BRIEF ACCOUNT OF A JOURNEY DOWN THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER
After 12 weeks of backpacking and cycling thousands of kilometres around the U.S. I arrived at Lake Itasca, the headwaters of the Mississippi River. It was here that I was going to start a 4000km journey down the third longest river in the world. With its tributaries it drains more than 2.6 million square kilometres, including all or parts of 31 States. Starting in the north near the Canadian Border the Mississippi finishes in the Gulf of Mexico south of New Orleans. On my long journey to the ocean I was going to be self supported and alone. Before me was a journey of a life-time.
Arrived by cycle at the Mississippi Headwaters.
By 11.00am the following day I had loaded my kayak next to Lake Itasca with 20 individual day packs of food, and my kayaking and camping gear. A small crowd clambered across the barrage of rocks in front of the river entrance. They cheered as I exited in the shallows before them, guided the kayak between the boulders and paddled off along a narrow stream.
The trip begins at Lake Itasca.
Within metres I was out of sight, slicing through the shallow clear water and around the first corner. I ducked under two footbridges and startled a young deer drinking from the stream. Minutes later a road intersected the river and the water fed through a narrow culvert. The banks were impenetrable so unwilling to portage I decided to risk the culvert. It was too small to paddle through, so I leapt out of the kayak and started pushing. Crouching low, I started my descent through the tube and then noticed the light at the end and a worrying small rapid beyond it. But it was too late to turn back; the grade steepened, the water accelerated and I lost all footing on the slimy bottom. I held onto the kayak’s stern, dragged along completely out of control, shot out of the culvert and splashed into the rapid.
Before me were miles of narrow channels, beaver dams, log jams, swamps, rocky rapids and leaches and mosquitoes that latched onto me whenever I portaged. At times the current flowed freely around boulders but then the river widened into swamps with a multitude of narrow channels that often led nowhere. I periodically became wedged between bushes, reeds and narrow bends which were too sharp and impossible to portage because of the soggy swamp. Spiders and leaches dropped from the overhanging reeds and foliage into the boat. I could feel them crawling all over me. The river continued to widen, zig zag, meander and then narrow again. Reeds metres high often blocked all passages and left me guessing as to how I was going to fight my way through them. It was a frustrating time, often I was working hard but getting nowhere.
At first the river was narrow and eventually opened up into small lakes full of reeds.
As the days passed I left the swamps behind, the river widened and often ran into lakes. Beavers, deer, eagles, ducks and sun baking turtles were my constant companions. At night I camped wherever possible, but the local wildlife often kept me awake. There was the hissing and snorting of deer, the nibbling and scurrying of mice, the buzzing of mosquitoes, frogs that constantly jumped up the tent sides, and big splashes in the river.
Fallen trees made going slow.
Reeds block my route completely.
A beavers dam just a work of art.
Dragonflies and mosquitoes keep me company.
Each new day I started off with vigour as my body got used to the long hours in the kayak. I paddled from 8.00am to 9.00pm covering varying distances of 105 to 125 kms, and it was only the portages that slowed me down. To prevent blisters from developing I wrapped susceptible fingers in elastoplasts and wore gloves. With 4000 kilometres to paddle it was very important that I took care of my hands.
There were a few canoe camps along the first part of the river that were away from roads.
I skimmed along the forested banks, crossed lakes and portaged a multitude of dams which not only hindered me but created added dangers when launching. Often the slope down to the river beyond the dam was steep and slippery, the current fast and turbulent. At times I pushed through tangled webs of branches and stepped over precariously slippery boulders to find a break in the tree line or high grasses next to the river. Waves created by the water falling over the dam wall lapped violently against the banks, often making it virtually impossible to launch without wading in the river away from the shore.
Portaging around the dams was a little tedious and hard work.
Reaching Sauk Rapids, the most dangerous on my route, my heart accelerated in anticipation. The river was wide and the swift current slid down many channels. I scanned ahead for the safest route. Beyond the mirage of spray I could see a multitude of drops stretching across, before and below a long bridge that spanned the river. Rocky islands divided the currents. Realisation hit me as my pace quickened, that I was completely alone and there was no turning back.
