Frequently Asked Questions
Most of these questions concern traveling down the river by canoe, kayak, or other vessel. For answers to more general questions about the Mississippi, see the River Facts page.
- How long will it take, miles per day, etc?
Over the course of the whole river, I averaged about 23 miles per day. This included many very leisurely days in the Headwaters. The whole trip took me about 3-1/2 months of paddling. A solo person in a canoe could probably do it in 2 to 2-1/2 months if s/he wanted to work hard. I think a kayaker could easily do it in two months.
- What kind/size of boat/canoe should I use?
This is a personal decision. It should be a boat that you are comfortable with and have experience using. It should be stable and maneuverable.
- Is it safe? What are the dangers? Should I take a gun?
I would be lying if I said that a trip like this is completely safe. The Mississippi River is extremely powerful and unforgiving. 00I always stress that the most important thing is to be constantly aware of what you are doing. Dangerous situations can develop fast. Dangers on the river include the commercial barge traffic, high-speed pleasure boats, strong currents, and wind and weather conditions. Encountering human dangers is possible anywhere, but I don't recommend bringing a gun. I think a can of mace would make more sense if you are worried about problems with other people.
- Navigating the Upper River, water levels, getting lost, etc?
Making your way through the twisty, swampy reaches of the Upper Mississippi can be a challenge. I was lucky to have a decent water level in the river when I did my trip, but even so there were times when I was not sure if I was in the river or had wandered into a side channel that went nowhere. One tactic that helped me was to pay attention to the flow of the underwater weeds one can usually read the current by watching them. In years of low water, the river channel often becomes clogged with weeds, especially in late summer and fall. I suggest monitoring water levels by checking with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
- Where to get maps?
Good canoeing maps of the Minnesota portion of the river are available from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Navigation maps of the commercially viable portions of the river are available from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
- How much will it cost?
I spent very little on my trip. There are no fees for the use of the locks. A canoe license is required in Minnesota for about $15.00. If you're planning to camp along the way, then your only expenses will be the initial cost of yourgear, your food, and an occasional campground fee. If you're planning a more luxurious trip and want to look for accommodations along the river, I suggest purchasing the Quimby's Guide (about $40.00).
- Can I make it down the river in a raft/pontoon/houseboat/sailboat?
If you're planning to sit back and just drift down the river, you're out of luck. Locks and dams on the Upper River, and frequent strong winds on the whole river make drifting with the current a rare occurrence. Even in the areas where you do find a strong favorable current, you need to be able to control your craft to keep out of the way of towboats and other hazards. Sailing is probably possible in some areas, but I would want to have my engine in good operating condition.
- How do we secure our belongings while in towns?
If you're traveling alone, you have no choice but to trust your fellow human beings. I always just tied up the canoe securely and tried to get back to it as soon as possible. I carried my valuables (camera, money) with me when I went into towns. Most of the time I felt completely secure, but there were a couple of times I hoped the canoe would still be there when I returned. Use common sense.
- Did you encounter alligators/snakes?
I didn't see any of either, however I did see signs of gators and other paddlers have reported seeing numerous snakes, so it pays to be cautious.
- Isn't the Mississippi too polluted?
The water in the Mississippi is far from pristine, but, while I wouldn't drink it, it is not nearly as polluted as common beliefs would say it is. Towns and cities along the river have been making an effort for the last couple of decades to clean up their acts, and there has been a measurable result. The exception is the "Cancer Corridor" between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. In that section I didn't particularly even want to touch the water.
- Where do you sleep? Did you have trouble finding a place to camp?
With just one or two exceptions, I never had any trouble finding a place to camp along the river. In Minnesota, the DNR has developed numerous canoe campsites all the way from Lake Itasca to the Iowa border. Between Minnesota and St. Louis I was almost always able to find a sand bar island to camp on. Below St. Louis it became a little more difficult, but I learned to read the Corps of Engineers navigation maps to deduce where likely campsites might be.
- (Most popular question from youngsters) Where did you go to the bathroom?
We all know than this is something that you can't always be picky about. I'd say that about half the time during the trip I was able to use some sort of bathroom facility in a campground or in a town, but when you've got to go, you've got to go, so I carried a little lighweight plastic gardening trowel to be able to dig a hole in the woods when that was the only option.
