The Mississippi drainage basin draws from 31 states and two provinces in Canada. It drains 40% of the continental United States. The basin extends from the Appalachian Mountains in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west. Within the basin are impressive size rivers that have tributaries carrying water from great distances. From each tiny stream to the giant river itself, the waterways are seeking sea level. All converge into the main trunk of the lower Mississippi River. One could put a note in a bottle and place it in a tiny brook in western New York. That bottle could drift down the brook and enter the Allegheny River, then into the Ohio River at Pittsburgh. It could follow the Ohio River to the Mississippi River at it’s confluence at Cairo, Illinois. From there it could eventually pass by New Orleans and drift into the Gulf of Mexico. Once in the Gulf it would be possible for someone to find and read the note in Florida, or as far away as Africa.The Ottawa Indians called it the Missis-Sepi, the Chippewa called it Meze-Zebe, and the Kickapoo named it Mechas-Sepua. All translate to mean “Large River” or “Great River.” The official source of the Mississippi River is Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota. On a visit to the lake I waded across the Mississippi as it flowed from the lake over the shallow rocks. Not far from Lake Itasca is Elk Lake, with an overflow leading into Lake Itasca. I wondered why Elk Lake isn't considered the true source, but I am not one to start any trouble so I'll leave it at that. Itasca means “true head”, so that's good enough for me.
It is interesting to note the huge difference between the upper Mississippi and the lower Mississippi. These sections are treated as two rivers in most respects, including on river charts. The navigable mileage markers for the lower Mississippi begin at the mouth of the river, below New Orleans, and end at the confluence of the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois. Mile zero for the upper Mississippi begins at Cairo and continues northward to Minneapolis. Besides the obvious difference in water volume, which is measured in cubic feet per second, there are other distinctions between the upper and lower Mississippi. The upper Mississippi is much older than the lower Mississippi. In fact, the Missouri/Upper Mississippi built the Lower Mississippi. At the end of the last ice age, huge amounts of sand and silt were carried down the river that ended near present day Cape Girardeau, Missouri. This massive deposit ended there because the Gulf of Mexico went that far north. For thousands of years the Missouri and Upper Mississippi rivers built the delta that filled in the upper reaches of the Gulf. It changed course often, flipping back and forth like a giant hose, depositing more sand and silt and building the alluvial land. As it built more land, with each rise it cut a winding channel through that land. Most people visualize a river as a waterway that has cut a path through existing land. The lower Mississippi built the land that carries the river to the sea. This also creates differences between the upper and lower rivers. The upper is rocky and has a greater drop in elevation per mile. The lower is sandy with less graduation of level per mile. In the lower Mississippi Valley, bedrock can be thousands of feet below the surface.
Making the upper Mississippi River navigable required the building of many locks and dams along the way. Before the dams, the river would simply run out of navigable water. The lower Mississippi, below Saint Louis, has no dams. The swift currents, aided by wing dams, cause a channel to be scoured out, which remains deep most of the time. The land is flat and is not suitable for building dams, as the water needs to back up into a valley behind a dam. Most rivers get wider toward the mouth, but the Mississippi actually narrows as it flows to the sea. One of the reasons is that it has been confined by levees. It is carrying huge amounts of water but is very deep, around 200 feet at New Orleans. The widest part of the river is on the Upper Mississippi, near Red Wing, Minnesota. The sand and silt pouring into the Mississippi from the Chippewa River built a natural dam, closing it off and forming a natural lake over two miles wide. The water backed up for many miles until the river broke through, cutting its present-day channel and creating Lake Pepin. Following are some interesting features about the Mississippi River that I have found during my many travels on the “Great River”.
Upper Mississippi River
In the natural order of things the Mississippi could be divided in three sections since the part of the upper river from the source to Minneapolis is non-navigable and has a much different character than the river below Minneapolis. For that reason, I'll call this the Headwaters Section, even though it is 482 miles from Itasca to the Coon Rapids Dam at Minneapolis. It is just below this dam that the river becomes a navigable waterway. That is not to say that the headwater section is not navigable. Many have canoed and kayaked these waters, including myself. It is a beautiful section of river with marshes, lakes and wildlife. There are some obstacles to overcome including lowhead dams and the fact that one could actually get lost in areas where the grasses grow so tall and thick that it is often difficult to know where the river actually is. The river is also braided in some areas, making it difficult to know which course to take. It is fascinating to paddle this tiny waterway knowing that it is the beginning of a 2,253 mile-long waterway that eventually becomes a giant river leading to the Gulf of Mexico. Shown below are the beginning of the river, the headwaters area and St. Anthony Falls Lock & Dam at Minneapolis.
