jamesbeastwood
James is an avid foodie, techie, photographer, and outdoors person. You can find him hiking his favorite trail with his dog Oscar.
jamesbeastwood
James is an avid foodie, techie, photographer, and outdoors person. You can find him hiking his favorite trail with his dog Oscar.
jamesbeastwood
James is an avid foodie, techie, photographer, and outdoors person. You can find him hiking his favorite trail with his dog Oscar.
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How Long Does It Take To Float Down The Mississippi River?

The Mississippi River is 2,350 miles from its source to the Gulf of Mexico, and the second-longest river in North America. To communities along the river, it provides lifeblood to their communities, and for the 80 to 100 people who kayak the entire length each year, it offers a challenge.

How long does it take?

Canoe floating down the mississippi river featured image

So, how long does it take to float down the Mississippi River? The short answer to how long it will take to float down the Mississippi River is around three months. However, as in most things, some factors can change this. For example, your level of fitness, how long each day you will (and can) paddle, weather, and what you are looking for with this trip. Do you want a pleasant journey, or is it a challenge to complete as quickly as possible?

Kirk Milhone and Kevin Eckelkamp hold the record for paddling the length of the Mississippi. The pair completed the journey in thirty-five days, eleven hours, and twenty-seven minutes, in 1980. The team are very experienced canoers who have previously attempted to paddle down the Amazon, and up the west coast of Canada to Alaska.

Every year somewhere between 80 and 100 people attempt this challenge, and just over 50% succeed. Occasionally the trip will end in tragedy with the death of the paddler; around 0.25% would be the closest estimate.

The challenge

Safety

Safety is the biggest challenge facing any individual or team planning to navigate the length of the Mississippi. A poorly designed attempt by inexperienced canoers can lead to failure, as happens in nearly 50% of attempts, with the occasional death ensuing.

Locks and dams

In the 1930s, the United States Army Corps of Engineers constructed a series of locks and dams along the Mississippi so that a channel for navigation could be maintained with a minimum of nine feet of water. These locks and dams can be a significant hazard for small craft with inexperienced handlers. It is not permitted to enter the general water 600 feet upstream of a dam, and 150 feet downstream. The waters in these areas have complex currents that can be very dangerous.

Crime

Remember that the Mississippi River does not just run through rural areas. It also flows through highly urban areas, and the riverside can be a dangerous place to be, especially at night.

High water

Avoid canoeing in high water as the fast currents can drag flimsy canoes into floating timber and other obstacles. Floodwaters can contain some solid objects which can smash into the canoe with great force.

Low water

Watch out for rocks in the upper reaches.

Tow boats

Tow boat at dusk on mississippi river
Operating from Headwaters of Lake Itasca all the way to the south of New Orleans the iconic tow boats have been family operated for generations

Stay clear of towboats! They have the right of way, and they create strong wakes. It can take half a mile before they can stop, even if they do see you. Turn your bow towards the wake they create. If you meet them on a bend in the river, try and stay on the inside of the curve.

Wing dams

The army also built hundreds of wing dams along the Mississippi. These are piles of rocks that do not show above the surface and direct currents to maintain the waterway. They present a danger to small boats. To avoid them, try and stay within the marked navigation.

For the official Mississipi safety guide produced by the State, follow this link Safety Guide. It is important to remember that taking precautions and avoiding big ships is going to cost you time. It will slow you down considerably.

Porterage, dams, and locks

Many people undertaking a trip down the Mississippi do not realize that it is going to involve a lot of walking. For a start, at the very source of the river, the water is only six inches deep some of the time, and you are going to have to splash alongside your boat as you walk with it. Depending on the season, this might take three days. OK, that will pass, but you are also going to have to do a lot of walking and carrying your canoe at later stages of the trip.

The spots where you have to remove your canoe from the water and carry it can vary considerably. Anything between 100 feet and a mile and a half! Often this is over terrain that is quite challenging.

Dams and locks are going to slow you down even more. If you hit a lock where there is a big barge going through, that can take over two hours of sitting waiting. However, take your time and follow any guidance given. The locks and the waters before and after a dam can be some of the most hazardous moments on your trip.

Wildlife

Alligator resting on log on the bayous of the mississippi river
The average current speed from Upper Mississippi all along the way to New Orleans is approximately 1.5 miles per hour. Much slower than this apex predator

I probably should have included this in the safety section because there are several creatures that you want to avoid on this trip. Relax, chances are you will not come across any of them, but it is possible, and you should keep your eyes open. This safety advice probably will eat up more time.

Alligators

You are not likely to see an alligator in the central Mississippi River. In tributaries and swamps surrounding the river, yes, but in the river, I would not worry too much. Even if you were to canoe by an alligator as long as you leave it alone, it would probably reciprocate.

Sharks

Yes, there are probably some sharks in the Mississippi. Bull sharks can get by in either salt of freshwater and can swim up rivers. One bull shark was spotted 700 miles up the Mississippi River. However, there are very few occasions where sharks and humans get close in the river.

Bears

Black bears are present in the Mississippi National Park, and in theory, one may decide to take a walk along the river bank where you are camping, but there has never been a fatal bear attack in Mississippi.

Snakes

In Mississippi, there is only one recorded fatal snake bite.

The biggest wildlife threat

Birdseye view of the vast mississippi river
The glacial Lake Itasca is one of the primary flows of the Mississippi River roughly 280 miles NE from St Louis and 1400 miles from Baton Rouge

The most significant threat is the tiny mosquito that may carry West Nile Virus, and more deaths are recorded from mosquitoes than all the other creatures in this list combined.

So, there is much more to a trip down the Mississippi than just sitting in a canoe and being carried by the currents. It involves a lot of paddling, walking, and great care. It is perhaps these unexpected issues like Porterage areas, huge barges, and the logistics of picking up supplies that add significantly to the time involved on the trip.

Sources

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