The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
Venice to the Gulf
20-30 miles. Depends on your route. The choices include South Pass, Southwest Pass and Pass LaOutre. What a joy to paddle the last ten miles of the Mighty Mississippi past Pilot Town to the legendary Head of Passes, mile -0- of the Lower Mississippi River. For through-paddlers, reaching the Gulf is like reaching the South Pole. Months of planning, paddling, long hot days and cold windy nights, weeks of rain and headwinds, millions of paddlestrokes and countless muddy campsites have brought you to the end of a significant pilgrimage spanning several distinct geographic regions. Your stamina and hard paddling have brought you down the longest and largest river in North America. Your quickest and quietest route to the Gulf is to take the South Pass and make landing on one of the muddy beaches past the lighthouse. Celebrate your expedition as appropriate, and if the weather is good make camp and stay for the night to fully relish the experience. Hitch a ride back with a friendly fisherman, or paddle back under your own steam. After completing thousands of miles of river, the upstream paddle will be a breeze! Best practice: before leaving Venice check the weather first and make note of wind speed and direction. In a south wind you might want to avoid the South Pass and instead opt for the Pass LaOutre or SW Pass. In strong west winds avoid the Southwest Pass. In South winds over 25mph stay in Venice until it calms.
Farthest navigable extension of the Mississippi River, the mouth of the river at the Southwest Pass. The Southwest Pass is the busiest out of all major river passes. But it also has the best flow (hence less paddling). As the river approaches the Gulf (and is drained off by its passes and other smaller openings to the Caribbean) it slows down and becomes sluggish. The mud and wastes of 41% of America are deposited and become the Louisiana Delta. At least this is how it’s supposed to work. This is what happens in the parallel drainage of the Atchafalaya, where the water is allowed to flow naturally as an alluvial delta into the shallow Gulf. Entirely within Plaquemines Parrish, the present day birdsfoot delta is a marshy, swampy land rich in oil, natural gas, mosquitoes, seafood and wildlife. And it’s also disappearing. In 1908 the Southwest pass was made navigable year-round with a 40 foot channel by the placement of a series of jetties (placed perpendicular to the river current). Captain James B. Eads had previously opened the South Pass by this method (1875), and the Army Corps of Engineers copied his method in 1908 with the Southwest Pass, and then diverted most of the flow down this route. Eads’ jetty method opened the passes to the seven seas, and led to the development of the Mississippi River system as the longest and heaviest used inland waterway system in the world. New Orleans (which previously was only accessible during high water) became America’s second busiest port. There are plans afoot to increase the depth to 60 feet to accommodate supertankers. Meanwhile the oceans are rising with great concern for the entire Gulf Coast which would be inundated by the end of the century according to modest estimates.
Put in at Venice, and quickly float past “the jump,” which was created when flood waters poured through a small canal dug by Venice fisherman in 1840. (The jump leads into Grand Pass and Tiger Pass). Ocean-going freighters, oil dock crew boats and fishing boats will be your companions as we paddle along past Cubits gap (opened by the Union Army during the Civil War) and Pilot Town. Pilot Town is an interesting water-bound enclave of Mississippi River Pilots. Here river pilots are taken aboard freighters to navigate them up the tricky channels of the Mississippi to New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and points in between. Immediately below Pilot Town is the “Head of Passes,” the zero marker of the Lower Mississippi River. Here the river splits into three major channels or “passes” leading to the Gulf. Best route: South Pass to the Gulf. From here the lines of trees on either bank descend into muddy marshes and shorelines, the lines of land diminishing, and the expanse of the gulf becoming more and more a reality until the entire horizon becomes the gulf at the end of the jetties. This section can be challenging in high wind. In severe weather there is no choice but to take shelter and wait out the storm. (Note: in the event of any oncoming hurricanes it would be best to stay put in Venice, or better yet New Orleans or Baton Rouge, and await its passing). There might be passing fishing boats and other local traffic, but all commercial vessels stay in the Southwest Pass.
Near here LaSalle claimed the Mississippi and all its contiguous lands for France after becoming the first European to float its length (1682). In the early 1800s an adventurous English traveler by the name Mrs. Trollope entered the Mississippi estuary and described the river “pouring forth its muddy mass of waters and mingling with the deep blue of the Mexican Gulf.” She declared that she had never beheld a scene so utterly desolate. “Had Dante seen it he might have drawn images from its horrors.” This vision might still hold true!