portfolio > gone on the river

day 77
day 77
August 14, 2022

Day 77, August 14
Measurements: turbidity at Dead Man's Bend: 17.5cm. Nitrate at same location: same old 2-5ppm, closer to 2. Miles today: 43.

I did not sleep particularly well last night, a combination of very bright moonlight from the full moon, getting quite clammy from the humidity cooling down in the night, the seemingly constant barge traffic beside me, and the discomfort of being covered in sand. Waking up felt less like a moment of coming to consciousness, and more like giving up on trying to sleep any more.

I ate last night's leftovers with my normal tea-n-tang. The tent was covered in dew, so much that it looked like it had been rained on - large droplets were standing out on the mesh. I let it air out a bit after shaking it off, but it still went away wet.

I got out on the water at around 8am, which always feels pretty good. I took measurements out in the middle of the river, and then hugged the inside of the turn around Dead Man's Bend. The names of these bends are getting more and more creepily ostentatious the further downriver I go. Next I expect to see "Turn Back Now" bend and "Seriously, You Will Drown Here" revetment.

As I came around the turn, I had reason to wish I'd taken the outside of this particular bend, because of a confluence of tow behaviors. First, there was a tow with a stack of barges anchored to the right bank, blocking me from being able to hug that shore, as I had planned. And second, there were three separate tows coming upriver, and they had all chosen to come up what for me is the right bank. I actually had to just pull over and wait for a bit, to let the last one clear, before crossing to the left side in front of the next two tows. This river has slowly turned into what feels like a freeway for barges, and I feel increasingly like Frogger out here.

There was a brief respite after that, around Bougere Bend, but I did meet another tow right where it narrowed into Widow Graham Bend, and stayed on the left bank, outside of the channel. But then I had a rare opportunity, one that the Army Corps has almost entirely eradicated on the lower river: an honest-to-goodness side channel, around a real and dam-free island. I took it, both to cut off a little bit of distance and to feel what it's like to be in a channel where I'm not constantly trying to find the right place to be to avoid barges. It felt very luxurious. The shore was natural, which meant sandy cliffs and the hulks of dead trees in the water to avoid. Really lovely, compared to articulated concrete mattress.

When I came out into the main channel again, I saw a tow coming upriver towards me, of course, so I moved to the opposite shore, the left side. The water was a little rough and fast, but nothing too terrible. As the river widened near Black Hawk Light, it got much slower.

Around the turn, trying to find a line outside the channel that would avoid the sandbars that are high enough to beach even my shallow-draft boat, I started to be able to see the inlets for the complicated set of confluences between the Mississippi and Atchafalaya/Red River system. More on that elsewhere.

As I neared the place where I would turn off of the Mississippi proper, a couple of things happened. The first: I passed an island that marks the southwest corner of the state of Mississippi. From here on, no matter which route I chose, the rest of this river is entirely inside Louisiana. This makes for an interesting sort of palindrome with Minnesota: only the two states at the top and bottom of the river ever contain it completely within themselves. Every other state between them that touches the river only touches it as a border (excepting, of course, those many weird little spots where one state technically crosses the channel briefly, where the historical river used to be and the current-day border remains). I have now paddled past nine states, and left them upriver behind me: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

The other thing that happened as I neared the turn is that I got a bit emotional, somewhat unexpectedly. The Mississippi and I have been through a lot over the past two and a half months. I've seen her grow from a tiny stream to a mid-size river, to a set of wide, slow terraces hemmed in by dams, to the fast but moderately sized river below St. Louis, to this impetuous, girdled, tow-churned, unpredictable beast down here. I've changed too - I'm less intimidated by waves, stronger, I think somewhat more capable. I'm skinnier. My fingers hurt. I've seen a lot, have a new cache of memories that I don't expect I'll forget anytime soon, if ever.

So yeah, I cried a little. It's not goodbye, of course. I'm not done. There's more river to see. But it won't be called the "Mississippi," but a distributary that the Mississippi longs to inhabit called the Atchafalaya. And it will be different. Smaller, less powerful, fewer tows (and fuurther down, fewer actual oceangoing ships). So it is a sort of goodbye, really. The water will be connected, still, but the experience will certainly not be the same.

But I shouldn't lean too far into the "bitter" side of this bittersweetness. I am looking forward to the Atchafalaya, to seeing a more natural river again, to the swamp. I'm looking forward to fewer damned wing dams, to fewer and smaller tows. To more wildlife.

Feeling all of that, I pulled into the channel to the Atchafalaya lock. And of course, when I arrived, found that the goddamned Army Corps has no way for people to communicate with this lock other than a marine radio. No pull cord, nothing. I had to get out at the landing - which, as I learned, is not a public landing but a nonpublic Army Corps one, despite not being labeled as such on their own fucking map. I was looking for service for my phone to find the number of the lock when I came across a guy who asked if I was looking for someone. I explained that I was a solo canoeist looking to lock through, and he said he'd let the lock know, and I should go in after the boat that was currently in the dock cleared it. I got in my boat and waited for this vessel to go by - it was clearly an Army Corps work barge. Guys on the boat gestured behind me, and the same guy was there on the ramp near me, having driven down there. He told me essentially the same thing: wait until this boat clears, then proceed into the lock. "Sounds good!" I said. But the guys on the barge had been behind a big pillar of concrete and steel during that exchange, and as they reemerged around it they continued to gesticulate for me to turn around and talk to the guy on shore, the guy I'd already talked to twice. With the clear implication that I was mentally defective in some way. I kept pantomiming looking back at him, then back at them, and then giving them a big thumbs-up. Like: yup! We've spoken! Thanks much, guys!

