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LMRD No 406

May 5, 2017

The Last Island

Quick Update: The expedition drops deeper and deeper into the "gut" of the Lower Mississippi, below Plaquemine, Donaldsonville, Reserve, and are beset by yet another fierce round of storms. We take tenuous refuge at the ragged edge of the 2nd direct connection to the Gulf of Mexico — Bonne Carre Spillway (a connection when the river reaches a certain flood stage). *Note: today the river is at 12.1 on the New Orleans gage — which is 2 feet above their 10’ flood stage. It is forecast to crest at 14.5 in New Orleans on May 21st. The levee protects New Orleans up to 20'.

But wait! The Rivergator strongly advises paddlers not to journey on the river at or above flood stage. Why? Because of obvious reasons. It become dangerously turbulent, chaotic, unpredicatable. Go to for description.

We are at a crossroads at Bonne Carre.

The river beckons. Our logical minds rebel. The Rivergator: Paddler's Guide says don't paddle in flood waters.

As if displaying the higher purpose and power, the storm breaks overhead at sunset and we all retreat tour tents for shelter, with many questions running through our imaginations.

Rivergator... the journey continues…. We are the wilderness within; we are the wilderness without.

Boyce Upholt Journal: Between the Levees

Watercolor Paintings by John Ruskey

Venus Rising from top end of Bayou Goula (last island on the Lower Miss)

Day 43: The last island

May 1, 2017

Long day -- and if the weather permits two more long days, we'll be in New Orleans Wednesday night. (A quite different New Orleans experience than I'm accustomed to, of course.)

We're camped on the river's last island (at least before the river splits apart near its mouth): Bayou Goula Island, its called. Tight quarters, but it will only get tighter. The river is trimmed in by levees on both sides now, with almost no batture.

Thats a reminder that our geography is changing, one among a few, though they are subtle still. The big one are our new companions: ocean-going freighters, tall and wide and slicing through the water, now share the channel, since we are past Baton Rouge.

Which reveals an obvious fact, though one I rarely consider: we are headed to an ocean. The water doesn't stop in 200 miles; it flows on into the Gulf Stream. It swirls around to the many countries named on the freighters' hulls -- Singapore, Panama, Malta. That fact makes the river seem both bigger and smaller at once.

Day 42: Extermination

April 30, 2017

You learn, too, to sit in your tent still and silent, and shine your light in every corner, and kill the mosquitoes one by one.

And when you contemplate that moment from the view of the mosquito -- when you wonder what it must be like to have your life snuffed out so quickly -- you know you have become too close to the wild.

Day 40: The stern-paddling hobo blues

April 28, 2017

Besides 30 or 45 minutes back in Missouri, I’ve mostly avoided sitting in the stern. I see it as the hot seat: the stern paddler has to guide the canoe home. This is an expedition, and we’ve got miles to cover; might as well leave that to the pros.

Then again, if I want to understand this river, stern paddling seems like a task to tackle, too. So, dear reader, today was as good as any. Just after launching from Tunica Bar this morning, I climbed towards the boat’s rear.

It was a windy day, which I found a virtue. Up in the boat, wind means you have nothing to attend to but your own suffering: you are stuck in your seat, and your task is to paddle, until the wind breaks or a landing gives you relief though.

From the stern, though, there seem to be a thousand signs to watch for: where is the wind headed, and is gusting? Where is the fastest line of water? Just where does that tugboat want to go? To find the answers, you have to read the smallest signals: a riffle on the water, maybe, or the angle of a barge’s long side. John says that to find the water, it’s less about vision than a kind of feeling: you have to open yourself up. You make most of the decisions before you can absorb or calculate it all. The stern, it turns out, is a good place to lose yourself, even amid the wind.

And so we paddled: south first, dead into the wind, and then the relief of Morgan’s Bend, where paddling east, the woods below us blocked the gusts.

And then.

As we turned to the south again, the winds hit. Perhaps I was doing it right, my job in the stern, because in that moment my mind went nearly blank. There was nothing but John’s command, to head for the riprap, and me shouting out, “We’re making the crossing” -- I had to shout to be heardf -- and then just paddling, keep on paddling, get to where we need to go. There is a vague memory of the waves crashing in from the left and the right at once, and the boat rocking back and forth, and the water coming over the bow. There is a vague memory of my one desire: let it not be on my watch that the boat goes down, or that we turn ourselves into the water.

