The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
Baton Rouge to Venice
MM 230 – 10
© 2015 John Ruskey
For the Rivergator: Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
The www.rivergator.org is a free public use website
presented by the Lower Mississippi River Foundation.
Re-printing of text and photos by permission only with proper credits.
New Challenges below Baton Rouge
Intro: Just when you thought you’ve learned everything there is to know about the Mississippi, you return to the river at Baton Rouge and find that the conditions have changed and the river is throwing bizarre new challenges at you — such as skyscraper-sized freighters steaming up the main channel making the biggest and most chaotic waves you’ve ever seen! You’ll experience mini-tsunamis rolling in and out of your campsite with alarming changes in water level. Your friends, the towboats you have been paddling with since Minneapolis (or Sioux City), are now joined by real honest-to-God ocean-going tugboats serving the needs of freighters. The endless lines of trees and muddy banks you enjoyed upstream are here replaced by endless miles of fleeted barges and refinery pipelines and power plant smokestacks. Wind direction becomes a concern at camp when you wonder what petrochemical plant might be sending foul carbonaceous (or worse) aromas your way throughout your sleep.
Okay, so you’ve successfully paddled two thousand miles from Lake Itasca, or maybe four thousand miles from Three Forks, Montana. The river has gently taught you its ways as you’ve proceeded downstream. We call this education “the greater school of river-rats” or BRU — the Big River University!
BRU opened up its doors to you with the lighthearted lessons of the headwaters: braided channels, open lake crossings, portaging over dams, eddies, and some swift water. Later you graduated to paddling with tows (Minneapolis), and safe paddling through locks & dams. Still later you advanced a degree when you learned to paddle through big industry with bigger tows (St. Louis). Then you reached the mouth of the Ohio. Here you begin your specialized advanced degree in Big River Navigation at BRU where the river swells to its fullness with the biggest tows ever seen on the face of the earth. Bigger whirlpools, giant eddies, and the biggest boils you’ve ever paddled through, some tending towards aquatic violence on their edges. BRU on the Lower Miss requires long hours of paddling, concentration, and quick decisions. Everything you’ve learned up to this point must be accessed and utilized: you must be able to read the river like the steamboat pilot training Mark Twain received under his mentor, the volcanic Captain Bixby (as related in his 1883 Life on the Mississippi). On the Lower Mississippi you need to apply all your river abilities to read to this monster mile-wide river swelling to its natural fullness and flexing all of its muscly challenges. And now 600 miles later downstream you have advanced to this last advanced stage of BRU as you have mastered paddling with those behemoths, and have made good navigation choices on the big volume waters. What else could you possibly need to learn to graduate (ie: safely paddle to the Gulf)?
Well, here below Baton Rouge is your entrance into the graduate program of the BRU — the Big River University. The river always has the last say and always keeps a few tricks hidden under her muddy waters! As you continue past the capitol city of Louisiana you will now have several new big river paradigms to adjust the body of your river knowledge to, namely 1) freighters, 2) endless miles of fleeted barges and anchored freighters, 3) no islands (below Bonnet Carre), 4) very limited campsites, and finally 5) tides. You will need to learn to paddle and camp with these new (and very significant) challenges always in the forefront of your decision making.
Welcome paddlers to “Chemical Corridor,” the last remaining and most difficult section of the Mississippi River before you reach the Gulf of Mexico!
Paddlers will have to be especially vigilant about increased wave height and unpredictability below Baton Rouge. Think of paddling along sea cliffs. This is the effect that parked barges, tows and freighters 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 Baton Rouge. The result is the biggest and wildest waves you will see anywhere on the Mississippi 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. The 20-mile industrial “gauntlet” below the Great Arch in St. Louis will give you a taste of what the next 230 miles has in store for you. Be careful when making landings or setting up camp. Pull your vessel high above water level, three feet above when possible. Waves from passing work boats, tugs and freighters 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).
Paddling downstream below Baton Rouge follows the classic dictionary definition for “Running The Gauntlet” (1) To go through an intimidating or dangerous crowd, place, or experience in order to reach a goal. (2) To undergo the punishment of receiving blows while running between two rows of men with sticks.
On the river you will have to paddle miles and miles of freighters, cruise ships, container ships, tugboats, towboats, workboats, wharves, docks, buoys, anchors, steel cables, choppy waves, weird currents, and many other challenges which might be exacerbated by wind, darkness and your state of mind. The waves slap you from side to side as they ricochet back and forth between passing tows and fleeted barges. Hard steel edges make for bigger choppier waves. Concrete docks and bank stabilization the same. You, the lonely paddler amidst the industrial megalith, must do your best to stay upright amongst the waves. The goal is of course the Gulf of Mexico, the open salty waters below the Mississippi River Delta.
When to stay on shore
As always, impatience is your worst enemy on the river. Stay on shore and await a change in the weather if any of the following conditions apply: (a) If the wind is blowing 15mph or higher from any southerly or easterly quadrants, or 20mph or higher from any other quadrant; (b) if you have three hours or less before sunset; or (c) if you are not feeling good about things (sailor’s sixth sense). Don’t allow complicating factors to get in the way of safe travel and making good decisions. Get a good night’s sleep and enjoy a full breakfast before departure. Inspect your vessel to be sure it’s in top shape and will not surprise you with any compromises in the middle of the river. Make sure you are in good communication with everyone in your party. Settle any differences. Do not let any grievances leave shore. You need to be in your best shape possible, physically, mentally and spiritually, to safely navigate what lies below you downstream in Chemical Corridor.