Lower Mississippi River
Cairo, IL to Caruthersville, MS: Mississippi River Mile 955 to Mile 840
We had a tough time settling on a place to stay for the night because both sides of the Ohio River are full of barge traffic, and there were no public docks to which to tie the boat. It looked as if we might have to look for a spot on the Mississippi, and before we knew it, we were heading upstream along a new river. We finally settled on a spot right under the Missouri/Illinois Bridge that leads into Cairo over the Mississippi: it was still relatively close to town, it protected us from the wake of barge traffic, and was in the current lee of an island so we wouldn't have to worry too much about being swept downriver. In the picture to the right, the two-lane bridge heads off to Missouri, and a sign alerts travelers to the fact that they are traversing the Mississippi River. Not 50 yards away, another bridge leads from Illinois to Kentucky, and a similar sign makes note of the Ohio River.
After walking over four miles round trip to visit the fourth graders at Bennett Elementary School on Monday with our program props laid out on the shore in the photo to the left, our plan was to start out down the Mississippi the next morning. The weather, however, had other ideas. We awoke Tuesday to a nasty looking sky and strong winds; the weather on the radio called for high winds and rain throughout the day. Disappointed, we decided that that was not a good way to start our first day on the Mississippi and we settled in to ride out the storm on shore. As it turns out, we made the right decision--several tornados passed within a few miles of us, bringing visibility of less than 25 feet and winds gusting to 60 mph. It rained in short down powers all day long, at one point turning to hail. That night, the radio warned that due to the heavy rains, the river was predicted to rise almost eight feet in Cairo. We had already noticed that the river was rising, and brought the boat as close to shore as we could before going to sleep, setting the alarm for three hours later.
When we awoke in the middle of the night, we found that the shore was fast disappearing, and again pulled the spud and moved the boat closer to shore. We had to repeat the procedure two more times in the middle of the night in order to keep the boat from floating away down the Mississippi. The light of day showed that the river had risen about five feet during the night, enough to cover much of the shore we had been walking along the past few days. The picture to the right shows where the water stood when we departed on Wednesday morning. This is in stark contrast to the photo a left which shows the shoreline as it looked when we arrived at Cairo on Sunday--the ledge where the bass and backpack rest in the photo at right is nearly crested by water in the photo to the right!
After weathering the previous day's storm, we were ready to set out on the Mississippi. At the confluence we looked for the legendary mixing of the two rivers--the clearer green of the Ohio next to the muddy waters of the Mississippi. For several hundred yards after the point of confluence the waters continue on their separate paths, where a distinct line marking the boundaries of the two rivers is visible in this photo at right.
One of the most important things we have to learn to contend with along the Mississippi is the increased size and speed of the barge traffic. In particular, we had to be concerned with the wake produced by up-bound tows. The strong current they have to fight to make way up river requires them to use a great deal of engine power, creating powerfully large waves in their wake. The trick is to avoid getting stuck between a barge and the outside of one of the many bends in the river. To do so would mean there would be little room between our boat, the wake, and the river bank, creating a tumultuous area that we would not want to be in the middle of. Waves created as an upstream tow navigates the outside of a bend can be anywhere from 6-10 feet depending on the horsepower of the vessel and the amount of current it is pushing against. Tows on the Ohio River are constrained by the size of the navigation locks, and were never larger than 3 barges wide by 5 long. We've been told that the record for the largest array of barges ever pushed on the Mississippi contained 72 units and was 8 barges wide by 9 long!
The next day we spotted the Loch Ness monster off the starboard side of our boat. At first, we thought it might just be some floating tree limbs, but a closer look and our powerful zoom lense showed that it was indeed Nessie herself as the photo to the left proves without a doubt. We figure that she must have been on vacation from her usual haunts in Scotland, and what better place to visit than the mighty Mississippi? It makes a lot of sense if you sit down and think about it for a moment. After three days of strong winds, sharp bends, and huge barges, we were ready for anything, and the sighting only whetted our appetite for more adventure along the Mississippi.
