A river runs through it: a journey up the Mississippi from sea to source

Lifeblood to the Native Americans, battleground for the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement, birthplace of blues and inspiration to Mark Twain, a journey up the Mississippi tells a multitude of stories

6 mins

Why is it that men are so concerned with the beginning and end of everything, when it’s the middle that really matters? Terry Larson’s question hung in the still, humid Minnesota air waiting for an answer. But aside from the odd splash from our oars and the audible hiss from the underside of our canoe as we skimmed over the long grass, all was silent.

In truth, my canoe guide’s question wasn’t directed at me. It was a query first posed to an explorer called Henry Schoolcraft by an elder of the indigenous Ojibwe tribe back in 1832. Then, after centuries of searching, the headwaters of the fourth longest river in the world – the Mississippi – were about to be revealed. 

But the question still felt pertinent even today, given my arrival here was the culmination of a two-week journey along the river from sea to source.

Trempealeau Mountain, Wisconsin (Neil S Price)

If I thought it was warm in Minnesota, it was positively oven-like where I had begun, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Famous for its annual Mardi Gras celebrations, the waterway continues the party theme and I arrived to see renovated steam paddleboats cruising the banks below the French Quarter, music blaring from their decks.

I opted to start my exploration by bicycle, meandering the city’s many neighbourhoods, from Frenchmen Street, where soft jazz riffs oozed from half-open doors, to the tree-lined Garden District, and on to Lakeview’s flower-festooned houses and the buzzy-vibed Tremé by Armstrong Park.

But no matter where I pedalled, it seemed water was never far from people’s minds, and no more so than on the edge of the Lower Ninth Ward where the devastation from the rising levels caused by Hurricane Katrina more than ten years ago was still being repaired. I left the city heading south and determined to reach the outlet of the mighty Mississippi, to begin my journey proper. Along the way I stopped to take a tour of Honey Island Swamp.

The community here is made up of ramshackle over-water homes that, just three months before my visit, suffered metre-high floods. “It’s just a fact of life,” said our skipper as he pointed out the bald cypress trees that rose out of the water, their peculiar roots piercing the swamp in spiked clusters all around them. “These trees grow 90ft [27m] tall, won’t rot, survive most hurricanes and actually thrive in the water – that’s why we use them to build a lot of the houses. Things adapt here, they survive.” 

He wasn’t just talking about the people. The bayous and swamps in Louisiana are home to a hardy range of turtles, wild boar, deer and alligators, perfectly adapted to the conditions. The latter watched us as we floated, some following slowly in our wake, others basking in the sun on upturned logs. “They were once on the endangered species list,” our captain explained, “now they’re thriving.”

Spurred on, I continued to Venice, the official end of the Great River Road and the Mississippi, which splays out here into the Gulf of Mexico in wide channels. Unlike its Italian namesake, this is no picturesque, canal-threaded honeypot; instead it’s a collection of boatyards (this is the jumping-off point for many commercial fishing companies) and staging areas for the oil rigs offshore.

Made up of a mix of back roads, federal routes and state highways, the Great River Road is not a single stretch of tarmac, but actually runs on both sides of the Mississippi for most of the way. From Venice, I decided to stick to the west bank, heading towards Baton Rouge.

At this point, the river is over a muddy kilometre in width and 45m deep. Years of flooding and receding has made the surrounding soil rich in minerals and fertile land for farmers. Back in the early 18th century, though, sugar was king and this far south plantations stretching thousands of acres lined the banks.

Nowadays, while sugar is still a big industry here, plantation tours are arguably just as vital. I visited Laura Plantation first, a brightly painted Creole home once owned by descendants of French colonists from Louisiana. Here the guides told of the equally colourful goings-on behind closed doors, where masters fathered children by their slaves, who were then brought up alongside the owner’s families.

Next up was Whitney, which focused on the slaves’ story instead. Bronze statues of children were poignantly positioned around the estate, as we learned of the tragic methods by which their owners would ‘break’ and punish them. I ended at Oak Alley Plantation, where a line of trees funnelled the cool air from the water down to the imposing white house at its centre. It was a beautiful spot to watch the sunset, but it made me think about how the river offered not only an easy way to bring the slaves in, but was also an obstacle preventing escape.

