Canoeing the Mississippi: Cancer Alley to the Gulf (Part 2)
Posted: Monday, October 8, 2012 at 9:30pm
July 31, 2012
My homework on the Mississippi River prepared me to battle for the last week of paddling. The industrial thoroughfare of “Cancer Alley” concentrates at Baton Rouge, and funnels vessels through 250 miles of agricultural wasteland. The water is unusually warm, sea monsters (ocean liners) lurk around every bend, and decent campsites are as rare as the mid-summer Louisiana shade. Legendary guide, Jon Ruskey contended that only 1 out of every 10 groups that start the journey from Minnesota, make it all the way. Some friends leave as enemies if they even make it to the Gulf.
We were tempted to stop short. Many groups, referred to as “Minnows,” paddle from Minnesota to New Orleans (MN-NO). And although this is a great trip canoeing on the Mississippi River, we had all agreed that it just isn’t the same as canoeing the Mississippi River. If you have paddled 2350+ miles, what’s another couple days? Right?
The water was unsafe for bathing, the current was at an all-time slow, and the humidity was thick enough to cook rice. Our skin had reached its saturation point with a pruny jungle rot eating away the calluses on our feet. Our food stores were running low and fatigue was straining each paddle stroke. In light of the conditions, we could have justified an early exit at New Orleans, but there would always be a missing bookend to our expedition. With only one day left, we pushed on.
On the morning of Tuesday, July 31st, Mark (the clock-master) secretly woke us up an hour early. Shrouded in 4 a.m. darkness, we were projected to reach the Gulf a bit before sunset. Averaging just below 5 miles-an-hour, it was going to be a long day of 10 to 12 hours of paddling. The mile markers counted down, our discomfort rose. We tried to distract each other in conversation, but we eventually quieted to a focused silence. It was too sticky to rest, we just needed to finish. The low hanging gray clouds closed the pressure lid of our final countdown.
The river fanned wide and topography flattened to mere levees and long, cane grasses. As we took a straight shot down the 12-mile south pass, the brackish spray from our paddle strokes confirmed our proximity to the Gulf. A lighthouse 2 miles from the coast appeared on the horizon with a dark, navy wall of billowed clouds to the east. The warm breeze shifted to a cool head-wind, and within sight of the Gulf, the waves whipped below us. The salty mix of tidewater at our gunwales was now matted into a cobalt gray lawn. The skies opened above. Cold rain. Redemptive rain. Cutting through the steam, dime-sized drops showered our canoes.
Unlike cowering from early rainstorms on the river, we welcomed the deluge with grins and widened eyes. The clouds washed the silt of industry off of our skin. Our fear of the unknown drifted miles behind. The shadows of unpredictable waters, rapids, eddies, boils, had now concentrated to reality and we stood in the light of experience. The Mississippi River ushered us past the final jetty to view a horizon that was simply flat. We drifted. There was no Mississippi left to paddle.
We played in the cool surf until sunset, cooked the last of our food, and in the light of the August 1st blue moon, we stood knee-deep in the water recounting our 2-month journey, giving thanks to God. We had been fortunate in countless ways and somehow avoided the dangers beyond our control. Crossing the threshold into the Gulf of Mexico sealed our journey and strengthened our bond as brothers. Totally worth it.