Caruthersville, MS to Memphis, TN: Mississippi River Mile 840 to Mile 734
One of the first towns we stopped at along the Mississippi River was New Madrid, Missouri, sight of the famous New Madrid Earthquake of 1811. A large fault line lies near the town, and in the fall of 1811, an earthquake shook the area with such force that the ground rose to form large chasms and the Mississippi ran backwards for 48 hours. The quake rang church bells in Washington, D.C. and rocked chandeliers in New Orleans. The aftershocks lasted for several months. In addition to capitalizing on their shaky past, the New Madrid museum tells of the events of the Civil War that occurred near the town, and today the city has its share of barge traffic and serves up a mean fried catfish. After we left New Madrid, we spent the night tucked behind a dyke on the river, just upstream of this bridge near Cruthersville, MO--our first bridge along the Mississippi River!
We were on a mission to get to Memphis early on in the week for our visit to the Children's Museum of Memphis, and the current on the Mississippi helped move us along. Finding a town next to the mighty river is the exception and not the rule, as most of the land along the river is a flood plain. At this time of year it is either a barren field or a flat, forested area that generally fills our eyes along the river. The few towns we do pass have tall levies built along the river's edge that serve to keep the river at bay when the waters rise to flood stage. We were amused to check the charts and see that we were passing the town of Tomato, Arkansas, so Aimee held up a tomato to honor the moment! We weren't able to see much of a town, however, and speculated that Tomato was further inland or more of an industrial/agricultural area. As you can guess from the picture at right, the weather has dropped to "below average temperatures" and we are inclined to spend our days bundled up in winter clothing, despite the fact that we are headed south.
In addition to barges, a frequent sight on our journey down to Memphis was this boat, one of two Coast Guard vessels we spotted deploying the buoys that help keep all river vessels within the navigable channels (at left). Red "nuns" and green "cans" sit on the platform at the front of the boat, and if you look closely, it is possible to see a green can dangling from the crane that is used to set and collect the buoys. The different colors and shapes of the buoys indicate to mariners which side of the channel the vessel should be on. Headed downstream, the green cans are kept to the right of the boat, and the red nuns are kept to the left.
We reached Memphis, Tennessee Monday afternoon, in time to get a good look at the city before the sunset. The photo to the right shows the city looking downstream from above river. The Hernando De Soto Bridge that spans the Mississippi between Tennessee and Arkansas was only our second after over 200 miles on the river. Perhaps it was purposely given that "M" shape for Memphis? The signature Memphis Pyramid can also just barely be seen peeking over the trees to the left of the downtown skyline.
The marina we stayed at our first two days in Memphis is located on Mud Island, an area just a few miles long that is separated from the Tennessee shoreline by a small canal. While the north side is a residential neighborhood, the south side is mainly occupied by the Mud Island River Museum, which features an amazing half-mile long, scaled model of the Lower Mississippi River that is sculpted into the concrete. The model also includes maps of the major towns along the river, over 60 display boards with information about important regional and historical sites, and representations of the major tributaries of the Mississippi (the Ohio, Missouri, Tennessee, Cumberland, and Arkansas Rivers, among others.)
We had had some major problems with our steering mechanism onboard the Libelula, including one day on the Mississippi were the situation got so bad that Morgan had to hand steer with the motor while Aimee navigated and gave him directions. In order to get a sense of what this was like, imagine a blind person trying to drive an automobile down the freeway based on the vocal commands of a sighted person in the passenger seat! Fortunately, Morgan was able to come up with a temporary fix for that problem that enabled us to make it to Memphis safely. As we rely on the motor to keep us out of the way of barges and dikes, you can imagine how relieved we were to find a place that was selling a new steering mechanism.
Far from home during the holiday of Thanksgiving, our wonderful hosts from the Children's Museum of Memphis, Cece and Andy Palazola, invited us to share dinner with their extended family. We had a fine time meeting and dining with the boisterous Palazola clan, who graciously welcomed strangers into their home for the holiday. With so many people attending the feast, our hostesses had arranged a buffet style set-up around which everyone congregated and ate copious of wonderful food! (photo at left)
Our stop in Memphis created a media frenzy such as we had never previously experienced. Aside from a notice and picture in the newspaper about our scheduled visit to the Children's Museum, the local television show "Live at 9" emailed us about doing an interview. We were happy to oblige, and Morgan made an appearance on the show Friday morning during which he discussed our travels down the river as well as the educational aspect of our program. Much to her dismay, Aimee woke up that morning with a terrible stomachache and was unable to make the WaterWorks television debut.
