people at every place we stopped. Many times we went for two or three days without seeing anybody, and then we’d stop somewhere and inevitably be greeted by the nicest people we could hope to meet.

    And then there were many isolated unpredictable highlights that mean so much. Weeks of being surrounded all day by hundreds of migrating swallows feeding near the surface of the water. A single full albino Barn Swallow, looking magical as it swooped around our canoe. The ethereal calls of loons in the northern reaches of the river. Hours of floating down glassy calm water surrounded by floodplain forests, nary a care in the world. Flocks of hundreds or thousands of White Pelicans. Many five-star campsites on beautiful huge sandbars. Dozens of beautiful sunrises and sunsets. The view of bridges from below delighted me every time.

    I was very pleasantly surprised by the minimal industry on the river, as I expected far worse. In fact, the industrial areas on the river are very limited and isolated. In the headwaters section the river corridor was beautiful and most of it felt wild. In the Upper River, each lock and dam was a massive structure, but once away from a lock, the river corridor was most often surrounded by riparian forests with little sign of human activity. On the lower river, the wingdams and revetment were essentially always present, but for 90% of the miles those were the only signs of human activity. Visually, I found this to be a very beautiful trip, however I was irritated that the Army Corps has so thoroughly messed with the river south of Minneapolis.

    North of Saint Louis I enjoyed everything about the trip, except the tough Blanchard Dam portage where I slipped and hurt my back. I enjoyed the diversity of habitat, from the Spruce forest to the marshes to the lakes to the maple floodplain forests. I enjoyed the paddling itself, the small towns, the swimming, and the campsites.

    South of Saint Louis, I had a love-it / fear-it relationship with the river. I never got comfortable with the giant river and her giant tows. There were tows between Minneapolis and Saint Louis, but they were smaller and less frequent, and the river itself seemed more manageable. South of Saint Louis, and especially south of Cairo, I simply could not shed the fear that we would capsize and find ourselves in the shipping channel. I felt we had full control of the canoe, and we had fabulous weather nearly every day on the big river, with glassy calm water nearly every day, so we never came close to capsizing. I’m sure my fear was grounded in the fact that we had no river paddling experience prior to this trip, and I did not feel “at home” like I do when hiking or riding my bike.

    Two things likely exacerbated my fear. First was that the river went into flood stage when we reached Saint Louis, the volume doubled, the current increased noticeably, and the load of logs was substantial. Second was the absence of recreational users south of Saint Louis. Given the abundant recreational use of the river north of Saint Louis, I was shocked by the near total absence of recreational use to the south – in 800 miles of river travel we saw perhaps a dozen people using the river recreationally, either from pleasure boats or fishing from shore.

    Once we crossed from the Mississippi to the Atchafalaya, I relaxed again and enjoyed that final week very much. I enjoyed the Cajun bayous, the small towns, the alligators, and the scenery. I am 100% sure we made the right decision to take the Atchafalaya River to the Gulf, instead of paddling through the heavy boat traffic areas south of Baton Rouge.

    Overall I'd summarize this as a five-star trip for its combination of scenery, cultural diversity, fabulous encounters with local people, great campsites, and relatively easy logistics. I regret that I carried the fear while on the Lower River, as it interfered with an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable and magnificent outing.

    river jim and bridge and fog


    The Mississippi River is the main stem of the largest drainage system in North America. The river currently runs about 2300 river miles from its source at Lake Itasca in Minnesota to its termination at South Pass in the Gulf of Mexico. The river passes through or borders ten states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The average discharge at its mouth is 590,000 cubic feet per second; this is equivalent to over 1840 tons of water passing a fixed point in one second or well over 100,000 tons of water per minute. For more information on the river see Wikipedia.

    From a paddler’s point of view, the river divides into five logical segments: the Headwaters, the Upper Mississippi, the Middle Mississippi, the Lower Mississippi, and the Outlet. Each segment has its own distinct characteristics and flavor.

    The Headwaters is the most scenically diverse portion of the river and runs 484 river miles from the put-in at Itasca (river mile 1338, measured north from the confluence with the Ohio River) to river mile 854 at Upper Saint Anthony Lock in Minneapolis, the largest city on the river. Narrow and shallow early miles, extensive marshlands, coniferous-forested riversides, some huge lakes, easily accessible towns, the longest unpopulated stretch of water, and many portages characterize this stretch of water. There is significant recreational use, primarily on the lakes behind the dams.

    river headwaters

    The Upper Mississippi runs 664 miles from the first lock (river mile 854) to the last lock (river mile 190) in St. Louis. This section includes 29 sets of locks and dams that must be negotiated by the paddler. The river gets big and carries commercial traffic in the form of tows (see the Tow section below). Towns are relatively frequent and are usually easily accessible. There is lots of recreational use on this section of the river.

    River middle river

    The Middle Mississippi runs for 190 miles from Saint Louis to the confluence with the Ohio River. The Army Corps of Engineers designates this as part of the "Upper Mississippi" however, from a paddlers point of view, it is similar in nature to the Lower Mississippi.

    The Lower Mississippi runs from the confluence with the Ohio River (Upper River mile 0, Lower River mile 954) for 650 miles to the Old River Lock (river mile 303.8). It is really big, having absorbed the Missouri, which doubles its flow and the Ohio, which doubles it again. We encountered many big tows every day, but almost no recreational users. There are neither locks nor portages. Towns are much less frequent and resupply access to them is more complicated.

    River Lower River Big Water

    At the Old River Lock, a paddler can chose between two Outlet options. Transiting to the Atchafalaya River is one way to complete a Mississippi River trip to the Gulf, and this is the route we chose. Details about this are in the Atchafalaya Exit section below. The second option is to continue on the Lower Mississippi River through Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The stretch of the river from the Gulf of Mexico up to Baton Rouge is navigable by ocean-going vessels and is the busiest port in the Western Hemisphere, moving some 400 million tons of cargo a year. Many paddlers have reported the river from Baton Rouge south can be very intimidating.

    River Map


    We drove a one-way rental car from California to Bemidji, MN. We dropped our canoe and gear at the southern end of Lake Itasca, Jim returned the car and hitched back to Itasca. At the end of the trip, we were given a ride to New Iberia, got a one-way rental car, and drove ourselves home. We thus avoided having having to ship our canoe and gear. There is no public transit between Bemidji and Itasca.

    Some people finish their trips at river mile 100 in New Orleans. Some finish at Head of Passes Junction at river mile zero. Some paddle further south approximately 15 more miles all the way to the Gulf. Some finish via the Atchafalaya River, either at the Gulf or at Morgan City. There are many other possible variations, since the region is an intricately interconnected series of waterways. By finishing our trip at Burns Point Recreation Area (see the Atchafalaya map), we were able to easily hitchhike to a sizeable town from a staffed boat ramp. Other destinations may require arranging a boat pickup, hoping to hitch a ride on a passing boat, or paddling back upstream to a boat ramp.

