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Crossing the channel, exploring the Mississippi on foot

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 28, 2012 - A couple weeks back, I ran into an acquaintance from the neighborhood at the local coffee shop. In passing, she told me that she was part of a canoeing group, an interesting enough fact. But she really piqued my interest by noting that her friends typically meet at Mosenthein Island, about eight miles north of downtown St. Louis. These days, she said, the water was as depressed as they’d yet seen, dipping low enough for people literally to walk out to Mosenthein from the nearby, larger Chouteau Island.

It was the kind of quick exchange that resonated all afternoon. Before the next day was out, I’d sent a note to several exploring friends and, soon enough, five us were signed on to travel to Mosenthein, via Chouteau, ideally walking between the two islands. Granted a bit of luck, the weather that day bordered on the unbelievable, many of us ditching a layer of clothing along the way, as the temperatures edged into the high 50s on a slightly cloudy, windless afternoon.

Arriving at the Canal Bridge, we awaited our turn on what’s essentially a one-laner. After waiting for two cars to edge eastward and past us, we crossed the Chain of Rocks Canal, which separates Illinois proper from the manmade Chouteau Island. Just off the bridge and onto a graded road, the island treated us to another interesting sight: two hunters, walking through a clearing, visible with their shotguns and orange vests. We made a careful mental note and kept going to a parking area, where we relied on a combination of physical hunting-and-pecking and phone-based GPS to put us on a unmarked hiking path. This started our foot journey, which initially wound along a large, recently tilled field.

For the next half-hour, or so, we traveled through a variety of environments, with the terrain changing every few minutes. Thick forests gave way to a wide tract of five-foot-high, burr-filled brush. Small valleys, ringed by fallen timber, offered short, sharp climbs. A strangely colorful, dried-out creek bed was easily crossed, despite a heavy rain two nights before. And, in due time, we came upon an overlook, which peered down at an impressive expanse of sand. We knew we’d found our location, with Mosenthein visible across those sandy flats.

Hiking down to the water, we were faced by a minor issue. With me was a photographer and veteran of nonprofits; a nightclub owner and restaurateur; an avid preservationist and blogger; and an illustrator and blues historian. None of us has an engineering degree, though, so we were collectively puzzled on how to cross what seemed to be the only flowing water between us and Mosenthein. The answer turned out to be deceptively simple: “Let’s Huck Finn it,” said the restaurateur -- so we stripped off the shoes and socks and got to walking.

It worked. The “river” at this point wasn’t wide (about 10-12 feet) or deep (six inches, if that). Despite a calendar stuck on the month of December, the water was cool but not cold; even the mud favored us, more sticky than slick. Carrying our backpacks and dirt-weighted boots, we were now essentially free to pass across this mere wisp of the Mississippi River. We were literally crossing the river, then the infinitely larger riverbed, exposed by the drought conditions of 2012. Whereas the city of Madison’s website states that “Mosenthein Island is only accessible by boat,” this was a new reality.

Walking across that plain, we made pop cultural jokes, referencing movies from “The Ten Commandments” to “Planet of the Apes.” We were somewhat giddy, to be honest, knowing that we were doing something we shouldn’t be doing; not because it was illegal, but because the circumstances came from such a large-scale, ecological quirk. So, yeah, we were aware of the implications of this place. You couldn’t help but be mindful of the drought’s impact when sashaying across this huge sandbox, one that, quite simply, should be underwater, unpassable.

Was the trip unsafe? Only a bizarre, freakish occurrence could’ve caused drowning during this trip, as the water was truly that low. In fact, our primary worry was catching buckshot from a hunter mistaking us for two-legged deer. (To offset the threat, our architectural blogger would occasionally shout out “Game warden!” No gunshots were heard.) And we should note that some vigorous climbing and hiking was involved; a few trees needed to be scaled and some rocky stretches had at least two of us utilizing walking sticks, of which plenty were scattered around, free of charge.

And if any of that could be construed as “trouble,” was the trip worth it?

Absolutely, 100 percent. Yes.