Missouri River Water Trail

River of the Lewis & Clark Expedition


The U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for maintaining shore-based beacons (signposts) along with in-river buoys marking the channel for the entire lower Missouri River.  Learning to read this system will allow a paddler to tell where the channel of the river is located.  A brief summary of the United States Coast Guard  Aids to Navigation system used on the Missouri River is provided by the following link. 

Navigation Aids Sheet

Photo of a Barge on Missouri River near RocheportOf special interest to paddlers is the fact that the shore beacons also have the river mileage posted on them.  These are given as miles traveled upriver from the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers (near the city of St. Louis). Such mileage indicators can be typically found every 3-4 miles on the river.  By observing them, you always know in general where you are.  This combined with the knowledge of the river mile of your take-out point and you can determine how well your trip is going and estimate how long it will take to get to your destination.

Understanding the navigation system also lets you know exactly where a barge will have to travel if you encounter one. The barge will have to stay in the river channel.  Knowing where the main channel is, a paddler can easily move to the appropriate side to wait for the barge and its waves to pass by. This can be analogous to routine task of walking on a sidewalk next to a road. Simply by knowing where the main channel is, you also know where the barge must travel. It is important to remember that they cannot steer around you, therefore you must move out of the way of any barge traveling the river. 

The Unites States Coast Guard has also produced a booklet full of good information on boating navigation in general. The rules that guide safe interactions with power boats, navigation light requirements for night travel, conventions for how bridges are marked for safe passage and much more are provided in this document.  An especially useful section is the one that outlines in detail the Western Rivers Navigation System, which is the convention adopted for the Missouri River.

The Missouri River is a Wide Open Body of Water

There is plenty of room on the Missouri River.  A barge (or other large power boat) will have to travel the center of the established river channel...so you know exactly where they will be.  Most of the time a paddler simply works more towards the shore and out of the main channel and lets them pass.  An experienced paddler will then line up their craft to take on any waves produced straight to the bow and continue on down river.  Most folks find the first experience with a barge to be anti-climatic and much more straight forward than they had assumed.  However, you must make sure you never cross in front of a barge that is near your boat.  The barge captain simply can't maneuver such a large vessel around you and so you must avoid putting yourself in that situation.