Alton Pool on the Mississippi River runs from Lock & Dam 25 near Winfield, Mo., to the Melvin Price Lock & Dam in Alton, Ill., just north of St. Louis. “It seems little known in the area, but this is St. Louis’ own backyard for boating,” said resident Mike Steinhour.

A veteran sailor and kayaker, Steinhour grants that paddling isn’t as popular here as it is in the Pacific Northwest. Yet our big rivers actually have many more intriguing features thanks their river islands, transient sandbars and extensive wildlife. (Did you know that 65 percent of North American birds use the Mississippi River as their flyway?) Plus, for much of the year here, you don’t need special gear to get on the river—shorts and a hat can be plenty.

Unfortunately, people who have had little experience on our area rivers talk about how dangerous the water is. But is that the truth?

“Paddling is one of the safest ways to experience the river,” said Steinhour. “In a kayak, you’re moving slowly enough that nothing happens too fast and you’re able to avoid obstacles in and on the water. For example, wing dykes and buoys can all be seen well in advance. There’s plenty of time to maneuver around them. Also, the draft of a kayak is only inches. Because the boat doesn’t require much water depth, you can get close to shore for shelter, if you need to.

It’s important to avoid barge traffic. While you do have the right-of-way on the water, a barge can’t maneuver like a kayak can. These and other boats may not always see you, so it’s a good idea to give way. If you’re going to cross the main channel, it’s important to look both ways. Also, you’ll want to avoid debris in the water, like driftwood, so that you don’t get tangled up. A lot of folks in kayaks find it fun to hang on a buoy, but even that isn’t a good idea. If the buoy is bobbing and leaving a wake (meaning the current is strong), you’ll not be able to see where it’s tied down. A small boat can get hung up, so it’s a good idea to just stay clear.”

Even though he’s been on the water all his life, sailing and kayaking, Steinhour still takes extreme caution. “When you get on the water, it’s important to be safety conscious,” he explained. “Of course, it’s important to be sober—70 percent of accidents on the river are alcohol related.” At the very minimum, Steinhour always has a bottle of water, snack, hat and personal flotation device (PFD). He typically also has a marine radio, Spot GPS (with a panic button), cell phone, flashlight, bilge pump, tow rope and navigation lights. (Although not required for a kayak, the latter can help, particularly at night.)

Some may wonder, with all the precautions, is it worth getting on the water? “By being prepared, fear is mitigated,” Steinhour said. “But that doesn’t negate the fact that you have to be aware of your surroundings.” Being aware of his surroundings puts Steinhour totally in the moment, and being in the moment, with its heightened awareness, is where the fun begins. “I’m naturally curious, so as I explore, I love to watch the wildlife and the boat traffic on our rivers,” Steinhour said. “And as I get older, kayaking and sailing keep me physically and mentally active. I love the adventure and challenge of the water, because I never know what I’ll discover on each trip.”

St. Louis Put-Ins
For those who are new to the water but would like to start kayaking or paddleboarding in St. Louis, Steinhour offered the following put-in sites:

Put-in: Riverlands Way Shelter & Lincoln Shields
Location: Riverlands Bird Sanctuary on Mississippi River, West Alton, Mo.
Description: Beach launching, restrooms. Paddle sheltered Ellis Bay, main channel or explore sloughs

Put-in: Hideaway Harbor
Location: Portage Des Sioux on the Mississippi River, St. Charles County, Mo.
Description: Two boat ramps, beach launching, restrooms. Paddle sheltered sloughs and explore the river islands

Put-in: Grafton, Ill., City Ramp
Location: Confluence of Illinois and Mississippi rivers
Description: One boat ramp, large gravel parking lot. Paddle a sheltered harbor, explore historic waterfront, kayak the confluence

The Army Corp of Engineers publishes the Great River Water Trail map with put-in sites along each of the pools. For more information, visit

Author: Amy Narishkin is the co-owner of St. Louis Sail & Paddle.