Day 84, August 21
Measurements: turbidity at the Gulf of Mexico: 33cm. Nitrate at the same location: 2ppm. Miles today: negative 21 or so. Just kidding, they were real miles, just paddled upstream for once.
I didn't sleep well. First the rain woke me, and I had to scramble out and put up the fly, get bitten by mosquitoes, and kill all of the ones that followed me back into the tent. Then the rain stopped, and it was absolutely sweltering under the fly, so I had to get back out and take it off again, and repeat the same mosquito nonsense.
I was also awakened at about 1am by the sound of water lapping much closer to me than it had been. The tide, which was supposed to peak at 4am, had already come in to a very great extent. The low shell beach that I'd pulled the canoe up to last night was entirely underwater. Only the little shell berm that my tent was on was out of the water. The canoe, which I had pulled what I thought was well up above where the tide would reach it, was half-floating. It was tied, of course. I will never not tie it again, after my experience earlier in this trip. Still: pretty freaky! My bags were inches above the water, and I piled them up on the weeds near the tent. I pulled the canoe all the way out of the water again. During all of this, I swatted mosquitoes. But it's confirmed: if I'm where the tide can change the water level by a good foot or so, I'm at the Gulf.
I tried to get back to sleep, but slept fitfully for the rest of the night. I was anxious about what the next day held. Sometimes when I know I need to get up early, at a certain time, that knowledge disrupts my sleep. My brain is saying: is it time, yet? How about now? How about now? All night long.
I stopped trying to sleep at 5am. But I couldn't make myself brave the swarm outside the tent, so I contended myself with packing up to the extent possible, getting dressed, etc.
The one nice thing about the mosquitoes down here, as compared to Minnesota, is that dusk and dawn are like a magical on/off switch for them. As the Rosy Fingers of Dawn stretched across the sky, they vanished, and I got up and out. I packed the tent up wet, ate a Clif bar, drank some of my tea. Oh, and I took this photo of myself, out where the Mississippi/Atchafalaya meet the sea. I was on the water at 7:20am.
The weather really cooperated with me for most of the morning. It was overcast, with storms to the north and east that did nothing but spritz me with a little light rain, which was frankly pretty nice. The wind was very still. With high tide having come in, I didn't have to fight the current at all. It basically felt like paddling on a lake.
I pushed pretty hard, basically all day. Many fewer alligators on my way upriver - are they more active in the afternoon and evening, maybe? Lots of birds, still, and lots of jumping fish. Many motorboats, mostly headed downstream, out to the Gulf. For a nice full Sunday of fishing out in the salt water, I assume.
Eventually the clouds broke and the sun came out, and it got very hot. I put on my long sleeved shirt, put my skirt over my knees, put on sunscreen. I'd brought enough water in my five gallon container to cook last night and fill both Nalgenes, and had drained the rest at the campsite, to further reduce the weight I had to push back upstream. By around 11am, I'd already finished one of the Nalgenes.
A bit before I reached the place where Bayou Shafer meets the Atchafalaya, I had a pretty frightening experience with another big vessel. It was an oceangoing ship, nowhere near as big as a container ship, but much bigger than anything I've seen out here so far. Maybe a hundred feet long or so, with a big V-shaped hull. And this ship was hauling ass down the Atchafalaya. I don't know how to convert to knots, but I'd say it was going somewhere over thirty miles per hour, throwing off a truly huge V-shaped wake. I got way over near the edge of the river, and then watched in a mix of awe and horror as this wake started to break on the shore upriver from me like ocean waves breaking on a beach. Big, angular waves, not the slow rollers that the towboats leave behind. I got myself set to meet them, feeling that sort of determined, adrenaline-fueled trepidation I've gotten accustomed to feeling in these situations where I have no other option but to just face this thing coming at me, this thing I can't avoid.
The thing to do in this sort of situation is not to meet the waves head-on. That can raise the bow of the boat out of the water as you go up one wave, only to crash back down into the next wave. If that angle of crashing down is exactly wrong, given the frequency of the waves coming towards you, you can hit the trough between them right as the next wave crashes into you, and almost immediately swamp the front of your boat. The thing to do is to quarter waves like that: meet them at an angle, something like 30-45 degrees. That's what I did. But that's also no panacea, because the lip of each breaking wave wants to shove the bow, in this case to the right, and turn you sideways to the next wave, which of course is the absolute most dangerous way to meet a wave. So it was a constant fight, for something like ten waves, to keep myself quartered into them. I made it through just fine, but was a bit of a jittery mess afterwards.
