With a total length of 2,340 miles, the Mississippi River is one of the longest rivers in North America. The Old Man River is the birthplace of skiing and a proud home to many unique sea creatures, such as gulf sturgeons and alligator gars.
This explains why humans have been intrigued with the Mississippi since its discovery in 1519 and have always been pushed to try unique and new things involving it. If you’ve ever wondered just how long it would take a person to swim the Mississippi, this article has all you need to know.
How Long Would It Take a Person To Swim the Entire Mississippi?
The average person can swim as fast as one to two miles per hour or at an average speed of 1.5 miles per hour. If a person were to swim the entire 24-hour day without stopping, they would cover 36 miles. It would take 65 days to swim the entire Mississippi River at this pace.
More realistically, however, a person wouldn’t be able to swim for 24 hours non-stop, and they’d be more likely to swim for 12 hours every day at that same speed, resulting in a 130-day journey.
Is It Possible To Swim the Entire Length of the Mississippi?
Although swimming the Mississippi River might sound impossible, it can be done and has been done, twice. The first person ever recorded to swim the entire Mississippi non-stop was Slovenian long-distance swimmer Martin Strel in 2002.
It goes without saying that Strel was no novice swimmer, but even this didn’t make the feat easy. It took the professional athlete 68 days to swim the Mississippi River. Even more impressively, he only took breaks for meals and to sleep on a boat that moved alongside him.
In 2005, just three years later, Chris Ring, a former American Navy Combat, completed the swim in 181 days. Ring became the second person and first American to swim the full length of the Mississippi non-stop.
How Difficult Is Swimming the Mississippi?
You might wonder how hard it is to swim the Mississippi. Is the journey tedious because of its length, and would it be the same as swimming a 2,340-mile pool?
Well, if we consider two other super swimmers who attempted the Mississippi swim but couldn’t swim its entire length, it becomes clear that the swim is definitely more grueling than a swim in a pool.
In 1997, Nick Irons, an American swimmer, decided to swim the Mississippi River. He started from the Mississippi in Minneapolis and swam down 1,500 miles to Baton Rouge. Since Irons didn’t swim the entire river, it’d be incorrect to say he completed the Mississippi swim. His journey took four months and raised a lot of money for the Nancy Davis Foundation.
Another attempt to swim the Mississippi was made by Fred Newton in 1930, years before any other swimmers made their attempts. He also began his swim from the Mississippi in Minneapolis and swam to New Orleans in five months.
It’s worth noting, however, that Newton didn’t swim non-stop. Through his journey, he stopped at riverside towns and exchanged his painting services for a room and a meal. Sadly, he didn’t get as much recognition as other swimmers who attempted the swim.
Why Is Swimming the Mississippi Difficult?
Apart from its massive size and length, several factors make swimming the Mississippi River a really difficult task. Here are six reasons even a professional swimmer might not be able to make the swim.
1. Mississippi Wildlife
The Mississippi River is home to a diverse array of wildlife, some of which are extremely dangerous. Alligators commonly found in the river are sneaky and relentless creatures that attack and kill humans.
The river is also home to venomous snakes, such as cottonmouths, that have venom strong enough to kill a human. Consequently, anyone swimming the Mississippi must watch out and stay alert, so they aren’t surprised by any predators.
2. Mississippi Currents
The Mississippi’s currents are undoubtedly stronger than the currents of any swimming pool. At the Mississippi’s headwaters, the currents flow at about 1.2 miles per hour, much faster than normal pools. In addition, river currents can be unpredictable, so a swimmer who doesn’t stay alert could very well drown.
Unlike pools that have controlled temperatures, the river can range from warm and inviting to freezing. This was one of the challenges that Fred Newton faced, according to the Smithsonian Mag. To avoid freezing his limbs off, Newton sourced wool underwear and covered his entire body in axle grease to act as an insulator and preserve his body heat.
One major but underrated challenge anyone swimming the Mississippi would face is the river’s extreme pollution. According to the American Rivers Organization, the Mississippi is the 6th most endangered American river due to pollution.
Consequently, swimming the river would include avoiding or tolerating pieces of debris that would flow around with the currents.
Even worse, swimming the river without passing through the famous Cancer Alley that stretches 80 miles would be impossible. This area is a dumpsite for nitrogen waste and even oil pollution. In some areas, the water smells so bad that it is impossible not to gag. Martin Strel stated that while he did his best to keep his head afloat, some of the water got into his mouth, resulting in fits of retching and gagging.
One of the major challenges of swimming the Mississippi is how much consistency it would require. This doesn’t only refer to how consistently a person would need to swim but also to the speed and alertness levels they would need to maintain throughout the months-long journey.
According to the American Waterways Operators, 60 percent of the USA’s grain, 20 percent of its coal, and 22 percent of its oil and gas are transported via the Mississippi (per National Public Radio). Considering this, it’s quite obvious that the river is frequented by massive ships, boats, and other watercraft.
Chris Ring, the former American Navy Combat who completed the swim, stated that these boats do not expect swimmers in the water, so they do not look out for them. For this reason, anyone swimming in the Mississippi must constantly look out for large ships to avoid fatal accidents.
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- Outside, Available here: https://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/water-activities/three-challenges-swimming-entire-mississippi-river/
- npr, Available here: https://www.npr.org/2013/01/10/168950808/mississippi-blues-when-the-river-doesnt-run
- American Rivers, Available here: https://www.americanrivers.org/river/mississippi-river/
- Smithsonian Magazine, Available here: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/fred-newton-swam-mississippi-river-180975512/