    We know of three parties in 2014 that had a ground crew. One was a group attempting to set a speed record. The second was a high-budget trip using rowboats and hotel accommodations. And the third had a professional film crew making a documentary movie. We believe that all other paddlers travelled without dedicated ground support.

    Not including the travel costs to get to Bemidji or to return home from New Iberia, our trip cost about $23 per person per day. One could easily spend less or more, depending on how you chose to feed yourself. We stayed in a hotel only once, and we paid for a campsite only once; the vast majority of our expenses were for food. We ate in restaurants or cafes about 20 times; the rest of our meals came from grocery stores.

    River Canoe on car


    People have paddled or rowed the Mississippi in kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddleboards, rowboats and rafts. In the headwaters upstream of Minneapolis, in order to paddle from Lake Itasca to Minneapolis you must be able to portage your craft numerous times to get around beaver and power dams. Because of this, kayaks and canoes are the most viable watercraft options. South of Minneapolis no portages are required. Some people use canoes in the uppermost reaches of the river and then switch to kayaks or rowboats in Minneapolis. Here is a summary of the watercraft used by 2014 thru-paddlers that we know of:

    • 16 people used two-man canoes (eight parties of two).
    • 9 people used solo canoes (all were traveling solo).
    • 2 people used a double kayak (one party of two).
    • 18 people used single kayaks (in parties of one to four).
    • 6 people used pairs of two-man rowboats (one party of four, and a second party of two that had guests join for short stints to fill the additional seats).

    When we decided to paddle the Mississippi we did not own either a kayak or a canoe, and had no basis for choosing one over the other. We knew we wanted to share one boat, and initially considered a tandem kayak. However, we eventually decided that a canoe would be a better choice for the two of us. The key factors for us were ease of access to gear, ease of ingress and egress into the boat, paddling position variability, and the smaller length and lighter weight of our chosen boat. We did not regret our choice at any point in the trip.

    River watercraft


    We bought a used Kevlar Souris River Quetico 17 canoe. With various modifications we made to the boat, it weighed about 44 pounds, making it easy to carry on portages, at campsites, and town stops. We are novice canoeists so cannot compare the performance of our boat against other canoes, but were extremely happy with the Quetico. It was roomy, stable, fast, and easy to maneuver. In the roughest water we paddled, we took on minor amounts of water only on a couple of occasions and which just required a sponge to bail out the boat.

    We designed and built a fabric cover that protected the center portion of the canoe. It was supported on a lightweight fiberglass wand attached to the two secondary thwarts. The cover shielded all of our gear from directly sunlight and shed a lot of the rain and splashing so less water collected in the canoe. It also helped deflect crosswinds that might catch on the inside of the boat. It was very easy to attach and detach using a cord that wrapped around small buttons we screwed to the gunwales. We were very satisfied with the cover’s performance.

    We also bonded nylon tie down loops to the inside of the canoe and used them to clip a cargo net over all of our gear. This was very easy to attach and detach and enabled us to tightly secure our load to the bottom of the canoe where it couldn’t shift around.

    We used Zaveral (ZRE) Power Surge Flatwater Medium paddles and we liked them a lot. Made of carbon fiber, these bent shaft models weighed about 10 ounces. Given that a Mississippi trip will require well over a million individual paddle strokes, having a lightweight paddle makes a difference.

    We used the same lightweight tent, pads, and sleeping quilt we use on our backpacking trips. We packed everything in light duty dry bags that we put inside lightweight frameless packs so we could easily portage our gear. We carried our food in a 20-litre dry bag and a 30-litre mesh bag.

    We carried a SPOT tracker, 2 iPhones, an iPod, a marine radio, and a camera. We kept these charged with a Suntactics solar charger.

    Many paddlers do not carry a VHF Marine Radio. We carried a Standard Horizon HX300, a model we chose simply because it was rechargeable via USB. We used the radio to communicate with the lockmasters, and it was worth it for that purpose alone. Also, we listened to channel 13, used by tow pilots to communicate with each other. After listening to channel 13 for a few weeks, and after learning from a retired barge deckhand that it is appropriate for recreational boats to speak on channel 13, we did speak with tow pilots on a few occasions. Finally, the VHF radio is by far the most effective way to request assistance if you have a life-threatening emergency in the water.

    Our entire load, skin out, including canoe, paddles, electronics, camping gear, all clothing, repair kit, PDF’s, dry bags and so forth weighed 116 pounds. Food and water added to that. A lot more weight than lightweight backpacking, but not heavy compared to what we understand other people travel with.

    River canoe at eagle center

    Maps, Navigation and Water Level Information

    We carried paper copies of the Minnesota DNR maps (Lake Itasca to Hastings MN), and the Army Corps charts (Hastings to the Gulf).
    Minnesota DNR maps and paddling information.
    US Army Corps of Engineers navigation charts.

    All of these maps are available in pdf format from the links above. These maps are very detailed, showing features both on the river and in the surrounding countryside. River miles are marked so you can easily tell how far you have traveled and the maps show where the riverbank lights and mile-markers are located. In our opinion, these are necessary and sufficient in terms of paper maps. We carried them in a waterproof map case and consulted them frequently while paddling.

    We also downloaded USGS topographic maps, and Google satellite images of the entire route and surrounding areas into our iPhone. We used Gaia GPS as our primary navigation application. We have carried this tool for many years and have found it to be reliable and quite useful. Of course it’s possible to paddle the entire river without a GPS device, but we found it very helpful on numerous occasions and we were glad we had it.

    To communicate with the lock masters, we carried a Marine VHF Radio. You can possibly communicate with the lockmasters via telephone. Note that we tried to use a phone only once and on that occasion reached a message center and not a human.
    Phone numbers for USACE Lock and Dams.

    These sites enable you obtain real time river flow data that is very helpful in choosing paddling routes and campsites and being aware of possible flood conditions:
    NOAA streamflow graphs – choose "Stage/Forecast Graph in the right column.
    River flow in Minnesota.
    River flow for the Upper Mississippi River.
    River flow for the Lower Mississippi River.
    USGS flow gages.

    We also used iPhone apps to view river flow data, including the recent past and the 7 day forecast and found them to be easy ways to look at streamflow data. Rivercast, Streamflow Plus. There were other apps available that we didn't try.

    We also used this Army Corps site to check the status of locks. is an enormously useful website for the Lower Mississippi. It is the brainchild of John Ruskey, a long time river paddler who has been systematically detailing everything he knows about paddling on the lower river. As of 2014, he has completed documenting the stretch from Caruthersville to Vicksburg and has stated that he is working on finishing the rest of the lower river.

