Metropolis, IL to Mississippi (RM 945 to RM 981)

September 18, 2003

On journey's end - "The days of our pilgrimage are nearing their end, but our enthusiasm for this al fresco life is in no measure abating. That we might ever thus dream and drift upon the river of life, far from the labored strivings of the world, is our secret wish, tonight." 
Thwaites, 1903

At 2:59 a.m., a young couple on a ATV passed my riverside campsite slowly bouncing over the logs and small woody debris as they made they way upstream along the shoreline. Fifteen minutes later, they returned heading in the opposite direction. Other than this unexpected early morning visit, it was a restful and tranquil evening. Two nearby powerline towers and smokestacks on the opposite side of the river displayed flashing red and white beacons and cast brilliant reflections off the calm river's surface and into the ceiling of my tent. I left the window cover of my tent open so I could witness the shimmering light show throughout the evening when I occasionally awoke from my slumber during the night. It was during these moments that I wished for a delayed sunrise.

I awoke to clear, cold and calm weather at 5 a.m. I had an extra hour of sleep knowing it would be a short day to reach the Mississippi. A quarter moon provided meager lighting to the early morning sky as a departed along the right bank at 6:01 a.m. Two hours downstream, I encountered a large cooling water outfall at the Joppa Steam Power Plant (RM 952.2) where the turbulent outflow of hot effluent created clouds of warm fog where it mixed with the colder river water along the right bank. I recorded a temperature of 37.1 oC (98.8 oF) in this discharge though the maximum outfall temperature was probably warmer since the source of the discharge to the river was about 100 ft away. This cooling water was more than 40 oF warmer than the air temperature and about 20 oF warmer than the upstream water temperature.

Two fishermen in an old boat meandered back and forth over the edge of the thermal plume in attempt to catch catfish that were attracted to the turbulent heated river water. Just downstream, windrows of small mussel shells lined the water's edge on the sandy bank. I assumed they were Corbicula, a non-native mussel, which also apparently favored the warmer water offered by this effluent.

Light tail winds and a moderate current pushed me along in bright sunshine throughout the morning. I paddled slowly reluctant to let the Ohio slip away too quickly as I proceeded towards my 3-week destination. The Ohio seemed unwilling to cooperate because the current speed increased as I descended along the right bank. Then I discovered that the old Locks and Dam No. 53, the last functioning dam on the Ohio, was out of control and there would be no need to use the lock. I almost felt disappointed having been accustomed to this break from paddling at all but one of the previous 19 locks since departing Pittsburgh twenty days earlier (I had to portage Newburgh Locks and Dam). I decided to pass through the opened 1200-ft lock anyway for posterity sake. Besides, an upbound towboat pushing 20 loaded barges was passing up over the downed wicket gates and I could avoid her bow and stern waves if I went through the lock where the swiftly moving river rushed through the concrete lined chamber in a turbulent manner. I entered the opened lock and 10:09:49 and departed 100 seconds later - my quickest traverse of all the Ohio locks. Considering the length of the lock and the travel time, my average speed equated to about 8 mph!

I stopped to gaze at the twin 1200 ft Olmstead locks that were being constructed a mile and half downstream on the right side of the river. The Olmstead Locks and Dam will eventually replace locks at Dams 52 and 53 that are very old and inefficient. Construction activity was idle during my Saturday morning visit. I did manage to find one contractor who was apparently giving a tour of the structure to his father and his teenage son as I drifted along the riverward lock wall. They were standing on the surface of the lock wall about 20 ft above the river facing the outside lock chamber. I shouted at them to get their attention as I paddled backwards to hold my position in the river.

The contractor informed me that they have spent about 300 million dollars on the lock and expect to spend a similar amount on the dam. Though he admitted they still have tens of millions of dollars or work yet to do on the lock, said to be the largest twin 1200-ft locks in the world. I suggested the total cost sounded low. He just shrugged his shoulders in response. He then informed me the entire structure (with dam) wouldn't be completed for another 8 to 10 years. Parts of the lock will be 20 years old before it passes its first towboat.

Just downstream, painting contractors were hand painting gray and black stripes on one of the huge cylindrical mooring cells that will be used to hold barges as they wait to lock through the future lock system. I asked them how many more times the cells will have to be painted before the lock opens for business. One of the workers returned a smile implying that his painting work on the river will be assured through many years into the future. I departed the construction site and continued my progress downstream under beautiful clear blue skies.

Barges seemed to be parked everywhere in the fleeting area below Mound City, Illinois (RM 973). They lined the right and left banks and were even parked in groups of fifteen or more in the middle of the river. Small towboats were busy moving barges around from one group to another or were making up sets for larger towboats that sat idling nearby. Barges continued to line the right bank and parts of the left bank all the way down to the Mississippi about 8 miles downstream.

A towboat captain stepped out of his bridge of his vessel that was parked on the outer row of barges below just below Cairo, Illinois and shouted, "Where are you going?"

"To the Mississippi," I responded as I passed by swiftly. No sooner had I said this and I was there, in the Mississippi below the point at Ft. Defiance at 2:18 p.m.

The Mississippi seemed small and more like a tributary than the primary river since the mouth of the Ohio is considerably wider. I went from the barge-lined channel of the Ohio right into the Mississippi River without warning. I had a feeling of remorse knowing that my trip had ended and yet there was still plenty of river that stretched out in front of me in a southerly direction - perhaps another day God willing.

Standing in view of the junction of these magnificent rivers, meeting almost from opposite extremities of the continent, and each impressed with the peculiar character of the regions from which it descends, we seem to imagine ourselves capable of comprehending at one view all the fast region, between the summits of the Alleghanies and of the Rocky Mountains, and feel a degree of impatience at finding all our prospects limited, by an inconsiderable extent of low muddy bottom lands, and the unrelieved, unvaried, gloom of the forest." 
notes from the 1819 expedition lead by Major Stephen H. Long, from Edwin, 1823

I paddled up the Mississippi a few hundred feet while a live band played Blue Grass music from the adjacent parkland at Ft Defiance at the junction of these two great rivers. The Mississippi was noticeably more turbid than the Ohio and had higher dissolved solids as indicated by greater conductivity measurements. Due to the low flow conditions on the Mississippi, large exposed rock-covered wing dams stretched out from the banks of the river as far as I could see upstream.

I turned around and paddled back up the Ohio to find the first public access on the left ascending bank. It took me a while to find it since it was hidden behind rows of barges that lined the bank. The landing was covered with several inches of wet silt and clay. I carefully unloaded my canoe while standing ankle deep in mud and hauled gear to a large grassy area adjacent to the ramp's parking lot about 40 ft above the river's surface. I prepared my gear for the trip home and waited in the shade while listening to Blue Grass bands belt out harmonious music from the nearby park. I met one of the band members as I waited for my wife to haul me home. Beth and our dog Patches arrived shortly before 5 p.m. just after a lively rendition of "Keep on the sunny side."

Later, just as we finished loading my gear into our car, the band member I had met earlier announced to the audience that he wanted to recognize the gentleman who just finished paddling the Ohio and asked the audience to give him a hand. I turned and smiled to the audience and waved back at their applause - what an unexpected welcome and fitting end to my pilgrimage down "the beautiful river."

"Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side,
Keep on the sunny side of life
It will help us ev'ry day, it will brighten all the way
If we'll keep on the sunny side of life…" 
The Carter Family version