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day 82 - the Gulf
day 82 - the Gulf
August 20, 2022

Day 82, August 20
Measurements: turbidity at Morgan City: 35.5cm. Nitrate at same location: 2ppm. Miles today: 21 or so.

Today is the day I made it to the Gulf of Mexico. It feels sort of surreal to write that. It's something that has felt so far away for so long, a distant, almost hypothetical goal. Something real, of course, but also not-real, especially early on. More of a symbol of the end of this journey than a place I really thought about very much, or especially wanted to see for its own sake.

Anyway! I got up pretty early, in the motel in Morgan City. Took a shower, wrote updates for the past few days, got everything together in the boat. I then biked everything to the Burger King, right across from the CVS where I'd picked up the package from Sam with the foam pads and straps, and had an Impossible burger for... brunch? And then I biked to the boat ramp next to the Intracoastal Waterway lock, to meet a guy named Dean.

Dean is a nice guy, who lives in the Morgan City area, and who agreed to hold onto some of my stuff for the next day or two. I don't need all of the stuff I've brought on this journey to get to the Gulf and back, and some of it (especially the folding bike) is pretty heavy. I want to lighten the boat to the extent possible for the return journey, against the current. Dean cheerfully put my stuff in his truck, and we agreed that I'll text him when I'm nearing Morgan City on the return trip, either tomorrow or, if the current is too strong, the next day.

And then I set off, getting on the water at around noon. The boat feels different, for sure. Riding higher in the water, a bit less stable (due to the decreased ballast down low), maybe just slightly easier to push through the water.

I only had to paddle a little ways on the Intracoastal to reach the route I'd decided to take down, a side channel called Bayou Shafer. It's much narrower than the Atchafalaya proper, and the hope is that it'll only have smaller boats on it. I crossed under some powerlines, and then went past some anchored barges, one of which had the name "Big Mac" stenciled on it.

Down the bayou a bit, I started to see some cypress trees on the banks. Gosh, they're so lovely. I wonder what it is that makes the cypresses such a good host for the Spanish moss - some sort of symbiotic relationship? I don't see it on any of the other trees.

It took a few hours to reach the place where Bayou Shafer opens out onto the Atchafalaya. The water there is just massive, a huge wide lake. One of the nice things about the route I've chosen is that it didn't require me to cross any of that big water - I got to stay near the left bank the whole way down.

There was a bit of current on Bayou Shafer, which for the first time in the entire trip I did not want. Any push I get today I will have to fight tomorrow, after all. But out on the Atchafalaya, the current went away almost entirely, which I appreciated. Still, that meant I had to push pretty hard for most of the afternoon.

There was a lot of weather happening all around. Big thunderheads to the west, which seemed to be moving to the north of me. I got some light rain a few times, but nothing threatening. I had a tailwind for a bit, and then a headwind.

The flora started to change as I paddled south. The thick, almost jungle-like trees gave way to more grasses, again reminding me of the very early days of this trip, when the Mississippi is a meandering little stream going through tall marsh grass, sometimes widening into a half-lake, half-marsh sort of water body. I started seeing a lot of water lilies, and paddled through many of those floating plant-islands, which also gathered along the shore in undulating mats. Are these mangroves? There were a few stands of trees, including cypresses, here and there, and other areas covered in low shrubs.

I was also seeing a lot of fauna. Many, many alligators, of varying sizes. Sometimes they react to my presence in a big, startled way, creating a massive disturbance in the water. And sometimes they very subtly sink into the water as I go past. I saw a lot of birds, most of them wading birds: small white ones, bigger white ones, even bigger gray herons, some more of those smaller bright blue ones. And seagulls, which is kind of fun and refreshing. Some variation among the gulls, too, with some that have much thinner wings that are strongly chevron-shaped. And so, so many jumping fish. There are these small, oblong fish, maybe a foot long or less, that for some reason like to jump straight up out of the water, a good three or four feet in the air. They often make me laugh out loud.

One thing I didn't see: anywhere that looked at all possible to camp. So that decided things for tomorrow: I needed to be able to get all the way back to Morgan City, because there was no good spot to stop halfway.

All the way down, I encountered smallish boats of two basic types. One is the open, flat-bottomed fishing boat I've seen so many of, up and down the river. The other is something unique to this area, a more substantial but still pretty small vessel, with a fully enclosed cabin, often with an AC unit on the roof, and it looks like maybe an inboard rather than outboard motor. Many of these folks slow down as they overake me, and speed up again once they get past, something I appreciate greatly. We almost always wave at each other.

