Visiting St. Louis

Wild Waters

Adventures await on the waters by St. Louis

By Eric Berger

A friend had always told me he feels the Mississippi River gets overlooked. When it’s right by you, he said, it becomes little more than a fact of life, even ordinary.

With that thought flowing through my head, I recently decided that my family and I would dedicate a few days to the river that cuts through the middle of America. So on a Thursday morning, myself, my wife Ali, and my kids, Charlie and Callie, all hopped in the minivan, turned on the Talking Heads song “Take Me to the River” and drove east from Chesterfield.

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All aboard the Tom Sawyer

As we walked from The Gateway Arch and boarded the Tom Sawyer, a three-story steamboat, my 11-year old son, Charlie, got excited because he had just finished reading “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” the Mark Twain novel that follows Finn and Jim, a runaway slave, as they journey down the river.

“I’m going to get to see it!” he said. (We had driven by the river plenty of times, so maybe my friend was onto something.) Either way, we were off to a good start.

The gleaming white boat was beautifully lined with pegs and red flourishes, and made me nostalgic for a time when life moved slowly. We bought a couple drinks and hot dogs and settled in on the top deck. The captain let out a loud blast—a signal to other boats—and steered us out of the dock.

As we journeyed north, the captain directed our attention to a sign on the levee that informs boats of the river stage. He explained that the rivermen began measuring this in the 1840s when the river got very low. And despite the fact that we now all have cell phones—there has to be an app for that—the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers still updates the number daily.

Along the way, we passed under six bridges, including the Eads Bridge, a steel road and railway overpass that the captain told us dates to 1874. I asked a fellow passenger to take a photo of me, Charlie, my wife, Ali, and our 8-year-old daughter, Callie as we neared the bridge. The photographer managed to capture us, the black funnels on the top of the boat and the crescent underside of the bridge.

On our way back, Ali asked the captain about the cobblestone on the riverfront. He was nice enough to take questions from passengers throughout the trip and told us how they had been laid by Irish immigrants in the 1840s. They were paid a penny per stone. Pretty good work for that wage, my wife joked, because the stones still appear solid today.

We had told our friendly photographer that we were planning to do a bike trip in the afternoon, and she recommended that we check out the Columbia Bottoms Conservation Area, located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

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More STL adventures

We decided to take the five-mile bike trail. I was surrounded by wetlands featuring different plant species and migratory birds who had decided to park there for the afternoon. Despite its proximity to the cars, bars and baseball of downtown, it felt undisturbed.

Our last stop for the day was at the National Great Rivers Museum on the other side of the river in East Alton. The staff at the museum—which is free, by the way—was nice enough to let our 8-year-old pilot a towboat. Before you call the police, let me explain—it was a simulator. And besides, Charlie and Callie had a better grasp of the throttle and rudder than we did. They made it under a bridge safely. My wife and I both crashed; there were no survivors.

We checked out the turtles in an aquarium and then a tour guide took us to the top of the Melvin Price Locks and Dam. She told us that there aren’t too many places in the country where you can still see a major waterway from the top of a dam this size. She explained how it operates—in theory. But then fortunately, we got to actually see how it worked. For the second time that day, we heard a blast from a boat announcing its presence. The tugboat was carrying grain downstream, the guide explained. It was quite impressive to see this massive structure control the flow of the river and allow the boat to pass through. Then the guide pointed out an eagle’s nest on the other side of the river. As luck would have it, we saw our national bird circling in the sky.

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Big Muddy

The next evening, Ali and I left our kids with a babysitter and set out on what turned out to be our best date night in years. We again drove down to the riverfront for a full moon float with Big Muddy Adventures. Alongside a handful of other couples, we hopped in a bus near the Arch and drove to the North Riverfront Park, another place I had never visited. In a pair of long canoes, we paddled out into the river. I have to say, I never imagined that I would be in a canoe on a river the size of the Mississippi. And to be honest, if it weren’t for our guide, “Big Muddy” Mike Clark,  a rugged, tall man who looked like he had been on the river a time or 12, I’m not sure it would have happened.

I saw the bridges I had seen a day earlier on the boat, but in a canoe, we gained a better sense of the power of the river. Still, there was never a moment where I felt intimidated.

We landed on an island in the middle of the river where a local chef prepared and served pork belly-wrapped tenderloin, roasted potatoes, canederli dumplings, roasted cauliflower and berry kuchen. We were looking at the Arch and riverfront, illuminated by the moon, from an entirely new angle. It struck me as familiar but different. As we paddled back around 9:30 p.m., I felt like I was heading to see an old friend, with a new appreciation for the rivers that surround it.

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