“When I first came here, I cried for a full 15 minutes,” said Kathe Hambrick-Jackson, owner of the River Road African American Museum further north in Donaldsonville, where the plantations morphed from sugar cane to cotton production. “I stood on the riverbanks watching tourist boats come in, and realised this was the same spot where the slaves would have been offloaded.”

Restored steamboat on Mississippi (Neil S Price)

Kathe later turned her reaction into something positive, setting up a museum to remember the lives of the slaves and to help their descendants trace their roots. What’s more, she told me the story of one slave who managed to escape by using the river, stowing away on a boat headed for the gulf, finally ending up in Liverpool, England, a free man. Maybe the water wasn’t a prison after all.

In the past, the Mississippi itself has even been known to make a break for it, and to this day is prone to changing course. To try and stop this, several measures have been put in place, most notably the levees (man-made banks) that funnel the water in different directions and were a constant companion on my journey.

At the pretty town of St Francisville, where the tourist steamboats were docked for the day, I spotted rows of concrete stabilisation mats, designed to stop erosion. In geology, when a river changes course, as they often do, it leaves visible marks called meander scars. But not all scars are so easily seen with the naked eye.

Crossing the state line into Mississippi, I visited Natchez, the oldest town on the river, complete with a hearty helping of antebellum homes. But it was only when I dug deeper that I discovered this had once been the territory of a Native American tribe of the same name. The Natchez people were displaced in the early 1700s, after trading relations with the French settlers soured. Nowadays, there is no trace of them to be seen – no visible scars of the past.

The river has often found itself at the centre of major events in the history of America, right from the moment a retreating glacier formed the Mississippi, long before the Natchez lived here. Later, around the time of the 1811 earthquakes, a rift pulled apart the land to form a valley that nearly split the continent in two.

And fifty years on from that, the divide was realised politically, as the American Civil War (1861–65) saw a nation turn on itself: north versus south, Yankee against Confederate. At its heart was the debate over the abolition of slavery, but when it came to the river, it was all about trade and control. “Controlling the river meant controlling the power,” explained David Maggio, my guide at the Civil War battlefield site in Vicksburg. “This town was the last plug in the river stopping trade.”

The Yankees besieged it, forcing the Confederates on top of the bluff, and after around 10,000 deaths on both sides, they effectively starved them out. Once it fell, the Mississippi’s waters re-opened and the giant gunboats – designed upriver in Cairo to patrol them – became obsolete.

With so much toil, heartache and fighting, it seems not entirely coincidental that this is the delta where the blues was born, and still thrives. From Clarksville, where the former cotton worker McKinley Morganfield (aka Muddy Waters) lived, to Elvis’s Graceland in Memphis, you can’t stop for a plate of grits and biscuits in the Deep South without hearing a thick baseline and a two-step beat.

The further north I headed, the more the focus switched from people and power to nature and the outdoors. I stopped for a boat ride at Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee, a pocket of water formed by the 1811 quakes now coated in verdant duckweed and topped with butter-yellow lotus flowers. As I drifted across its surface and the ranger pointed out egrets, red wing blackbirds and ospreys nesting in the trees, I mused how this was one of nature’s prettiest accidents.

Cyclist at sunset in La Crosse (Neil S Price)

For a short while I cut through Kentucky, just long enough to spy some evidence of Native American influence on the river. Resembling an easily missed cluster of small grassy lumps, Wickliffe Mounds was actually one of the earliest settlements of people living along the Mississippi.

Predating colonisation, they were already gone by the time the French arrived in the 18th century, but a 1930s excavation revealed a treasure trove of tools made from the very clay that makes up the riverbank. Crossing into Illinois, I drove through what looked like a ghost town.

Formerly palatial hotels stood crumbling, school buses lay abandoned and overgrown, but the name was familiar. It turned out this was Cairo, the namesake town of one of the vessels I saw at Vicksburg that used to control the Mississippi in the early 1800s. A faded mural nodded to it, but a decline in the steamboat industry meant that this town’s glory days were well and truly in the past.