Talk about your hostile fucking infrastructure. The mentality of the Army Corps is clearly not only that no person should ever be on the river without a marine radio, but even that no person ever is on the river without a marine radio. It's like saying that to use the roads, everyone should be a semi truck with a CB. They're like all of the worst things I've experienced with state and county traffic engineers, but multiplied by a factor of a hundred.

Anyway, I finally got into the lock. A guy called down to ask if I'd ever been in their particular lock and I said no. He told me I could hold or tie off to one of the structures in these indentations in the concrete, lining the edges of the lock, maybe every few hundred feet or so. This is the exact opposite of what all of the Upper River locks tell you, which is for heaven's sake, don't tie off, or you'll flip your boat as the water descends. But these structures in the walls were large floating buoy-like things, on railroad-type wheels.

Turns out the railroad wheels are mostly for show, now. They don't turn anymore. They just squeal. This lock was uncommonly long, at least in my Upper River experience. And quite tall, even before the more than ten-foot drop to the Atchafalaya's water level. So it's essentially a giant resonating chamber, and when the water level is changing it is full of these loud squeaks and squeals, from all up and down its length. It sounds like a horror movie soundtrack, like an accidental work of avant-garde chamber music entitled "Get Out of the Basement (Before You Are Murdered)." I took several videos, hoping to capture a little of the majesty of this acoustic byproduct of the Army Corps' brutalist pragmatism, but I'm sure they don't do it justice. I want to go back, with multiple really good microphones in several places along the lock, to try to record it better, and play it for people in other spaces. I wonder if the Corps would cooperate. They seem like guys who like weird art, right?

As I said, the water level dropped really, really far. Over ten feet, maybe even over fifteen. The Mississippi desperately wants to flow into the Atchafalaya, and only the Army Corps and their massive earthworks and concrete and steel are preventing that from happening. On the far side of the lock I found myself in another of those dead, currentless channels that the Corps is so good at creating, connecting the lock to the Atchafalaya proper, which is really to say the Red River. That's what it's called just upstream of all of this spaghetti junction nonsense with the Miss.

The "Lower Old River" channel was one of the more unpleasant places I've been. Full of barges anchored along the edges. Several moving tows, going around intereacting with barges in inscrutible ways. Very still. Very dead-fish-smelling, most of the way.

On the other hand, also quite full of living fish, which jumped around me with nearly every paddlestroke. Some were tiny, some were what I think of as "normal sized," some were enormous. One huge fish jumped twice: out of the water in the direction I was going, and then right back out once it hit the water the first time. Massive splashes both times.

The shores were full of birds, most of them either turkey vultures (I think) eating the many, many dead fish on shore, or various wading birds, most of them white, some the typical gray of herons. I wish I had a better handle on the difference between storks, cranes, and herons. Oh well. Also, lots of swifts or something  similar flitting about in the dusk.

One of the reasons this paddle was so unpleasant was the exact location of the sun. I had to paddle west, directly into it. It was low in the sky, which should mean some lack of intensity, right? Some amount of relief? NO. At that angle, the light bounces off the water and creates a long, intense line of dazzling brightness, right where one needs to look in order not to, you know, run into things. So I'm fighting my way up into the sun, knowing full well that the moment it actually goes down, I am in serious trouble if I haven't found a campsite.

And there are no sites along this channel. There are places that are somewhat flat, but they're covered in grass, and birds, and probably snakes, and certainly mud. Not the kind of thing I'm looking for. Could I survive it? Sure. But every square foot along this channel looked just deeply unpleasant.

So I'm racing the sun, and simultaneously hoping it won't go down, and that it will get the hell out of my face. Barges blocked me from hugging the left shore for a long time, but they finally, mercifully, ended. I flew over to the left as soon as I could, and gratefully paddled on in the shade. At the spot where the channel narrows as it meets the real river, I saw a huge number of birds, and was greeted by lots of churning fish under the water.

And then out at the confluence with the real river I saw something that filled me with relief: a proper sandbar, right there on the left. I started to sing an impromptu song about sandbars. It's funny, when one's emotional state shifts so much, so quickly, from anxiety and worry to relief and joy.

I put in, got the tent up, and started dinner. This was rice and Indian food from a pouch that I'd bought in Memphis. It was perfectly fine. I talked to Sam a bit, and went to bed rather early, around 9pm.

Tomorrow, the idea is to go maybe thirty miles, down past Simmesport and Melville. I am no longer in a big hurry, and will just sort of see what there is to see on this new, unfamiliar river.