    Ruskey describes the both the main channel and alternative back channels. The back channels are sometimes a bit longer and sometimes shorter than the main channel and provide routes in quiet backwaters behind islands where the tows don’t go. And most importantly, he includes information about what the water levels need to be to ensure that the alternative routes are passible. At low water, many back channels are closed due to emergent wing dams or sand bars and you need to know this before you commit to entering one, unless you like retracing your steps or doing unplanned portages. We paddled as many back channels as possible and never regretted it and found Ruskey’s data was invaluable.

    RiverGator also recommends good campsites and includes a lot of interesting and relevant historical and cultural information about the river. We were extremely grateful for all the work that Ruskey has done.

    There are two Facebook groups that are useful places to connect with other paddlers, both those currently on the water and those who have previously paddled the river. You may also be able to connect with people who live along the river and are willing to help paddlers with food, lodging, transportation, and/or advice.
    Mississippi River Paddlers Facebook group.
    Lower Mississippi River Paddlers Facebook group.

    river amy and jim caruthersville

    Trip Duration

    About half of the 2014 thru-paddlers completed the trip in 8 to 10 weeks. Below is a list of reported trip lengths. The numbers are elapsed times, not the number of days on the river.

    • 8 weeks: 4 parties
    • 9 weeks: 4 parties
    • 10 weeks: 6 parties
    • 11 weeks: 3 parties
    • 12 weeks: 4 parties
    • 14 weeks: 1 party
    • 15 weeks: 2 parties
    • 16 weeks or longer: 5 parties

    We took 58 days with an Atchafalaya exit; we took no zero days, paddled 8 to 10 hours a day and only lost a few partial days to bad weather. We think we had shorter than average delays at locks. We had a lot of serendipitous volunteer assistance for re-supply activities. We enjoyed socializing during meals and at campsites, but we didn't spend much time off the water visiting museums or other points of interest. We rarely dawdled when paddling, however we rarely paddled very hard. We had good equipment, not a lot of it, and knew how to do everything except canoe before we started the trip. We were well prepared and carried a lot of navigational data so we knew what to expect downstream. We were two people paddling one canoe; a solo canoeist would likely travel more slowly; a kayaker might be a bit faster. If you travel on your own, then you have to do everything by yourself instead of being able to share community tasks.

    Trip duration is highly dependent on water levels and wind. Depending on the water temperature and skill of the paddler, when the wind is strong enough to kick up whitecaps, it may be unsafe to be on the water. With mild headwinds and manageable choppy water, our daily distances were reduced by 20 to 40%. In strong winds we were forced off the river entirely. When the river is high, the current is stronger and faster, and there are more options to take the shorter route around inside curves over the top of wing dams and sandbars and to make use of backchannel shortcuts. High water also brings debris.

    river amy with paddle


    When should you start your trip? You may not have any idea as to how far you can paddle on a given day. Distances covered will be affected by current or lack of it, wind and weather, lock delays or not, resupply activities (that sometimes can be surprisingly time consuming), your physical and mental state and so forth. It is impossible to create a day-to-day plan for paddling this river.

    Among factors we considered in deciding when to start were:
    • day length: the days are quickly getting shorter in September.
    • air temperature: it can get quite hot and humid in the summer, especially on the Lower Mississippi. On the other hand, it can be uncomfortably cool in April and November anywhere on the route.
    • water temperature: during August the water temperature north of Saint Louis is in the mid to upper 70’s; the temperature drops during September from the 70’s to the 60’s, and in October from the 60’s to the 50’s, and in November to the 40’s and even into the 30’s. recommends a wetsuit when the water temperature is below 60; south of Cairo this occurs starting sometime in November. We read of two parties in 2014 that capsized in the Lower River. Capsizing in 75˚ degree water is a bother; capsizing in 55˚ degree water can be very serious. And remember that you will be having at least your feet in the water on a daily basis as you land and launch your boat.
    • mosquitoes: likely worse earlier in the season than later.

    We chose to start in early August in order to: 1) enjoy relatively long days; 2) avoid the worst of the heat as we headed south; 3) travel when the water temperature was warm; and 4) minimize the worst of the insects. This worked well for us and we have no regrets other than missing the autumn colors.

    In 2014, of the successful thru-paddlers we know of:

    • 8 parties started in mid to late May
    • 4 parties started in June
    • 3 parties started in July
    • 9 parties started in August
    • 6 parties started in September.

    In 2014 one party attempted to start in mid April, but snow and ice forced them to start at Grand Rapids instead of Lake Itasca.

    Due to the record-breaking cold streak in November 2014, the parties that started in September faced many frosty nights and many days where the daytime high temperatures were in the 30’s or 40’s. On the other hand, the parties that started in May had cold weather early in their trips.

    River timing


    Between Lake Itasca and Bemidji, there are both beaver dams and downed trees blocking the river. We were able to push and/or drag our canoe over all of the beaver dams. Water levels will affect your experience at these dams. The number and location of fallen trees varies over the years. In some places other river users had come through with chainsaws and removed some of these obstacles. We were able to run or drag our canoe over some of the trees and had to portage our boat up the bank and around others. Getting trapped by these obstacles could be possible in high water conditions so caution is advised. There is also an obstacle about seven miles from the put-in called Vekin’s Dam, an ancient low wood and rock logging dam, that requires a short portage to get around.

    Below Bemidji, there are 11 man-made dams that must be portaged. Behind these dams will be lakes of varying size; there is no current in these lakes so paddling requires more work than on the open river. Most recreational use along this portion of the river is found in these lakes.

    The portage routes are marked on the Minnesota DNR maps. The portages ranged from simple to real pains. Problems included: unmarked take-outs and put-ins; take-outs and put-ins that were essentially piles of big rocks with no sandy place to land or launch your boat; unmaintained portage trails that were wet, muddy, steep, and/or had encroaching vegetation. Some portages require traversing pavement through towns and crossing busy streets.

    The first portage is at the exit of Cass Lake at Knutson Dam. Depending on the water level, you may be able to paddle over the shallow spillway; we did this, but scout carefully ahead of time from shore.

    In Grand Rapids, the Blandon Dam operates a free portage service. Prior to getting to Grand Rapids, you arrive at the Pokegamma Dam about 2.7 miles below Cohasset. At this dam there is a signboard offering portage service from either here or from Sylvan Lake in Grand Rapids. There is a phone number on the sign; call and make arrangements with the dam’s management. You can get a ride around both dams, but then you will miss paddling to Grand Rapids. The portage at Pokegamma Dam is just a couple of hundred yards and is easy. The portage in Grand Rapids is over 1.5 miles and crosses a very busy street. We used the service in Grand Rapids; a friendly driver showed up at the take-out with a canoe trailer and helped us load our gear and drove us to the put-in below the dam. He then gave Jim a ride to the grocery store.

