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Lower Mississippi

River Dispatch

Vol 8 No 9 - Aug 6, 2012

Has the Mississippi River dried up?

Has it lost its majesty? Its power?

If you follow some of the recent news stories

you might be led to think so…

River Runner Report:

How Low Can You Go?

Yes, the river has gotten too low for many of the steel monsters that ply its waters. It has gotten too low for 7x7 barge tows fully loaded. It’s too low for the largest steamboat ever, the American Queen, to leave its new home in the Beale Street Harbor of Memphis. The channel is shallow and the shoals of course shallower. Some harbors like Lake Providence Louisiana got silted in last year’s flood and now need dredging to remain open.

But no, its not too low for fish or paddlers. Certainly not too low for waders and water birds like the least tern, who were recently counted (July 2012, Dr. Ken Jones) and numbered close to 10,000 individuals in 75 colonies. Wow, nice recovery from last year’s flood! Beavers have had to move summer quarters to their low water burrows and have been working hard to keep channels open. Us paddlers, we’re similar to the beavers. We think there is plenty of water. It just requires a longer route to get there! Most ramps end in mud or rip-rap. For us paddlers that just means we have to carry our vessels a little further to reach the water’s edge.

And no, contrary to popular reports it hasn’t lost any of its power or majesty. We don’t register power in cfs (cubic feet per second). Power is the ability of a scene to bring a person to awe, or humility. And the river hasn’t lost any of that kind of power. And somberly enough it hasn't lost its power to drown the unprepared and unaware.

If anything it has become more majestic and more awesome -- if nothing else than for the visual effect of the mind-boggling unending landscape of the still very wide and deep big river running in between steep muddy banks and giant piles of rip-rap, and convoluted sections of revetment that have been rolled up as surely as they were originally unrolled. Now exposed wrecks of barges and steamboats glare darkly and menacingly, along with deep muddy cuts into backwater places and slot channels which disappear into overhanging forests. The RV that rolled off the Natchez-Under--the-Hill ramp and twirled off underneath the Natchez Bridge last year has reappeared about a mile downstream.

Some headline stories prosaically adopted the headline the “Mighty Mississippi River has lost its Might…” Hee-ee, very poetic, but that all depends on your perspective. From water level, or even from the banks of the river the view upstream and downstream is majestic, serene, the long views of water, while of course shorter than during high water, still occupy the majority of your view, but now instead of running side to side, forest to forest, from Tennessee to Arkansas, and from Arkansas to Mississippi and from Mississippi to Louisiana, now it is framed by long sweeping curves of dusty yellow sandbars reaching outwards from all the islands and many bankside places and slicing the river reach with simmering sandy sword slashes.

On the other hand 100 miles of the Platte River ran dry (in Nebraska), and that’s worrisome, especially this early in the season. I was born and raised along the headwaters of the Platte in the Colorado Front Range. Its the major river of the central plains, draining everything from the Front Range to the Snowy Range to the Rattlesnake Range, from Denver to Laramie to Casper and eastward to its confluence with the Big Muddy Missouri below Omaha. The Platte River is not supposed to run dry. It receives waters from some of the major ranges of the Rocky Mountains and also the famously rich Oglalla Aquafier of Nebraska.

“I wonder what the bottom of the river looks like?” This is one of the most often repeated curiosities our clients press upon us as we’re floating along and buoyed by the bosom of the biggest river this side of the globe, the beautiful and mysterious Lower Mississippi River. After the summer of 2012, we’ll be able to answer succinctly and with personal knowledge.

We are learning exactly what the bottom of the river looks like. And we don’t even need diving gear. Over one century ago James B. Eads walked the bottom of the river in a special diving bell he invented and learned it better than anyone before or since. But this year us river runners don’t need any life-support system. We simply make a canoe or kayak or SUP landing and start walking!

Its a history lesson. Its biology (mostly dead stuff). Its geology. Its a class in river bottom geomorphology. Our walk takes us up and down endless dunes and layers of mud and sand and gravel, and small plankton pools full of flopping fish or their carcasses, and turtle tracks, and the remains of feasts of bald eagles and coyotes littering the shore line, and through the evidence of ancient forests, and alongside strange eruptions of blue and green mud, and blue logs now exposed and disintegrating in the presence of oxygen UV rays, and fields of driftwood and trash, and in between beams, posts and rotting piers and amongst barge wrecks and steamboat wrecks and through jumbled slabs of wood, things long covered by water are now unveiled, the bottoms of landings, the tops of lost dredges, and even the RV that disappeared last year at Natchez-Under-the-Hill!

