Life or Death in the Chain of Rocks

St. Louis, Missouri
September 17, 2019

Dear Family & Friends:

On September 15, I paddled 16 miles to Alton Illinois. After securing my canoe at the local marina, I checked into a hotel. I had a great dinner at Fast Eddie’s Bar & Grille, a venue recommended by the Bosler Family.

September 16 was the most harrowing day of the trip. I had read about the “Chain of Rocks” between Alton and St. Louis. The Chain of Ricks is a geologic formation just below the confluence of the Mississippi River and the Missouri River. This creates a river-wide set of whitewater rapids, containing submerged rocks, concrete hazards  and construction rebar. These rapids are treacherous and unnavigable, even by towboats. See this video of the Chain of Rocks.

Every book I read, and every person I consulted recommended avoiding at all cost the Chain of Rocks. I had two options. My first option was to remove my canoe from the River and portage around the Chain of Rocks. My second option was to proceed down a canal that was built on the Illinois side of the River just to bypass the Chain of Rocks. My plan was to take the second option.

One mile south of Alton, I reached the Mel Price Lock & Dam. The Lockmaster insisted I put on my life vest. It was my understanding the Chain of Rocks and the bypass canal came after the last Lock & Dam on the River. I asked the Lockmaster if this was the last Lock & Dam on the River. He informed me I had one more Lock & Dam to negotiate down River. So, I blithely paddled down the middle of the River and missed the bypass canal. It turns out, the last Lock & Dam is in that canal!

I reached the Chain of Rocks bridge over the River. It was once part of the famous Route 66, but is now closed to automobile traffic. Just beyond the bridge, I reached the two historic “Castles” in the middle of the River.  The Castles were once water intake towers for the St. Louis Water Department. The Castles had living quarters that were used by the  crews that worked in these towers. The Castles were accessible via a dike that ran from the bank of the River to the Castles. The dikes were removed and the Castles are no longer operable.

Just beyond the Castles, I saw white water ahead of me that ran from one side of the River to the other. I thought “that’s strange, my map didn’t show these rapids.” Then, the River started moving faster and the white water got closer and closer. Before I could react, I dropped about 10 feet down into the teeth of the rapids. I was now caught in the roiling, boiling cauldron of the Chain of Rocks rapids. I paddled and prayed furiously, trying to keep my canoe headed down River and above water. God sat on my shoulder and got me out of the Chain of Rocks and safely back in the main current of the River. But, I think I heard Him say “don’t do that again.” I can’t recall ever being so scared.

Further down the River, a large commercial canoe pulled up behind me manned by two guides with about 8 customers. The lead guide-Roo-complimented me on my skill in navigating the Chain of Rocks and told me I was brave to make the attempt. I informed him I had no intention to paddle my canoe through these waters. But, I was glad to be a survivor. Roo informed me if I had made the attempt two days earlier, when the River was lower, I probably would not have survived. Roo offered to store my canoe in the Big Muddy Adventures warehouse in St. Louis. I gladly accepted this generous offer.

The trip from Alton to St. Louis was 22 miles. I was so glad to round a bend and see the Gateway Arch-the fantastic memorial to the role played by St. Louis in the westward expansion of the United States in the 1800’s. I loaded my canoe on the Big Muddy Adventures trailer and checked into the Drury Hotel in downtown St. Louis.In the evening, I had a great bbq dinner at the Sugarfire restaurant and enjoyed blues music at BB’s Jazz Blues & Soup and the Oyster Bar.

On September 17, I enjoyed a zero day in St. Louis. I had lunch with Maury Poscover, a close friend who practices law at a lawfirm in St. Louis. Maury and I were very active in the American Bar Association and participated together on many committees and programs. After lunch, Maury drove me to REI for supplies and then gave me a great tour of St. Louis. Thanks Maury!

I’ll be back on the River on September 18, bound for who knows where. I’m told the Port of St. Louis is insanely busy with River traffic and the wakes, waves and current will increase as I head further South. I have also been told I will be encountering fewer cities as I head further South, which means more tent camping and cooking.


(if you click on each photo you can view a higher resolution)

Paddling under the Chain of Rocks Bridge. Note Castle.
Commercial canoe
Paddle Boat

Arrival in St. Louis
Roo & Matt

Maury & Bill


8 thoughts on “Life or Death in the Chain of Rocks

  1. Bill, It is my privilege to hove the opportunity to meet you on the river at Hoppies Marina. Despite the fact that you are solo and doing the trip differently we share the river experience. We, Loopers, have the opportunity to meet so many folks actually doing what makes them exceptional! Hope we meet again on the waterways or mountains.

  2. Oh, what a story you have to tell! “I survived the Chain of Rocks in a 16″ canoe!” That video was very scary. Can’t believe you found yourself IN it before you knew what was happening. Probably the rest of the trip will be a breeze after that experience. I want to ask you where do the tugboats and barges go – how do a circumnavigate the chain of rocks?

  3. Bill. Greetings to you from San Diego California. I brought some newspapers home from our cabin in Bemidji mn to read upon my return. I just read the front page article in the Bemidji pioneer dates August 2nd and wow. What an adventure. I hope that enjoyed your trip through Gods Country. Although a late comer to your adventures I hope to catch some of your ride.
    Blessings to you.

  4. Bill, glad to return to your adventure. I have been away 2 weeks hiking Mt. Blanc (France, Italy, Switzerland). Now home and reengaging jet–lagged life. Your castle pictures and story make a valuable contribution to history.

    Phil Brindon is only 120 miles south of you in Cape Girardeau. He is looking forward to hosting you and putting in some canoe days on the river.

    Livelikedan, blessings, Rick

  5. Bill, you really don’t have to prove there is a God to us. Why do I suspect the spray skirt wasn’t on? I hope the photo with large canoe in front of you showing an Orange life jacket isn’t the one you wear? Be safe as I want to shake your hand and toast you upon your successful return. That turn out you missed is easy to miss. The sign is at a bad angle from center river and as I recall weather worn to be difficult to interpret. KEEP ON PADDLING ON! Mikebudd

  6. Bill,

    I can’t imagine how scary that experience was and yet you have the story and pictures to share. Thanks for letting us live vicariously through your adventures! Enjoy the ride and stay safe!


    Bosler Family 🙂

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