Canoeing the Mississippi: Big Muddy Mike and the Chain of Rocks
Posted: Monday, October 1, 2012 at 12:40pm
July 4, 2012 - Day 32: St. Louis, MO
Big Muddy Mike is essentially a tall tale. As the foremost mid-Mississippi river guide, the man has retraced Lewis and Clark's journey in a dugout canoe, paddled more water miles than Columbus ever sailed, and he breathes a seamless combination of fact and legend.
Mike picked us up on Tuesday from the Alton Marina and has hosted us in St. Louis for the last two days. After he detailed his previous week on the river rescuing a Marine, hosting a team of professional pogo-stick-ers and doing gunwhale-handstands while floating the Missouri confluence, I knew we were in for an adventure while staying with Big Muddy Adventures.
We crashed on Mike’s porch while he outfitted us to the teeth with gear, hearsay, and water-wisdom. But before we could leave the Big Muddy home base, he insisted we be baptized in the low-water bedrock dam 11 miles north of St. Louis, the altogether forgotten channel of the Mississippi River also known as the “Chain of Rocks.”
He prepped us, pepped us up, and guided us five miles south of the Missouri River confluence to the river's most daunting set of rapids. We had thought to avoid this stretch. In fact, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created an alternative, commercial canal in the late 1940’s that intentionally bypasses the historic stretch of the river. Today, no navigation occurs in the "Chain of Rocks," except for Big Muddy Adventures of course.
“At seven feet gauge height in St. Louis, the Chain of Rocks is a thundering obstacle course created by the mass of Mississippi River water (200,000 cfs, yesterday) flowing to a precipitous point, a ledge stretching the entire width of the river with massive boulders, rocks and assorted river detritus (refrigerators, car parts, anything that has come from flooded zones far away) layered through the entire river channel. The entire river is rushing, falling and tumbling in a labyrinth of boiling, churning and standing waves, with a washer machine hydraulic effect mashing and mixing the water. There have been deaths here.”
– Big Muddy Mike’s blog (www.2muddy.com)
We left our gear and headed to the river as the sun began to set. At the bow of Mike’s eight-person canoe, I got punched in the face by a standing wave as we plunged down the four-foot drop. I nearly lost a contact. Our crew rushed to bail water as the canoe squirreled its way through the current. Once back on the eastern bank, we forgot catching our breath and begged Mike to let us run the chain in our Penobscot, Rachel. He consents.
Again I am at the bow, the sunset has given way to twilight, Mark chooses a clear line that hugs a swift eddy, and lies a mere 50 feet from shore. Knees locked under the gunwales, knuckles white on the swift paddle, eyes wide, and we ride the falls again.
With the lighter load, the canoe bounds deftly over the tongue. One strong stroke and we are through the standing waves. In disbelief, I can’t believe how easy, too easy this run is and – our bow barely touches the eastern eddy and we jackknife 90-degrees and roll into the raging water.
Sandals gone, paddle in hand, treading the current, Mark and I swim hard to keep the canoe from being swallowed. "What happened?" Mark asks me as we pull the bow and stern lines hard. We are losing the tug-of-war and a mere 6 inches of rope holds our canoe from an unmanned journey into the St. Louis port. Mark grabs a gunwale, lifts, kicks, and cranes his neck back to fill his lungs, the current is too strong. “Let it go,” I call to Mark. We both release our grip, taste the bitter possibility of a trip half-finished. Our canoe is gone.
We pace ourselves swimming in an eddy-treadmill towards the shore. Our life-jackets hold us afloat and we check on each other often. Big Muddy Mike and the crew are paddling towards us in the larger boat. My hand feels a rope and I look to the shore expecting a fisherman offering help; but there’s no one, and then my heart leaps and I grip tighter. “Mark! Check it out!” Our Penobscot has ridden the current 200 yards downstream, caught the eddy, and found its way back to me. We fight again!
Like a conveyor belt, the Clipper slides upstream to our side and we upload paddles; Big Muddy Mike ties the Penobscot to the stern, and we swim. Again the river cinches her grip on the submerged canoe and pulls Mike backwards through the turbulence.
As Mark and I push to the shore unimpeded by gear, Mike considers cutting the canoe (a sea-anchor at this point) from his stern as the river swirls her hull underwater. But, the crew regains control and steers safely to shore as the sun finally sets. The 15-minute rescue was a successful rush, but bombing the Chain of Rocks with Big Muddy Mike is the closest I think I want to becoming part of a tall tale.