Experts tell fossil hunters to use caution exploring newly exposed spots along the Mississippi River

People walk along the shoreline of the Mississippi River, which has expanded as the river...
People walk along the shoreline of the Mississippi River, which has expanded as the river reaches historic lows.(James Starnes, MDEQ)
Published: Nov. 1, 2022 at 7:05 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - With the recently exposed sandbars and shorelines, and the promise of finding everything from sunken boats to mammoth tusks, the receding Mississippi River has suddenly become a hotbed for nature lovers, history lovers and casual archaeologists alike.

Experts are urging individuals who visit the river to use caution, saying that just because the water is lower doesn’t mean it’s safe.

“Sandbars can collapse. There’s gumbo-like clay [and] mud that will suction you in... and you won’t get out by yourself,” said Anna Reginelli, president of the Mississippi Archaeological Association Delta Chapter. “If you’re walking on a rock dike, they shift - the rocks will shift.”

Reginelli, a Bolivar County resident who grew up on the river, said many archaeologists have expressed interest in going out to river to hunt fossils, look for artifacts or take in history, something that prompted her to post a list of safety tips on the association’s Facebook page.

“It’s OK to want to go and discover... The Mississippi River’s curtains are pulled back. She’s exposed a lot of very interesting things that have not been seen in decades,” she said. “If you go out there, just be prepared... Be careful.”

Reginelli posted these tips to Facebook:

  • Bring more water than you expect to need. Sip on it throughout your time on the gravel/sandbars.
  • If you see a spot of wet sand, test it before stepping onto it.
  • Carry a pistol - Wild hogs and other aggressive animals are on the bars and going down to drink from the river.
  • Make sure a family member or friend knows where you are and what you are wearing.
  • Carry a portable charger power bank or external battery for your phone.
  • Wear proper clothing and a hat.

The Mississippi has fallen to historic or near-historic levels, dropping more than four feet in Vicksburg and more than 10 feet in Greenville, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The drop has severely impacted the ability to transport goods. But at the same time, it has opened a window to history, exposing fossils, shells and other artifacts.

“Some really amazing things have been found recently,” said James Starnes, director of the Surface Geology Division with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. “One of the things we found when we were on the river with the Natural Science Museum and U.S. Fish and Wildlife, with our last expedition, was a giant beaver... These are bear-sized beavers that lived during the Ice Age.”

During a recent fossil program at the Museum of the Mississippi Delta, he said people were bringing in their newest finds, including mammoth and mastodon bones and evidence of saber-toothed tigers.

“There’s lots of Pleistocene bones and things that can be found out there. But that is not something I recommend that you do if you’re not experienced in doing it,” he said.

Like Reginelli, Starnes says people need to watch where they walk, testing the ground to ensure that it is stable, and to be on the lookout for wild animals. Wild hogs and other aggressive animals are more likely going to the river now to seek water as some smaller creeks have dried up.

And even though it’s cooler outside, Starnes and Reginelli agreed that visitors need to pack plenty of drinking water to avoid dehydration.

“Those sandbars, they reflect the sun. If you’ve ever been on a beach or something like that, as long as that sun is shining you can get dehydrated pretty quick,” he said.

And while you might need a drink, Starnes said many of the newly exposed sandbars only appear to be dry. “You can’t really tell just by looking, but you’re dealing with an environment that was covered in quite a bit of water and a lot of moving water,” he said.

Starnes explained the sediment was in constant motion when the river was up. Now that waters have receded, the sand, clays, gravels and silts have settled, but have not have time to dry out or compact.

“That’s where you end up with this quicksand type of situation,” he said. “You’ll see mud cracks as the sun starts to bake those things and dry them out a little bit. That’s not happening in the very, very shallow subsurface. Those can still be very unconsolidated. You can literally sink up to your waist.”

Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs says he’s seen the problem himself, with the city attempting to dispatch crews to clean up sediment at a boat launch at the end of Clay Street.

“We were trying to put a backhoe on it last week and we couldn’t get out there,” he said. “We’re having to contract out with somebody coming in from a barge with a backhoe on it and remove some of the sediment.”

Meanwhile, he’s directed the city’s police department to do extra patrols along the river to let visitors know of the potential threats. “If they see people walking in the area that we think is dangerous, [we] notify them that they’re putting their life at risk,” he said. “It’s just curiosity, but it is not safe.”

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