Down the Great River

Everyone must believe in something. I believe I'll go canoeing.
--Henry David Thoreau

All the great rivers of the world have their unique characteristics; The Nile is longest, the Amazon discharges the greatest volume, The Volga meets its end below sea level (neat trick), the Ganges is sacred, et cetera. So what's unique about the Mississippi? Of all the earth's great rivers the Mississippi falls the shortest distance from its source to its end. The source of the Mississippi is only 1475 feet above sea level. We build skyscrapers that are taller than the total distance the Mississippi flows down hill. It's not so dramatic a characteristic as other rivers possess, but it is good for one thing: The Mississippi's short fall makes it an easily navigable river. Before any dams were placed in the river, there were few obstructions in the form of rapids or waterfalls that interfered with the passage of a shallow draft vessel. The Mississippi has always been a relatively easy river to canoe.

We've titled this section of our website, Down the Great River in honor of the first person to have completed the entire trip. In 1886 Captain Willard Glazier led an expedition that made the journey in canoes from the Mississippi's source to the Gulf of Mexico. Captain Glazier deserves substanial credit for his efforts even though he is now often mentioned with some disdain. Through some rather obviously exaggerated maps he attempted to relocate the source of the Mississippi from Lake Itasca to Elk Lake, which he tried to rename Lake Glazier. He actually succeeded for a time, but Jacob Brower's later survey of the area (1891) returned Lake Itasca to the Mississippi's accepted source. Nice try Willard!

Shown in the photograph is the front cover and title page of Captain Glazier's book Down the Great River which claims a copyright date of 1887.

It may be a comparatively easy river to canoe. There are no class III rapids; there aren't even class II rapids. Still, to canoe down any section of the Mississippi yet alone its entire 2348 miles can be a daunting task and the adventure of a lifetime. The trip is not without dangers and over the years there have been plenty of those misfortunate enough to have lost their lives in the attempt. The headwaters are located in northern Minnesota; where, in the lakes region of the river, the water can be cold enough to kill you in less than two hours. In the working sections of the river the towboats weigh between 30 and 50 thousand tons. In a collision with a canoe the towboat is going to win. There are hidden dangers. Empty barges parked along the shore stand twelve feet off the water. The current passing under the barge's slanted bow can be strong enough to force a canoe and canoeist right under the barge (lifevest or not) -- It's done as much to twenty foot long pontoon boats! Still, there's always someone either daring enough or foolish enough to grasp onto the idea and then grasp a paddle -- down the great river they go.

This section of our website is for all those who have dreamed big -- as big as the river they then embraced in the most intimate way as they set off to paddle Down the Great River.

Click on a canoe for the story.