Within moments I hit the Whitewater. My sleek rounded hull swayed with every wave that buffeted it. I headed towards the longest smoothest V drops, but my clear run came to an end as I slid under the bridge. The turbulence intensified and the irregular waves slapped at the boat on all sides. My balance became shaky as I approached the larger drops and as the boat hit the rapid I was trying desperately not to capsize. Both banks looked hundreds of metres away. A swim at this point, towing a heavily ladened boat to shore in the cold water would be disastrous, and worst of all a serious blow to my pride. With relief I forged into smoother water, and to safely.
Several weirs slowed my progress.
Locks & Barges
A few days later, with 800 kilometres of my journey behind me, I paddled towards the twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul passing cranes and diggers loading several anchored barges. It was downstream of here that the river changed its character. Sky scrapers stood shining before me. I kept close to the bank as I approached St Anthony Falls and the first of three locks. The roar of the falls was frightening. The lock stood on the right side of the river, but not knowing whether I was allowed to use it I portaged on the left. The lock was the highest on route, with a 15 metre rise and fall.
St Anthony Falls lock in Minneapolis. The highest lock on-route. It created a long portage.
Looking downstream of St Anthony Falls lock to lock 2.
I pulled up at some steps, lifted my gear and kayak to street level and stood pondering as to what action to take. A row of cafes and shops lined the other side of the road. People walked by looking towards me with puzzled faces. I left my gear on the footpath, hoping it would still be there when I returned, and followed the path downstream looking for a place to get back in. It took me to a building site 700 metres downstream where I dodged cranes, front-end loaders and workman. The river bank at that point was steep and lined with rocks, concrete blocks and steel rods. Waves lapped harshly against them. The long walk had to be repeated twice, firstly to pick up my gear and then to carry the kayak.
Within the hour I arrived at another lock boarded by steep cliffs. With the huge effort that had been required at the last lock, I was determined to paddle through this one. A man standing on the high concrete wall stood waving at me. He stood there with three plastic bags. Then he lifted one arm and said, “”I have your food.” Clark was Jean’s son, a women that I had met on my bike ride some weeks earlier. I had asked her to hold a food pack for me and bring it to the river when I reached the city. She couldn’t make it so Clark had come instead. At that moment the lock keeper signalled me into the lock. As the doors closed behind me I felt tiny and insignificant penned in a corner next to a huge barge. Clark stood at the top of the lock, grabbed a rope that was hanging, tied it around the plastic bags and lowered the food into my lap. We hadn’t planned it this way but it worked a treat and the watching crowd applauded.
The river continued to accelerate after the lock and when I reached St Paul a frightening current raced around the bridge pylons. Beyond the bridge, both sides of the river were cluttered with lines of barges that spread for over a kilometre downstream. Between them, working barges criss-crossed the river ferrying and establishing a pod of barges, that later would be moved downstream to other towns and cities. These pods were often made up of 30 non-motorised barges and were lashed together and pushed by one powerful motorised barge. With the weight, width and length, these pods were lethal weapons, not only to other river traffic but more so to smaller craft such as a small row boat or kayak. The peaceful river had now turned into a working one.
Barges going through a lock.
A few days flew by and the Independence Day holiday weekend arrived. It meant that the river was saturated with pleasure boats and the constant wash from the boats was most annoying. My other concern was the state of the drivers. It was celebration time and many of them were drunk. Along my route the river beaches were crowded with people all having a joyous time letting off fireworks and drinking.
On July 4 ‘ I portaged and paddled through five locks and was subjected to hundreds of boats passing me. Before each lock the river widened and lakes formed. At times, hundreds of islands divided the river, creating a jig-saw of channels and a maze that would take months to explore.
When I finally stopped at the end of the day near La Crosse, I was a little shattered. Many boats had parked up along the river, ready for a firework display. I parked beside them and waited. Directly behind me people were camped amongst the flooded forest claiming the dry spots to erect their tents. A few metres upstream a beach was packed with noisy drunken people, tents and beer crates.