This experience left me thinking three things. First, it confirmed for me the wisdom of taking the Atchafalaya route to the Gulf, rather than the Mississippi, where I would certainly have met many more of these kinds of large, oceangoing vessels, especially downstream from New Orleans. Second, it confirmed that I wanted to take Bayou Shafer back to Morgan City. I'd been wondering if maybe there would be less current in the Atchafalaya channel, because it's much wider. But avoiding even one of these ships is worth fighting some current. And third: fuck you fucking bastards. After all of the courtesy that guys in little boats whose wakes at top speed I can actually handle have shown me, slowing down and waving, to shove your massive ship through this channel at that speed, without a care in the world for everyone else around you? Fuck you guys. (I later learned from Dean that these ships service the oil rigs in the Gulf. Was I surprised that this behavior was associated with the oil industry? I was not.)
After I reached the relative safety of Bayou Shafer, I had another startling experience. Much less scary, but certainly got my heart pumping a bit for a moment. As I paddled along, close to the shore in order to avoid the current to the extent possible, something big hit the bottom of the boat. And it was not a fixed object. I know what that feels like, hitting a submerged stump or some other object under the water. That sort of thing kind of slides under the boat in a predictable way, equal to my forward momentum. I can feel it, because the royalex flexes a bit with that sort of impact. This was entirely different. It was very sudden, clearly a force coming up at the bottom of the boat from below, rather than sideways, and was much more diffuse, like the bottom of the boat was being hit in multiple places at once. And I'm not sure how else to put this, but it felt kind of crunchy, like multiple small hard points, rather than one big soft thing. The way it felt, I'm pretty sure it was an alligator making contact with the boat for some reason. Trying to flee under the water, but hitting the boat with it's tail? Actually intending to bump up against me, good and hard? I have no idea. Pretty unsettling, but didn't actually feel dangerous in any way.
The rest of the trip upstream was much less exciting. It was a bit of a grind, of course. Though I did start getting some real and much appreciated help from a nice moderate tailwind, which helped push me up towards Morgan City. I went past those same anchored barges from yesterday, then under those same powerlines. I made it back to Morgan City at around 4:30, meaning it had taken me around nine hours to go the 20-some miles upriver that it took me around six and a half hours to do downriver yesterday. Not bad, all things considered.
I texted Dean as I got close to the boat ramp, and he met me there. I converted to road mode, with his help, and he took some pictures of the trailer. He works at a machine shop, and is considering making a portage trailer himself, so he was interested in the design. We'd agreed to have lunch together at Burger King (good old Burger King - thanks for throwing a vegan a figurative bone, no matter where I go), and he followed me there in his truck, with his hazards on. I have unfortunately lost the nut that goes with the bolt I bought in Keokuk, Iowa, to replace the pin that I lost somewhere upriver from that, so as I biked away from the boat ramp I heard the bolt fall out. This meant that my yoke would immediately come apart, so I had to stop. Dean got out of his truck and brought a piece of wire, like electrical wire, that he used to jury-rig the thing together.
We got to Burger King with no further incident, and he insisted on buying me lunch - even though he's the one who's done me a favor. We sat and chatted about my trip, and his plans to do a similar source-to-sea journey with a friend of his, maybe next year. He also told me some of his stories about paddling the Atchafalaya and another route to the gulf. It was really nice, just to sit and chat about paddling. He's a good guy, Dean. I told him to look me up when, not if, he paddles into the Twin Cities.
After lunch, I biked up to the same motel I'd stayed in the night before last. It was so strange to be back in that parking lot, and know that it was only something like thirty hours since I'd last been there. It felt like so, so much longer.
As I got settled in, I chatted with Sam and Jesse, and also with my sister. It feels increasingly surreal: I am done. I have canoed the Mississippi (and its distributary, the Atchafalaya) from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. That is a thing I have now done. I will not get in my pal Maddy and burn some more river miles tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that.
I didn't go out. I stayed in the motel room, just sort of decompressing. Dinner was leftovers from last night, which I had to remind myself I had cooked where the river meets the sea.
I'm going to have to do another post with some reflections, once I've had some time to, you know, reflect. I'm also considering a post grading my gear, but we'll see. And a thank-you post. But this is the last true update from the river.
The goal tomorrow: vegetate. Do laundry at a laundromat somewhere in Morgan City. Figure out my transportation out of here, to New Orleans. Figure out what I'm going to do for the next few days, until I meet Sam in New Orleans on the 27th. Grand Isle? Venice, LA? I'm really not sure. The transportation question is pretty key to what options are on the table. Maybe I'll continue posting about these experiences, but I think maybe not. They aren't really in the spirit of this project, I don't think.
I was gone on the river. I am no longer gone on the river, but back, for the time being, mostly on land. I have gone on the river from where it begins, as a tiny, clear stream emerging from a small, marshy lake in northern Minnesota, to one of the many, many places it flows, thick with sand and silt and more, out into the sea in far southern Louisiana. The river changes so much in those two thousand-plus miles. It has changed me, physically and psychologically and, though I don't know that I even believe in "spirit," spiritually.
This has been very, very real.