- Where do you get supplies along the way (food, water, gas)?
One of the nice things about traveling on the Mississippi is that most of the time you feel like you're in the wilderness,but almost every day you'll pass through a couple of small towns or cities. Restocking supplies along the river is easy almost all along the way. The exception might be down in the deep south where the levees run along both sides of the river and the towns are all back behind them. I always tried to carry a few days supply of food and water, but most of the time I was able to refill every day. For motor-driven craft, finding gas can be more difficult. Again, I suggest purchasing a copy of Quimby's Guide.
- How much canoeing experience should a person have?
Of course the more paddling experience you have, the better, but one nice thing about a trip like this is, if you start at the very beginning of the river (Lake Itasca in Minnesota), you're going to be learning the skills you need to know as you go along. However, I still suggest that anyone with little experience take a couple of practice trips first before starting out.
- Are there dams or other obstructions to portage around? How long are the portages?
Yes, there are a number of places where you have to portage, particularly in the Minnesota portion of the river. I'm developing a more detailed list, which will soon be added to the River Travel page.
- What supplies and equipment do I need?
The following is a list of items of equipment that I consider vital (marked with a '*') or that I found to be useful or handy or that I wish I had thought of (marked with two '*'s):
- Rain gear
- Tent and/or hammock
- Mud boots
- Life jacket
- Extra paddle
- Waterproof bags
- **Portable phone
- **Weather radio
- Folding beach chair
- Folding camp saw
- *Extra rope
- *Mosquito and tick repellant
- Do we need any kinds of permits (locks, camping, boat)? Are there laws about canoes on the river?
As far as I know, the only permits that might be required for this are a license for your canoe in Minnesota (about $15) and an occasional camping permit if you stop in a developed campground. There are no fees for using the locks and as far as I know there are no laws restricting the use of canoes on the Mississippi.
- Are there rapids/waterfalls/hard currents? How fast is the current?
There are a few minor rapids in the Minnesota portion of the river. The only true waterfall is St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis. In Saint Louis there is a formation called the Chain of Rocks. This can be avoided by taking an alternate channel with a lock, or portaging around it on the east bank of the river. The course through the rapids can be quite dangerous, especially toward the western shore.
- What time of year is the best to start?
For favorable water conditions in the upper river, the best time would be spring or early summer. However, the best time to start to avoid mosquitoes is late summer or early fall.
- Where in Twin Cities to get equipment?
REI (Recreational Equipment Incorporated) has several locations in the Twin Cities. Another good source is Midwest Mountaineering at Cedar and Riverside in Minneapolis.
- How bad were the mosquitoes? What kind of repellant should I use?
The mosquitoes can literally ruin your trip. A head net, good repellant (one that works), and good netting on your tent or hammock are essential.
- What did you eat? Did you fish?
I ate a lot of macaroni and cheese, oatmeal, hard-boiled eggs, and granola. I didn't fish very much, but if you're a fisherman, it's a great idea.
- Can a canoe go through the locks?
Yes, and there is no charge.
- How do you get up to Itasca? Is there a bus system?
I've only gotten this question once from someone who wanted to get there using public transportation. I haven't investigated that method, but I think it would be difficult. By car, Itasca is about a 4-hour drive from Minneapolis/St. Paul.
- How often did you get off the river?
Just to go into a town to get supplies, I got off the river almost every day. But to really get away from it for a few days, I only did that in the large cities, the Twin Cities, the Quad Cities, St. Louis, Memphis, Vicksburg and New Orleans.
- How much boat traffic is there on the river?
There is a lot of boat traffic. The barge traffic is constant, probably you'll see at least one every hour, but even though they are noisy, they're not invasive. In summer on the upper river, especially on weekends, the most annoying river traffic is the pleasure boaters. Most are considerate, but some are loud and obnoxious.
- How hard is it?
Unless you're unusually lucky and hit a year with high water all the way down, it is a lot of very hard work. It seems like you're battling the wind no matter in which direction you're heading. But it is all worth it—a trip of a lifetime!
- Where do I get more information?
The Army Corps of Engineers, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and your local library are good places to start. The internet has a ton of information.
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