Reader, we made it, though we had to bail gallons of water from the boat.


Now, though, we faced a decision. Clearly the winds were a bit stronger than the forecast had advertised, and, over the next two days, they’ll only be getting getting worse. We were looking at two days locked down, but our ice was melting, and two days would also mean many pounds of spoiled meat.

So it was time -- for a moment -- to leave the walled-in wild. We hoofed through the woods, and the dewberry brambles, and walked through the mud. (I had put on my boots to avoid the stickers, so I had to remove them when we waded a cow-stinking slough.) We un-trespassed -- climbing a fence whose sign faced away from us, so we saw only its slate grey back. We walked down a highway, sweaty with river-stink, in search of gas-station ice.

I couldn’t help but wonder what the town folk thought of us: this band of grimy hobos with drybags slung across our backs. Though, to be honest, I didn’t think much of this town. From the top of the levee, I could see both worlds: the wild swamps beyond the levee, and the run-down shacks in town. There was a railroad, and a few scrubby gardens. We cut down the woods for this?

It isn’t fair, of course. For all our wilderness rigor, we’d be nowhere without our bags of chips and blocks of ice. Besides, inside the gas station was a pleasant cafe, decked out in cypress wood, with deep-fried boudin balls for sale -- an easy path to my heart. (The Spillway Cafe, named for the floodway that begins just above town of Morganza: I hope to go back there one day.)

Still, as I sit in here in storm camp -- home for two days, most likely, while the wind has its way again -- I’ve got to say we’ve found somewhere pleasant, somewhere I’d recommend. I took my bath in the cooling river, and drank a beer I bought at the gas station, and the pork roast, saved from spoiling, will be served up soon.

Day 39: Long days

April 27, 2017

“[Floating] must have been one of the first ecstasies. The analogy of riding a spirited horse is fairly satisfactory; it is mastery over something resistant--a buoyancy that is not natural and inert like that of a log, but desired and vital and to one’s credit. Once the boat has fully entered the consciousness it becomes an intimate extension of self; one feels as competently amphibious as a duck, whose feet are paddles. And once we feel accustomed and secure in the boat, the day and river began to come clear to us.”

--Wendell Berry, "The Rise”

Floating a first ecstasy? I consider Wendell Berry something of a seer, but as of a few days ago, I was skeptical of this idea. We floated 46 miles on Sunday, and every one of them felt like a new and continuously cruel form of labor. It seemed we were never moving. It seemed the only way to relieve myself was to scream.

Distance, out here, is no measure of difficulty. Our progress depends on the speed of the river, which depends on the amount water flowing down. It depends on the wind's speed and direction. The effort perceived depends, even, on whether my feet feel frigid on an overcast morning because I failed to put on socks.

On Sunday, I sat in the bow of the boat, where I took on the responsibility of counting my strokes, so that I could switch from port to starboard, and keep myself -- and the rest of the boat -- from working too hard on one side. It was a relief today, then, to just sit and paddle and never count at all. It was a relief to have the sun shining. It was a relief to be out early, and to feel the big bends slip along our sides. It was a relief to pay attention not to the numbers, but to the world.

We paddled 62 miles today, and it felt like nothing at all. I could feel at times the water, flowing beneath my feet, beneath the hull, could feel the slight resistance as the water split around the paddle: ah, yes: the river and the day came clear.


The more prosaic update: we've crossed the border now, and both sides of the river are Louisiana: our final state. As if in greeting, we saw an alligator on the banks; and then, further downriver, beneath the Tunica Hills, a rare patch of cypress trees, draped in Spanish Moss. All the romantic enchantments of a Southern river, plus a golden sunset over the Loess bluffs, plus willow-smoked catfish and small splash of whiskey. A fine enough end to a long day.

For more of Boyce’s writing, photographs, stories in magazines, and other essays and links, go to Between the Levees: "America's Great, Misbehaving River - and its Walled-In Wild"

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