The rest of Friday and Saturday was spent at the Children's Museum of Memphis, where we had been invited to come share our journey. In addition to a display table near the entrance where we handed out stickers and shared our photos, we did two daily programs that were abridged versions of our school visits. The play stage at the back of the museum was a perfect venue for our program, especially with the very appropriate river-themed backdrop one of the kids discovered for us. The large audiences at all of the programs helped us to create the watershed model we make in the classrooms, which Aimee and Morgan explain in the photo at right.
After the programs, we invited everyone to come outside to the front of the museum to check out the boat, which had been hauled out of the water and parked near the entrance. In small groups, Morgan would bring the children up onto the boat and give them a brief tour of our living accommodations. Then he would take them to the stern to show our young visitors how the bicycle powered paddle wheel system functioned. They even got a chance to whirl the bike peddle around and watch the paddle wheel turn in response, as the two kids are doing in the photo at left. All in all, we were very pleased with our visit to the Children's Museum and had a great time meeting the people of Memphis and sharing our journey with them.
After having some fun and successful days at the Children's Museum, we set out on Saturday night to explore some of the city of Memphis. We headed to Beale Street, a popular tourist destination touted as "The Home of the Blues ... Birthplace of Rock N' Roll". Here we ate some typical deep-fried southern food, listened to good music, and saw a performance by none other than Elvis Presley, who apparently is still alive.
Week #13, 27.November - 03.December, 2005
Memphis, TN to Greenville, MS: Mississippi River Mile 734 to Mile 537
We decided not to leave Memphis without first visiting the famous ducks of the Peabody Hotel (photo at right), located downtown in the heart of the city. For as long as anyone seems to remember, these ducks have been living in the fountain of the main lobby of the hotel during the day, where they swim around and play duck games. In the evening after a hard day's work, they march up out of the fountain on the command of their trainer, and walk down a red carpet rolled out especially for the occasion. The carpet leads them to the elevator, which they take to the top floor of the establishment where they eat duck food and spend the night in comfort. A similar ceremony happens in reverse every morning when the ducks are marched down from their high perch. This ceremony happens everyday and seems to draw lots of people with cameras.
During our stay in Memphis, the Palazola Family gave us their living room as a place to crash while the vessel was hauled out of the water for the Children's Museum Presentations. They offered us exceptional hospitality and showed us some of the many sights and neighborhoods of the greater Memphis area. They were really quite pleasant for our entire visit even though we turned their house into the disheveled River WaterWorks headquarters for nearly a week.
Cece accompanied us back to our vessel where we again launched into the river at the Memphis Yacht Club Marina on Mud Island. She took some photos of us paddling the vessel downstream, including the one to the left. Most of the photos we have from our journey were taken while actually on the vessel, so consequently we don't have many shots of the boat in action. Thanks to Cece for capturing the essence of the bicycle powered pontoon boat underway! We left Memphis on the morning of Tuesday, 29.November after living the lush land life for an entire week. We had a good stay in the city, having managed to meet lots of great people, and left refreshed, traveling on a vessel that was equipped to safely complete the final leg of the journey.
On our first day back on the river we left Tennessee and entered into the state of Mississippi on our left descending bank. In the evening we ended up at the Tunica RiverPark Museum, which has one of the few public docks on the entire Lower Mississippi River. The area of Tunica, MS used to be quite small, but then grew and prospered as a result of casino development. Many towns along the rivers try to use riverboat casinos to help boost their local economies. From our experiences, the success of these endeavors does not always meet up to the original expectations of the establishments. However, the casino business in Tunica seemed to be quite prosperous, and was complemented nicely by the presence of the RiverPark Museum. We arrived at the museum just as it was closing and were received with a warm welcome. Upon hearing our story, the museum officials allowed us to wander around the museum after hours, taking in the many beautiful river aquariums, educational exhibits and Mississippi River history it had to offer. It was definitely one of the best museums we had ever been to, and we recommend it highly to anyone traveling through the area!