Everywhere we stop and walk and explore and play will eventually be covered up again in sliding layers of muddy water. The river is low now, but it will of course rise again as it always does.

If you stay on the paved highway you won’t see it. If you stay on the gravel road road you’ll miss it. If you stay on any road it can’t be accessed. If you stay on the “Great River Road,” you will see only gasping forests and glimpses of sand. But if you get on the the “Real River Road,” you will see the rest of the story. Your road reaches only the high places. But our road goes wherever the water goes. And this year the real river road is low, low, low!

As paddlers we of course have to stop wherever the water allows us to stop. And so we have been ending up on the edges of the long slivers of sand reaching out way out above and below the islands, the low water sequestering blue holes, mud holes, and making inlets along a ragged jigsaw shoreline longer and more tattered then the Maine shoreline (if you added up all of the zig-zag shoreline on all of the islands and channel in between St. Louis and the Gulf of Mexico).

As you get into the belly of the island the long walls of rock called wing dams (that we are normally paddling over) now look like the great wall of China, and downstream below the walls they have created expansive bays of water then mud and finally sand behind. The water-loving willow trees have suffered and appear off-color and withered, especially the lines of willows on the higher ridges of sand. In previous years I have seen whole willow forests die to never recover from this kind of drought in low water.

Everywhere dead fish are seen or smelled, in the mud, in the sand, in the water, piles of fish bones now bleached by the sun litter the beach, and on the water, it sometimes feels like a macabre parade of dead fish as you paddle along, so thick is the main channel full of fish bodies. Everytime you paddle pasat one you can look ahead and see the next dead body bobbing in the rippling waves, gleaming white in the sunlight reflecting off their wet skin, rotting carcasses being attacked by other fish, turtles and turkey vultures. When they wash ashore they become coyote fodder.

One year ago we were recovering from the highest water of the century. Now this year we’re seeing the lowest waters since 1998, and it might be dropping lower, the low water season is just begun. Of course, for the towboats there’s only one season, and that’s grain season. Everyone from the farmers to towboat pilots are very nervous about the fate of this year’s crop. But farmers and river pilots have always gambled with the weather, right?

Why the radical changes from extreme highs to extreme lows? This is another one of the river’s mysteries. But it has at least one historical precedent: the 1936 heat wave & drought was followed by the 1937 flood. Only 2012 has been hotter & drier than 1936. And only the Great Flood of 2011 came higher and bigger than 1937.

Finally, on a sobering note, the Mississippi River is certainly not too low to drown in. Far too many people have been swallowed up this year. If anything the extreme low water demands greater vigilance and precaution. Weird things always happen on this mysterious waterway, and even more weird things happen during any extreme conditions.

The river seems to garner the fascination of the nation, in the press corps if nowhere else. A man drowned last week near the river hamlet of Louisiana, Missouri. The story hit google news from -- not from St. Louis, nor Chicago, nor DesMoines, indeed not any regional paper, in fact not any paper within the entire Mississippi River drainage -- the story hit google news from the Sacramento Bee. We see lots of Mississippi River stories coming from that great newspaper of the capital city of the great bear state. Someone at the Sacramento Bee has interest in the river. Maybe because of their own river floodplain and the similarities. The river brings us all together, even in times of loss and heartache. Our condolences go out to the family of the bereaved.

Is the Lower Mississippi River Safe to Paddle?

Only if you have these three things:

1) the right skills & experience

2) the right preparations

-- and --

3) the right equipment

Go to

for more information.

Tuesday, Aug 14

Lower Mississippi River Resource Assessment



Join us 4-7 p.m. Aug. 14 at the Vicksburg Convention Center, 1600 Mulberry St., for an important public meeting on the Lower Mississippi River Resource Assessment, a congressionally authorized study of all uses of the Mississippi River and its floodplain for the benefit of people, wildlife and communities.

This study will examine:

? Information needed for river-related management

? Natural resource habitat needs

? River-related recreation and public access needs

Input from river users and stakeholders will help develop recommendations to Congress. Comments can also be made through this website:

This public meeting is organized by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its partners for the Lower Mississippi River Resource Assessment (The Nature Conservancy, Lower Mississippi River Conservation Committee, National Audubon Society, Mississippi River Corridor-Tennessee, Wildlife Mississippi, Delta Wildlife and Quapaw Canoe Company).

Fri/Sat August 17-18

The Summer of Paddling Big Muddy Adventures

St. Louis

The Summer of Paddling St. Louis Adventure is making its way here through 10 states along the Mississippi River with its stop at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary.

