Mississippi Lessons (Continued)

Expedition paddlers circumnavigate St. Louis, cyber-schooling as they go

On March 17, Michael Clark of Big Muddy Adventures, John Ruskey of Quapaw Canoe Company, David Hanson, adventure journalist, and Mark Peoples, 1MississippiRiver Guide intern, joined with the students from St. Ann’s Catholic School of St. Louis to complete an epic adventure learning project: a complete circumnavigation of the St. Louis region by canoe. Below is the first dispatch in a series of on-water updates from the crew. Click HERE for more information on the trip and a map of the team’s route.

We put onto the Meramec River Sunday, March 18 after a night of heavy rain, as if the watershed had been celebrating St. Patty’s Day with everyone else. The river rose 10 feet and was cresting beneath us. It carried us 48 miles on the first day, from the confluence of the Meramec and Bourbese Rivers to Fenton, Mo.

On Day 2, 10 students from St Ann’s Catholic School joined us for a half-day down the Meramec before we paddled into the Mississippi on Monday evening. For many of the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, it was their first time on the river, and for all, their first time paddling a 30-foot-long, 54-inch-wide, 14-person bald cypress, redwood and red oak canoe, carved and shaped by John Ruskey and his Mighty Quapaws, Seth Barger, and Mike Clark. The students paddled us 10 miles on a 10-foot flood. There were lots of smiles.

Then we hit the big water of the Mississippi and turned upriver toward St. Louis. Moving at water level through so much steel and industry is like time-travel in a way. In the Grand Canyon, you pass million-year-old layers of sandstone rippled from wind action in deserts or currents beneath oceans frozen into the grainy sand, ancient limestone layers with trilobites and seashells fossilized in place. Paddling up the Mississippi at a snail’s pace (upriver will do that) through the second biggest river port in the country, however, you could imagine being millions of years ahead, paddling in a canyon of preserved industrial age.

We talked to tow-boat captains and barge employees. Some of them yelled, some laughed, some offered encouragement. Oftentimes, the barges, held to the banks by chains with links as thick as a man’s thigh, left just enough space between their steel hulls and the muddy banks for us to slide by in the calm water. But occasionally we had to ferry into the main current and paddle like dogs against the flow in a corridor walled-in by barges.

With a strong south wind at our backs, we even brought out the Crazy Creek chair sails for a few slack-water periods. We made it above the port and to the south tip of Mosenthein Island where the wing dikes that typify and define an upriver paddle on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers resumed their methodical manipulation of the river. Their flow diversion is the secret to paddling up these beasts. We ride the bank’s eddy, then curl around the lip of the wing dike where the current rips around the edge. It’s a technical move that requires strong paddling and a perfect angle, hugging within a paddle width of the rock dike, then rising up the surge into the slackwater on the top side of the stone wall. Ride the eddy up a few hundred yards, then repeat.

Next up, the Chain of Rocks, a 10-foot drop in the Mississippi a few miles below its confluence with the Missouri River. With the water rising in both rivers, the standing waves will be washed out, but it will still be a battle to climb over the onrush. Then we start the slow crawl up the Missouri River, camping on Duck Island and taking Saturday to help with the Trash Bash cleanup out of Columbia Bottoms refuge. — David Hanson

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