Week thirteen was the last week of our school programs for fourth-grade classrooms. At the beginning of the week we stopped at the Osceola Academic Center of Excellence in Osceola, AR where we did two programs in their library. We finished up our classroom educational efforts at the end of the week at West Bolivar Elementary in Rosedale, MS. All told, during the course of our journey we talked with over 2000 kids from 26 different schools about the concept of watersheds and how people use their water and rivers.
The photo to the right shows a grain barge being loaded in the port of Rosedale, MS. Note how the barge is quite tilted in the water as the grain is being loaded into the one end. As more and more grain fills the barge, it will sink lower into the water. Once the front end of the barge is full of grain, the back of the barge will be filled so that the barge sits level in the water. When this barge is unloaded, it draws (meaning how much of the boat is below the water line) about one or two feet of water. A fully loaded barge of this size draws at least eight feet of water! We spoke with a prison convict on work-release who was working at this particular loading facility. He informed us that it takes about two days to completely load a single barge with the equipment they have.
We departed Rosedale, MS having completed our planned education program, and looked forward to finishing the rest of the journey without having to keep to a definitive schedule. We decided to make the elementary school in Rosedale our last stop because the towns further south either had schools that were far away from the river, or the nature of the river and its increasing barge traffic was not conducive to stopping. We did, however, take time to stop in Greenville, MS where we arrived at the Greenville Yacht Club just in time to find out that the town's Christmas parade was taking place that very night! We went into town, and sure enough we were greeted with marching bands and parade floats welcoming in the holiday spirit.
The evening festivities were wrapped up with one of the finest fireworks displays that either Aimee or Morgan had seen in recent memory. Often times in this world of computers and technology, even fireworks displays are controlled and fired by some sort of electronic mechanism. However, we were close enough to these fireworks to notice that this display was being ignited by hand. There were at least three people running around in a field with glow sticks that they seemed to be using to light off different banks of fireworks simultaneously (photo at left). It was overall quite an impressive display of motion and light. As we walked back to our boat after a grand evening of unexpected celebration, we relished in the fact that we had traveled over 1500 miles by water to arrive in the city of Greenville, and were humbled by the thought of the over 400 miles of Mississippi River that our journey still had in store for us to face.
Greenville, MS to Angola, LA: Mississippi River Mile 537 to Mile 305
On Monday evening we found a good spot to spend the night on the river at mile 471 near Arcadia Point and just upstream of the Cottonwood Sandbar. We headed out of the main channel and tucked up behind a dike, where lots of sand was beginning to settle out. We arrived just as the sun was about to drop below the horizon, and came across a large flock of what seemed to be American Pelicans. The birds took to flight as we entered their environment, and can be seen as small dark specs in the sky in the photo at right.
Our stopping point for the night turned out to be one of the most serene places we spent on the entire river. We were far enough away from the main channel to barely even notice the towboats and their barges that continued traveling up and down the river all night long. We awoke in the morning to dense fog on the water, but clear skies overhead. The fog lifted in the area immediately surrounding us quite quickly, however, it lingered in a dense bank over the main channel for a number of hours as seen in the background of the photo to the right. We had made it a policy not to travel in the fog, because it is difficult to see where you are going, making it likely that either you'll hit something, or even more likely, that something will hit you.
While waiting for the fog to lift (photo at left), Morgan took the opportunity to scrape some ice off of the window that had accumulated during the night. Due to the combination of the fog and the overnight temperatures, which had dropped down into the twenties, a fine layer of white frost covered everything on the boat, including the tarp, as can be seen in the photo to the left. We were really quite lucky as far as the temperature was concerned, because we experienced a very mild autumn with relatively warm temperatures until the middle of November. But the cold air had to set in at some point, and even though we were headed in a southerly direction, we experienced our fair share of cold weather. The coldest it ever got outside was about 22 degrees Fahrenheit, and many nights were spent in the low thirties. It was always about 6-10 degrees warmer inside the boat than it was outside, but we had no heat source on the vessel and therefore had to resort to warm clothes and sleeping bags to keep us from freezing. As we continued to wait for the fog to lift, we decided to go over and check out a barge that was moored in the same off-channel nook as us. There weren't any people working on this barge and it seemed as if it was put there as a place for on-river storage. Sometimes in pictures and even when seen on the river, it is easy to forget just how large a single barge really is. If we had ever encountered a barge in this fashion out in midstream we would have been crushed in an instant. Many of the towboats on the river are pushing over 40 of these barges lashed together to form an impressively large vessel!