I was cold and the mosquitoes were biting savagely. It had been another long day, yet I sat in my kayak damp and chilled waiting for the fireworks to start. I shivered and scratched as the sky suddenly lit up with an array of colours and a barrage of bangs. Despite the excitement I soon started to nod off, but I couldn’t afford to capsize, the water was too cold. Then the bangs and beautiful patterns in the sky suddenly stopped. I came out of my daze to the sounds of engines and voices that stirred the cool, still evening. The night was young for the revellers but all I wanted to do was find a camp site, erect my tent, rip off my damp clothes, cook a hot meal, write my diary and snuggle up in my sleeping bag.
Happy to have survived July the 4 celebrations, I skipped having breakfast on the beach full of sleeping party goers and paddled across to LaCrosse wharf, paused to eat and then paddled off downstream and away from the weekend revellers. All the boats of the long weekend were gone. I was back in my own world and free to paddle without interference.
Excitement of Night Paddling
By nightfall I had paddled miles and portaged two locks. The moon was hidden so it was darker than usual and my eyes strained to cut through the darkness. It was now a very lonely river. I kept paddling searching for a campsite, but the water, being higher than the forest floor, covered all the beaches. My search for a camp proved difficult. The skies soon turned black and threatening and thunder exploded above. Lightening strikes streaked across the dark gloomy sky. The forest around me started to quiver, as wind shifts scattered and rattled the leaves. There was no sign of life for miles and amongst those darkened forests I felt a sense of mystery and fear. My pace quickened as I tried to get away from the storm and find a camp spot before the deluge.
As the night dragged on a huge bright spotlight eased around a distant corner. I couldn’t figure out what it was; a bulldozer working at night, or a train coming around a corner? The light gleamed intensely and just kept moving closer. Then it moved to and fro across the river, towards the trees, the rocks, the railway line and across the water. As it got closer, the light momentarily flashed towards me, like a search light from a forbidden spacecraft. I felt as if it was chasing me. It looked like a scene from the War of the Worlds. Then as the light moved closer I realised that it was coming from a barge and the spotlight was being used to ensure it kept within the bounds of the channel. After searching every island for a beach I eventually found a picnic area, at 11.30pm, next to a road two miles from the Marquette Bridge.
The following day just before nightfall, I paddled towards Dubuque Lock. Logs and rubbish were pinned against the weir walls and the dam entrance so I squeezed around them to get in. When the doors opened minutes later I entered some of the swiftest water that I had encountered so far, going out of a lock. Big swirling currents had to be negotiated but, worst of all, logs and rubbish joined my descent. Some of the logs were huge trees. I threaded my way down the river around them, hoping to break away to safe ground. I eventually noticed a flooded camping ground, but at the same time as I was crossing to it a large log partially submerged suddenly hit me broadside. It started to carry me downstream. I reached across it and found enough stretch in my arm to grab a few paddle strokes, struggle loose and gain an eddy. It was amazing that all the logs, driftwood and debris were gone the next morning.
A swing bridge opens to allow barges through.
Just as the sun was going down at my next city of Clinton I searched for a campsite. To my delight a tall rotunda on the side of the flooded river bank was a perfect haven from unwanted town folk. The wooden structure proved to be one of the grandest campsites that I have ever had. No sand, no dirt, just clean wooden benches to spread all my gear out on, and a brilliant view. As night crept in, a pleasant breeze kept the mosquitoes away. The full moon lit up the night sky with patchy clouds occasionally dulling the light. I started singing ‘Susanne Takes You Down To The River’ by Leonard Cohen, one of my favourite paddling songs. I felt secure on this tall structure, no one was able to reach me because of the flooded banks. As usual my thoughts raced from my river experiences, to my past exploits and back home. I was excited about my trip and wanted it to last forever. The barge traffic continued to pass by. I loved to watch and listen to them at night, their powerful motors, strangely, almost silent.
A rotunda comes to the rescue for camping beside a flooded river.
