October 8, 2010–French Quarter, New Orleans

I have arrived! My long sought goal achieved! I lack for words to describe the satisfaction and joy.  Very eager and excited all day, I pushed on without pause, eating my lunch aboard the kayak so as not

to lose time.  The river was choked with traffic—tugs, tankers, and all manner of other boats servicing them.  Great masses of empty barges, five to ten wide and twice as deep, frequently lined the shores.  Many tankers lie anchored on the banks and I passed so near to them as to exchange pleasantries with the Filipinos on deck, towering many stories above me.

Every bend brought me closer, and I crossed the channel numerous times in my eagerness.  By now the mass of traffic on the river was as unthreatening as busses are to a motorist.  Quite a change from my first apprehensive encounter with a barge-laden tug in St. Paul!

At last I passed a naval yard where some manner of giant war ship was being fabricated, and then passed under the interstate.  The skyline of New Orleans was now very visible and the river bent south and ran along a park where multitudes enjoyed picnics or read or played about in the sun.  Now in the home stretch, the river bent back east and I entered the Port where stevedores were busy at work loading freight into massive tankers.  Adding to my excitement and joy was the seemingly special attention I received as I paddled through the port.  Tugs would toot a deep horn blast as I passed, and some would joke with me over their bullhorn.  A man in a giant crane loading some kind of grain gave a friendly honk and a wave, and several truckers delivering goods along the wharf did the same.  It made me to feel as though they had all been waiting to cheer me on.

As the river bent north to begin the crescent shape from which the city takes it nickname, I could at last behold with my own eyes the final destination! The Canal Street/Algiers ferry was just departing and I crossed its wake and saw ahead a flight of stone steps descending to the water.  As the hull slid to rest on the sandy shore, I leapt out onto the bank with a triumphant whoop.  At the head of the stairs some sort of toothless ex-con was playing harmonica and singing, well into his cups.  Such was my glee at arriving that I sprung up the stairs and began to hoot and holler, stamping my bare feet and clapping my hands, dancing to his music.  When I informed him of the distance I’d traveled, he was suitably impressed enough to make an announcement on his microphone to the tourists and other folks strolling along the levee.  Soon a sizeable crowd had gathered to observe the commotion and the silly stranger, sun-baked and wearing naught but dirty shorts, who was hopping around and yelping with delight.  I received many hearty congratulations and posed for many photos.  A more satisfying and rousing arrival committee I could not have asked for.

New Orleans is an incredible city, perhaps the greatest I have ever visited.  In the days to come I know I will eat well, drink deeply, dance the night away, and be merry.  But those tales will lie in a different journal, for now my journey is complete.  I will sleep in bliss tonight!  Nothing compares to the satisfaction of a goal boldly conceived, diligently planned, strenuously executed, and triumphantly realized.

Day 65:  50 Mi.

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October 7, 2010–Mile 130

The river was teeming with traffic today—an unending stream of barges, ocean tankers, harbor tugs, and various boats.  Huge clusters of empty barges line the river in most areas.  Large towering cranes empty load after load of mysterious white powdery substances, or rust colored musty smelling grains.  Other times long cantilevered pipes spew their contents into an awaiting barge.  The river is pure unabashed commerce and industry now, and I believe there was only a two-mile stretch of river untainted by the sight of such things.

Camped now on a small sandy beach, my view is of 50 or so red and white lights lining the far bank.  The bruised purple glow of New Orleans can be seen in the distance, and descending planes pass overhead occasionally.

How far I have come since the wild rice marshes and meandering streams of Minnesota.  I would like to stay up to relish my last night of solitude and splendor on the mighty Father of Waters, but the lights, constant noise, and parade of tugs seems to undermine this desire.  I am very eager to set foot in the French Quarter and to feel the satisfaction of a long expedition successfully completed!!

Day 64:  50 Mi.

 

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October 6, 2010–Mile 180

Despite last night’s activities, I rose early and managed to have breakfast and fill my water vessels at a reasonable hour.  The channel after Baton Rouge becomes significantly deeper, which allows large ocean-going vessels to navigate up the river, and indeed I saw four or five of these large tankers moored along the shore.  One was from as far away as Liberia.  This deepening channel also results in a slackening current and I was reduced to speeds not made since above St. Louis—around 5 mph.

This section of the river abounds with grotesque petroleum and chemical plants, bristling with piping and towers and some even spouting enormous orange geysers of flame.  It is a jarring contrast to the still beauty of sand and willows and flowing water.

At the end of the day it was the sailor who caught up with me, and we are encamped together off a small beach.  I enjoy the camaraderie of a fellow traveler and adventurer and we get along famously.

Day 63:  50 Mi.

