The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
Vicksburg to Baton Rouge
© 2014 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.
Intro: Vicksburg to Baton Rouge:
Welcome to the 2014 update to the Rivergator: Paddlers Guide to the Lower Mississippi River!
This section describes the big river as it flows through the Lower Delta, Vicksburg to Baton Rouge, 208 miles of remote wild river with very few landings and lots of deep woods, ever larger and larger loopy-loops of river, and giant islands commanding the channel which split the big river into its many lacerated chutes and alternate routes. Spanish moss draped cypress palmetto bottom forests and magnolia vine-draped hillsides are gothic reminders that you are descending into the sub-tropics. This is the homeland of great native societies as honored at Grand Village of the Natchez and Poverty Point Historic Site, and was the superhighway of the Quapaw, the Houma, the Tunica, the Natchez and all of the other great pre-Columbian civilizations. The Atchafalaya splits off below Fort Adams to join the Red and Ouachita Rivers with one third of the daily average flow of the Mississippi, providing an alternate route for ocean-going paddlers. The river here curves through extensive Louisiana bottomland hardwood forests with striking prominences of Loess Bluffs to the east at Vicksburg, Grand Gulf, Bondurant, Natchez, Fort Adams, Angola, Port Hudson and Baton Rouge. Fantastically rich back channels abound during higher water levels following ancient braided channels in and out of chutes, parallel drainages, tributaries and oxbow lakes notably at Yucatan, Rodney, Old River/Vidalia, Glasscock, Lake Mary, Raccouri, Profit Island and Devil’s Swamp. During low water the sandbars grow exponentially to become the size of ocean beaches and are important habitat for waders and waterfowl of all types including wood storks, anhinga and the roseate spoonbill. The interior least tern has successfully recovered and is being delisted as an endangered species because of these healthy sandbar habitats, while endangered pallid sturgeon are recovering their numbers in the back channels, many of which have been re-opened through the LMRCC notching project. Spectacular birding is found at St. Catherine Creek NWR, and the North American co-champion bald cypress can be seen below the Tunica Hills on Cat Island NWR. More than anywhere else along the Lower Mississippi the feeling of the ancient, endless, brooding, bottomland hardwood jungle pervades along this section of river and makes for safari-like adventures for the few who brave it in human-powered vessel. Wild boars overrun many of the islands and alligators abound in all tributaries and slow-running channels. Invasive silver carp leap over the bow of your canoe, and slap your shoulder while you slap the water with your kayak blade in terror of their surprising antics.
Vicksburg marks a significant change of geography for the Lower Mississippi River paddler. Vicksburg heralds the end of the Mississippi Delta and the beginning of the Mississippi Loess Bluffs. From here down to Baton Rouge there are no continuous levees on the East side of the river because of the high ground created by the bluffs, which approach the river and then retreat along various tributaries like Bayou Pierre, Coles Creek and the Big Black River. The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta technically ends at the mouth of the Yazoo River, also known as “the River of Death.” This junction also marks the first left bank tributary since the Wolf River (and Nonconnah Creek) in Memphis, 300 miles upstream!
The Atchafalaya River: Best Route to the Gulf
The 150 mile long Atchafalaya River makes for an enticing alternative for paddlers who want to avoid the heavy industry awaiting them below Baton Rouge. Imagine paddling down the richest and largest river swamp in North America as opposed to paddling down the busiest and largest inland port in the world, simultaneously the most dangerous stretch of river in the greater Mississippi Valley. Unless you are dead-set committed to the traditional Mississippi route, most paddlers would do best to take the Atchafalaya route. Compare the two below, as preparation for which Gulf outlet you should take for the completion of your expedition.
Atchafalaya River Route:
Paddlers can enter the Atchafalaya Canal right bank descending above Shreve’s Bar at mile 304 through the Old River Lock and Dam. The Atchafalaya is a distributary of the Mississippi and Red Rivers. One third of the average daily flow of the Mississippi passes down the Atchafalaya, which makes it the shortest big river in America. At nearly one-million acres, the Atchafalaya Basin is North America’s largest riverine swamp. It contains monstrous ecosystems of marshland, bottomland forests, lakes, bayous, and estuaries. The Atchafalaya (Native American for Long River) offers a baseline for big river health and ecosystem vitality. The Atchafalaya Basin is a key estuary for nesting, breeding, and migration of 250 bird species, 60 species of reptiles & amphibians, and it is also the life-support system for close to 100 species of fish. One of the most profound aspects of the Atchafalaya River is its ability to improve water quality as the river runs its course to the Gulf. (Its muddy deltas are examples of how the Mississippi River should be working below New Orleans, but isn’t because the Mississippi River water is not allowed to filter through the brackish wetlands, having been cut off by levees and canals). The disappearing coast of Louisiana is being saved along one of the Atchafalaya distributaries, called Wax Lake. The Wax Lake channel is creating a totally new delta as the sediments of a nation fall out of the muddy flow and congeal to form fresh land.