Old Man River
Paddling down a river in the very early hours of daylight can be a sacred experience. It’s a time when fog clings loosely to the water’s surface, reducing the far bank to a gray form silhouetted beyond the vapors. It’s a time when the humblest of streams or the mightiest of rivers seems to reveal its true spirit to those who travel on its waters.
So it is with the Mississippi. Old Man River. Among all the incredible places to paddle in the Midwest–Isle Royale, Apostle Islands–not to mention the many, many thousands of smaller bodies of water throughout the region, the Old Man himself offers nearly unbounded opportunities to fit most paddling styles.
Nowhere is this more apparent, and accessible, than throughout the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. Over 260 miles along, with its many channels and floodplains, the refuge stretches from Rock Island, Illinois, to Wabasha, Minnesota.
For paddlers, it’s an alluring and never-ending maze of channels, sloughs, pools, and bayou-like backwaters.
Kayakers and canoers will appreciate the expansive and sometimes secluded pools created between the series of locks and dams along the river, as well as the miles of flatwater estuaries and channels that connect them. Add the scores of first-rate tributaries that feed into the third-largest river in the world, and the paddling possibilities increase exponentially.
Getting There: Each state bordered by the Mississippi River has either state or U.S. routes paralleling its banks. Access points, whether turnouts, boat ramps, or water-trail put-ins, are listed in various agency publications (see Outfitters/Resources below). Most sections along the river are also designated as the Great River Road, a national scenic roadway. Logistics: Because of the proximity of the river to developed roads and access points, and the scores of communities along the way, getting a kayak or canoe to points along the river is simple and usually direct. There are few, if any, portages. Canoes and kayaks can go through the locks and dams for no charge. While You’re There: Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge and Perrot State Park, both in Wisconsin, are among many such areas along the river offering fantastic biking/hiking opportunities with a network of roads/trails that reach up onto the bluff tops or along the back sides of the forests skirting the river. Most communities’ downtown cores are within a block of the river as well. The National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota, is another example of the rewards awaiting those interested in taking side trips into towns along the way. A review of a river city’s chamber of commerce Web site will reveal many other attractions and local activities to consider. Camping/Lodging: While the setting is hardly urban, it’s not resort or lodge country either. Most towns have city campgrounds, and commercial or resource agency campgrounds dot the banks up and down the river. Lodging at motels is limited to those communities along the river. Fortunately, there are myriad places on the river, islands, and larger sandbars that are available for totally self-contained primitive camping opportunities. Check the resource list below for agencies with camping facilities. Outfitters/Resources: Some towns along the river have small rental shops where canoes and kayaks can be rented, but it’s easier to take your own. Two books to read: Life on the Mississippi–Mark Twain describes an extensive section of the river in the 19th century; Bluffs to Bayous–author Byron Curtis has paddled the entire length of the Mississippi twice! Good reading and good pointers. Both are available at amazon.com. For brochures, maps, and general info, log on to dnr.state.wi.us or call (608) 266-2621, log on to dnr.state.mn.us or call (612) 296-6157. For a bird-viewing map, log on to audubon.org/campaign/umr or call (608) 784-2992. For a complete list of guides and outfitters, please see our Adventure Paddling Directory.
At its source at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota, the river is only 20 to 30 yards wide and a mere three feet deep. Half of the river’s 1,600-foot-plus drop in elevation to sea level happens while it is still flowing through Minnesota. As one travels south, the bluffs seem to grow taller and more imposing with every mile. The reality is that the river is merely cutting deeper and deeper into the glacially deposited floor of an ancient inland sea. In fact, the dolomite and limestone bluffs formed are a result of upsurges in that floor and the continuing erosive action of the river.
The deepest gorge along the more than 2,000 river miles is right in the heart of the Twin Cities. The only waterfall on the entire river, St. Anthony Falls, is also located in Minneapolis.
The beginning stretches of the river are quite different. There are sections just south of Lake Winnibigoshish that are little more than a clear-flowing stream cutting through pine forests and miles of reeds and marsh grasses. By the time it reaches Minneapolis-St. Paul, it’s a full-fledged river, attracting recreational boaters from all over the Midwest.
While it’s clearly an inviting river on a grand scale, it’s the isolated backwaters that reveal its true spirit.
Below the Twin Cities, the river diverges from one simple channel. In addition to the maintained nine-foot-deep route kept clear by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, sections of the river are seemingly clogged with extensive forested islands and huge sandbars. Side channels and arterial waterways are interwoven from bank to bank–sometimes several miles wide from bluff to bluff. Water can be very shallow, making progress slow in deep-drafted craft. A canoe has some advantage over a kayak in areas where standing up in the boat enables paddlers unfamiliar with channels to rise above the reeds to view openings and outlets. A kayaker is confined to forging ahead with a seated perspective or putting ashore on a muddy, grassy island.
For canoe-campers, it’s an idyllic setting with innumerable places to go ashore and pitch a tent. Within the boundaries of the designated refuges, campers can stay for up to 14 days–with no fees, very few restrictions, and the river at their front and back door. Elsewhere, it’s open range for camping opportunities. The Mississippi commands respect for its challenges as well as its mystique and beauty. In the late 1800s, wing dams were built to keep the channels clear. These subsurface structures greatly affect the flow of the water along its course. Resembling submerged rock levees, wing dams are 6 to 20 wide long and can be up to 100 feet in length. They jut out at right angles from the shoreline as straight, L-shaped, or T-shaped water deflectors. Low water levels can make wing dams extremely dangerous to the unknowing boater.
Out on the river, beyond the constant buzz of commerce (distant highway noise, train traffic), is a natural wonderland of flora and fauna–oftentimes in mind-boggling abundance.
The Mississippi River Valley is one of the continent’s primary bird migratory routes. More than 40 percent of all waterfowl in North America use this corridor. That represents about one-third of all the species of birds on the planet. There are few sights more spectacular than miles and miles of all-white tundra swans resting in a backwater pool of the great river. To see a flock of white pelicans descend on a slough, wings bent like Corsair fighter planes on their final approach to a carrier landing, is almost beyond description. Puddle-jumping ducks and shoreline peepers by the thousands make this area home or an extended seasonal stopover site. A growing population of nesting bald eagle pairs continue to build lofty nests in the towering cottonwoods along the river bottomlands.
Fifty-seven mammal species and 45 reptile/amphibian species have been identified within the wildlife refuge of the Upper Mississippi. The stealthy quiet of the canoe andkayak make them perfect viewing craft for the river. Fortunately, there is ample information in the form of maps and other resources that can introduce paddlers to the treasures of the Mississippi river. Sam Clemens, as Mark Twain, once described Old Man River as being “too thick to swim in and too thin to plow.” If he could have enjoyed the Mississippi River from the seat of a kayak or canoe, he might not have sent Huck and Jim down the river on that raft!