The Summer of Paddling 2012 is a series of paddling events for new and experienced paddlers from the Mighty Mississippi’s primary source at Lake Itasca in Minnesota to New Orleans. The River Bend’s Summer of Paddling St. Louis Adventure’s youth day is from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday, Aug. 17, for school groups only, and its public paddle is from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 18, at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary in West Alton, Mo.

The bird sanctuary’s signature event, which is a canoe and kayak fair, is open to youngsters, adults and to paddlers of all different skill levels. Aligned with the Presidential Initiative America’s Great Outdoors, the program encourages people to be active and get outside to experience nature.

On youth day, which is free, Big Muddy Adventures (with assistance from Quapaw Canoe Company) will take schoolchildren out on a guided paddle tour in voyager canoes. The youths will learn about the journey Lewis and Clark embarked on in 1804; get up close and personal with fish of the Mississippi River with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fisheries Division; and help keep the bird sanctuary clean with the Sierra Club service project.

“Riverlands and the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) are trail building there along the shore line, so we are doing some cleanup and removing brush, so they can get in there and do the trails,” said Piasa Palisades Sierra Club’s Virginia Woulfe-Beile, who is its project coordinator.

The Sierra Club will be at Riverlands both days helping to recycle waste from youth day and the public paddle, which also is free.

On Saturday, adults also will get a chance to learn about the Mississippi River with a variety of educational stations that include a guided paddle tour with Big Muddy Adventures (and Quapaw Canoe Company) in voyager canoes; Lewis and Clark journey information; biking; geocaching; bird watching/hiking/photography; hunting and fishing from a canoe or kayak; and Hula Hoop, paddleboard and games.

Great Rivers Greenway will lead a bike tour, and the Audubon Center staff and volunteers will hold nature walks on the sanctuary grounds and geocaching, a type of scavenger hunt using GPS units.

The event also will have an amateur photo competition. Attendees will be able to download photos from their digital camera or cellphone to upload to the Summer of Paddling 2012 Facebook page. The photo with the most “likes” will be announced via the Summer of Paddling social media networks at 2 p.m. Friday, Aug. 24.

The events are made possible through partnerships with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Mississippi River Connections Collaborative, Mississippi River Trail, Great Rivers Greenway, Mississippi River Water Trail Association, St. Charles County (Mo.) Parks Department, Sierra Club, and Audubon Center at Riverlands.

For more information about the events, call National Great Rivers Museum at (618) 462-6979 or visit

Saturday, August 18th

Paddle & explore the Yalobusha River

USFWS Summer of Paddling Initiative!

Join the USFWS Summer of Paddling Initiative to paddle & explore the Yalobusha River from Holcomb to Malmaison Wildlife Management Area on August 18 from 8 until 4. This is a free kid friendly event with no experience required. USFWS staff and local paddlers will be along to offer naturalist observations and paddling instructions. Registration is mandatory. Canoes will be reserved for your group when you have completed the necessary paperwork. The trip is limited to 20 people. Call 226-8286 to sign up or get more details.

Please share this information!

Robin Whitfield


Sat, Aug 25th

Paddle a Voyageur Canoe

On the Big Muddy! FREE!

Paddle the “Big Muddy” Missouri river in one of the elegant hand-crafted Junebug class Voyageur Canoes! Courtesy of Missouri Department of Conservation. Visitors of all ages will have an opportunity to go out on the river in one of these voyageur class canoes with the experts from Big Muddy Adventures and Quapaw Canoe Company. Rides are FREE and provided on a first come first served basis.

Where? Frontier Park (850 Riverside Drive) in historic St. Charles, Missouri. Noon to 7:00 PM. Contact “Big Muddy” Michael F. Clark for more information, or go to

2012 Paddle With Purpose Award goes to “Heroes on the Water”

Our congrats to Jim Dolan and Heroes on the Water, who won the 2012 Paddle With Purpose Award from Canoe & Kayak Magazine. Thank you to everyone who voted for the Mighty Quapaws. We feel honored to have been included as one of the 2012 nominees!