The fog had not yet lifted, so we pulled our vessel up to a sandy spot and set the spud in order to do a bit more exploring. We walked out on one of the stone dikes that were constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers to direct the flow of the Lower Mississippi River. There are no locks or dams on this part of the river like there were on the Ohio, so the entire river is free flowing. Therefore, a different kind of system was designed to control where the water goes. The dikes are constructed like fingers that stick out from the shore to channel the flow of water into the center of the channel. This also in effect carves out the bottom of the channel, making it deep enough for commercial vessels to safely pass. There are thousands of these stone dikes along the entire length of the river, an elegant, simple system of engineering that harnesses the power of nature for the advantage of civilization. At the end of the dike, we were fortunate enough to have a brief visit from what appeared to be a river otter as it played among the eddies that spin off the end of the structure shown at right.
The level of the lower river is constantly rising and falling with the change of the seasons and the amount of precipitation that falls across 40 percent of the landmass of the United States. The stone dike in the above picture is quite defined and seems like it would be hard to miss. But this is not always the case! Pictured to the left is another example of a stone dike, of which you can just barely make out a couple of rocks breaking the surface of the water. This is of special concern for smaller vessels that might not always want to stay in the main navigation channel. Oftentimes dikes can be hidden and submerged underwater when the river level rises, and sometimes they'll only be underwater a couple of inches. This means that if you're traveling downstream at 5 mph in a boat that draws about one foot of water and you pass over an underwater dike that is 6 inches below the surface, it is quite likely that you'll tear a big hole in the bottom of your boat as it scrapes over sharp rocks, and promptly sink to the bottom. There are often buoys that mark the ends of dikes in order to help identify their locations, but it nevertheless requires constant vigilance to avoid unintentionally stumbling across such a navigational hazard.
Speaking of navigational hazards, we also always had to keep our eyes open for floating debris, sometimes called snags or sawyers. Especially as the river level would rise, logs, twigs and fallen trees would be swept from the banks and into the stream. The barges' constant motion in the center of the main channel would usually keep that area relatively clear of this flotsam and jetsam, however much was to be found along the edges and in other out-of-the-way places.
One of the more fascinating structures on the Mississippi River is located near mile 314 on the lower river and is called the Old River Control structure, part of which is pictured to the right. Rivers are constantly changing their course, jumping their banks to find a faster, easier, way to the sea. The river is in this sense alive, not carved in stoned, but rather carved in sand and mud which is much more amorphous. In the middle part of the 20th century, people began to realize that the river was trying to change its course yet again, and in a major way. The Atchafalaya River is a major distributary of the Mississippi River, and it was noticed that more and more water was flowing out of the Mississippi River and into the Atchafalaya ever year. This process, left unchecked, would have eventually resulted in all of the water from the Mississippi River flowing into a new river, leaving the existing lower 300 miles of the lower Mississippi to turn into a large, calm bayou. This would have isolated the City of New Orleans and one of the world's largest shipping ports from its river artery into the center of the United States. People weren't too keen on the idea of shifting all of the infrastructure of the existing shipping port a couple hundred miles west to the mouth of the Atchafalaya, so they decided instead to build a big wall to prevent the Mississippi River from flowing its path of choice. That's essentially what the Old River Control structure is all about, telling the Old Man River where to flow. It should be interesting to see how long he'll listen! John McPhee talks about this extensively in his book The Control of Nature, a good read if you are interested in finding out more.
We should also note that this week we visited the two lovely and historic towns of Vicksburg and Natchez in Mississippi, and found ourselves on Saturday night a bit south of the Old Control Structure near mile 305. Here we spent the night in a safe side channel full of sand between Shreves Bar and the famous Louisiana State Penal Farm. Just upriver of this point, we'd entered the state of Louisiana proper, as its borders now flanked both sides of the river.
