Keeping Current on the Mississippi

Check out Pere Marquette for great beaches and boating

Had Jacque Marquette and Louis Joliet made their famous voyage 350 million years ago, they would have been sipping mai tais and overlooking prime oceanfront real estate in what is now Pere Marquette State Park.

Were it 350 years later, they could have bet New France's funding on craps at the Alton Belle Casino. Instead, the explorers set out in the mid-1600s. On their trip back up the Mississippi, Marquette settled and taught Christianity at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. The 8,000 acres of protected forest land that now bear Marquette's name compose the largest state park in Illinois.

The idea of boating on the Mississippi seems archaic, almost dirty, to those who consider the Lake of the Ozarks their only option. But Pere Marquette State Park is the puritanical answer to the nautical orgy that is the Lake of the Ozarks.

Resuscitating the long-neglected St. Louis riverfront is a slow process, but the pulse is pumping in nearby Illinois towns like Alton and Grafton, where new boat slips and docks are slated to open this season.

"The Lake [of the Ozarks] is a wonderful place, but it doesn't have a single beach," says Mark Adams, the mid-south regional manager for the National Marine Manufacturer's Association. "The Mississippi, the Dardenne Slough and up toward Winfield: There's miles of beaches ideal for sandbar camping and barbecuing." And though not of the tiki-bar/duty-free variety, islands like Mason Island -- where the Mississippi meets the Illinois near Pere Marquette -- have clean, scenic public beaches.

Missouri law doesn't require adults to be certified to operate a watercraft, but Adams strongly recommends taking a boater's education course through the Coast Guard Auxiliary before launching. "Educated boaters are informed boaters," he says, "and the classes build confidence. The more confident you are, the more you'll go out on the water."

Increased boating activity is a goal of Adams and others responsible for assembling www.showmethemississippi.com, a valuable Web resource for boaters interested in what the rivers can offer them. Though especially noted for its foliage in the fall and eagle-watching in the winter, Pere Marquette is a summertime treat for those seeking a river excursion.

Boaters will likely tell you that days spent on the water are about the journey, not the destination. If you don't entirely subscribe to this philosophy, Pere Marquette offers plenty of on-land options. The park's wooded grounds are a perfect respite for shaky sea legs and a picnic lunch. At Pere, each vantage point reveals a different postcard-worthy scene of towering bluffs, full trees and steady-as-she-goes waters.

The visitor's center is comparable to a mini-Museum of Western Expansion, chronicling in neatly displayed exhibits the state park's history from millions of years ago to the current day. A small theater offers three different films about the park's past and present; it's nice to be able to learn about who (and what) has traversed the land for thousands of years before venturing into the 8,000-acre park. Also inside, a 300-gallon aquarium features a cross-section of the fish that call the Midwest home. They might be your garden-variety bluegill and catfish, but the accompanying placards and literature point out the interactions and value of all living things in the park's ecosystem. Outside, nearly twelve miles of marked trails wind through the wooded grounds. Pere Marquette's staff will provide maps and help plan a quick go-round or a daylong excursion. Bikers can hop on a paved twenty-mile trail that ends in Alton, and from now through October, visitors can also explore the park on horseback.

But if the boat trip alone is adventure enough for one day, and you couldn't give a crap about crappie, head to neighboring Pere Marquette Lodge. Visitors to this 1930s stone-and-timber facility have access to recreational areas including an atrium swimming pool and sauna. Grab a cool drink at the adjacent restaurant and enjoy it either on the patio overlooking the river or inside the lodge, home to a 700-ton stone fireplace that is mercifully turned off during the summer months. For more information call 618-786-2331 or visit www.ilresorts.com/pml.

Leaving from a marina in St. Charles (depending on the currents and the weather conditions), the journey to Pere Marquette is an easy two-hour trip by water -- a full hour less than getting to the Ozarks by car. Riverside Harbor (636-946-5535), Port Charles Harbor (636-250-2628) and Sherwood Marina (636-250-4400) in St. Charles County have public boat ramps for boat owners that provide direct access to the Mississippi.

St. Louis County dwellers can launch into the Meramec River from Marshall Park in Kirkwood or George Winter Park in Fenton. Accessing the Mississippi from the Meramec takes only 30 minutes.

But if you can't swindle a boat from any of your nautically inclined friends, getting to Pere Marquette State Park from St. Louis by car and renting a watercraft is another option. Just take I-270 east to Route 367 north, crossing both the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Turn left at the light in Alton and continue on Highway 100 north, also known as the Great River Road. These last twenty miles of the trip are the most scenic, with the river rolling to the left and bluffs soaring to the right. After passing Raging Rivers Water Park on the right, slow down to admire the quaint artisan shops, restaurants and wineries.

If you're boatless, seek out Tom Foster Jr. of Grafton Canoe, Kayak, Bike and Boat Rentals on Water Street, in front of the public boat-launching ramp (618-786-2192). During his seven years in business, Foster has expanded his enterprise from a couple of kayaks and a van to include pontoon, ski and fishing boats as well as WaveRunners. Daylong motorboat rentals start at $150 and include everything but gas.

Foster, who grew up near the river, also agrees that boating close to home is preferable to the congested Lake of the Ozarks. In addition to the cheaper gas and lodging, he estimates that the boat rentals here are about half of what you'd pay down south. And thanks to the efforts of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard, Foster says, the rivers are cleaner than they've been since his childhood.

Though the ocean hasn't nuzzled the banks of St. Louis for millennia, the nearby beaches and sandbars just might carve out a new venue for the recreational boating culture. Plans for Pere Marquette to open a full-service marina are being laid out. The rivers are again primed for exploration. New businesses and river revitalization groups have already dropped anchor.

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