NAME: Heroes On The Water

THE CAUSE: Healing wounded spirits through kayak fishing
THE METHOD: Bring wounded veterans together with experienced kayak anglers, and go fishing
Heroes on the Water serves all military personnel who have been wounded, injured or disabled. What looks like a day trip of paddling and fishing for wounded vets is in fact something much deeper and long-lasting. As all paddlers know, time on the water is therapeutic. HOW facilitates that healing by bringing wounded veterans together with experienced kayak anglers in 35 chapters around the country. Founder Jim Dolan estimates HOW has introduced 4,800 wounded veterans to kayak fishing, and his goal is to have 100 chapters nationwide serving 10,000 veterans. Being on the water gives soldiers a feeling of peace and freedom from their wounds—an experience that “coalesces into personal revelations that while the wounds may have closed one door, there are other doors to explore. Life is still good.”


The paddling community came together on Thursday night, for the first time ever, to celebrate the year’s best and most inspiring paddlers, movies, expeditions, and philanthropic efforts during the inaugural 2012 Canoe & Kayak Awards, in downtown Salt Lake City. And after 12,000 votes, an all-star cast of presenters announced the deserving, reader-selected winners.

It was a notably big night for the Southeast, as … drumroll, please … two of the region’s brightest young talents took home the Male and Female Paddler of the Year Awards.

Male Paddler of the Year Isaac Levinson

To raucous cheers, North Carolina’s 23-year-old Adriene Levknecht took home the top women’s honor while Atlanta’s Isaac Levinson, 22, finished top among the men.

“I didn’t think I had a chance with all the other paddlers on that list and the other up-and-coming guys that weren’t,” Levinson said. “It just shows the support of the industry, and paddlers out there going out on a limb to say, ‘This kid charges.’”

Levinson and Levknecht are currently the reigning men’s and women’s Green River Narrows Race champions, respectively. Liquidlogic head designer Shane Benedict accepted the Female award on Levknecht’s behalf, noting how she was unable to attend, working as a paramedic “saving lives” in Greenville, S.C.

The Southeastern accolades continued with Movie of the Year, where Asheville, N.C.’s AMONGSTiT won for ‘Canoe Movie 2: Uncharted Waters.’ Shon Bollock from Shasta Boyz Productions won the Reel of the Year category for his GoPro Highlight Reel from ‘Slippery When Wet.’

In one of the most-anticipated awards of the evening, for Expedition of the Year, Jon Turk and Erik Boomer won for the pair’s grueling and unsupported, ski-assisted 1,500-mile paddle around Canada’s Ellesmere Island.

After receiving the award from presenter Scott Lindgren, Turk first thanked Boomer, and then the “20 polar bears and the one walrus, for not eating us.”

Boomer added later how, “on the trip, we were asking ourselves, ‘Does anyone realize we’re out here?’ It’s just amazing to get that recognition that we didn’t realize that was there from the people that connected with our journey.”

Jim Dolan, founder/president of Heroes On The Water, accepted the Paddle with Purpose philanthropic award alongside Kody Wilson, an amputee veteran of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division and now chapter coordinator for the growing Heroes program that takes wounded veterans kayak fishing.

“Man, I just got a papercut compared to the guys I’m able to take out paddling now,” said Wilson, putting his injury in perspective.

The final award of the evening, for Lifetime Achievement, added another layer of emotion to the gathering. In a stirring presentation recapping his conservation battle to protect the Grand Canyon (and to continue rowing wooden dories down its fabled waters), Martin Litton was given the honor. NRS’s very own Bill Parks took the stage and presented Litton as a “take-no-prisoners environmental activist” who stands as one of America’s greatest unsung conservation heroes who made a difference, “not only for paddlesports, but also the world.”

Lifetime Achievement Recipient Martin Litton

To a standing ovation, Litton, at “95 and half years old,” humbly accepted the award, silencing the crowd of nearly 400 attendees as he elaborated on the importance of maintaining free-flowing rivers, “not just for fun, but for inspiration—what they do for our spirit.”

The Canoe & Kayak Awards video program featured film clips from the year’s epic cinematic efforts, including a debut of Steve Fisher’s trailer to ‘The Grand Inga Project’—which is as mind-blowing as the rumors claim—as well as new work from Male Paddler of the Year nominee Tyler Bradt, plus clips from Andy Maser’s ‘The Craziest Idea,’ Forge Motion Picture’s ‘Of Souls + Water: The Nomad,’ and Cloud Level Media’s ‘Black Canyon: The Next Generation.’

In addition to Fisher, Parks, and Lindgren, awards presenters included paddlesports fixtures like American Whitewater Executive Director Mark Singleton and whitewater kayaking icons Rob Lesser and Risa Shimoda. Nominees as well as some of the biggest personalities in the sport came together in one of the greatest nights in paddlesports history to celebrate one another. “The sport would not be what it is today without the people in this room,” said C&K Editor Jeff Moag.