    In Sartell, you portage across the parking lot of the Riverside Depot café. You can stash your gear behind the very friendly café and stop in for a meal. We had the best burgers on our trip here.

    Be very cautious at the Blanchard Dam portage; this was the most difficult portage, with some people reporting taking three hours to complete it. You will have to carry your gear almost 2000 feet and, in doing so, climb up and down several steep embankments with very loose footing.

    Some people portage the short section of rapids below the town of Sauk Rapids. These are rated Class 1 to 3 depending on water levels. We were able to run them without incident on river right.

    Portaging some locks on the Middle Mississippi is possible, but not required. See the section Locks.

    Portaging on the Lower Mississippi is limited to voluntary crossing of wing dams or emergent sandbars while using back channels. There are no portages on the main channel.

    River Portage

    Power Boats

    Many recreational river users between Bemidji and St. Louis are weekend warriors with powerboats or jet skis. The powerboats are often equipped with huge engines and sometimes drunk captains. Anti-social and rude behavior on the river is unfortunately frequent among this group of boaters: generating huge wakes, unnecessarily close encounters, and occasionally deliberate harassment are not uncommon. Note that this only occurred on weekends, especially holiday weekends, when the river was crowded with recreationalists. We never had problems on weekdays, or with the local fisherman who would usually slow down when near us so that we didn't have trouble with their wakes.

    We spoke with more than a few local river residents who commented about the weekend boaters in very negative terms. They often told us that they never use the river on weekends due to the morons and their behavior. Although we were told that there are special police river patrols to mitigate bad and dangerous behavior, we never saw evidence of it.

    River Power Boats in lock


    From Minneapolis on to the Gulf, tows are a fact of life on the river. A tow is an array of cargo barges lashed together with cables and pushed by a specialized ship called a towboat (aka tugboat or pushboat):

    Between Minneapolis and St. Louis, where they must transit locks, tow arrays get no larger than 3 barges wide by 5 barges long (3 x 5). On the lower river, we passed tows that were 6 x 7 arrays. Since a barge is commonly 35 feet wide by 195 feet long, a 6 x 7 tow is 210 feet wide and almost 1400 feet long, not including the towboat. A typical fully loaded barge displaces 1500 tons, thus a 6 x 7 tow displaces 63,000 tons, which is greater than the WW2 battleship Missouri. These things are big and you and your tiny boat share the river with them. Anybody paddling the river should read John McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers to get a better understanding of the tows and how they work.

    Tows are intimidating but actually not too difficult to live with. First, they are slow; 11 mph is about the maximum speed traveling downriver and they are a lot slower going up. Second, at normal water levels, tows stay in the channel. Tow movements are generally extremely predictable as it takes a long time to make a turn; they don’t dart around on the river. If you carry a marine radio, you can listen in on the pilot’s conversations. When one tow needs to pass another, either in opposite directions or in the same direction, much discussion ensues about who passes whom where and how. Often a tow will slow down or stop to let a faster one pass, as there are limited places on the river where passing is even possible. If you have a radio, you can even inform the tows that you are in the area. Use channel 13 and know your position before you go on the air.

    Sharing the river with tows requires you to be aware of a few things. Most importantly, don’t get in their way, and don’t paddle in conditions where you might capsize in the navigation channel. Capsizing near a tow is well described in this report. Tows cannot maneuver or stop quickly and if you are too close to them, the pilot probably cannot see you. If they run you over, they may not even be aware of it. Cross the river in places with long views both upstream and downstream to ensure that there are no tows approaching. If you behave appropriately, you will not get run over.

    Tows create wakes as they pass. The first wake comes off the front corners of the leading barges and is usually not very big or turbulent. There will then be a hiatus before the wake from the screws of the towboat arrives. These wakes can be large and very turbulent, particularly from tows going upriver where they have to push against the current. Keep in mind that a large towboat has three screws and 11,000 horsepower turning them. Finally, the wakes and turbulence will reflect off of the riverbanks and create random chop, particularly where the banks are steep and have been armored with rocks by the Army Corps of Engineers.

    We found two things that helped a lot in dealing with wakes. First, it is best to pass tows on the inside of a bend in the river. The inside of a bend is likely to be shallower, less steep, much less likely to be armored, and the current is slower. The tows will be close to the outside of a bend as that is where the channel will be. On the inside bend you will be further away, the screw wake will be directed away from you, not toward you, and there will be much less reflective turbulence. This strategy requires crossing and re-crossing the river as it snakes its way south, but we found it made life much easier when passing tows.

    If you can't get away from a closely passing tow, you can find shelter by paddling into a shoreline eddy, the larger the better. The eddy line, the point in the river where upstream and downstream currents pass each other, will absorb almost all the wake turbulence from a passing tow. If you are in the eddy, you will experience very little to no turbulence. Fortunately, eddies are common features along the riverbank, so if you see a tow coming and you are on the outside bend, you will usually be able to find one prior to the arrival of tow’s wake. Sometimes, however, we were exposed directly to tow wakes at relatively close range and were always able to ride them out without issue. So, pay attention, stay out of their way, respect them, and you shouldn’t have any problems with tows.

    The turbulence caused by a single distant tow was rarely substantial. However, because tows can only pass each other in certain sections of the river, they often wait for periods so they are in the right place relative to the other tows, and they may stack up. We would often go for a couple hours seeing no tows, and then have five or six tows pass in an hour. Our most congested area had nine tows in 90 minutes. When there are tows holding position while a string of oncoming tows passes, the combination of all their wakes bouncing off the riverbank can get fairly intense.

    There are also smaller towboats operating around docks. These are used to construct tows and move individual barges from here to there. Their movements are less predictable than the large tows, but the pilots have reasonably good visibility of the river. On several occasions, the pilots obviously saw us coming and waited for us the clear the area before proceeding with their duties.

    river tows


    Between Minneapolis and St. Louis, the Army Corps of Engineers has constructed 29 sets of locks and dams. The most northerly lock, Upper St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis, is scheduled to be decommissioned in the spring of 2015. Operations hours of the Lower St. Anthony Lock may be reduced as well. As of this writing, the portage options are unclear and are still be discussed by various interest groups. The Mississippi River Paddlers Facebook group should be a good source of current information. The Corps closes the Upper and Lower St. Anthony Falls and Lock 1 during period of high flows. This requires finding alternative means for getting around several miles of river. Currently there is no designated portage route from St. Anthony Falls to below Lock 1; however, there is a local portage service operated by the Paddle Taxi.