Week #15 Part I
Angola, LA to New Orleans, LA: Mississippi River Mile 305 to Mile 93
The state of Louisiana brought with it many bayous like the one pictured to the left. A bayou is the remnant of where the river once flowed in the past. As the river finds a new place to meander, the old channels fill in with calm water and offer a peaceful change from the fast pace of the main river. This particular bayou was called Bayou Sara and was located near to the town of St. Francisville, LA. Bayou Sara used to be a bustling port town itself, but was wiped out during one of the flood stages of the Mississippi River and was never rebuilt. As we approached the city of Baton Rouge, we spent another night in a place called Bayou Baton Rouge and awoke before dawn to the greetings of some fisherman who had come to cast their nets for Crawfish bait. Apparently we weren't the only ones who had use for the bayous!
We got an early start on Tuesday as we headed back out on the river, headed for our final stretch on the Mississippi. The photo to the right shows our approach to the port of Baton Rouge. Beyond Baton Rouge the channel is deep enough and the bridges are high enough for ocean-going vessels to navigate the river. Up until this point all we had to worry about in the means of river traffic were the often-gigantic arrays of barges and towboats. But from here on out, we could expect to encounter ocean going vessels hundreds, if not thousands of times bigger than anything we had seen thus far! It makes the BPV Libelula live up to her name, an insect of a vessel, not more than 18 feet long, skimming about in 1.5 feet of water amidst giants.
The stretch of river from Baton Rouge to New Orleans is long, industrial, and not very kind to small vessels. We were looking at about a 140 mile stretch of open river between the two cities. By this point, we were using the motor quite a bit because of the need to maintain complete control of the vessel at all times due the amount of river traffic we'd be encountering. On our best day with the motor in ideal conditions we had been able to do about 70 miles in a single day. To get from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, we'd have to go as far as we had ever gone in a single day for two days in a row. To make things even more interesting, there was really no place for a small vessel like us to stop on that stretch of the river. There are all sorts of places to tie up for grain vessels heading to China, or Oil Tankers wanting to offload their black gold, but no established points of shelter for small vessels like ourselves. There aren't even any bayous, inlets or islands to pull off into because this is a major shipping channel that is confined on each side of the river by high earthen levees. We were fortunate to have made contact with a facility by the name of Weber Marine that sometimes allows transient pleasure craft to spend the night at their facility. We had called ahead in advance and were told that they would be able to find a place for us to spend the night; and most conveniently, they were located almost exactly between the two metropolis areas!
We pulled into the Weber Marine facility after crossing underneath the Sunshine Bridge just as the sun was setting on Tuesday evening. After talking a while with the people who run the facility, we found out that Weber Marine provides support services to the large ocean-going vessels while they are waiting to load or unload their goods. Weber Marine also is involved with the actual loading and unloading of the goods to and from ocean-going vessels. The goods either come from or go to thousands of barges lined up along the shore, which are then staged for transport back up the river. The Weber Marine facility is an around-the-clock operation as the shuffling of barges is a task that goes on without end. Barges are always coming downriver, and more barges are always being sent up river, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It's an operation that never sleeps. But we were able to sleep at least a little while that night, tied securely to a barge platform. And all the while the dance of the barges and the buzz of the towboats happened just behind our stern, all night long, as shown in the photo at left.
The size of the ocean-going vessels is simply enormous. Technically, there are "big" ocean-going vessels and "small" ocean-going vessels, but they all were so much tremendously larger than our boat that in some ways it really didn't matter how big they were. Traffic on the stretch of river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans was by far the most congested we had experienced. The arrays of barges tended to be smaller than some of the ones we had seen higher up on the river, but the frequency of the traffic was greatly increased. The photo at right shows a crossing situation with four tows crossing abreast simultaneously. If you'd like to include the BPV Libelula in the above mix, that would be FIVE vessels vying for the same piece of river at the same time. This particular stretch of the lower river was wider than most, and there were no ocean-going vessels unloading their goods, thank goodness!
