Canoeing the Mississippi: Night Paddling
Posted: Thursday, October 4, 2012 at 12:05am
July 20, 2012
Cancer Alley. After rounding the corner before the port of Baton Rouge, we see titans on the water. These large behemoths of transport, four times the height of tugs, clog both sides of the river, making our hearts skip a beat. Tugboats swarm these ocean liners like flies, parking them and reshuffling their cargo. Eager for breakfast, we intend to paddle quickly past but are met with resistance. The channel is jammed with multiple barges and tugs crisscrossing in every direction. For the first time since St. Louis, we’re actually forced to stop, to observe this foreign dance before daring to glide into it. The channel clears and we paddle with heightened senses, unsure if the slumbering titans will be awaken while we’re in their den.
We cross the channel and land our canoes on the Baton Rouge levee. Food is on the mind. We find a small diner in an old neighborhood and are shocked, not by the dead rat seen in a corner (is this a joke?), but by the fact that breakfast is no longer being served. After pleading and adding a pinch of charm, we get a breakfast for champions. The next three hours are a whirlwind: naps on park benches, internet updates, facades of grocery stores, heroic water-jug transporting, stove refueling, and three flavors of malts to lift the morale. Semi-recharged, we continue on.
Parked barges and perpetual steeples of smoke have narrowed the river and made it more claustrophobic. Yet, the afternoon paddle is pleasant, even as the current slows. The sun begins to set, so we scour for campsites, expecting to find sand, as we had all trip. We had just passed up a sandbar a bit ago and didn’t think much of it. But now there’s a pattern emerging on the banks: overhanging trees with layers of piled rocks, without a hint of sand. Jeff reminds me of what the wise man Justus had said: “When you get south of Baton Rouge and you find a good spot to camp, don’t pass it up.”
No spot. We reconvene in the middle of the channel and notice our transformation into silhouettes. With the aid of his headlamp, Mark pinpoints our destination on the map: an island in the center of the Mississippi that no doubt has sand. The problem: it’s ten miles away, another two hours of paddling. But instead of bickering, there’s an aura of giddiness around this unexpected challenge. Or maybe it was just the sugar rush from the two bags of cookies. Nonetheless, we have a new arena: a dark river illuminated by the lights of industry.
We stick closer together while riding in the center of the channel. There are multi-colored lights all around us. Most seem to be stationary, but as we continue to paddle, the lights shift. Is it because we’re moving? Or is it because they’re moving? We start to notice lights ahead pivoting quicker than the others. The first canoe of Jonathan and Mark cut right towards it while aiming for the west side of the bank. We follow suit, trailing them a hundred yards or so. More lights continue to emerge and now barrel towards us. We pick up our pace, paddling with extra force. The tug unknowingly anticipates our move, seemingly trying to cut us off. Now perpendicular, Jeff and I are paddling as if our lives depended on it (because they did). The tug passes us and spotlights us like we’re escaped criminals.
We continue into the night. Every bend produces another ocean liner lying dormant, whose deck lights cause a glistening yellow on the water. Just like the Millennium Falcon, we cut through these streaming rays of light, feeling like we’re setting Olympic records. It’s all an illusion with the light; yet the trick probably increases our energy and maintains our morale. The upcoming bend splits into two streams, so our goal is in reach. Our eyes are tired and perspectives skewed, but in our dream-like daze, we paddle even harder, hoping it’s not a mirage. Finally, we hear the familiar sound of sand grinding against the belly of the canoe. Two hours past our bedtime and we rest our heads on the last island of the Mississippi. A nice introduction to Cancer Alley.