 

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October 5, 2010–Baton Rouge, LA

Enjoyed a warm and peaceful night’s sleep last night, courtesy of a half-buried rusty cargo container in the sands of the beach on which I was encamped.  It was a long riveted cylinder, laid on its side and buried so as to create a long hollow semicircular tube.  It afforded me perfect shelter from the wind and I slept quite soundly.

After traveling half the day, I came upon my sailing acquaintance from Vicksburg, the earnest and genial half of the two and not the instigator of the melee of days past.  I came aboard his 21’ sloop for lunch and enjoyed his company immensely.  I remained with him for the remainder of the day, under sail when the winds were favorable, or on motor power when not—my kayak bobbing merrily along behind.

We moored in Baton Rouge alongside a coiling and tubular public dock/river-viewing platform that seemed more a work of modern art than functional facility.  Indeed it was gated off from the public and in a great state of disrepair.  It sat in the shadow of the USS Kidd, a decommissioned WWII destroyer, whose curator had given us permission to dock for the night.  Baton Rouge seemed to possess a great many and varied public spaces along its waterfront and civic center, which we enjoyed exploring as the sun went down.  We then made a tour of the drinking establishments downtown and did not return to the boat until nearly midnight–our appetites and thirsts happily sated.

I slept on his boat, in the cockpit, where I was nicely sheltered from the cool winds.  I was rudely awakened, however, by waves splashing over me several times from barge wakes, which was unpleasant.  It has been in the 40s each night for some time now.

Day 62:  63 Mi.

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October 4, 2010–Mile 293

Awoke much refreshed and invigorated at 6 am and was on the water by 6:45.  Yesterday was exceedingly blustery and would have been most unpleasant on the river.  Thankfully, today was quite calm.  Again, very chilly in the morning and did not warm until 10 am or so.  The current nice and swift, and my body energized by the day of rest, I made excellent time.  Paused for lunch on a sandbar.  The first time it’s been fair enough to not seek shade for my break.

This afternoon I passed what seemed to be multiple mouths in Red River, each controlled by a lock.  From my charts I infer that sometimes the river flows into the Mississippi, sometimes out.  I believe this to be yet another example of the Corps of Engineers attempts to control the river, to insure that she runs her course to the Gulf, past Baton Rouge and New Orleans, without seeking an alternate route.  The size and scope of the exertions to tame this river, from the locks and dams, to the levees, and revetments, must surely place the Corps’ efforts amongst the greatest engineering projects in the history of man.  I would be curious to see a comparison between the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Giza, and this river—in terms of earth moved, dollars spent, man-hours of labor, volume of rock, etc…

Later I stopped alongside a tug, hove to on the bank, in hopes of being allowed aboard for an inspection of the facilities.  Passing these hulks all day long, I should very much like to compare the reality of their interiors to the images I’ve created in my mind.  Alas, I was politely rebuffed on orders of the captain on liability grounds.  I will continue to inquire when opportunity presents itself, as it would seem a shame to travel so far and never know what life is like aboard these craft.

Today I passed the 2,000-mile mark.  A very satisfying feeling to be sure.  It’s hard to comprehend such a distance, traveled solely under one’s own power, despite the fact that I have lived it every day for these many weeks.  I also passed out of Mississippi; the remainder of my travels will be solely within the state of Louisiana.  The river has served as the division between two states ever since Red Bluff, or thereabout.

Final note: I passed the ferry to Angola Prison at day’s end.  A rather old and notorious place, though at this time I cannot remember the details of its history.  I do recall it to have been the home of Leadbelly, who was recorded there by the Lomaxes, and eventually granted early release to pursue a folk and blues career as far away as New York City.

Day 61:  70 Mi.

 

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October 3, 2010–Natchez, MS

I awoke today feeling fatigued and very unwell.  As I have very comfortable accommodations and my boat is safe and secure at the waterfront, I will remain in Natchez for another night and get as much rest as possible, in anticipation for what should be a six- or seven-day push to New Orleans.

Day 60:  0 Mi.

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October 2, 2010–Natchez, MS

Enjoyed one of the best night’s sleep of this journey—that is, one with the fewest number of awakenings.  Again, in the mid 40s during the night, and I found myself shivering a bit as I broke camp.  With but 20 minutes of paddling however, I was ready to shed my long underwear, and the day proved to be quite warm as there was little breeze.

Natchez offered one of the more inviting vistas upon approach in recent memory.  High on the bluffs overlooking the river stood a row of stately homes, and wending steeply down from them was a road to the water’s edge.  I landed at the wharf area, known as Natchez Under the Hill, which in its heyday was a bustling nexus of gambling, drinking, brothels, barbers and hotels—all the things a riverman might dream about whilst under underway.  Though in its time the most notorious and infamous den of debauchery along the river, it is now reduced to a mere handful of operating establishments, and I gratefully grabbed a stool at the bar—the oldest on the river I’m told.

