Transitions of the River

Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about the changes in the River between the Upper and Lower Mississippi.  The upper Mississippi is officially defined between the headwaters at Lake Itasca in Northern Minnesota to Cairo, Illinois. South of Cairo, the lower Mississippi section begins and the River continues until the mighty Mississippi reaches the Gulf of Mexico.  However, I like to think of the River in three separate sections based on the differences I’ve noticed while paddling. 

The first of the three sections begins at the headwaters and ends in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Most of the river in this section is narrow and curves back and forth until it reaches one of the lakes that the River frequently flows through.  The banks are lined with a mixture of lush forests, wild rice, and marshland.  In some sections of the River we noticed eroded banks from the floods each spring.  What is erosion and when does it occur?  Many people in this area interact closely with the river.  Homes are scattered along this entire stretch with a concentration of houses near towns and cities. People interact with the River frequently through recreational boating, hunting, and fishing.  With the large amount of recreation, campsites are frequent and we rarely camped away from designated campsites. 

The second distinction begins in Minneapolis/ St. Paul, Minnesota and ends in St. Louis, Missouri.  Between these cities the Lock and Dam system shapes the River.  The locks and dams create wide-open sections of river that resemble lakes in areas right before the dam.  Why do dams create these open water areas? What is a lock? We noticed many different bird flocks and wildlife gathering in the marshland surrounding the River.  During this part of the River huge bluffs define the banks.  What formed the River bluffs in this area?  While we were paddling this area the fall colors were peaking and we witnessed the brilliant red, orange, and yellow mixture littering the steep cliffs.  Small river towns were scattered steadily throughout this area.  It was during this section we first experienced below freezing temperatures, snow, and bitterly cold winds. 

The third and final section begins in St. Louis and continues into the area we are currently paddling.  The two biggest changes in the River at St. Louis are the increased barge traffic and the increased size of the River.  This is where I started feeling like an ant on a sidewalk, tiny next to the huge barge tows, sometimes with up to 42 barges on one tow, flowing on a river more than a mile wide at times.  The shoreline is strewn with sandbars, wing dams, and sides fortified with rock.  The landscape and foliage has also changed.  The area is more flat and the foliage is young and less dense.  Towns along the river are less frequent. There are levees, or walls, built high along the banks to prevent flooding, so unlike the earlier sections of the River, most settlements along the river sit further back and out of sight. Houses are far less common than they were north of St. Louis.  Camping has transitioned to mostly sandbars or other available land next to the River.   

 As we experience the many physical changes of the River, we also experience changes within the group and ourselves.  The warm weather, excitement, and familiarity of the landscape in the beginning of the trip kept spirits high and positive.  As we transitioned out of Minnesota we stopped counting days and time seemed to slow down as we lost ourselves in Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Missouri.  It was during this section we struggled most with cold weather challenging our trip endurance.  During the final leg of the trip we have settled into our systems and routines as a group, leaving time for personal reflection during the many hours paddling.  Have you ever experienced transitions in your life?  How were you affected by these transitions?

-Liz Just

Wild River Academy

Wild River Academy, 2751 Hennepin Ave S #254, Minneapolis, MN, 55408, United States

Support our mission!

Donations provide funding for the Paddle Forward documentary.