The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

Atchafalaya Upper

310.2 LBD Wilkinson Creek

Wilkinson Creek divides the Tunica Hills here from the Angola Floodplain below.  Its cypress tree choked ravine makes for an educational walk off the big river into another world.  Keep camera and sketch pad handy for animal sightings, but wear hunter’s orange in October, November and December.

306 LBD Welcome to Louisiana!

At the lower end of the Fort Adams Reach, just above Shreve’s Cut-Off, around mile 306 the river leaves Mississippi for good along its east bank and is completely enveloped by Louisiana, the last state along the Mississippi River.   While you have already entered the State of Louisiana right bank descending (several hundred miles upstream, at mile 507, near Corregidor entering Sarah Cut-Off, below Cracraft), as you slide downstream towards Shreve’s Island you cross another invisible line which brings you into Louisiana on both banks.  By the time you get to the Angola Ferry Landing, you are now completely surrounded by the Great State of Louisiana, and you might be tempted to start celebrating the end of your month’s long expedition down the longest and biggest river in North America with your own watery Mardi Gras.  Not so fast pardner!  You still have about 300 miles of paddling through the Pelican State before you hit the salty beaches and balmy breezes of the Gulf of Mexico.  Oh yeah, and also the endless freighter traffic, pipelines, and oil wells on the horizon.

 

The Mississippi River flows a little over five hundred miles across Louisiana before reaching the salty Gulf waters, with geography ranging from wooded loess bluffs, bottomland hardwood forests, cypress/tupelo gum swamps, and finally grassy coastal plains bordering the sea.  Along the way through Louisiana the Mississippi journeys through Lake Providence, Three Rivers Wildlife Management Area and the Old River Control Structure (the birthplace of the Atchafalaya River). 

 

And now you are paddling past Angola State Penitentiary towards the Old River Lock and Dam, with upcoming Louisiana highlights including the Tunica Hills, Cat Island (Co-champion bald cypress), St. Francisville, New Rivers Bridge (the newest bridge on the Lower Miss), Profit Island, Baton Rouge, Bayou Goula, Plaquemine, New Orleans, and finally Venice, Pilot’s Town, and mile zero at the Head of Passes.  From here the three major outlets fork outwards into the Caribbean: the Southwest Pass, South Pass, and Pass L’Outre.  You still have several hundred meandering miles to get through Cancer Alley and reach Bourbon Street, but stroke by stroke you’re getting there!

306 - 294 LBD Angola State Penitentiary

The river circumscribes Angola State Penitentiary in an almost perfect semi-circle, with a radius of four miles, the center being the headquarters of the prison complex.  Using simple geometry, C=2piR this would give a circumference of approximately 25 miles, divided by 2 for a half circle = 12.5 miles, which is approximately the distance from the base of the Clark Creek Bluffs, downstream around Angola, Shreve’s Island, Old River Lock & Dam, Hog’s Point Towhead and back to the Tunica Hills.  Angola is located entirely within the bottomlands of the Mississippi alluvial floodplain, with scorching hot humid summertime temps, and bitterly cold winter winds and freezing rain.  An oxbow lake is found within the compound, Lake Killarny, and Sugar Lake is just over the levee to the south, both evidence of the ancient meanderings of the big river.

 

The last time Mississippi River adventurers enjoyed paddling around a large prison was way up on the Middle Mississippi at the Illinois State Pen near Chester.   If you see someone swimming across the main channel in this stretch of Mississippi River, you might want to proceed cautiously before attempting a rescue.  Maybe they raise their hands for help.  Still, beware.  This is the one place you might want to get on the radio and request assistance.   Or paddle harder and not lend a hand.  This would be a dramatic choice, for regardless of status the victim could truly be in danger of drowning.  Then again he (or she) could be an escaping prisoner trying to lure you in for help.  You are now circumscribing around the largest maximum security prison in the country, Angola State Pen, with over 6300 inmates and between a quarter and a third of that in staff.  Most workers drive in from nearby St. Francisville and surrounding communities in West Feliciana Parish.  But some take the Angola Ferry, which is a private operation solely for their use that you will paddle by left bank descending at mile 306.

 

Huddie Leadbelly, Robert Pete Williams and Freddy Fender all served time at Angola. Surrounded on three sides by the big river, Angola is known as “The Alcatraz of South,” since the best escape route is by water.  But it’s also called “The Farm” for its rehabilitative method as a working farm, which some people criticize as a throwback to the plantation days.  Indeed one of its products is cotton, which inmates tend by hoe and shovel, just like the good ol’ days. 

 

In 1956 on December 5, five men escaped Angola by digging out of the prison grounds and swimming across the Mississippi river. They weren’t wearing wetsuits like we do in December on the cold, cold river.  The escapees were Robert Wallace 25, Wallace McDonald 23, Vernon Roy Ingram 21, Glenn Holiday 20 and Frank Verbon Gann 30. The Hope Star newspaper reported only one body pulled from the river (believed to be Wallace). McDonald was recaptured later in Texas, after returning to the states from Mexico. McDonald stated that 2 of his fellow escapees drowned but this was disputed by the Warden, Maurice Sigler. Warden Sigler stated that he believed no more than one inmate drowned. His men found 3 clear sets of tracks climbing up the river bank.

 

Gann's family wrote to the warden on multiple occasions, requesting he declare the man dead to free up benefits for his children. And although the family has never heard again from Frank Gann, Warden Sigler remained adamant to the end that Gann had successfully escaped and was likely in Mexico. Frank Gann was imprisoned in Angola after escaping from the Opelousas Parish Jail on April 29, 1956, where he was serving a charge for car theft. Gann, a renowned ladies man, had borrowed his girlfriend's car to visit another woman. The woman scorned reported her car as stolen and he was arrested. An officer was injured in his first escape and Gann's recapture put him in the hell that was Angola for what was to be an additional 7 year sentence. Some of his relatives believe he met his end in the Mississippi and others hope it was Mexico in the arms of a woman. All are glad he did not fall in Angola. (Wikipedia)

306 LBD Angola Ferry

Private ferry for employees of Angola State Penitentiary.  Watch for cross-channel crossings at shift changes.  If you camp on Shreve’s Bar their lights burn brightly upstream.  Note: the Angola Ferry is no longer located at 300.5 (above Hog Point Towhead).