Paddling enthusiasts from both sides of the Mississippi River converged upon the National Great Rivers Museum in Alton, Illinois, on a chilly January day for Mississippi Meanderings, an afternoon of learning, sharing, and camaraderie sponsored by the Mississippi River Water Trail Association (MRWTA).
The site alone was worth the drive, and the 50-plus attendees took advantage of the opportunity to wander among the museum exhibits and visit the adjacent Melvin Price Locks and Dam. Looking for eagles along the river before and after the event was a popular activity.
Yolandea Wood kicked off the event’s educational sessions with an entertaining yet serious presentation about mental and physical preparation and appropriate gear for big river paddling. Wood knows whereof she speaks; she has paddled the Mississippi River from source to sea and has participated in many long-distance races, including the Missouri River 340 (MR340) — twice. An accomplished public speaker, Wood delivered a strong safety message while simultaneously drawing laughs with her entertaining delivery.
“I don’t want you to be scared of the river,” she said. “I want you to respect the river.” And, she insisted, “You will have a life jacket on. It has to be zipped, snug as a bug.”
Wood also stressed the importance of going on the river with a group. “You need at least three people. If you have trouble, one person can go for help and one can stay with you.”
She discussed gear, clothing, river hazards, trip plans, barges, and more.
Next, Robert Cosgriff, the environmental stewardship manager for the Rivers Project Office of the US Army Corps of Engineers, explained the organization’s mission to restore a healthy Mississippi River ecosystem within the St. Louis region, including native plant communities and wildlife species of concern.
“We are not the first land managers. The Native Americans had been managing this land for thousands of years,” he said. “We take what we’ve got and work with it to try and replicate that virgin prairie.”
His presentation showcased the diversity of flora and fauna found along the Mississippi River corridor, as well as in the river.
Ten simple steps to better outdoor photography was the topic of Marty Koch’s presentation. Koch, a well-known nature photographer, former educator for St. Louis County Parks, and avid paddler, stressed that the individual is more important than the equipment in most instances. A photographer with a good eye and a knowledge of basic composition can take excellent photos with a cell phone camera. He reminded attendees of the “golden hour” — the first 90 minutes and the last 90 minutes of daylight.
MRWTA President Melissa Sauter spoke briefly about the 121-mile Mississippi River Water Trail, which was designated a National Water Trail in 2012. The trail flows past the confluence of the country’s two longest rivers (the Missouri and the Mississippi) and the site where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark began their famous expedition, all the way to the iconic Gateway Arch in St. Louis. The association depends on volunteers for its many activities, from maintaining campsites along the river trail to paddling festivals and safety classes.
“We need lots of volunteers to get all this done,” she said.
Sauter and Craig Heaton, MRWTA treasurer, introduced the MRWTA Volunteer of the Year award recipient, Carol Heddinghaus, a longtime member and dedicated volunteer.
“Carol often does the less glamorous jobs, such as ground crew or shuttle driver, which are not as much fun and are not on the water,” said Heaton.
Her prize was the paddle she and paddling partner Joan Twillman won more than 10 years ago in an MRWTA race. Twillman has had the paddle since the race but thought it was time for Heddinghaus to display it on her wall instead.
The day concluded with information on two upcoming MRWTA events: Paddlefest and the Firecracker Race.
Paddlefest is an opportunity for the public to paddle with MRWTA members in the calm backwaters of the Mississippi River, to learn how to safely paddle a kayak or canoe, and try out skills. It is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on June 3 at the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary in West Alton, Missouri.
This year’s Firecracker Race will be held from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. on September 16. The race is a 15-mile downriver course from Grafton to the Alton riverfront. It concludes at the Mississippi Earthtones Festival, which will have live music and plenty of food and drink options.
You can learn more about the MRWTA and its events at mississippiriverwatertrail.org.
Big Muddy Speaker Series
Don’t wait until the next Mississippi Meanderings to get talking. Another opportunity to discuss topics relevant to people interested in our rivers takes place monthly in St. Charles, Rocheport, and Kansas City, Missouri. Called the Big Muddy Speaker Series, these free presentations on Missouri River ecology, history, biology, and more are shared by experts in their field. Learn more at bigmuddyspeakers.org.
Author: Barbara Gibbs Ostmann is a contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Top Image: Yolandea Wood at the 2023 Mississippi Meanderings conference. (Lee Phillion)