We passed underneath the Huey P. Long Bridge at mile marker 121.5 late Wednesday afternoon. This bridge is significant because it defines where the inland rules of navigation begin, which are different than the international counterparts. All waters downstream of the bridge are governed by the same laws and protocols used for international navigation. The French Quarter in the City of New Orleans is located around mile 95 of the Mississippi River, meaning that the Head of Passes, or mile zero of the Mississippi River, is significantly further downstream than that. The end of the Mississippi River is at good times in the middle of nowhere, and due to the effects of the recent hurricanes, access and resources in that area were even further limited. We had many informed people advise us not to reach the Gulf of Mexico via the end of the Mississippi River, and we heeded their advice. There is more than one waterway that leads to the Gulf, and the path we had chosen would take us through the Industrial Lock at mile 93, which leads to the Industrial Canal, the Intracoastal Waterway, and Lake Pontchartrain.
Upon entering the official Port of New Orleans we were greeted by a large, colorful container ship waiting to be unloaded. Interestingly enough, in this lower part of the river the current had slacked off quite a bit compared to what it had been just a hundred miles upstream. This is due in part to the fact that the river is well over 100 feet deep (and at some places MUCH deeper) in the stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, as compared to otherwise normal river depths of 25-40 feet in the channel upriver. In addition to the slack current, we had been experiencing significant winds on our last day on the Mississippi River that helped to slow our progress.
In spite of the setting sun, falling darkness, and an approaching storm coming up quickly from behind us, we pushed onward towards the downtown area which is just beyond the last bridges to cross the span of the great river, named the 'Crescent City Connection' (shown at ;eft). Damage from the recent hurricanes was evident in some places, but not overwhelming from the river perspective. We passed by the French Quarter, and went about two miles further downstream to the entrance of the Industrial Lock at mile 93, where we made a sharp left out of the river's main channel. After 32 days on our nation's mightiest river, we turned our stern upon it and bade it farewell. However, our river journey to the sea was not yet quite complete, and the conclusion of the voyage beckoned us to the salty water and the Gulf of Mexico.
Week #15 Part II
New Orleans, LA to New Orleans, LA: Destination Gulf of Mexico
Our passage through the lock and our ultimate post-river fate came with assistance from a shrimping boat by the name of Capn' Jim. By the time we arrived at the Industrial Lock on Wednesday night it was completely dark, and we were getting low on fuel due in part to the wind we had been fighting all day to get off of the river before darkness fell. Prior to our arrival at the lock, we had identified and verified an open gas station in the hurricane ravaged city of New Orleans less than one mile away from the Industrial Lock. Unfortunately, the lockmasters at the lock were not sympathetic to our cause and forbade us to go to shore to get more fuel. Given the darkness, the waning status of our fuel, the plentiful amount of commercial traffic, and a storm that was beginning to brew, we elected to make friends with Capn' Jim who offered to give us a tow once we got through the lock. He was headed into the bayou where he informed us it would be safe. So we passed him a line and went on one of the wildest rides of our lives through the darkness left in the wake of the hurricanes. Near the end of our tow in the early hours of the morning, we came across a harbor containing silhouettes of boats that had been tossed about like tinker toys, partially illuminated by a bright moon. In the morning we awoke to a new light and found ourselves in Bayou Bienvenue in the Parish of St. Bernard.
Indeed, many of the sights we witnessed dimly the night before became more distinguishable during the light of day. Here the effects of Hurricane Katrina and Rita were unmistakable. One of the many boats that had been tossed to shore or partially sunken during the storms is shown in the photo to the right. This sizable shrimping vessel with a hefty fiberglass hull was effortlessly lifted up and slammed down on top of a large garbage dumpster, which is now embedded in the boat's bow. This boat is definitely trashed, along with many others in the bayou. A few vessels weathered the storm with minimal damage, but this seemed to be the exception rather than the rule in this area.
We ventured onto land in part to have a look around but also to seek out some fuel so that we could safely finish the journey. The Parish of St. Bernard was one of the hardest hit areas by the storms. We met a local who took us around and showed us some of the devastation firsthand. Many houses in the area were submerged in over 12 feet of water which left behind a solid 2 feet of mud. Some of the houses were starting to be rebuilt; others had yet to be touched. No businesses in that area were open, save for a gas station about 3 miles away which was running its operations out of a cash box on a folding table amongst beverages floating in coolers and snack foods being sold to people working to begin the rebuilding process.