    You must either transit a lock or portage around it. At many locks, portaging would be difficult or impossible as there is frequently no place near the lock to take out or put in and the lock complexes can be more than ½ mile long. By studying maps and satellite images, it might be possible to plan to portage (some, many, all?) locks by using side channels. If you try to plan this, remember that both maps and satellite images may not match the water level when you are at the lock, so what may look possible on paper may be difficult or impossible in reality. For example, a spillway may be a viable portage at low water, but be a dangerous place at high water. The vast majority of paddlers use the locks. There are three exceptions described at the end of this section.

    The locks were constructed because the Army Corps of Engineers built dams to maintain enough water depth for shipping and still have to allow for boats to transit the dams. The neat thing about the locks is since they were constructed with public money, use of them is free, and available to any type of craft using the river. Kayaks and canoes have the same rights to passage as tows and private powerboats. There is a pecking order and commercial traffic has priority over recreational traffic, which sometimes can mean a long wait to use a lock. It can take a tow between one and two hours to transit a lock, so if one arrives just before you do, you are in for a long delay. On our trip we had mostly good fortune with the locks and only had to wait for more than half an hour on a few occasions, while we had many “drive-thru” transits with no wait at all.

    To use a lock, you paddle up to the end of the “long wall”, which is a concrete structure extending many hundreds of feet out from the lock gates, and pull a marked cord announcing your desire to make a transit. With luck, the lock staff will be able to see you and come out and let you know what the situation is. A far better solution is to carry a marine radio (use channel 14, except for Lock Mel Price, Lock 26, that uses 12) and contact the lock when you are 10 to 15 minutes out. “Lock XX, this is downbound canoe. We are 15 minutes out from the long wall and request passage. What is the current status for a transit?” The lock-master will respond and let you know whether there is a wait or not, how long the wait might be, or if you are lucky will say: “Downbound canoe, this is Lock XX, we'll have it ready for you when you get here.”

    After approaching the lock, you find a place to hang out near the end of the long wall where you can see the signal light. Depending on the winds, this may not be as simple as it sounds. When the lock is ready to receive you, the light will turn green. You paddle in through the open upstream gates and usually a lock staff member will direct you to a particular point they want you to be and drop you a line to hold onto. There may be other recreational craft in the lock with you, but you will not share it with tows. After everyone is stable, the upstream gates are closed, the water level is slowly lowered to match that of the downstream river, and the downstream gates are then opened. When the lockmaster is satisfied that all is well, he will sound a loud horn signaling that it is now safe to let go of the line and paddle out. Do so and get out of the way of the downstream lock entrance as quickly as possible.

    Do not tie off on the line or you may be dumped out of your boat and it will be left dangling as the water drops. Although in some locks the water level only changes by a foot or so, in others the drop is as much as fifty feet. If a tow is exiting a lock as you arrive, do not approach the long wall until the tow is completely clear of it. The tow can generate massive waves in the narrow confines near the long wall that could easily swamp your boat.

    We found the lock staffs, civilian employees of the Army Corps of Engineers, to generally be very friendly, interested in our journey and helpful. On three occasions staff members actually used their own vehicles to portage us around locks that had long delays due to the presence of tows. They helped us get our canoe out of the water, transported us to an appropriate put in, and helped us get back on the water. Nice people.

    There are three locks where there are easy options to transiting the main lock. At Lock 14, there is, on river right, a back channel through a marina which leads to a small auxiliary lock. Since the auxiliary lock only transits small craft, you will not be delayed by tows. It is worth using this option. At Lock 15, there is a back channel on river left that goes around Rock Island. Once in the channel, you will pass smaller Sylvan Island and soon see a dam. There is an easy and short portage river left before you reach the dam: climb up a short set of rocky steps and follow a marked trail around the dam. After the portage, a short paddle brings you back to the main river downstream from Lock 15. Given how much river traffic there is in this area, we chose to take the portage route rather than risk a long delay.

    Finally, at Lock 27, the last on the river, there is a better way downriver than transiting the lock. The difficulty at Lock 27 is that to approach it, you must first paddle an 8-mile long rock-lined man-made channel. There is no shelter here from tows, which will be very close to you due to the narrow width of the channel. If you stay in the river instead, there is single obstacle: the Chain of Rocks. This is a partially natural and partially man made rocky barrier that stretches across the entire river. At normal water levels we have been told it is runnable by those who know the route, but should NOT be attempted by those who don’t. There is, however, on river left, a very easy and very short portage around this barrier. We choose to go this way and as the river was running high when we were there, the Chain was submerged and we just paddled over it without incident. Even if you must portage, we believe that you are much better off doing so than transiting Lock 27.

    We generally enjoyed using the locks. It added variety to the trip, frequently being the only boat in these huge structures was really cool, the staffs were great, and it felt like we were really taking part in the way the river works.

    River Amy in Lock


    South of Minneapolis, the main channel is marked with buoys. Looking downstream, the river right side of the channel is marked with green flat-topped buoys called “cans” and the river left side of the channel is marked with red conical topped buoys called “nuns”. These can be very useful because the tows are going to stay in the channel and the buoys identify it.

    However, when the river floods, as it did during our trip, it uproots many of the buoys and drops them where it pleases. Usually this is on the riverbanks, where we saw large numbers of stranded nuns and cans. However, sometimes the river just shuffles the buoys around so they now mark what is definitely not the channel. The tows know where the channel is anyway, but the paddler probably doesn’t. We have no idea how long it takes the Coast Guard to replace and realign errant buoys after a flood. Be cautious about assuming that all of the buoys are in the right places.

    In high water, buoys can also “rabbit”. The current forces them underwater and they disappear for varying periods of time, only to unexpectedly pop back up to the surface. Since these things weight about 800 pounds, getting hit by a rabbiting buoy is not a good idea. Pay attention to what is going on around you.

    River Bouys

    Atchafalaya Exit

    The Atchafalaya River is an alternate exit to the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi enters the Gulf in a classic delta: the big river splits into multiple distributaries as it flows out into the sedimentary delta it has built for itself upon reaching the Gulf. These distributaries originate as far north as the Baton Rouge area. Potentially one of the largest of these distributaries could be the Atchafalaya River. The Atchafalaya hydraulically "wants" to be the main exit for the Mississippi into the Gulf; it likely would be now if humans, starting in the 19th century, hadn't prevented nature from taking its course.

    The problem with letting the river do what physics says it should is all the human infrastructure and commerce dependent on the Mississippi flowing to the Gulf as a navigable river. Let the Atchafalaya capture the Mississippi and Baton Rouge and New Orleans would be commercially landlocked. Can't let that happen, so the Army Corps of Engineers has spent vast amounts of public dollars keeping the Atchafalaya from becoming the main course of the Mississippi. All that prevents river capture from happening are a number of concrete control structures; and a lock with a 15-foot drop from the Mississippi to the Atchafalaya. It seems inevitable that in the long (or not so long) run, the Atchafalaya will get its way and become the exit for the Mississippi whether we like it or not. For a more detailed and much more literate explanation of all of this, read John McPhee's superb The Control of Nature.