River mile 865 marks the head of navigation. From this point going downriver, a channel is maintained by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, keeping it deep enough for commercial traffic all the way to the sea. From this point on, not only paddlers can enjoy the river, but so can any size of pleasure craft. The mile marks go upriver so mile zero is at the lower end of the upper Mississippi River at Cairo, IL. In all there are 29 locks to pass through on the upper Mississippi River. The first being at St. Anthony Falls at Minneapolis and the last one is just above St. Louis.The upper Mississippi has spots of industry, particularly near the larger cities, but is mostly a beautiful river with great “river friendly” towns along the shores. At the confluence of the St. Croix River, the Mississippi becomes what most people would consider a large river. It is the vast influx of tributaries from the huge drain basin that makes the Mississippi a major river. The farther it flows, the more rivers and streams flow into it. For those wanting to travel the Mississippi in a private boat, there are many sources of information to help make it a safe and enjoyable journey. There are currently no comprehensive guidebooks, but first on the list are the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers charts. They can be purchased in book form or on a printable formatt CD. Google Earth is also helpful to locate supply, food and marina locations. There are plenty of islands and remote locations to anchor, tie off or camp. It is also important to understand locking procedures. Locks are not difficult to pass through as long as a few basic steps are taken. Photos below are the Delta Queen at St. Paul, Upper Mississippi backwaters, citizens greeting the Delta Queen at LaCrosse and the Quincy Illinois riverfront.
The upper Mississippi River towns are easy to access from a boat and most embrace their river heritage. Some of my favorites are Red Wing Minnesota, Wabasha Minnesota, LaCrosse Wisconsin, Prairie Du Chien Wisconsin and Dubuque Iowa. When I use the term “River Friendly” with regard to towns I am speaking of communities that have a beautiful riverfront and make their town accessible to boaters with docks and an easy walk into town. With the exception of during high water, the river a fairly clear and appears as blue as ocean water. This suddenly changes at the confluence of the Missouri River (Big Muddy) at mile 195.3. It is the influence of the Missouri River that gives the Mississippi River the brown color and also causes a considerable increase in size. Just past this point is the Chain of Rocks Canal that leads to the last downriver lock on the Mississippi River. It is a free-flowing river from this point to the Gulf of Mexico. Saint Louis is an impressive looking city from the river with much to offer to a visitor by land but unfortunately the city has turned it's back on the very river that is responsible for its growth. At one time in recent history there were excursion boats, floating restaurants and landing docks but they are all gone, leaving no place to dock a boat to visit the city. I hope that one day the city will realize that they are “missing the boat” and improve their riverfront. Once past Saint Louis, downriver boaters will have 180 more miles to before entering the lower Mississippi River. The most noticeable thing is the increase in current. This is due to there being no dams and the many rock wing dikes that direct the flow toward a more narrow channel in order to let the current keep the channel scoured out. It is an action much like squeezing a hose. The same amount of water coming through a narrower space will increase the speed of the water. Pictured below are the Hannibal riverfront, Grand Tower Rock and the floodwall at Cape Girardeau, Missouri
Lower Mississippi River
As the current flows, the Upper Mississippi ends at the confluence of the Ohio River. At this point, mile zero becomes mile 954 of the Lower Mississippi. The huge Ohio River actually carries more water volume than than does the Upper Mississippi River, so the Mississippi more than doubles in size. At the point where the two rivers meet, the blue waters of the Ohio River begin to run along side the brown waters of the Mississippi for several miles before they completely mix. The Lower Misssissippi has many physical differences than the upper. The land along the river is mostly flat with high levees along the shoreline to protect the towns behind them. This often makes access to the towns more difficult for boaters. An important factor for power boaters traveling great distances is the lack of marinas. Boats must have a fuel range of hundreds of miles. Fuel, of course is not a concern for paddlers.
The Lower Mississippi River is an amazing waterway with huge sweeping bends, giant islands and endless miles of sandy beaches. Everything is big, including the tows. Since there are no locks to pass through, the towboats handle many barges. It is not uncommon to see a towboat pushing 48 barges. The river is big too and there is plenty of room to avoid those slow moving giants that put out an incredibly mild rolling wake. Once reaching Baton Rouge, Louisiana there are ocean going ships that come into the Mississippi River from the Gulf Mexico. The lower 234 miles of the river is a deep-water port. The antebellum mansions along the river are beautiful and are great monuments to the old south when cotton was king. Some can be seen clearly from the river but most are hidden behind the levees, so in order to see them, one must know where they are and walk over the levee. Shown below are riverfronts of the Lower Mississippi River cities of Vicksburg, Natchez and Baton Rouge
There are some towns to visit that have access from the river. Memphis Tennessee has a marina and one can take a tram from Mud Island to downtown. Vicksburg Mississippi has docks on the Yazoo River, just off the main channel a couple of miles. It is a charming city with food and supplies for traveling boaters. Historic Baton Rouge Louisiana is also accessible and has a beautiful riverfront close to services. Like Saint Louis, New Orleans could have much to offer but does not provide any reasonable access to the city from the river. Mile zero is 96 miles below the city of New Orleans. This is the point where the Mississippi River ends by pouring into the Gulf of Mexico at a place called the “Head of the Passes”. Shown below is a mansion along the Mississippi River, a cargo ship being towed and the end of the Mississippi River.