The following night as it was getting dark I reached the town of Muscatine. As I moved under the town bridge the current quickened. The town looked picturesque in the moonlit night. I looked on checking out all the buildings not realising that the current had raced away. Ahead of me a red buoy was bobbing violently against the current. Beyond it an island intersected the river. The increased power was cause for concern. Which route was the safest? I chose the left route. My eyes strained as I tried focussing on the water. I picked up a shimmer of white water near the left bank which looked like the start of rapids. I was convinced that I had taken the wrong route and the sound of water moving either over rocks, through trees or along the bank seemed to confirm that.
I made it back to the right hand channel but I still didn’t know whether it was any better than the left. Although the city was in sight, my safety was still in my own hands. I was just a small blob in the river and couldn’t be seen. I paddled on, turned a corner and was confronted by a mass of lights, chimney stacks and noise. A huge industrial complex lit up the night sky like some thing out of a James Bond movie. Multi coloured lights, smoke stacks and piercing noises from alarms, machines and the general running of the plant devastated the peaceful evening, but all the activity excited me and my imagination worked overtime. To my left a tug was transporting barges across the river from the refinery and joining them together into one big pod of barges.
The scene was quite a spectacle but environmentally unfriendly, however it will stick in my mind as being another highlight of my journey. Then the lights and smoke of the refinery suddenly ceased. Within minutes I was back in darkness and the noise had dimmed to silence. With the spectacular scene now behind me, I felt a sense of sadness. The moon’s light reflected in the ripples that scurried across the river forming a multiple array of patterns. It was one of those perfect nights to be out paddling, minimal of cloud, silence, reflections and virtual wilderness between the two banks.
Barges were my constant companion.
Days and miles passed by quickly. Just south of the Illinois River mouth I hugged the shore in the dark in search of a decent campsite. Below a saloon bar some people were gathered, so I paddled over to them. They were bikies. One guy said, “camp here, the owner’s a mate of mine, he won’t mind.”
I had no fears about the bikies but I did wonder if they were telling the truth. When is a friend a friend? As I got out of my boat one of the women slurred, “the mossies are a bit thick love.” “Here put some of this cream on, it will keep them away.” Before I could answer, the women was putting it on my neck and face. “Do you want a drink?” “Have you eaten?” I said yes to both. Minutes later a beer appeared. All five of them began questioning me simultaneously. They continued talking to me and seemed to be genuinely interested in my trip. I was trying to be polite and answer all their questions but I just wanted to strip off my wet clothes and get dry. As I started to change into dry clothes the women started chanting, “lets have a look at your bum.” I didn’t want to cause a riot so I changed very discretely. The cook came down with some left¬over food. A beer followed, so by the time I had downed it, I was feeling full but a little tipsy. The bikies left an hour later leaving me to sit drinking my beer, and watching the river.
Beyond the Locks
Before reaching the city of St Louis I had to negotiate the last two locks, locks 26 and 27. It was here that the mighty Missouri River entered the mighty Mississippi just downstream of 26 and changed the dynamics and flow of the river. Just beyond the Missouri River, boats were directed down a man made canal to avoid rapids in the river. I followed the canal to the last lock on the Mississippi. It was another huge lock. Once locked inside I felt like a fish in a goldfish bowl, with no hope of getting out. Several people had told me not to paddle beyond this lock due to the dangers with bigger barges, ships and rock groynes. Up to that point I had portaged dams and locks about forty times. At least from now on the river flowed without interruption.
It was 6.05pm and in the distance, windows from city buildings flashed as the sun reflected off them. Close by a huge arch towered skywards. I entered the rejuvenated current to mix with the many barges and boats cruising around me. The sun was now setting over the west side of the city. Its rays were making stunning shadows and sparkling reflections off the huge arch. People were scurrying along the water front, with the arch towering over them. I longed to be there, to walk up and down the pavements taking in the sights of St Louis. But darkness was creeping in and I really didn’t want to be caught in the city without a campsite. The whole scene around me was exciting; the city, the arch, the people, the flags flying, the MacDonalds floating restaurant, the tourist boats, the casino, the paddle steamers, the barge traffic, the sun setting and the many bridges that were made of tons and tons of steel. It was a magical scene and one of the most memorable moments of my journey so far.