    This geography is a part of the rational for our decision to finish our paddle to the Gulf down the Atchafalaya, the "real" exit distributary. We also chose this route because the heavy industrial areas from Baton Rouge south were not enticing to us; dealing with tows is challenging but confronting the ocean-going tankers that travel up river as far as Baton Rouge was not something we wanted to do; New Orleans isn't very accessible to paddlers; we wanted to get to the actual open waters of the Gulf; and we wanted to end up in a place where we might easily find a ride back to a town. We found the wilder lower reaches of the Atchafalaya were a great place to paddle. Several other paddlers with experience on the Lower River had recommended the Atchafalaya as the exit of choice. To transit the Atchafalaya, leave the Mississippi main stem at river mile 303.8 and enter a channel (identified only by the mileage marker) that shortly leads to the Old River Lock.

    Here is a CalTopo map of the Atchafalaya route we took to the Gulf. You can export the data as a gpx or kml file. There are other options through the Atchafalaya, but we publishe our route as a reminder to paddlers planning to go to New Orleans that there is a quiet and beautiful alternative which is a geologically honest way to finish the Mississippi River. Also mapped is a Lafourche Bayou route recommended by a New Orleans paddler; we aren’t familiar with it, but include it as others might be interested.

    River Atchafalaya


    We were extremely fortunate with the weather on our trip and experienced weather related delays only a few times. You should not count on this and should not be surprised if bad weather prevents further downstream progress for periods of time. At the extreme ends of the paddling season, April or November, you might encounter ice in the water. Otherwise, the biggest weather problem is mostly related to wind. Wind speed and direction can make or break a paddling day.

    We experienced head winds far more often than tail winds. We don’t know if this is typical and/or related to the time of year we were on the river. Most of the time these winds were annoying and frustrating, but did not keep us off of the water. For any particular wind speed, the geography of the river can change what it does to you. If you are paddling into a long stretch of unobstructed water, waves will have a chance to build and can be much larger than those created by the same wind blowing up a short reach. So sometimes a 10 mph wind isn’t an issue and at a different location might keep you on shore.

    Sometimes the best solution for traveling on a windy day is to paddle immediately next the bank of the river. If you are lucky, the bank and its trees will provide shelter from the worst of the wind. Even if not, the waves will usually be much smaller and should you swamp or capsize, you won’t be in the middle of the river.

    The second significant weather related problem is lightning. If a thunderstorm is imminent, get off of the water as fast as possible and seek shelter. If there are only woods on shore, pull your boat out of the water, tie it up and get deep into the trees. Remember that thunderstorms are often accompanied by localized high winds so be sure to secure your gear well or the river might take it away.

    The final weather issue that can keep you onshore is dense fog that when present can make it impossible to see tows. We did not experience fog of this intensity, but we read trip reports that described fog so thick paddlers could not see 100 feet in any direction. Tows can be surprisingly quiet, so in dense fog, it is better to stay out of the channel.

    Other weather issues that can arise include rain of varying intensities, heat, high humidity, and cold. In other words, just like the weather anywhere else.

    River Weather

    Water Levels

    The amount of water flowing in the river rises and falls depending on snow-melt and rainfall anywhere in its enormous basin. It goes up and down depending on manipulation of locks and dams on the Mississippi and its many tributaries. It doesn’t have to rain where you are for the river to rise. Conversely, it can be raining where you are and the water level may be dropping.

    What might this mean to the river traveler? While we were on the river, it exceeded flood stage for about a week from Keithsburg to Cairo. The river rose twenty feet over the course of two days; it was not an overnight catastrophic change so it was easy not to notice that the water was rising, at least until we saw abundant floating logs and realized that the riverbanks were now underwater. We understand that high water levels on the Headwaters can make it difficult or impossible to paddle safety.

    The high water brought several noticeable changes. First, riverside floodplain campsites started to disappear and it became more difficult to find a place to set up a tent. We also had to camp high enough that any further rise wouldn’t flood us out. It helped to have data from various river level websites so we could plan ahead. The river also became faster as more water was traveling downstream. It was never fast enough to make paddling a problem, but it was noticeable. Finally, massive amounts of wooden debris appeared as the river re-floated all the material that had settled out on its banks after earlier high-water episodes. This debris ranged in size from small sticks to entire trees. There was so much material coming down from the Missouri River that the Coast Guard closed the Mississippi for forty miles around St. Louis to all river traffic, including their boats. . We were putting in at the St. Louis Arch early in the morning when a Coast Guard vehicle drove up and the unit commander wouldn't let us on back the river. Friends gave us a ride twenty miles south to a put-in just out of the closure zone so we could start paddling again. We did find that since the debris was traveling as fast at the current, once you are paddling downstream, playing dodge-a-log wasn’t difficult. However, the game is tedious, a little stressful and slows you down..

    For about two weeks after the water rose, the river level fell about a foot per day, eventually dropping low enough that the abundant Army Corps wing dams started to emerge. Where a few days previously we had floated over these things, we now had to paddle around them. The same thing happened with sandbars. The sandbars, though, provide terrific campsites. Falling water also prevented us from taking some of the back channels that allow you to get away from the tows. These channels often have wing dams across them and at low water the rocks stretch from shore to shore; the only way past them is to portage.

    River Flooding

    river cabin in flood


    Water. We were always able to obtain drinking water from known clean sources and never drank water from the river. The river itself carries a lot of sediment for much of its length, so if you plan on filtering, you will have to deal with potential clogging. The Lower Mississippi also has a lot of runoff laced with agricultural and industrial chemical residues.

    We found water sources easily in towns and local campgrounds for most of the trip. We carried fifteen liters capacity for the two of us, and this was adequate for our needs until we reached Helena. South of Helena, where water sources are more widely spaced, we also carried a couple of gallon containers of grocery store drinking water.

    Food. Until St. Louis, shopping for food was not a problem. Except for the stretch between Itasca and Bemidji, and between Grand Rapids and Aitkin, there are towns with at least small grocery stores just about every day. In these towns, the grocery stores were usually within reasonable walking distance, as were many accessible bars, cafes and restaurants.

    South of St. Louis, buying groceries becomes a bit more difficult as the river towns are further apart. The stores are frequently located on the outskirts of towns, several miles from the river. We were fortunate in that we were always able to find rides from helpful people we met along the way. Many of the river towns still have downtown cafes and restaurants close to the river.

    Prior to departure, we mapped the location of as many riverside grocery stores as possible using Google Maps. Having this data available during the trip made daily planning a lot easier and reduced trip stress.