Natchez once boasted the most millionaires per capita in the country.  Despite these fortunes having been amassed on the backs of slave labor in the cotton fields, its sympathies lay with the Union and it readily capitulated to Grant’s army without a fight.  Thus, its mansions remain intact and it is the focus of many a so-called “pilgrimage” of those keen on exploring these opulent relics.  I find myself feeling unreasonably fatigued, for such a light day of travel, to the extent that I cannot muster the enthusiasm for a detailed exploration of the town.  I shall obtain a room for the night and retire early.

Day 59:  34 Mi.

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October 1, 2010–St. Joseph, LA

I find the activities on the river my first day back from a day in town to always bear a greater burden on my body and psyche than usual, and today was no exception.  My paddle drive seems to be working perfectly.  The cold front continues to operate, making pleasant mid-80s temps in the day and strong winds at my back.  Very little of note today.  A new species of tree seems to be asserting itself along the shore, which I have yet to identify.

As I left town I was passed by a tour boat full of school children who had obviously been informed of my travels by the captain, for they all lined the deck and cheered me on, which warmed my heart.  I have found a most eligible campsite for the night, with a soft sandy embankment and a stand of willow and sycamore in which to hang my hammock and find some shelter from the wind.  It is anticipated to dip into the 40s tonight—a temperature I have not encountered since the first week of this expedition.

Day 58:  40 Mi.

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September 30, 2010–Vicksburg, MS

Was awakened with the news that my two sailing acquaintances, who had departed yesterday morning, had fallen to blows for reasons unknown.  A machete allegedly brandished, and its wielder beaten back.  He was in the local hospital receiving treatment and looking for assistance.  I had planned on overtaking this pair and perhaps camping with them, but I now believe I shall avoid such volatile individuals and remain alone on the river.

Today I rode up to the battlefield memorial and learned of the campaign.  I feel very melancholy when pondering fellow citizens laying siege to their kinsmen and reducing the populace to starvation and illness.  Within the park were various impressive monuments erected by each state to her soldiers.  The most striking was the Illinois monument, built in the style of a classical domed temple.  The reverberations within were cathedral-like, and as I was alone I indulged in a few songs and relished the ghostly decay of the echoes.  I also visited the city history museum, housed in the stately old courthouse where Jefferson Davis made his first speech.  There were many artifacts and histories pertaining to him within, as well as to bygone eras of this region.  One object of note was an elegant red sash worn by Davis on his inauguration—previously worn by George Washington for that same occasion.

There was a good deal of information on life during the siege—including the last dispatch from the town newspaper prior to surrender.  Paper was so scarce that it was printed on the back of wallpaper.  Union forces had occupied the town as the type had been set but was yet unprinted.  Thus they added their own final paragraph to the edition, detailing their entry into the city and ran several copies for history’s sake.

My spare parts have arrived, and I completed repairs on my boat, the last such actions I dearly hope!

I have purchased enough provisions to last me to New Orleans, though I imagine I will have further opportunities in Louisiana.  This town, like so many I have encountered, is full of warm people.  I shared a few beers with the local undertaker down at the wharf as the sun set.  He is the only person who bid me farewell with the hope that he doesn’t see me again!

Day 57:  0 mi

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September 29, 2010–Vicksburg, MS

Spent the bulk of the day exploring the environs on a borrowed bicycle—an excellent method of exploration.  Vicksburg was once situated on a long and mighty bend of the river, with a bustling riverfront; it was made very wealthy by the cotton grown in the Delta.  Many years back the town awoke to find the river had shifted the channel overnight and the wharf was left dry.  Early in the 20th Century, an operation was begun to re-route the Yazoo River to flow through this dry channel, once again providing a useful riverfront.  Though the water is now lined with barges and riverboat casinos, the interior of the town is very picturesque and contains many of the charms of yesteryear.  Dilapidated shotgun shacks co-exist with marvelous stately mansions.

High on the bluffs above town lies the final resting place of the Civil War ironclad USS Cairo.  Sunk in the war, it was only recovered from deep in the water and mud in the 1960s.  The mud preserved most of the structure and a great many artifacts, and all are on display.   It must have been quite a tremendous sight to see such an ironclad steaming down the river, bristling with cannon.  Having the restoration before me allowed such visions to form in my mind with ease.  The ship is located within the Vicksburg National Military Cemetery, which I believe is the largest such in the nation.  The vast majority of the fallen are unknown, their graves marked with a simple austere bit of numbered marble.  It was a peaceful place, and solemn.  The symmetry of the weathered white stones affects the spirit.

I took my supper at the locally renowned Walnut Hills establishment and enjoyed the most delicious mashed potatoes I have ever eaten!

Day 56:  0 mi

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