Sharing the River: Dealing with Boat Traffic on a Mississippi Source-to-Sea

Tips for safely sharing the river with jet boats and barges

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By Everett McMillen Cislo

While paddling the Mississippi River in any capacity is still a niche area, it is growing in popularity each year. Whether it is long-distance paddlers or locals hopping into a kayak or canoe to explore their stretch of the river, we encountered many people on our source-to-sea expedition last summer who wanted to do more paddling.

One thing that all Mississippi paddlers need to learn to deal with, however, are the river’s numerous motorboats and the always-hurried barges who were often surprised to encounter our eighteen-foot canoe.

Pleasure Craft. On the upper sections of the Mississippi, we found the dominant traffic was pleasure craft: Large pontoon party boats, massive inboard ski boats, and slinking, low-profile, hi-speed fishing boats. It did not take us a great deal of time to realize these boaters were not watching out for other watercraft, especially paddlers. Consequently, on sections of the river with especially heavy boat traffic, we would choose to skirt the shoreline. The idea was to sacrifice efficiency for safety, but we didn’t always achieve the latter. There were risks even close to shore. Paddling the river taught us an entirely new level of situational awareness by keeping a keen eye on our surroundings.

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Having realized we were on the bottom of the maritime food chain, my paddling partner, Will, and I conjured what we would refer to as the ‘25-yard reaction‘. As much as we tried to make ourselves visible with bright PFD's, a massive red canoe, unnaturally colored hats and clothing, sometimes (actually most times) we would be completely overlooked. Pleasure boat pilots, often towing a skier, would cut large turning patterns, come around a bend in the river, or they’d be physically turned around, choosing to rather focus their attention on the person they were towing than where their boat was headed. Even with as much waving, yelling and other obnoxious attention-grabbing techniques as we utilized, boaters wouldn't see us until they were about 25-yards away.

It became unsettling how acquainted we became with this type of situation. Boats usually reacted the same way. They would very quickly throttle down their engines, often throwing their passengers off balance and turn the wheel to port or starboard to steer the boat 90 degrees in another direction. Then they would sheepishly wave and try not to meet our eyes. Other times boaters wouldn't even slow down, choosing rather to charge past us and throwing up a sizable wake. Not many people, it seemed, were entirely aware of their surroundings and what could happen to a small canoe as a result of their actions. This was a game of maritime chess an we learned to play on the defensive.

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Barges and tow-boats. As our expedition made its way further south to the Lower Mississippi, we would increasingly see the mighty barges and tow-boats. While they certainly have their own agenda, we found that by being attentive and having our marine VHF radio handy, almost all situations were over before they began.

During our planning research we'd come across other expeditions that had taken radios and reported good yields. Some folks made casual suggestions to take a radio, but said it was possible without one. On the contrary, we found that our radio became one of the most invaluable pieces of our gear, its importance only being outshined by our PFDs, canoe and paddles.

We communicated with lock-masters, captains and the Coast Guard with great results. Many times, when talking with towboat captains on our VHF, they would thank us for having a radio and promoting effective communication. Very rarely, we learned, do paddlers take a radio, and even more rarely, do they use them to reach out to others on the river. They encouraged us to make sure other paddlers had radios and wanted to support the growing trend of their use.

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Our interactions with large commercial boat captains can be broken into three groupings. A third would completely ignore us, our calls on the radio, and attempts to reach out. Another third would respond but were remarkably rude and upset at our presence, often telling us to get off the river in general and or at least go ashore until they were long past. The final third, and the most welcome, were those who were surprised that we attempted radio contact, and thankful of our understanding of how to navigate and communicate. Often they would slow down (thus eliminating wake), blow their horn a few times in a form of cheering us on, and captains and crew would come out on the top decks and wave. Several times on the Lower Mississippi we would befriend captains of massive ocean-going vessels who were going downstream. They would purposefully slow down to provide a sort of barrier between us and the other chaos amongst the frenzied harbors. With their radios being much stronger then ours, they would call to all other boats to let them know of our presence. They would ask us about our expedition, commend our fortitude and often lend us much appreciated advice.

Communication, we learned, is key. Our VHF radio became our main medium for doing communicating. Sometimes yielding in nothing, sometimes a scolding, but on occasion it resulted in a useful piece of advice and bit of professional courtesy from one person navigating the river to another.

–Everett McMillen Cislo completed his Mississippi River source-to-sea in the summer of 2015. His website is Everettmcislo.com

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