The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
Welcome to SOLA (South Louisiana)!
Paddling downriver from Baton Rouge you are leaving the last of the truly high ground on the Mississippi River. Historically, most of the land below Baton Rouge would be covered and nurtured by the annual flood waters of the Mississippi River. If viewed from upriver, this is the beginning of the end. The land here appears to be leveling out, sinking, melting away, and it is(another complicated and fascinating story we’ll get to later, downriver). But geologically this land was growing. It is the youngest land of all the Mississippi river basin; laid hear annually by the Father of Waters. That was until man flexed his engineering muscle and chose to end a cycle that had flourished for millennia. After the Great Flood of 1927 and the Federal Flood Control Act, the Mighty Mississippi was tamed, confined within tall levees, ending the very process that created and sustained the land that lies on the other side. Here, this unnatural intrusion begins to come clear as you float the serpentine moat of Louisiana’s Petrochemical castle.
South Louisiana’s history is long and fascinating. The artery of its birth, triumphs and tragedies is of course the Mississippi River. From inside the levees paddlers are able to view this curious place from a vantage point few ever have the opportunity to see. Yet, Louisiana was first seen from the Mississippi’s waters. SoLA was explored, founded and settled along the banks of the mightiest of rivers. But from the beginning the treachery of this place was clear. The original settlement of the French explorers that eventually founded New Orleans barely lasted through the first high-water season. And so began mans quest to live in harmony, or perhaps in conquest of the Mighty Mississippi. Levees became a necessity of survival and have been growing ever since.
The Mississippi is the reason SoLA (Baton Rouge, New Orleans,etc.) exists, and still sustains it, though altered as it may be. As with all things, there are trade offs. To protect communities, like New Orleans and Baton Rouge, SoLA confined the ever shifting Mississippi. Essentially cutting the arms and legs from the heart; leaving them to starve for lack of the life giving blood the river once provided. But, as intended, the communities that inhabited the floodplain of the river have been saved from the seasonal flooding and perpetual meandering of the water. SoLA was saved from being washed away, or so it was thought. Here in the industrial corridor vast agricultural plantations gave way to sprawling industrial facilities. Both of which located here because of the Mighty Mississippi. Slaves that once inhabited these plantations often settled communities adjacent to the land they had once worked following their emancipation. As SoLA’s industries evolved, these communities along the banks of the river, at the edge of these historic properties, found themselves on the fence line of a new generation of plantation. Communities up and down the river, once at home in vast fields of sugarcane and lush landscapes became neighbors with oil refineries and chemical manufacturers, confined by an ever constricting infrastructure of rail cars and pipelines carrying the new commodities of SoLA. Commodities that might make your eyes burn, your throat tighten and lungs gasp for breath.
Having tamed the natural flooding of the Mississippi, SoLA began displacing its historic river dwelling communities with a new danger: “Industrial Progress.” Sadly, this conflict, and dismantling of home has played out for decades throughout SoLA. Some of these stories are mentioned elsewhere in the Rivergator (see ExxonMobil and Sunrise) as you travel downriver.
Downstream, as you reach the terminus of the Mississippi River you will witness another story of displacement. The imprisonment of the Mississippi (as well as other factors we’ll discuss later) has led to the most rapid rate of land-loss seen anywhere on the planet. There in the real delta of the Mississippi, another type of flood is consuming communities, directly as a result of man’s effort to prevent that very thing. Call it a curse of SoLA’s past indiscretions or a lesson from Mother Earth about the control of nature; the Mississippi River takes what it wants, despite the will of man.