The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
389 LBD Rodney Lake Side Trip
When the water is around 30 NG or higher you can cut through the intriguing opening at the topmost Cottage Island, around mile 389 left bank descending, and enter the deep woods surrounding the back channel of Rodney Island No 111. Enter at your own risk. Once you start down this channel you are committed to a fifteen mile route that changes slightly from year to year, and is crossed in one place by a low bridge (paddlers take warning!). As it approaches the top end of Rodney Lake, the main channel (of the back channel) branches off into a wetland distributary field, like the bronchi of the lungs, where fingers of flowing water spread out in many directions into the flooded forests and overflowing banks. This remnant river-connected wetlands is one of the best examples of the pre-levee health of the river (the other great example being Forest Home/Paw-Paw Chute/Old Yazoo wetlands above Vicksburg). It’s easy to lose your way or end up in a dead end waterway. Then again, you can turn around almost anywhere along the route and paddle back up to where you started at the big river. Good place to use your GPS if you have one.
Paddle quietly, or float along the gentle current for the best wildlife viewing imaginable. Canoeists and kayakers in this area have snuck up on buck deer nestled down along the scrubby bank for a mid-day nap, coyote swimming across the chute, and even black bear peeking out through the trees. Pileated woodpeckers (North America’s largest) flit back and forth laughing when the land, and songbirds fill the air with their sprightly ditties and dirges in the spring migration. Kingfishers might bark out when you enter the sections of the muddy bank they have claimed for their own, but also might reward you with daredevil dive bombs into the muddy waters. Wind your way deeper and deeper through dense stands of classic primeval bottomland hardwood forest, eventually the channel goes under a low bridge (beware!) and enters the top end Rodney Lake down a long curving channel lined by big willows. The land drops away gradually as the channel widens, and the forest eventually becomes flooded, and then you find yourself in the lake. Yellow rocket are thick in the spring and in the winter willows are some of the last trees to lose their leaves. Follow the lake westward, and then northwest, and then north. This is the shape of Rodney, a classic oxbow situated with its ends to the north. The inside of the lake is lined by endless walls of willow, arranged neatly in horizontal layers as long as the sky. The outside bank (to the south and then west) climbs higher and higher as you paddle along, and the trees become more and more populated with hardwoods like sycamores, sweetgums, oaks and ash, and the bottoms wrapped by vines and thorny brambles, and some palmettos. Eventually you will see a settlement on the left bank (to the west as the lake curves north) where the land rises to its full height, and then falls away completely. This is the exit you need to follow to return to the main channel of the big river. There are gravel bars here where the water flows over, a road crossing (no bridge) and overgrown gravelly sandbars, only the hardiest of trees in this nutrient poor soil, honey locust and osage orange pop up in low spots where some mud has accumulated, otherwise it’s all tough weeds and dewberry vines.
Here you reach the final gate of this route. If the water is flowing through, you are good to go, the passage is open back to the river. If the water is not flowing, you will have to portage or turn around and paddle back 3-4 miles to Cottage Island. (The dead-end happens in this situation: If the river has been low, and you happened to enter during a rise, the lake might still be filling up, and not yet overtopped this exit place. This is the possibility you will have to accept in this kind of exploration. Even if you can’t get through, it is still well-worth the journey getting here, and then getting back.
Mile 381 – Waterproof Landing
Waterproof Landing (AKA Goldman Lower Landing) is a primitive landing located over steep bank just below Farmer’s Grain Elevator RBD at mile 381, and made its fame as the start point for the legendary “Halph-the-Phat.” (For more about the “Phat,” keep reading below…) As you downstream through Kempe Bend look for grain elevator past bottom of Spithead Towhead. Do not leave vehicles overnight! Arrange shuttle.
381 – 374 RBD – Waterproof Island
Waterproof Island is two giant islands, each several thousand acres big, that have formed like twins, one hugging the other, parallel to the main channel of the river. Each Island is long and narrow, so long that you’ll think it’s just part of the right bank descending as you paddle down along it, and so narrow that you can see light through forests towards their bottom ends where they slice the river downstream like a razor-sharp knife. Paddlers in the Natchez area refer to them as Upper Waterproof and Lower Waterproof, so the Rivergator will do the same.
