The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
Dangers of Paddling through Morgan City
As you are approaching the Port of Morgan City be prepared for several new challenging aspects to your adventure. Above Krotz Springs the levees hemmed in the river and you experienced strong currents. But below Krotz Springs the levees fell away, alternate channels and bayous opened up allowing the water to spread outwards from a one-mile wide valley to a 20 mile-wide valley. The river widened and the current slowed down. But now you have passed the cypress-tupelo swamp heart of the River of Trees and the levees are bringing all of the water back together again, plus additional water from rainfall and tributaries. You will feel the current picking up as you paddle through Stout’s Pass, and past Drew’s Pass. All of the water flowing down through Upper Grand Lake and Bayou Sorrel and down along the East Protection Levee now gathers together at the base of Flat Lake and starts migrating downstream towards Morgan CIty with more purpose. All of the water flowing down the West Basin from Butte La Rose on down is funneled along the West Protection Levee and focused into Stout’s Pass where it joins all the water pouring out of Flat Lake.
This is all to say that the Atchafalaya River moves deep and fast through Morgan City. Furthermore, there are three bridges to get under. Traffic volume and size will increase. Be very careful around bridges and when making landings. Pull your vessel high above water level, three feet above when possible. Waves from passing work boats, tugs and ships could wash over any low places, especially within inlets or at the edge of shallows (where the wave heights and tide effects tend to multiply frighteningly). The new challenges are these: 1) bigger waves, 2) busy tows and bigger ships, 3) Fog, 4) fleeted barges, 5) buoys, and 6) currents and tides. See below for continued discussion.
Paddlers will have to be especially vigilant about increased wave height and unpredictability while paddling through Morgan City. Think of paddling along sea cliffs. This is the effect that parked barges, tows and bigger ships have on the waves bouncing around the main channel. Endless rip-rap add to this effect. Steel and concrete docking even more so. Gone is the dampening effect of long open beaches and soft muddy banks found above Morgan City. The result is the biggest and wildest waves you will see anywhere on the Atchafalaya River, all bouncing back and forth in unpredictable patterns, piling over one another in compound waves, and coming from all directions, some building in scale to resemble mini rogue waves. Picture a toyboat in a bathtub with a playful kid. This is how you will feel, and how you will look from the distance.
Small Tows in Harbors
The primary hazard to paddlers on the Lower Mississippi is the one powering through the current — the towboats. Smaller “docking” towboats tied up in waiting look innocent, but be constantly vigilant for un-announced push-offs. Smaller tows working Morgan City and the Atchafalaya Delta are often busy in this section moving barges in and out of grain or oil docking, fleeting barges, and performing other necessary maintenance. You might see them suddenly run out off shore to service a passing tow. While big tows will make high rolling wakes immediately behind the tow, these small tows can sometimes create rough wakes with steep and crashing bow waves that will persist for hundreds of yards lateral to the vessel. Even if a small towboat is on the other side of the river, be vigilant for bow waves. Unlike the slow, predictable and ponderous motions of the big tows, the small ones can charge around docking facilities erratically and make quick changes of direction. It’s never safe to assume anything about tow traffic. Conditions are constantly changing and require changing tactics. Your best procedure is to be constantly “on watch” and respond accordingly. Monitor VHF Marine radio Channel 13, and if appropriate announce your presence and intended line of travel. (Note: harbor facilities and docking facilities sometimes use channel 12 or other VHF channels. Inquire locally if you need to communicate).
Towboats vs. Tugboats
What is the difference between a towboat and a tugboat anyway? We have avoided this question until now in the Rivergator for one reason: above Morgan City only towboats are seen. But below Morgan City you will be paddling amongst both tows and tugs! So what’s the difference? First of all, one similarity: they both push, and normally don’t pull. Tows push barges. Big tows push big fleets of barges all cabled together with 1” steel cable and winched tight. Tugs on the other hand primarily service freighters and the big ocean-going ships (like container ships or cruise ships), usually in assistance with anchoring, docking, or disembarking. Tows have flat faces to firmly attach the flat end of barges. Meanwhile tugs have pointed noses, and v-hulls, for better maneuverability and speed on the river. Tows travel slow and methodically with rear engines doing all the work. Tugs move fast, with both powerful rear propellors but also bow thrust. Tows can make big waves, but Tugs make even bigger waves and sometimes create glistening tall wakes with rolling crashing waves that can result in capsize for smaller vessels like canoes & kayaks if you get too close. The good news for paddlers is that tug pilots are super-vigilant about smaller vessels, and will almost always slow down (or even stop) for you as you paddle past. River pilots in southern Louisiana display this courtesy almost universally, which is very much appreciated! On the other hand, the bad news is that they might not see you when they are in the middle of their work, or on a rainy day, or most frighteningly on a foggy day. Imagine paddling into a bank of fog, and then hearing approaching crashing waves coming from a tug that didn’t see you and didn’t slow down. This could be the worst scenario possible. For this reason the Rivergator recommends that you stay on shore in foggy conditions.
For more dicussion of tows and paddling around them, go to Rivergator Appendix: https://www.rivergator.org/river-log/stlouis-to-caruthersville/stl-car-appendix/pg/34/
Stay off the River in Fog
The Atchafalaya Delta has more foggy days than any other stretch of river below St. Louis, due to the high humidity and high likelihood of temperature differences between warm Gulf airs and cold river water. Personally, my most frightening river experiences have all involved fog. Like Huck & Jim found out on their raft, fog can lead to disaster. You can become separated from your party, miss your landing, or worse yet run into something you didn’t see and have no time to maneuver around. The lesson is plain: stay off the river on foggy days. Fog generally is thickest around dawn. After sunrise it might linger for a while, but on most days will gradually lift. Stay at camp and enjoy the respite until you can clearly see across the river — as well as upstream and downstream. If you can’t see the river above and the river below you will not be able to stay out of the way of freighters! We were once camped below a refinery on a foggy morning, and made a bad decision that almost ended in disaster. We could see the opposite shore quite clearly, but not upstream nor downstream. We set out thinking the fog was lifting. As we crossed over we realized our mistake: the only reason we had a clearing across the river was due to the heat rising from the refinery! The glowing refinery had carved a wedge of clear air as the fog drifted over and across the river. But as soon as we drifted downstream we left this narrow window of blue sky and the thick fog battened its hatches once more, locking us down tight in its cold grey clutches. We almost ran underneath a line of fleeted barges as result. Quickly thereafter we dove into shore in between fleets and awaited clear skies on shore with frightened thumping hearts. The clear skies returned, but our hearts kept thumping for a long time afterwards.
Jim lost his opportunity for escape from slavery when a fog descended on him and Huck as they floated into and then past the mouth of the Ohio River. Jim lost his home due to fog. But the Quapaw people gained their new home due to the same. Here’s the story: when the Sioux nations migrated westward their plan was to turn up the Mississippi River and gain entrance to the open plains to the west via the Middle Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers. When the last nation reached the Ohio River confluence a fog descended and they missed the turn and instead floated hundreds of miles downstream in their wooden dugout canoes until finding a suitable settling place to relocate at the Arkansas River confluence. Hence they became the downstream people, a literal translation of their name, the Quapaw. One of their counterpart tribes, became the Omaha, the upstream people.