I paddled by McDonalds floating restaurant. People waved as I moved under a bridge being swept away by the swift current. My excitement quickly changed to concern when four tow boats steamed towards me. A pod of 7 barges anchored to the west bank stretched well out into the river. I had little room to manoeuvre between them and the tow boats. Although the stationary barges appeared to be no threat to me, the powerful current sucked me towards them, and I had to fight it to steer clear.
The arch at St Louis.
The tow-boats were four abreast, getting closer, giving little room and creating incredible bow and stern waves. I was concerned about staying upright, and this wasn’t the place to capsize. As they motored by, the water became even more turbulent. Huge waves wallowed and a large swell built up. My kayak bounced but I kept it upright and I felt relieved when they had gone and the water started to calm.
Tugs continued to move up and down assembling them into large pods. When the sun began to set it was time to find a campsite. Buildings lined the west side of the river, with swamps on the east side. I moved across the wide river and due to the very swift current I had to perform a huge ferry glide. Once safely across I moved downstream and found a small sand bar just big enough to erect my tent, as long as the river didn’t rise. A swamp to the east protected me from any invasion of humans but several large rat holes were an indication that I wouldn’t be alone that night.
The sun was dropping behind the city centre as I made camp. It was a beautiful sight and I never imagined being so happy, safe and contented camping in St Louis. When the red sky faded the city lights, a kilometre or so away, had me spell bound as I sat on my little beach content with the basic meal that I had cooked.
I had planned to meet Gary, a friend I met on the Appalachian Trail, at the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers at Cairo. That meant after leaving St Louis I had to kayak 270 kilometres in two days to reach him. It was a tough task but I made it.
Just before the junction of these two great rivers I expected to see houses, but the banks were lined with trees and thick mud so it was impossible to go ashore and explore. Where was Cairo? On the map it looked as if it was close to the riverbank, but nothing, not a building or a park could be seen. I became a little concerned that I would miss my rendezvous with Gary. I moved between a row of barges and the shore and then met up with the Ohio River. The Mississippi now took on a new scale. At this point it looked at least a kilometre wide, and far from inviting. I moved around the point into the Ohio River where Gary, Jan and friends were waiting to greet me. I felt relieved, the thought of having to paddle any further out of my way was soul destroying. I had already kayaked 155 kilometres that day.
I used the small outriggers when ever I felt the river was going to be rough.
Gary drove across the great Ohio River heading towards the city of Paducha, Kentucky where we had an evening meal at the Aussie Outback Steakhouse before staying the night at Gary’s home in Mayfield. Pancakes for breakfast at a table, a chair to sit on, a hot cup of coffee felt like pure luxury. In the 35 days of my paddle, this only happened 3 times.
After the Mississippi met the Ohio River, it became more impersonal. Even the long wide barge pods (49 strapped together) looked small compared with the river’s width. Groynes, most stretching hundreds of metres out from shore, now became my biggest worry. When in doubt I kayaked around them but it meant going hundreds of metres out of my way. The groynes were made from rock, some were exposed, others were just beneath the surface of the water. They created turbulence and rapids. A buoy in the river identified their position. At night they were a bigger hazard, as I could only guess their whereabouts by the sound of the rapids. As the water moved over the groynes a smooth wave formed then dipped into a slide. At the end of the sliding wave the swirls, eddies and the turbulence pushed the boat around. In the day time they were much easier to judge, but at night I couldn’t see what was coming up, so when the swirls hit, I just had to feel my way through and hope for the best.
At sunset I tentatively crossed a groyne which had created a rapid. A barge passed and then four other barges motored towards me. It was unusual for five to come at the same time. I was in a bad spot, moving around a right hand corner on the left side of the river, with the barges steaming around on the same side. This meant that when they turned to straighten, all the turbulence from their motors would be forced towards the bank and in my path. Waves created by their motors usually stood two metres high so I was a little apprehensive as to how I would handle the water. I turned the corner a few minutes before the pack of four barges started their turn and readied myself for a rough ride. The shoreline was one mass of rocks, probably placed there to stop erosion.
