The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

Vicksburg to Natchez

370 LBD Greens Bayou

As you paddle downriver towards Natchez look carefully left bank descending and if you catch it right you will see a narrow intriguing opening cluttered with overhanging willows and steep muddy banks (in med or low water).  But if you blink you will miss it!  No muddy banks in high water, but its flooded willow forests still invite exploration into the sprawling Anna’s Bottom.  Green Bayou separates the steep ramparts of Natchez Bluffs from Anna’s Bottom, but then wanders aimlessly through the bottoms.

369 Highline

The powerline crossing towboat pilots refer to as “The Highline” marks the last five miles necessary to reach Natchez Under the Hill.  

 

370-368 LBD Opposite Rifle Point

Low water sandbar only, and often muddy.

 

369 - 367.5 RBD Rifle Point

A huge sloping sandbar bluff emerges in low water at Rifle Point, often littered with giant logs and piles of fascinating driftwood, and affords a final choice for good all water level camping before coming into Natchez.

 

368 - 366 LBD Bluff Bars

(Note: We’re talking here about sandbars, not alcohol bars.  Your thirst will soon be satiated at Natchez-Under-the-Hill Saloon, or other nearby establishments!)  At medium and low water levels the adventurous paddler can pull into some highly unusual ledges of sand and mud and collapsing Loess Bluff left bank descending as you float down into Natchez.  Upstream towboats tend to hug the bank here, but if you want to get a close-up glimpse of the unique Bluff biota, paddle as close as you’re comfortable and you will see fantastic landscapes revealed.  Deep mysterious ravines lacerate the bulging bluffs and avalanches of mud.  The towering canopy of sycamores, oaks, ashes, elms, beeches, sweetgums, hackberries, and cottonwoods creates an ethereal understory full of vines, brambles, and shorter trees and bushy growth full of mist on most mornings, and shady until mid-day when the sun climbs high enough above the Natchez Hills to be able to look in.  As such this monstrous bluff line is best explored in the afternoon light when the sun is best able to penetrate the jungle.

 

367 LBD Devil’s Punchbowl

“Far in the past, a great cup-shaped hole, about five hundred feet wide, had formed in the soft earth of the river bluffs. Slowly it seemed to widen, as gullies formed along its sides and rows of trees hurtled into its depths. Thickly grown, it provided a dim, almost impenetrable place of concealment. Natives thought a heavy meteor might once have plummeted here, sinking into the earth. Steamboat men claimed that their compasses behaved crazily when they passed.”  Harnett T. Kane “Natchez On The Mississippi”

 

As one canoes down river into Natchez at around 367-368 LBD be sure to keep a watchful eye on the bluffs.  Through the trees several deep clefts can be spotted, one of which is the infamous Devil’s Punchbowl.   If your compass goes wild and you spot someone calling innocently from the bank, you will know that you have arrived  at the right spot.  Although the Natchez claimed Devil’s Punchbowl was created where a meteor struck the earth, more likely it’s just a natural hollow in the Natchez Bluffs where the terraces have collapsed, as they are prone to do.  Whatever, it has harbored pirates, and is said to have once been a concentration camp where thousands of freed slave perished from smallpox. (Adam Elliott)

 

Ask twelve people in Natchez the location of the Punchbowl and you will get twelve very different answers.  Much of this is due to the fact that the river north of Natchez was reshaped in the 1930’s, leaving the true location a bit fuzzy.   Whatever has been said about the Devil’s Punchbowl, it has been a place of dread and woe throughout the early years of Mississippi’s history.   Prior to 1930, the river north of Natchez was not a relatively straight channel.  There existed a 23 mile meander that started about 2 miles north of Under the Hill, arcing west towards Ferriday La, then north and back east towards Anna’s Bottom.   Nestled into the bluff at this bend in the river is the Devil’s Punchbowl.    In the last decade of the 1700’s up until the 1830’s the primary mode of commerce was the flatboat.  A flatboat was a raft of sorts that had a cabin built upon it for shelter while traveling.  Goods up to 50 tons would be loaded from points up river and floated down the Mississippi to New Orleans.  At New Orleans the goods would be sold and the boat broken up and sold for lumber.   The boatmen would then make their way back to Natchez to embark on a journey back to Nashville via the Natchez Trace.  By the 1830s it is estimated that about 4,000 of these sturdy flatboat craft made the trip to New Orleans each year.  One prominent American who served as a crewman on a flatboat was none other than Abraham Lincoln.  In 1828 the 19 year old made his first trip down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans.  And again in 1831 according to An Illustrated Guide to the Vicksburg Campaign & National Military Park, by Jeff Giambrone.

 

It was this pattern that drew the land and river pirates.  The Punchbowl was advantageous due to both its proximity to the river and the Trace.   By land the Trace is less than 20 miles.  One common strategy for the river pirates would be to have a decoy on the riverbank, a very old or young person, call out to flat boaters for help.  Making land, the pirates would swarm from the dense thickets, overwhelming the travelers, killing them and stealing their goods. The most infamous of the pirates was John Murrell.   Murrell operated as both a river pirate and a bandit on the Natchez Trace.   The Mystic Clan, as Murrell’s gang was known, consisted of somewhere between 300 and a 1000 persons.  It was through this network that Murrell moved the stolen goods.   Horse thievery and reselling stolen slaves also constituted for some of the gangs work.  John Murrell and his gang operated up until the 1840’s, when Murrell was apprehended as part of plot to take over New Orleans and install himself as some sort of potentate of Louisiana.   For his crimes he was jailed in Nashville TN, where he later died of tuberculosis.  (Adam Elliott)

 

367.5 RBD Opening to Old River -- Top End (Marengo Bend Lake)

Previous to 1933 the Mississippi made a giant curve around Marengo Bend into the rich Louisiana bottomlands before curving back to slam into the bluffs at Natchez.  The Giles Cutoff changed that, resulting in the 10-mile long straight channel you are paddling down.  Marengo is now known as Old River and is still connected top and bottom in all water levels.  Both openings make an ideal place for a quick protected exit from wind or oncoming storms if needed.  But you don’t need to wait for bad weather to make a visit.  On any day your experience on the Mississippi will be enhanced with a look into the tunnels of life thriving within the runouts in and out of Old River.  Take an hour and paddle into either top end or bottom end and keep your binoculars and camera on hand for unexpected wildlife.  This is gator country, but also turtles, snakes, frogs, toads, and all amphibians.  You can paddle in a mile or two, depending on water level, unless the river is at flood stage, which makes for a round-the-lake adventure for the bravest and fittest paddlers (GPS or compass and a map is recommended, as well as a day’s supply of food and water).   Call local river guide Adam Elliott for more advice, or expert guiding service.