Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Mississippi: Atchafalaya to Gulf of Mexico

Sunset on the Atchafalaya
Between Baton Rouge and New Orleans the Mississippi has been dubbed "Cancer Alley" because there is so much industry along the river. The maps showed dozens of industrial installations on each page. That would not only mean difficult camping and rather ugly views, but also a lot of tug boat traffic. When researching this trip I had come across a much better alternative that is chosen by many paddlers: the Atchafalaya River! Over the last millions of years the Mississippi has chosen various basins and the Atchafalaya Basin is one of them. Actually the Mississippi is tending to go towards it again and only the efforts of the Army Corps of Engineering is preventing it. What would New Orleans be without the Mississippi?

The Atchafalaya route looked much nicer with hardly any industry and was also a lot shorter. It was therefore an easy decision for us. But the next question was how far to go. The last road access on the Atchafalaya Basin is in the town of Morgan City. After that it is all wetlands. Mile marker 0, the official start of the Gulf of Mexico was 21 miles further. This would involve paddling these miles back against the current and expose our kayaks to more aggressive salt water. We decided to take it easy and finish in Morgan City. Of course there is no public transport in Morgan City but luckily Bayou, a hiker friend of mine offered to pick us and all our tons of gear up.

Lock into the Atchafalaya
In order to turn onto the Atchafalaya we had to go through one last lock - and this was the most ghetto lock we have been through. There was not even a pull cord to inform the lock master of our arrival and we were just lucky that a Corps boat came out of the lock when we arrived. The poor lock master had to cycle along the lock - up North they use golf carts. "Down here we don't have any money for that." the lock master informed us. After a 7 mile canal of stagnant water we finally hit the Atchafalaya - and were soon disappointed by the current. Our arrival date in Morgan City depended on the current and we had not been able to find any information on that. Also this being an extremely low water year did not help. The Mississippi after St. Louis had had a consistent current of 3 miles per hour that allowed us to paddle 5 miles per hour. Now the current was 2 miles and less and we were struggling tremendously to make 40 miles per day. A storm front was forecasted and did not allow a later finish date.

I knew that these would be my last days of paddling for a long time and therefore I could power myself out. I was hurting a lot with my fingers being the biggest problem. The knuckles of both middle fingers where almost completely stiff when cold. I could not form a fist any more because the fingers would not bend - and the problem was spreading to other fingers. I just hoped I would survive these last paddling days without doing permanent damage.

On the Atachafalaya
Paddling without current was hard but the river was quite nice. It was much narrower than the Mississippi with very little barge traffic. In total I  saw only 4 barges on the Atchafalaya, but plenty of motor boats with fishermen - and unfortunately not all were polite enough to slow down for a kayak. We barely made 40 miles on our first day and that left another 40 mile and a 27 mile finish day with strong headwinds. Brian decided not to wait for me on our last days and so I was struggling on my own. I could not make 40 miles on day 2 and ended up with 33 miles left for the finish day. The prospect of having to paddle 33 miles into a headwind did not let me sleep and I had to resort to the only solution: paddling at night. I had always avoided it out of safety reasons but now I did not have any other choice. I got up at 3.30 am and paddled in the dark.

Last day of paddling
The paddling itself was nice with the river being calm, but the fisherman in motorboats were the problem. My only light was my headlamp and I did not know how visible it was to other  boaters. And for sure after one hour a speed boat came right towards me at high speed. I desperately flashed my headlamp and waved my paddle but it would not change its course. I nearly wet my pants so frightened was I. Only metres away from me the boat took a sharp turn and moved away from me. I could not figure out whether they had not seen me or just wanted to scare me. If they had intended the latter they have been very successful...

The finish pho
I paddled hard and was actually making good progress but the river fought back till the very last moment. 6 miles out off Morgan City I turned into a direct strong headwind. Normally I would not have paddled in that but there was nowhere to get out earlier. I had to make it to the public dock in Morgan City. A busy little port with tug boat traffic did not make things easier, but so close to the goal nothing could stop me - and finally on Dec 15 at 2 pm I finished my paddling trip. The public boat dock inMorgan City is probably the worst place I have ever finished a trip. Morgan City is a rundown place to start with. The boat ramp is located under a highway bridge where the local homeless hang out and the whole place smells of piss. There is not even a boat ramp, only a steep rocky shore - and a greeting committee of local drunkards. Luckily Bayou had arrived early to pick us up.... But in the end all that did not matter: I had somehow managed to paddle the Mighty Mississippi River and had succeeded despite all problems.

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