The first waves from the lead barge built up and hit me, then the standing waves created by the engines had me reeling. I kept my paddle moving to increase my stability. The next barge confused the turbulent water even further. Two other barges followed, creating such turbulent water that at times I didn’t think that I had any fishing rods. Fishermen always gave me beer or cool drinks when I stopped to talk. Many times I paddled away feeling a little tipsy.
The hot days caused me to nod off regularly. Attempts to keep awake by singing and eating did nothing to help. Unwillingly I grabbed seconds of sleep as I paddled. It wasn’t a safe practise, but I was helpless to do anything about it.
A paddle steamer going through a swing bridge.
My food was running low and a supermarket trip was essential. The town of Vicksburg was close by so I detoured up a creek lined with barges being loaded or unloaded. It was hot, real hot. I pushed and pushed myself and finished up totally exhausted at a boat ramp next to a former paddle steamer. It was fixed and bolted to concrete foundations, and it was now functioning as a casino boat. I lifted my kayak onto the ramp, changed into my shopping clothes and went over to the telephone fixed to the high wall that protected the town during floods. It was out of order but I got talking to an 87 year old local who was sitting in his old truck in the shade. He gave me a beer and then told me that he had been in this town all his life, and he came to sit here every day. “There is no crime in this town you know,” he said.
The extreme heat and physical exertion took its toll, I was light headed and my whole body, especially my legs, felt weak and jelly like. The beer contributed further to me feeling completely out of it. I did my shopping feeling dizzy and legless and at a point where I thought I might collapse, but on the way back from the supermarket I started to feel better.
A fake paddle steamer used as a casino.
By late afternoon a storm was approaching once again. The skies began to turn black as clouds bunched up. Within the hour the clouds burst. I had never seen rain so heavy before. It fell in bucket loads. It was just amazing. The force of the rain flattened the rough waters. The thunder was right above me, so loud it was deafening, but it was the lightening that scared me. It was so close, so powerful, so electrifying and there was nowhere to hide. Paddling in the middle of the river was no fun, so I headed with haste towards the shore to a sheltered bay. The thunderous rain teemed down. The river was indented with a million rain drops. Each drop made a deep cone circle in the water. I had no option but to shield my face from the stinging and powerful rain. The storm continued with streaks of lightening so dramatic and threatening, the thunder shattering. When the thunderstorm eased I pushed on again paddling until 11.15pm.
The current had slowed dramatically over the last few days and as I entered Natchez the river slowed further. Natchez was an historical town. Grand 19th-century houses looked over the Mississippi from the high bluffs. I landed at the boat ramp next to the small wharf area. There was a huge casino paddle steamer looking glitzy and glossy and a smaller casino boat next to it. A few metres away several old buildings full of tourists looked over the wharf, the river and a typical large steel bridge, its structure forming peaks like mountains. Afro American women were on the road-side selling their whares. It was a real Mississippi scene and a typical Mississippi town, similar to what I had imagined it once looked like. I checked out the gift shop to find some postcards and visited the pub. Locals, happy to relax out of the heat, sat on stools looking out at the river.
Further downstream my body felt so exhausted, that it needed cooling. I stopped on a beach and wallowed in the water and ate some food. Every day the heat increased and the current eased, making the task of reaching my kilometre quoter very difficult. By sunset I was passing a site where the water from the Mississippi was diverted into an irrigation channel and Atchafalaya River. Apparently the Atchafalaya is the Mississippi’s natural pathway to the sea, it channels almost a third of the Mississippi’s water to the gulf.