As afternoon turned to evening, I finally made it to my last turn of the trip, a channel out to the gulf called Plum Pass. Here the trees went away entirely. The biggest plants are dense shrubs, maybe ten feet tall at the most. Lots of marsh grass of various kinds, some of which is very tall, most of which is maybe only three or four feet high. Lots of low broadleaf plants, lots of lilies. And a constant stream of those floating plants that may or may not be mangroves, both out in the channel and along the edge.

And then, on my left, a tiny little shell beach, maybe ten feet wide. This is the place I've been paddling towards for three months, this sliver of shells on something called Plumb Island Point. I paddled past it, out into the slightly more open water. The current, which has been imperceptible or very faint, really picked up in the last few hundred yards, and there were some gentle waves from the bit of wind. Out in the distance to the south, I could see quite a bit of land - there are a lot of islands out there in the bay - but also some open water as far as I could see. I took a photo, which is today's picture. That's the Gulf, or at least Atchafalaya Bay. It's interesting: the difference between "river" and "land" and "ocean" seems so clear and firm in language and on maps. But in reality, they all kind of bleed together. There's land out beyond this point, but there's salt in the water right here. This water is the river, but it's also the ocean. The closer you get to any line of demarcation, the harder it is to say exactly where the one thing ends and the other begins.

It seems like we are, either as a culture or as a species, really uncomfortable with that. The way things interpenetrate, the lack of clear boundaries between this and that. It seems like this is at least part of the impulse that has led us to line hundreds of miles of the Mississippi with rocks and "articulated concrete mattress" and concrete walls and piles of earth. To remove so much of the swamp and marsh and other wetland that used to muddy the edges of the river. There: a firm boundary, a border that won't move. Stay where we've mapped you, damn it.

I turned back pretty quickly. It's a bit freaky out here, to be honest, especially with storms all around me. There are no people out here, except in motorboats that speed past. The nearest road is back in Morgan City, twenty miles upstream. I haven't been more than a couple of hundred feet from shore all day, but "shore" is just the edge of a trackless expanse of swamp.

When I reached the Plumb Island Point beachlet again, I noticed an alligator just offshore. For whatever reason, it was not particularly afraid of me. I got up on the beach, and it placidly kept its spot in the river, pointing upstream and swimming just hard enough to stay in the same place, about twenty feet from me. I was unnerved enough that I kept my paddle, in case it decided to make some sort of move towards me. But it didn't. It just sort of hovered there, treading water, seeming to look at me. It was there all evening, as I cooked my dinner and got the tent set up. I eventually got used to its presence and stopped being creeped out by it. I should note that it was a pretty little guy, maybe five feet long, based on its head size? If it had been one of those super massive dudes I might not have been able to coexist quite so comfortably.

I put the tent up on the only bit of slightly higher ground I could find, a spot between a big woody shrub on one side and thick weedy growth on the other. This spot was just barely big enough for the tent. The stakes didn't seem to be doing much, as the ground was pretty much just shells, no sand. I got the rain fly ready, but didn't put it all the way up.

As dinner cooked, I did something I have not allowed myself to do so far on this trip, except for my one vial of water a day: I collected things. In this case, shells. I've been tempted over and over again to look for cool rocks or pieces of driftwood, but have been pretty firm in my self-control, because I know that a) I could waste a lot of time doing that, b) once I start, I'm not sure how to stop, and c) I already have so much stuff, and adding a bunch of trinkets from the many beaches I've slept on would just weigh me down further. But it's the last night, and these shells are from the place where the river meets the sea, so they're special. So I picked up some favorites, and put them in my pack.

Dinner was black beans, which I'd been soaking since Morgan City, with chipotle pepper, the rest of my dehydrated bell peppers, broth, cumin seeds. I ate it with tortilla chips I'd bought in town last night. It was absolutely delicious, especially with a local beer from Abita. During dinner, the sun started to set and the mosquitoes came out on cue, so I retreated to the tent to finish.

After dinner, I smoked a celebratory cigar that I've had with me for the whole trip. It's only the second I've smoked this entire time. The first was up in Palisade, Minnesota, in early-mid June. So crazy to think about.

The mosquito-swarm was just awful, after dark. Unfortunately, it started to really rain on me, so I had to get up and put the rain fly on, braving the swirling, bloodsucking mass. Something like ten of them followed me into the tent, and I had to spend time on yet another (but quite possibly the last?) mosquito-hunt.

I was very tired by 9pm, and my goal for tomorrow was to get up as quickly as possible, so I went to sleep.

Tomorrow, the goal is to get up at dawn, get on the water, and paddle against the current back to Morgan City. Morgan City or bust.