Just north of St. Louis, a set of rapids known as the Chain of Rocks stretches across the river. The Chain is no longer entirely natural. A low-head dam also stretches across the river, so paddlers not only face the prospect of rocks in the channel, but pieces of concrete and rebar (and on rare occasions, big pieces of trash like washing machines). Rivers are also dynamic, so conditions can change from one year to the next.
Depending on the river level, paddling through the Chain is either impossible or a breeze. If you’re tempted to bypass the Chain by paddling down the adjacent canal—don’t. The Canal is narrow, there’s no safe place to pull aside if barge traffic is heavy, and the scenery is a bore. Take the Chain. You can always portage around them if the river is too low. Below you’ll find a few important tips to keep in mind as you approach the rapids.
You’ll always have the option to portage by exiting on the left side of the river (left as you’re facing downstream) just above the fishing access on Chouteau Island (river mile 190.3); look for piles of white rip-rap along the bank. It’s a 200-foot portage, but make sure to put in far enough downriver of the rapids that you don’t get caught in an eddy.
Even if you’re planning on running the Chain, it’s a good idea to get off the river at the portage and take a few minutes to scout out the rapids. From shore, you’ll be able to choose a good path through the rapids and you’ll also be able to spot obstructions that are nearly impossible to see in advance as you’re barreling down the river.
How you approach paddling through (or portaging) will depend on how high the river is. The guidelines below are based on the river height as measured at the St. Louis Gauge.
If the river is below 16 feet on the St. Louis gauge, portage. Simple.
From 16 to 20 feet, your best bet will probably be to stick to the middle of the Chain (stay right of the intake towers) but scout it out first and follow this advice from the Rivergator website:
Use paddler’s common sense and go with the smoothest line of water entering the widest V-line, and keep your eyes open for any last-minute adjustments that might become necessary.
At 20 feet, the best route over the Chain is between the intake towers and over the rapids. At 24 feet and up, most paddlers can safely navigate over the Chain; you may notice only minor turbulence at that river level.
Be forewarned: even after you get through the Chain, dangerous swiftwater conditions await you not far downstream in the St. Louis Harbor around all of the docks, wharves and bridge piers!