It was near dark when I turned a right hand corner nearby. Unbeknown to me an inlet that I was crossing was the main drain feeding the irrigation channel. I couldn’t see but I felt my boat being swept down the channel. I paddled as hard as I could, there was no way I wanted to be sucked into a sluice! With adrenalin pumping, I escaped its pull and rounded a corner where two barges heading my way dazzled me with their huge spotlights. A deafening sound of cicadas in the trees had drowned out the engine noises. I found a beach, cooked tea, relaxed, listened and looked at the barges go by on such a beautiful evening, eventually hitting the sack at 12.05am.
The days were long, the heat continued to increase some days up to 48 degrees and every afternoon I expected thunderstorms. Towns had often been 160 kms apart and between them I saw virtually no life apart from the barges and fishermen. But things further south were about to change! Before the onset of activity I camped about 10 kilometres from Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana, which was 320 kilometres from the ocean and the last big town before New Orleans. Old ropes and plastic containers littered the shores. Barges worked throughout the night and foxes and rats scurried around my camp.
As I entered Baton Rouge, a large chemical industrial plant stood over to my left. It was an incredible scene, a mass of steel, chimneys exhuming clouds of smoke, industrial plants and skyscrapers blending into one. It was more like a scene from Russia, an awful one great to witness once, but surely a nightmare for the people living there. It looked like one of the worst places in the world to live. For nearly 4000kms the river had been lined with trees, farmland and open space. Visually it had been clean apart from rubbish collecting around the big cities, but now it was subjected to smoke, pollution and chemicals seeping into the great waterway.
There was so much industry between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Barges took up every bit of spare space along the shores, with ocean going ships docked beside or between them. I was shocked at the speed of the ships motoring up the river, having been accustomed to the slow barges that were only a little faster than my own speed. Fear of being run over meant it was now too dangerous to cut the corners unless I could see a kilometre ahead. Activity along the river was incredibly high and industry was a key component of the area’s daily life. That night I camped on a superb beach opposite an industrial plant. Beaches on the lower 2000 kilometres of Mississippi had been fantastic. Most were better than beaches at the ocean. Tonight’s beach ranked as one as the most memorable. A ship was being loaded at a plant opposite me. It lit up in the dark like a miniature city. Barges chugged by and working tow-boats continuously motored to and fro. It was a fantastic feeling, sitting on the beach eating dinner and watching the busy life on the river go by.
It was so perfect being camped on a beautiful sandy beach watching the barge and ship activity around me.
The next morning tow-boats all along the river ferried barges from one side of the river, to barge pods on the other. I continued to dodge them. It wasn’t easy at times. Many barge pods were tens of metres thick. The current strained through and under their steel hulls, often causing me concern as I seemed to be drawn towards them like a magnet.
Industrial plants and loading docks lined the river. It was interesting sight, yet disturbing. I moved by one chemical plant to find myself paddling through a flow of hot water. My backside, feet and whole lower body felt the heat radiating through the hull. It felt good but strange. Then I became concerned that it may contain chemicals harmful to my skin so I kept my hands away from the water until I paddled clear.
The day was grey and glum and as I approached Hahnville a thunderstorm erupted. Sheet lightening created a fantastic sky show behind and above the bridge of highway 310. The day virtually turned to night as the clouds blackened the sky. The wind increased and the rain let loose, again falling in bucket fulls. Suddenly there was less activity on the river and I felt quite alone as the storm whipped down it. I struggled against the force of the storm, wondering if I should stop before I got blown away or struck by lightening. Within the hour it passed over.
With the dying light came anxiety. Ahead of me was the city of New Orleans. I had no idea what the river traffic would be like in the city, or if I could find a safe camping spot. I was told not to camp in the city as I would most likely get my throat slit but I was already in the New Orleans suburbs. Near the Avondale shipyard I decided to go no further and camped on a swampy area next to a levy bank, which I thought would shelter me from prying eyes. Only minutes after coming ashore 4 your lads on bicycles were riding on top of the levee and saw me. Oh shit I thought I had been spotted. They came down to investigate and soon left after a brief conversation. Would they tell their friends and would I be safe camping here. I had no place to go which was any better, so I stayed and erected my tent.
Camped just before the Avondale shipyards.
