River Wars (Things Get Messy)

On 'Who Wants To Be A Millionaire' last night there was a question about a U.S. city named Cairo, asking which river it touched. I wasn't sure, I was torn between the Missouri and Ohio, but my gut instinct leaned towards Ohio, and I got it correct. So this led me to check some location info to see how close the Missouri River was located. Then I noticed something odd.

The beginning line for the Wikipedia article on the Missouri River said it was the longest river in North America. Length 2,341 miles. Hmmm, I thought. I thought that the Mississippi River was the longest(?). So then I checked the Mississippi River article and it has "largest river system of North America", length 2,530.

Excuse me, I thought the number 2,530 was bigger than 2,341 ?!?!? Let me check on my calculator. Yeppa, it is, but let's put them in an Excel spreadsheet as well just to be sure. The winner is of course Mis2sis5sip3pi0.

But I am confused by their nuanced wording, longest and largest, plus the additional word 'system'.

The Missouri is the large river of my childhood, so there was an infantile wish part of me hoping it would be the winner. I didn't pass over the Mississippi until I was in my twenties and that time high in a jet a few times. It would be about another decade in my thirties before I drove over it on a bridge.

But while I was sitting here just now on my couch I realized that the Missouri River is actually getting cheated out of being the longest river. It s'pposedly 'joins' the Mississippi River near the city of St Louis, and contributes to the Mississippi River as a tributary. But hold on a second, at this point in measuring the Missouri as 'finished', it has gone the 2,341 miles, and it is a long ways to the Gulf of Mexico. Why does the river get to be called the Mississippi instead of being named the Missouri?

Let's put it in the perspective of a journey by boat.

If you logically got in a canoe at the headwaters of the Missouri, desired the shortest continuous water path possible on the longest river and followed it downstream to the ocean, not knowing anything about maps or names, just going with the flow, that would be the longest water journey possible (without backtracking), i.e. longest river.

I asked Google how far the distance was from St Louis to the Gulf of Mexico, and got an answer of 1,495 miles. BUT doing a very rough distance calculation with Google Earth gave a much much shorter answer, so I very carefully followed The River using the ruler tool plotting a course around ALL the bends in the river from the St Louis junction point to the Gulf of Mexico. I placed the pointer in the middle of the stream and luckily there were few clouds on the satellite photos. The answer I got was 1,135. So adding 1,135 to 2,341, that gives 3,476 miles as the longest river in North America.

I also decided to give it a new name since I had straightened out this mess. My fourth favorite form of water is soup, so combining them altogether, Mess+Is+Soup+I, our new name for the longest river in North America is drum-roll-please comma-comma Messissoupi. The egotistical part of me likes the 'me' at the beginning as well, AND I managed to make the new name sound and look like a combination of the two words Missouri and Mississippi.

Oh, checking the length of the Nile: nope, the Messissoupi is shorter than the Nile.

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