    Riverboat casinos are legal in five Mississippi River states: Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Missouri, and many towns south of Saint Louis have at least one. Most have AYCE buffets at very reasonable prices and are a good source of cheap calories.

    river resupply farmers market


    Camping along the river is one of the great pleasures of the journey and is also necessary because there are long stretches with no commercial accommodations. We never had any significant problems finding at least adequate campsites, and frequently had excellent ones.

    In Minnesota, the DNR has established a string of canoe camps along the river, many of them accessible only by boat. These vary in quality from tiny plots with barely room for a tent to sites with a shelter and pit toilet. There are also some commercial and municipal sites further down the river and these are usually marked on the river maps. Mostly, though, the paddler will need to improvise and find suitable rough campsites. Long stretches of the Mississippi are actually in public ownership so riverside camping is quite legal. Along the lower river at normal water levels, a multitude of sandbars provide very fine places to camp. When we were in view of a building, we asked permission (granted everywhere but in Bemidji), otherwise we simply set up camp. Nobody ever questioned our use of any place we camped, and we were often welcomed with open arms and good company.

    The usual camping rules apply: leave zero trash; don’t make new fire rings; be extremely careful with fires if you build them; don’t cut vegetation; don’t make a lot of noise; leave the place cleaner than you found it. The river may rise while you are sleeping, so set up high enough where you won’t be awakened by water sloshing into your tent. Make sure that your boat is well above any possible rising water, including waves created by passing nighttime tows and wind, or tie it securely to something that can’t possibly wash away, or preferably, both. There have been paddlers whose boats washed away during the night and this can really mess up a trip.

    River Campsite High Res

    river camping in shelter

    Safety on the River

    In addition to the standard water-safety guidelines (always wear a PFD, don’t drink and paddle, etc.), there are five safety factors that one ought to consider when paddling the Mississippi:
    • There are three large lakes in the Headwaters section: Bemidji, Cass, and Winnibigoshish. Although the lakes may appear to be calm, experienced paddlers recommend NOT taking straight-line routes across these. Very strong and dangerous winds can arise suddenly and produce large waves that have capsized and drowned other paddlers. Prudence strongly suggests following the longer route around the shorelines of these lakes.
    • Capsizing into cold water is a safety consideration. Sinc

    Roger Caffin
    BPL Member


    Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe

    Hi Amy

    Just fantastic.
    Thank you.


    German Tourist
    BPL Member


    Locale: in my tent

    Amy, as usual your trip report is absolutely fantastic and spot on! And I am very proud to have been the source of inspiration for that trip.

    I would just like to add on topic to your trip report – and ask several questions….

    First the addition:

    Starting on the middle Mississippi you will encounter several casino boats (gambling in these states is only legal ON the river). For a hungry paddler this means absolutely fabulous and cheap AYCE buffets! You probably did not go because of the "where to leave your boat" problem. (I had to had my boat and just prayed that it would still be there – and it always was….)

    Now to the questions for Amy as well as for other American BPL members:

    You have stressed (like I do as well) that it is essential to have a means of communication with the locks. On my Mississippi trip we used a mobile phone. You are the first paddlers I have heard of using a marine radio. Which radio did you use, how much did it cost and how easy or difficult has it been to learn how to use it? But the most important question regarding the marine radio: Are you legally allowed to use such a radio?

    (After learning about you using a marine radio I talked to German friend of mine who is currently working on his captain's licence for German rivers. He was absolutely horrified when I told him about paddlers using a marine radio on river. In Germany – and apparantly on most European waterways – you need a specific radio licence to use it. A paddler using a marine radio on a commercial waterway would immediately attract attention and would soon be fined by the water police.)

    As a German having grown up in Germany I had not much of an idea of the Mississippi. Although even Germans read Mark Twain the whole Tom Sawyer romanticism is not part of European culture. (But Germans are immensely attracted by the Yukon which is paddled by more Germans than Americans…..) But when actually paddling the Mississippi River I quickly realized that this is the quintessential American River. There is so much history along the river. It used to be the big frontier between civilisation on the East Coast and the Wild West. Plus there is the whole Mark Twain story which is another quintessential American thing.

    Bottom line: The Mississippi is the quintessential Amerian river, it is beautiful and easy to paddle – but why is hardly anybody paddling it? There are hardly any blogs (as opposed to hundreds of AT and PCT blogs) and there are only a couple of trip reports in book form.

    Back then I have asked my American paddling partner (and other paddlers) what he would consider THE American river. Apparently it is not the Yukon – some Americans I have met actually thought the Yukon is in South America…… Most people came up with the Colorado River as the ultimate paddling experience for Americans. How do you as Americans explain that the Mississippi is not a more popular paddling destination?

    Amy, thanks a lot for all the effort you have put in your trip report. It is a great source of information for future paddlers.

    David Noll
    BPL Member


    Locale: Maroon Bells

    Great report. Sorry we didn't get to see you when you guys went through Lake City MN but really happy it went well for you.

    Jim Colten
    BPL Member


    Locale: MN

    @Amy: Terrific report. I enjoyed following your daily reports during the trip and had only one complaint … you didn't consult my schedule when planning! I'd certainly have paddled a day or two with you if we hadn't been running around parks in northern California at the time.

    Concerning not feeling free to explore the towns along the river … both you and Jim mentioned cycling in your summaries. There is a designated road system (Great River Road) that cobbles together whatever paved roads are nearest or almost nearest to the river and also an emerging designated paved trail system (Mississippi River Trail).

    @German Tourist: How do you as Americans explain that the Mississippi is not a more popular paddling destination? Perhaps it is "familiarity breeds contempt"? Or consider that Amy's pleasant surprise at the undeveloped nature of the river is relatively common. If I had to I could portage our canoe from our home of 40 years to the Mississippi (4 miles) but I've only been on the river in a canoe three times. (keep in mind that for a canoeist, MN is a "so many rivers, so little time" experience)

    Bob Gross
    BPL Member


    Locale: Silicon Valley

    While paddling on the river about a hundred miles north of St. Louis, you pass Hannibal, Missouri. That is the boyhood home of Mark Twain, and his childhood experiences on the river led to the subject material for many of his books. Journalists from around the world travel to Hannibal to visit the Mark Twain Museum and to get a feel for the river.

    North of St. Louis, the river is decently clean. Then just north of St. Louis, the Missouri River blends in. The Missouri is always called the Big Muddy. As a result, the Mississippi from there on down looks much worse, and that is why you don't see so much recreational boating. By the time you get to Baton Rouge, the river is positively industrial.


    Paul Magnanti
    BPL Member


    Locale: Colorado Plateau

    " By the time you get to Baton Rouge, the river is positively industrial."

    ~15 yrs ago, my girlfriend at the time was a native of the Baton Rouge area.

