Bummer. Grassroots Grocery would not open for another hour, yet I had told the paddlers I would grab sandwiches and local fruit before meeting them. I called to see if the new manager was at the store yet. SHE WAS! After a breezy stop by the cozy co-op, I proceeded towards Grafton to meet up with Amongst the Current, Cody Presny and Haley Brasile, and their solo-paddler companion, Bito. Cody and Haley were canoeing the entire Mississippi River from Lake Itaska, MN, to the Gulf of Mexico, 2350 miles in one shot! When I met them this October morning, they had spent seventy days in a 17-foot Osagian aluminum canoe nearly identical to mine. Bito was in an Old Town canoe and had joined them in Muscatine, Iowa, to complete his incomplete source-to-sea journey. After introductions, the four of us began to proceed towards Alton, which was about twenty miles downstream.
The reason I was meeting Amongst the Current was not solely recreational paddling; this dynamic duo was contributing to good causes along the way. In fact, they contacted 1 Mississippi before beginning their trip to spread the word about nutrient pollution, disastrous floodplain development, and the other issues we are currently tackling. (Click HERE to demand for action on nutrient reduction) Additionally, they were soliciting charity donations for our close friends at Quapaw Canoe Company to aid in their flood recovery after their headquarters was hit by a devastating flood earlier in the year. They were leaving good deeds along the banks of our majestic river.
We exited Grafton Harbor just below the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. We paddled parallel to the Great River Road, staying within the red and green buoys of the navigation channel with no traffic. Cody and Bito kept VHF (marine) radios on channel 13 in case tow boats approached. Around 11:30 A.M., we arrived at Elsah Bar, a tiny patch of land between Elsah, IL, and Portage des Sioux, MO.
This marvelous island hosted upright, dead trees on the upstream side of the island and smaller, living trees downstream. Interestingly enough, I also found a bunch of red Ganoderma mushrooms, which are related to the famed, Reishi mushrooms (Ganoderma Lucidum), which have been found to cure or treat a myriad of cancers. After lunch, we took a short tour of the island. Picking up handfuls of garbage along the way, we eventually found a pile of driftwood and, oddly enough, six red navigation buoys chained together. After examining the buoys and several wild mushrooms, we continued towards Portage des Sioux, taking a backwater channel.
We soon reentered the navigation channel as a swift crosswind met us above the Portage des Sioux power plant. With no islands nearby, the impetus of the wind was able to change our course effortlessly. We opted to stay within the channel near the plant, but we would avoid the coal barge wharves to be safe. After passing plums between the boats, we were back in the widest part of the open water as a northbound tow set course towards us. With the wind, we decided it would be safest to take a break on a sandbar with some pelicans as the tow passed. We shared a salad, battling each other with our forks. After listening to some John Hartford river tunes as the barges passed, we combed the beach for litter prior to departing.
The wind persisted, making for a chilly segment of the trip. After reestablishing a good pace, we were able to enjoy the bluffs along the Great River Road. Alton was not far downstream, but the wind was starting to make us colder. It was also approaching 5 P.M, and we wanted to land safely before dark. Approaching Alton, I tried my best to highlight local landmarks, like the Piasa Bird, Ardent Mills, the Lincoln-Shields Memorial, and The Alton Belle Casino before landing in Alton Marina.
At the marina, we tied up quickly; the manager said we could park overnight and camp in their grass. They also allowed the crew to shower and clean laundry. Meanwhile, I began walking towards my van, twenty miles upstream. I got to see a side of Alton I was not used to, picking up trash with a canoe paddle and dry sack over my shoulder. Luckily, as I was leaving Alton on the Great River Road, my friend picked me up at the Piasa Bird, and I made it to my van by about 7 P.M.
I returned to say ‘Goodbye’ to Amongst the Current and was surprisingly invited by the crew to continue on their journey, riding with Bito. Initially, I did not think it would work out, but still hoped it could. The longer I spent pondering this trip, the more reasons I had to embark on it. Many river enthusiasts have said that river lovers and protectors are created through experiencing the water, especially through paddling. With each passing tributary and sandbar, my loving relationship with the river grew stronger. Additionally, through experience, I would be more qualified to safely take others on the river to build their own relationships.
I would also be able to witness the river through the eyes of people I meet along the way, each able to offer a unique perspective. Hopefully, some of them would want to become River Citizens, too, expanding our network. Obvious indicators of issues plaguing each region of the river would also be present. The combination of both hearing from locals. and also seeing the direct effects of problems like nutrient pollution, firsthand would be an invaluable way to connect to the river.
Two days later, Amongst the Current met me during their paddling break at “Big Muddy” Mike Clark’s, the Kanu House in St. Louis (Though his true home is an island on the Mississippi River). Mike had graciously picked them up at the Chain of Rocks with a trailer. A few days before, I had invited them to a 650-volunteer cleanup, the River des Peres Trash Bash, to strengthen their mission of giving back to the river that had allowed them to travel so far.
After the successful cleanup, I went to the Kanu House later to decide if I would be joining on the voyage. I wanted to tie up loose ends and ask Mike if I was ready. When I arrived, a bunch of paddlers were there, including Amongst the Current and another expedition team, Source of Confidence, my friends, Victoria, Alyce and Lisa. After the bonfire, Mike said I was ready for the big water–EUREKA!
The next morning, I joined Mike at North Riverfront Park to send Cody, Haley, and Bito down the Mississippi. After we loaded the boats, Mike informed the paddlers of potential hazards in the Port of St. Louis, and we shared parting words. After that and until the Mississippi River Network’s annual meeting in Memphis, TN, my mental and physical power was devoted to preparing for the longest, most challenging canoe trip of my life: Memphis to the Gulf of Mexico in a canoe.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” -Heraclitus
If you are interested in safely paddling on the Mississippi River, contact your local 1 Mississippi Outreach Assistant and ask them about upcoming group outings–It could be an enriching experience that shapes your love for the Mississippi.
Thanks for reading! See you on the River!
1 Mississippi Illinois/Missouri Outreach Assistant