But not all river towns met the same fate. Both Sainte Genevieve in Missouri and Galena in Illinois were communities I visited where someone had recognised that their respective wooden long houses and red-brick main streets were worth preserving. With the former offering wine tours of its seyval grape vineyards and the latter boasting riverside watersports and good food, both were thriving.

Further north, the unmistakable Gateway Arch signalled that I’d reached St Louis. It was from here that the 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition to push west began, the river acting as a gateway to the new frontier, new opportunities and new hope. Fitting, then, that it was here, on the opposite bank in East Alton, that I learned just how important the Mississippi remains to the current US economy.

“It’s still very much used as a trade route,” said Andrea Gregory, a ranger at the Great Rivers Museum, where the second and largest of the 29 locks and dams that line the river going north is located. “A hopper barge – three barges wide and five in length – can carry more than a thousand trucks can.

They also use less fuel, so they are better for the environment.” We walked up to peer over the lock, which was now helping a group of three kayakers (and some stowaway pelicans) drop down into St Louis. “In spring, fertiliser and coal head north to help farmers begin their harvest. In the fall we get those harvested grains back, and in summer, as you can see, it’s mainly recreational traffic,” she explained.

I became one of the latter at my next stop: Hannibal. If the name sounds familiar, the white picket fence will certainly jog your memory, for this town was the basis for the fictional St Petersburg, home to Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn characters. It was here that I jumped on the paddle steamer – named after the author – to see the islands, the port and the water from his books come to life.

Alligator in Honey Island Swamp (Neil S Price)

From literary creations I moved onto something more tangible – and unusual – crossing the border into Iowa and Effigy Mounds National Monument. Here, created by the native peoples of the Mississippi, are a number of huge earthworks shaped like giant animals.

“No-one really knows why they are here, and as they were designed to be seen from somewhere high up in the sky, you can’t always tell that you’re walking past one,” explained ranger Michael Douglas, “but you will know it. I don’t know how, but you will.”

I pulled on my hiking boots and started my hunt. Hummingbirds flitted in front of me as I strolled through the woods to emerge at a viewpoint where the river seemed to seep uncontrollably out through tightly knitted pockets of green below. I continued and found myself stopping for no particular reason.

I looked to my left and slowly realised the raised grassy mound was in the shape of a giant bear. Michael was right. For the last leg of the River Road, I criss-crossed between Wisconsin and Minnesota. Every year, 10,000 migratory birds also follow the waterway here, heading for warmer temperatures. The most recognisable of these is the bald eagle, and I watched in awe as they majestically circled above the outskirts of Minneapolis-St Paul.

It is here that I made what would be my penultimate stop and, as time was tight, I chose to swap four wheels for two with a Segway tour of the city. At the river’s only waterfall, a hydroelectric plant has been set up to harness the power of the water. But, as my guide informed me, there is a force that they are finding much harder to control: Asian carp. As such, all locks north of this one have temporarily been closed off to the southern parts of the river. 

When I finally took to the water again, with my canoe guide Terry, it was much further up the river, and it was hard to believe the same waterway that had taken several minutes to cross on a Segway was now a shallow and easily navigable sliver.

On my final day, I began the short walk to the headwaters. Noticing some steps descending into the water, I took off my shoes to tread the final kilometre in the river itself. As I rounded the final bend I thought back to the question Terry had posed. 

Here, at the source, as I was about to reach the end of my journey, I think I understood what he meant. For centuries man has lived off the river, battled over it, attempted to control, guide and contain it, but the Mississippi has kept churning and meandering regardless. For the river, this was neither the beginning nor the end. It would always be the middle of a journey, one that is truly never-ending.

To plan your own multi-state road trip in the USA, see www.VisitTheUSA.co.uk

The author flew with Delta (www.delta.com), which, along with its partner airline Virgin Atlantic (virginatlantic.com), offers daily flights to both New Orleans (via Atlanta) and Minneapolis-St Paul (direct) from London Heathrow.

Main image: Canoeing the headwaters of Mississippi

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