    The area where she grew up was nick-named "Cancer Alley":

    On a better note, thanks for the report. Looks great. I think it was a great idea to take the Atchafalaya. Looks much more scenic and shows the beauty of southern Louisiana more so than the current Mississippi.

    Amy Lauterbach
    BPL Member


    Locale: San Francisco Bay Area

    I modified the original post to include info on the two topics Christine mentioned – Riverboat Casinos and VHF Radios. I learned that amateur use of VHF Marine Radios is allowed in the US but not so in much of the rest of the world.

    It is not the case that the river gets gradually more industrial as you move south, rather it suddenly gets more industrial when it reaches Baton Rouge. The ~1900 miles of the Mississippi River that we paddled was astonishingly non-industrial. By leaving the Mississippi at the Old River Lock, we managed to avoid the industrial scene.
    We are not the first to choose to exit via the Atchafalaya, and we know of at least 5 other 2014 thru-paddlers who made the same choice.

    David Noll and Jim Colten – sorry we missed you!

    Greg Mihalik


    Locale: Colorado

    A few others would only see the flaws in Michelangelo's "David". So be it.

    An outstanding trip and wonderful trip report.


    David Thomas
    BPL Member


    Locale: North Woods. Far North.

    VHF Radio

    >"You have stressed (like I do as well) that it is essential to have a means of communication with the locks. On my Mississippi trip we used a mobile phone. You are the first paddlers I have heard of using a marine radio. Which radio did you use, how much did it cost and how easy or difficult has it been to learn how to use it? But the most important question regarding the marine radio: Are you legally allowed to use such a radio?"

    Germany is, just a bit (sarcasm) more regulated than the USA. I know lots of pilots and instructors here in Alaska and they say German pilots are always amazed that you can take over, fly hundreds of miles, land, refuel, and repeat many times without ever telling anyone anything. (Versus Germany where one files a flight plan for any flight, making it almost Instrument-flight-rules, all the time.)

    Likewise on marine radios – you're only supposed to use them on the water / docks but you just buy one at WestMarine (good catalog and website for info) or Walmart, turn it on, and start broadcasting. Yes, there are rules, regulations, and etiquette but you can pick up much of that by listening to other conversations.

    I wouldn't consider doing that trip without a VHF radio. For all the reasons Amy stated, but more so, if you capsize or have some other emergency, it is the ONLY way to contact other river traffic and a way to contact fueling docks, marinas, and locks. Hitting the button on an PLB lets the Coast Guard or Search & Rescue know you are in trouble, but not WHAT the trouble is. Using the VHF, you can contact the Coast Guard (in many places) through a network of repeaters, but more importantly, the boat you see ahead on the hailing frequency, or nearby marine businesses (are you open? do you have groceries?). And you can tell, in words, what you need. With only a phone, you can't hail other river traffic. Also marine radios are waterproof, unlike cell phones. The one pictured is $130 with built-in rechargeable batteries and recharger, no licensing fee, no service or subscription fee. Has a clip and belt loop and it is ALWAYS on my PFD when I'm in a small boat. For all the times I've carried a SPOT and PLB, the only time I had to be rescued, it was through that very VHF handheld.

    David Thomas
    BPL Member


    Locale: North Woods. Far North.

    One other thing the VHF might let you do is BE the rescuer (not just the rescued). If another human-powered craft or small motor boat had a medical, mechanical or dunking, a tow can't pull over and help them. When the Coast Guard gets a request (through VHF or EPIRB or PLB) for assistance, they rebroadcast their request to boaters in the area. We hear them all the time in Alaska. If it is a situation 20 miles away, you can't help, but if it is close you give someone a tow or maybe just come alongside until the Coast Guard, water taxi or tow boat gets there (in case thing get worse on the stricken boat).

    Sure, you're not going to tow a boat to the next marina, but you could easily pull someone from the water and get them to shore.

    Kevin Buggie
    BPL Member


    Locale: NW New Mexico

    Great trip, Amy. Thx for writing it up!

    I recommend Don Starkell's, Paddle to the Amazon, for another book length TR of a Mississippi thru paddle

    German Tourist
    BPL Member


    Locale: in my tent


    Thanks for the information, David. I have talked again with my "captain" friend to clarify the legal situation in Europe. Always keep in mind that on inland European waterways there is so much more traffic than on a river like the Mississippi. Therefore in Europe the legal requirement is that a marine radio has to be a FIXED installation on the boat. The radio ID therefore has a fixed connection with a certain boat. Plus you need to pass a test to get a radio license. The purpose of this law is clear: There is already so much radio traffic that they don't want any hobby paddlers to screw it up.

    There are some legal exceptions: If a paddler installs a radio permanently into their boat (which is a bit of a problem in a foldable kayak….) you could use it. You can also use portable radios for the communication on board like between captain and crew but of course you would not use the official channel then. And of course this law does not apply for emergencies.

    Bottom line: If you ever come to Europe for paddling you can bring your marine radio and use it for emergencies. But don't do what Amy and Jim did on the Mississippi: Don't use it to contact locks or other commercial boats. This will definitely get you into trouble and fined.

    George Ford
    BPL Member


    Locale: West Virginia

    I enjoyed reading it very much, thanks for putting it together!

    Amy Lauterbach
    BPL Member


    Locale: San Francisco Bay Area

    We improved and just republished this report on our website:

    When BPL migrated to their new web infrastructure this report got cut off in the middle of a word. We know it’s a long wordy report, but we think all those words are worthwhile for other paddlers :)

    David Thomas
    BPL Member


    Locale: North Woods. Far North.

    Since you included two other, very appropriate John McPhee books, there’s also “The Survival of the Bark Canoe”.  It’s not about the Mississippi, but about building and paddling traditional canoes in New England.

    I loved your trip report when you first posted it and I enjoyed reading it all again just now.  Thanks!  Definitely one of many epic trips on my bucket list now, although I should do the Yukon first.

    Amy Lauterbach
    BPL Member


    Locale: San Francisco Bay Area

    David – pretty much every book by John McPhee is a joy and you are right about the one you mentioned. If you ever decide to paddle the Mighty Mississippi please send us a PM and let us know. We’d delight in following your progress as you go!

    Jim Colten
    BPL Member


    Locale: MN

    continued thread drift here.

    a long time ago (15yrs +?) I failed to convince my wife that we should “invest” in a 16-17ft Vaillancourt canoe.  It was a thing of beauty … only $7000,  SIGH

    50 years ago our dad took my brother and I to visit Bill Hafeman on MN’s Bigfork River.  He was among a precious few who helped keep the art alive in the early 20th century.  At the time he could hardly give them away.  His grand-daughter and spouse kept his old shop alive but it’s been 25 years since I took my younger siblings that way.  They use more power tools than Vaillancourt does (or did according to McPhee).


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