It was 5.45am and it pleased me to have survived the night without incident. The shipyard looked intimidating with the big ships and boats already milling around. I passed it without incident just as the sun was coming up. Huge ships anchored along the wharfs and in the middle of the river dwarfed me as I paddled only metres from them. I was told the river would be hugely crowded but my concerns about the river traffic through the city though were unfounded, I had no trouble dodging the boats. However, a man on the bank, who had been listening to his marine radio, told me that a skipper on a barge had complained to the coast guard about me paddling through the city. Apparently the coast guard wasn’t interested in taking it any further so I wasn’t bothered by any officials.
Sunrise as I paddle towards Avondale Shipyard and the Huey P. Long Bridge.
A view of New Orleans as I paddle under the Crescent City Connection Bridge.
Big ships had to be avoided on the 200 mile stretch below Baton Rouge.
The Final Spurt
I was heading back to New Orleans after I finished the river so I didn’t bother stopping for a peek and kept paddling through the city, rounded a bend and passed the old US Naval Base where there were several naval ships anchored. Further along merchant ships were coming and going with a few anchored. In no time I was out of the inner city heading towards the ocean 150 kilometres away.
I paddled through a stunning sunset, a beautiful sight for my last night on the river. I needed to achieve a few more miles so I paddled into the darkness. When barges and ships approached I took to the side of the river and close to the trees so as not to be seen. By midnight, though, I’d had enough of paddling and hiding from the spotlights coming from the barges, so I searched for a camp. Campsites were scarce but at 11.45pm I found a flat area full of steel cable, high wet grass, cattle turds and millions of mosquitoes.
You can’t beat a beautiful sunset.
It was my last day on the river so I was in a joyous mood. When I reached Venice, the last town on this great waterway that can be reached by road, I knew my journey was almost at an end. It was extremely hot. I turned into a creek and saw a man on shore. We chatted and then Mike said come ashore so I landed at the Wildlife Authority building. He told me they were going through the hottest and longest heat wave in history’, with temperatures ranging from 40 to 48 degrees Centigrade. I knew it was warm, but I didn’t realise it was that warm. With only 20 kilometres left to paddle on the mighty Mississippi River I had a short break in Venice before continuing the final part of my journey.
Cattle grazed on the uninspiring islands on the way. I kept close to the rocky shore paddling hard and hoping to reach the zero mark by 1.30pm. The heat was intense and virtually ripping away all my energy. Near the end at a cattle ramp, I jumped out, climbed on to its rails and viewed the surrounding area. The open water of the gulf was over to the south and west beyond the island. Down stream, the river split into three different channels leading out into the gulf. This was where my goal, the zero marker stood. It was like a dream, the end was 600 metres away. I was hot and exhausted but gleeful when I reached the zero marker. It was hard to take in that I had done the full length of the river. Yes, I had conquered the Mississippi. But my excitement diminished when I turned to paddle 20kms back to Venice against the current. It was stronger than I had imagined. I cursed the heat and current and I just wanted my journey to finish. I had been pushing very hard all day and night for the last 12 days, had spent 35 days on the river and paddled roughly 4000 kilometres.
A cattle ramp near the end of the river.
My return journey felt as if it lasted forever but at last, exhausted, I reached the boat ramp and managed to exit my kayak without falling out. Here, I was congratulated by the team from the Wildlife Authority. Nancy had left a cold coke in an esky for me, which I truly appreciated. I sat exhausted in the shade and rested, eating honey buns, Snickers bars and drinking coke. I had only eaten a few nuts all day and my hunger probably contributed to my exhausted state. Eventually I got to my feet, had a shower in the shed and waited for Joey to pick me up. Joey who worked in a New Orleans outfitters store had been storing my bicycle for me. I had never met him, I had only talked to him on the phone, but when we did meet he made me very welcome and took me to his home.
After two days staying with Joey in New Orleans, it was back on road again cycling towards the Rocky Mountains. I still had several thousand kilometres to cycle and backpack and many more fantastic places and experiences to encounter before leaving the USA.