The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
“The Very Bottom”
Devil’s Swamp, like so many aspects of South Louisiana (SoLa), is located at the “very bottom…” What do we mean by “the very bottom?” Being at the bottom has its soaring highlights and its sobering unpleasantries. Geographically speaking SoLa is of course the very bottom of the entire Mississippi River system. Or better said: its roots. From these roots (the gnarly channels reaching down to the Caribbean) stands strong and tall the river’s massive main trunk (the Lower Miss), its gargantuan main forks (Ohio, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee) and all of its hundreds of branches (tributaries) and thousands of twigs (smaller tribs) which all reach upwards and outwards from continental divide (Rockies) to continental divide (Appalachian) into smaller and smaller springs, seeps, and tiny drainages that catch and funnel every dewdrop and drop of rain and melting snowflake downwards and eventually southwards to this location. This catchment basin drains more of the earth than any other save for the Amazon (and possibly the Congo). If the Midwest is “the heart,” then the North Woods is the “head,” the Great Plans and the Eastern Woodlands are the “arms,” and the Deep South is the “gut.” And so I sometimes refer to this stretch of river, from Memphis down, as the “stomach” or the “gut of America.” Some people turn up their noses at this nickname, but the gut is every bit as important to the whole as any other part, and more important than some. You can live without your arms, for instance, but not your gut. And this nickname also fits the general atmosphere where people tend to “go with their gut,” and let their gut hang out, and also enjoy a feast of “Hawg-Maws” or Chit-lins (also known as Chitterlins) as a hangover favorite after a night’s revelry surrounding some live delta blues, zydeco, second line, or swamp rock.
Not only does the river here wind through this muddy landscape with serpentine meanderings similar to the lower intestine, but it also digests the water, and revitalizes the whole with the transformed energy. (That is when its working correctly). In this scenario the rich gravy broth of America’s sediment becomes transformed into arguable the most mouth-watering culinary offerings the world has ever seen (Creole, Cajun), the most powerful form of popular music ever (Jazz), and one of the most vibrant cultural flowerings in history (New Orleans). Before being trashed by industry, SoLa boasted the richest fishery in the world for its shrimp, tuna, oysters, and other fishes & crustaceans, and the biggest migrational flockings of shorebirds, songbirds and waterfowl, which congregate here twice a year in their annual migrations to and from Central/South America over the Gulf of Mexico.
When you are located at the very bottom you receive all of the best of what that system has to offer, and all of the worst. So there it is in a nutshell: the geography has created in SoLa the pinnacle of human culture within the deepest pits of its greed and corruption. Needless to say this makes for a forever fascinating landscape to paddle through. If my name was Dante Allighieri and I wanted to make a fresh rendering of my trilogy the Divine Comedy, I would most certainly set it in SoLa, and the river would be the vehicle for the narrative. Because on the river you see the worst of the worst; and with some climbing over the bank every once in a while, the best of the best. Probably everything you have heard about canoeing or kayaking through Cancer Alley is true, or could be true. But voyageur, take heart and pay attention. Exercising some strong paddler’s gumption and a lot of intuitiveness, you can enjoy an educational, inspiring, and oftentimes life-changing journey through this land “at the very bottom.”
Baton Rouge Crossroads
Canoeists and Kayakers heading into Baton Rouge are approaching another crossroads of the Lower Mississippi River. Not only does the Intercostal waterway provide perpendicular access to the southerly flowing river, but the addition of big freighters are a maritime game-changer at Baton Rouge where they join the flotilla flurry of commercial activity and ratchet the danger scale upwards a notch or two.
Erstwhile paddler and philosopher Mike Beck offered a good primer for paddlers coming into Baton Rouge, and continuing on downstream. Observes Mike, with his characteristic sense of dry humor: “A lot of things on the river change at Baton Rouge, including attitudes:”
(1) The hailing frequency on the marine band changes when you pass the US 190 bridge. Change your Marine Radio from VHF channel 13 to VHF channel 67. PS: The USACE maps say to change the channel at Devil’s Swamp Light. It doesn’t matter where you do it, but be sure to make the change before coming into Baton Rouge.
(2) The volume and character of commercial traffic changes. From here to the Gulf, a paddler will be viewed less as a curiosity and more as a nuisance.
(3) People in Baton Rouge fear the river and regard it as a toxic cesspool. In South Louisiana the river is generally believed to be more polluted than it really is, and people, especially the educated ones, will tell you that this is a necessary trade-off for the sake of economic progress. Don’t try to disabuse them of either of these crippling superstitions; just smile and keep paddling. Briskly, if possible.
(4) The US Environmental Protection Agency considers the river clean enough to swim in from the Arkansas border until you reach Baton Rouge, where suddenly it isn’t. This has little to do with industrial pollution and everything to do with Baton Rouge flushing its collective toilet into the river. The City of Baton Rouge has been out of compliance with the Clean Water Act since the 1970s and has more or less flouted the conditions of a 1988 federal consent decree resulting from an enforcement action dating back to 1984. Earliest projected date for compliance: 2018. Baton Rouge has been more recalcitrant on this point than they were over school desegregation, which is saying something.
(5) An important geological change occurs here. You have reached the edge of the Pleistocene Terrace. That’s why there is a city here. From the foot of North Street (mile 230, site of the old Port Allen ferry landing), there is a continuous levee on both sides of the river all the way to the Gulf. The river begins to run slightly slower. At very low river stage, the BR gauge shows a tidal signal. Below here, the so-called “dry land” on either side of you is less than 7,000 years old.