You will find dry sand at all water levels up to flood stage on the top end of Upper Waterproof, although it will be best for camping at bank full or higher (above 40NG) when you can get in close to the vegetation. If sand is what you want, camp anywhere around the top end in low or medium water levels. For privacy, or to get away from the monotonous drone of the never-ending parade of tow traffic, go backside for a more limited but still ample selection of picnic and campsites. Back channel opens below the 3rd big dike around 15NG in shallow “feathery” channels that bump over the sandy shoals. If there’s water going in and you’re not in any particular hurry, go for it. The riverman’s rule is flowing in: flowing out (which holds true 99% of the time. (Go to Rodney Lake back channel for the 1% time this might not hold true!).
Meanwhile, the back channel of Lower Waterproof doesn’t open until the river is significantly higher, until around 25NG, and is only accessible through the back channel of Upper Waterproof. If the river is high and you are already back behind Upper, paddling down the back channel, by all means turn right into the opening where the Lower Chute opens up. If there is water flowing in you are good to go. Enter with the flow and enjoy the endless stream of birds, trees and happily bubbling, boiling and babbling waters. The waters are seem happier flowing down the back channel. You are protected here from all winds unless it’s blowing from the due south. Stop paddling along the way and just float along enjoying the mesmerizing patterns on the water and the vitality of life surrounding your passage. In the summer it can be hot and lazy, but a quick swim will freshen things up. In the winter the skeletal forests are silhouetted by the sky, and the winter birds can be heard foraging, and occasional squirrels and possums.
Lower Waterproof has one beautiful sandbar on the main channel side towards its bottom end (open to the big river). Marked on the USACE maps as L’Argents Landing, this bar is best between 20 and 30NG. Below 20 it gets muddy, and above 30 there’s no more sand. Very little remains dry on Lower above bank full, and at flood stage the entire island is a flooded forest. This does not mean you should not visit, for there is nothing more heavenly than paddling through the creator’s own river cathedral created within the trunks of a flooded willow forest. If the spirit hovers anywhere over the waters on the seventh day, you will surely find God here amongst the murmuring waters and sighing willows as the muddy water whispers through the wet tree trunks, catfish swirling their tails underneath and parachute spiders and water skeeters skipping overhead, and during their season mayflies crowding every twig and leaf like the angel choir, their forearms held together in prayer, their flight a dizzying dance that must surely please the maker.
During the flood year of 2003 I camped at the top end of Waterproof with my bachelor party which consisted of my brothers Ernie and Frank, step-father Daddy Gare-Bear, nephew Ian, and friends Dean Lambert, Sean Rowe and “Big Muddy” Mike Clark. Several dozen acres was all that remained dry on Waterproof. The mosquitoes were out in droves, newly hatched, and all concentrated over the remaining dry ground. Boy were they glad to see us! As Lewis & Clark so often quoted: “very troublesome.” None of us had tents, we didn’t think we’d need them. My oldest brother Frank, ever the innovator, came up with a unique solution. It was a chilly night, so sleeping bags covered most exposed skin. But what about the head? Frank went to sleep with his baseball cap on, over which he draped a pieces of gauze from the 1st aid kit, folded together like cheesecloth. While the rest of us tossed and turned, swatting those busy buzzing bombers all night long, and awoke the next morning in a less than rested state of mind. Meanwhile brother Frank arose the next morning refreshed and chipper as a young squirrel. In fact, he slept so good we all woke up before him and we watched as the river rose higher and higher. Pretty soon the patch of ground he had laid his head on was an island. We debated whether to leave him there in his peaceful slumber that none of us shared. “We’ll let the river wake him up,” we quipped out of jealousy of his sound slumber. Eventually our good will got the best of us, and I sent Daddy Gare Bear over to wake him up.
Once past Spithead and the Farmer’s Grain Elevator, follow Waterproof through Ashland Bend past Cole’s Creek towards Hole in the Wall. When you get to the bottom end of the Island the ten mile stretch of straight water down to Natchez opens up in front of you in a solid wall of blue-green haze.