Our departure from the Bayou Bienvenue left us humbled by a firsthand perspective of extreme devastation, and also left us with a full tank of gas. In spite of all that had happened in New Orleans and the surrounding areas, we still had a journey to complete and the Gulf of Mexico beckoned. From the Bayou, we momentarily jumped back into the Industrial Canal in order to make our way into the Intracoastal Waterway. The Intracoastal Waterway took us to the destination where we had determined our journey would officially end. A green daymarker labeled with the number "7" designated the channel that would lead us out of the Intracoastal Waterway and into the Gulf of Mexico.
102 days after the launch of the BPV Libelula into Chautauqua Lake in western New York State, we proudly pedaled our vessel to the conclusion of the journey at a place called Lake Borgne, where the Gulf of Mexico begins. Tracing a total distance by water of over 2,100 miles, we followed a path on which everyone's water travels without pause. Some of that water that joined us in the entry to the Gulf we had seen before, all of that water we will see again at one point or another. As we entered the Gulf on this calm day (photo at left), we paused and reflected on the accomplishment of our travels, took a few photos, noted our GPS position as 89 49.272' W x 30 02.435' N, and then turned the boat around and headed for home.
Quickly, though, before we made it too far on the homeward stretch we needed to thwart any skeptics who didn't believe that Lake Borgne was really part of the Gulf of Mexico. In order to do this, Morgan dipped his finger into the water and sucked on it for a bit to affirm that the water had indeed become salty, thus proving beyond a doubt that we had reached our destination. In all reality, the body of water called Lake Borgne is more of a harbor than an actual lake. It is surrounded on three sides by small pieces of land, with the fourth side being connected to the Gulf of Mexico proper. You can also check out the data here from the scientific instrument that we were towing, compliments of the YSI Environmental, if you have any further questions as to the nature of the body of water of the journey's conclusion.
Because we had reached the Gulf of Mexico, we no longer had river currents to worry about, but there were currents of another sort caused by tidal influences. In examining the tide and current predictions, we found it in our best interest to leave the Gulf of Mexico in a different manner than we had arrived. Therefore, we continued on the Intracoastal Waterway for a bit, and then zipped up north into Chef Menteur pass, which brought us out into Lake Pontchartrain. We had planned to do this segment of the journey in fair weather because both Lake Pontchartrain and the edge of the Gulf of Mexico can create large waves much more intense than those found on the river. Pontoon boats are not built to handle such waves, and our window of opportunity to cross Pontchartrain was narrowing as winds began to pickup in the late afternoon. Due to the forecast for increasing winds and the always-ominous threat of the setting sun, we chose to cross Pontchartrain in the quickest manner possible in order to get to our New Orleans destination safely. Instead of crossing under Interstate 10 and some railroad bridges in the middle of the lake where a high span had been built in order to accommodate vessels of height, we chose the shorter route and opted to hug the shore and try to cross under the low part of the road structure. It was kind of a gutsy move, as we did not know what the clearance was underneath the road structure, and the tide was also on the rise. As can be seen from the photo above, it certainly doesn't look like there is an abundance of overhead clearance, and it turns out there wasn't! We ended up crossing under about five structures, each with decreasing amounts of overhead clearance. The good news is that we managed to make it underneath all of them, though the last one was low enough to take our navigation lights as a sacrifice. Having literally scraped by underneath the last bridge, we had a relatively straight shot to reach the City of New Orleans.
And reach the City of New Orleans we did! We made it into the Orleans Marina a little before sunset, just as the wind really began to pick up. Our little gamble and sacrificial navigation lights paid off in great dividends, for we had entered into a safe harbor. The Orleans Marina is well protected from Lake Pontchartrain, and therefore suffered minimal damage during the hurricanes. The adjacent marina, which is less protected, did not fair nearly as well; many of the boats kept there ended up being destroyed as a result of the storm. We had a celebratory dinner that evening in honor of the conclusion of our journey consisting of some flavorful macaroni and cheese, baked potatoes, and corn, complimented by a bit of red wine from New York that we had carried onboard throughout the journey. The next day, Saturday, we hung out our banner for all to see from our slip in Orleans Marina, and prepared the boat to be hauled out of the water for the journey home. Captured here at left are some of the BPV Libelula's final moments afloat before she is pulled from the water for the last time.