Mississippi River Source to Sea:Learning the Shape of the River

You only learn the shape of the river; and you learn it with such absolute certainty that you can always steer by the shape that’s in your head, and never mind the one that’s before your eyes.
— Mr. Bixby, Life on the Mississippi

On this adventure I'm slowly reading Mark Twain's memoir Life on the Mississippi where a young Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) is learning how to pilot a steamboat on the Mississippi River. He struggles with the enormity of information he must remember about every bend, bank, and shoal of the river. The way the river looks going upriver and downriver, in the daytime and at nighttime. Clemens' exasperation with the river is at it's height when he asks his teacher Mr. Bixby, "After I have learned it, can I depend on it? Will it keep the same form and not go fooling around?” To which he doesn't get a direct answer but comes to understand that of course the river is constantly changing, leading him to announce the following:

Two things seemed pretty apparent to me. One was, that in order to be a pilot a man had got to learn more than any one man ought to be allowed to know; and the other was, that he must learn it all over again in a different way every twenty-four hours.
— Mark Twain

I applaud those steamboat pilots back then. I can't imagine having to carry around the weight of intricate knowledge of such a massive river without the technology the captains have nowadays. As for me personally, having been out on the river for 58 days I’m just now coming to learn how to read the shape of the river. That doesn’t mean I can read the river, it just means that I now know not to expect to know. The big muddy is as complicated as they come.

It doesn’t help that I’m sitting low on the water and can’t get a higher vantage point like the tugboats pushing barges may have. I come to a bend in the river and don’t realize there is a sand bar covering most of the river until I’m right up on it and have to follow the sand all the way across the river from where I started. I initially tried to cut distance by crossing the river where it bends but quickly learned that every time I tried to do that there was a massive sand bar in the way and I had to row around it leading me to zig zagging all over the place. I also have to leave the bank-side to row out into the middle of the river to get around the dikes, low rock walls that jut out into the river, constantly now. Then there is the occasional getting stuck on a sand bar or rocky bottoms in shallow water. Again, it's difficult to tell what's up ahead from such a low vantage point. It's all exacerbated due to the fact that I am going downriver backwards. I have a mirror that allows me to see behind me but it’s mostly to be able to see the banks of the river, barges, and strainers to avoid. I'm just not able to discern water patterns in the mirror to tell if I'm coming upon a shoal or whirlpool.

The river has changed since leaving St. Louis and the end of the dams. The river is not as wide and the current seems to have lessened. Sometimes when I follow close to shore there is no current at all. Even more frustrating is when I stop rowing for a minute and am pushed back upriver by a current going upstream or by the wind. I come across much more dips in the river. I know when one is coming cause I can hear the rapid water in the distance. Some of them also have small waterfalls and rocks I have to dodge, but I like going down them cause it’s like a slide. Then usually on the other side of these dips are swirling waters and currents that twist me all over the place. I’ve hit whirlpools that spin me 360 degrees. I’ve found to not force my way through the whirlpool waters as the counter force tends to tip my boat. Sometimes when I pass the massive whirlpools I imagine the canoe and me getting sucked into one and traveling black-hole style to another dimension or time.

Lastly, I’ve been surprised to find that the river is still not very straight. After St. Louis the river seems to be meandering once more. Annoyingly I had to go around 2 horseshoe bends that added tens of miles of going north just to go right back south. I felt I could have portaged across at the narrowest part of land in less time and probably saved 20 miles or more. It just goes to show how young the river actually is and that as it gets older the straighter the river will get. The river will be searching for the shortest, fastest course. It reminds me of a geomorphology class I took in undergrad where I learned about oxbow lakes made after a river straightens and land separates the former bend making a standing body of water not connected to the river anymore.

The river is a constant source of mystery and I enjoy seeing how it changes.

When I had learned the name and position of every visible feature of the river; when I had so mastered its shape that I could shut my eyes and trace it from St. Louis to New Orleans; when I had learned to read the face of the water as one would cull the news from the morning paper; and finally, when I had trained my dull memory to treasure up an endless array of soundings and crossing-marks, and keep fast hold on them, I judged that my education was complete; so I got to tilting my cap to the side of my head, and wearing a toothpick in my mouth at the wheel.
— Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi
Sara Leibold