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LMRD 727, May 31, 2019
Lower Mississippi River Dispatch
"Voice of the Lower Mississippi River"

Canoe Kamikaze: The Rest of the Story

Sorry to take so long to get back to this. Life has a way of pulling the strands of man's ambition to shreds. Glad to be back in the saddle, and get back to it now, and finish the tapestry -- and timely too, the river is still at the same level on the levees in New Orleans that it was back in March. (This should serve as a fairly accurate picture for anyone paddling downstream, and good reason to avoid this stretch of river entirely until waters drop back down below Flood Stage)

First: Flood Update: The Arkansas and Missouri Rivers are flooding big time, breaking records in some places with the highest water ever (Little Rock), in some places the highest since 1993 (St. Louis), the water has been saturating the levees for more consecutive days, longer than any other flood since 1927, and it might break that record also... Vicksburg, for instance, exceeded flood stage on Feb. 17, a condition unchanged. Meanwhile the Ohio River Valley is slacking off, creating an unusual condition on the upper part of the Lower Miss (a mix of the Ohio and the Upper Miss), which is barely reaching flood stage (FS) in New Madrid, and cresting 4' below at Memphis (predicted to hit 30 on June 11th). But boy-oh-boy conditions change downstream of the Arkansas Confluence where the predictions suddenly leap upwards with crests of 10' or higher above FS (Greenville, Vicksburg, Natchez, Baton Rouge). Red River Landing is expected to crest 14' above FS.

But then... the numbers drop below Old River where the Morganza Floodway (3rd time ever!) is slowly being opened, and further downstream where the Bonnet Carre has been reopened (2nd time in the same season -- 3rd time in less than 2 years, both records!). As result of these man-made diversions, the river levels in New Orleans have been consistently maintained between 16 and 17 NO Gage, careful engineering keeping it at the same levels it has been rolling at for months, and in fact pretty much the same levels we encountered in Canoe Kamikaze, March 2019...

Warning: The Canoe Kamikaze story continues below, but not before sending out a warning to any long-distance paddlers headed down the Mississippi: You will not find dry sandbars below Greenville (537). Avoid Chemical Corridor (Baton Rouge to Venice) for reasons illustrated below in Canoe Kamikaze: big waves, very turbulent waters, and extremely nervous commercial traffic. You will not find dry camping anywhere. Conditions will persist until the river falls below 11 on the New Orleans Gage (It has been hovering between 16 and 17 for months) The Atchfalaya will be extra high and moving swiftly due to Morganza opening, the river could double in water volume below I-10 Bridge.

***Rivergator: Paddler's Guide to the Lower Mississippi River does not recommend paddling on river at or above flood stage***

More about Morganza Floodway

"Extraordinary flooding along the Mississippi River and its tributaries along with spring runoff of snow and ice have forced the Corps of Engineers to open the Morganza Spillway for only the third time in its 65-year history. The Corps could start opening the structure’s gates as early as June 2.

The purpose of the Morganza Floodway is to divert excess floodwater from the Mississippi River into the Atchafalaya Basin. The floodway consists of two structures — the Morganza Control Structure and the Morganza Floodway — which are designed to pass up to 600,000-cu.-ft.-per-second (cfs) of water to the Gulf of Mexico, alleviating stress for mainline levees downstream along the Mississippi River.

The Corps said the structure would be overtopped by June 5 if the gates are not opened. It will take about three days to open Morganza, diverting water through the spillway and into the floodway."

Kamikaze Canoe:
The Rest of the Story

Rivergator: Paddler's Guide to the Lower Mississippi River does not recommend paddling on river at or above flood stage. The following expedition was made in behalf of exploration and documentation for public knowledge.

From John's Journals:

Tuesday, March 19, 2019, Waxing Full Moon setting upstream, now enjoying the first light of the day downstream under the Sunshine Bridge, our sketchy creosote camp a godsend in a flooding Chem Corridor with no safe dry place to make landings, the Crescent City somewhere over the horizon, traffic comes & goes, one downstream tow must have been on deadline, rushing forward, blunt end plowing deep into mocha current, whitewater foam exploding out and up with frothy explosions trailing out-thrust wheel wash behind in rolling waves 4-5 feet alarming undulating reflections in the faces of the approaching wake, but our Cricket Canoe serenely snuggles our willowy refuge and all is well -- for now -- there is a palpable tension in the water, tension in the air, palpable in tow pilot voices crackling over VHF Channel 67, and no wonder, 2 small tows recently rolled over and disappeared in the always insatiable appetite of the river, now made voraciously viperous by the mad-capping crescendo of muddy water concentrating across the country into the narrow funnel yoke of the Lower Mississippi which gravity brings together like the arms of a giant oak, the Ohio and all it's myriad branchings from the East, the Missouri (and lower down, the Arkansas) and their fractal infatuations to the West, all of the snowmelt and raindrops that have gathered like dew on a leaf, and concentrate in the concave contours towards the center, although this "leaf" happens to be the 2nd biggest river drainage in the world...

Our legs slightly unsteady after the long day in the never-ending undulating motions, the big river diving deep around the tight bends characteristic of Chem Corridor and exploding upwards in madly swirling concoctions of giant boils and giant eddies half the size of the channel itself, hard edges (fleeted barges, anchored freighters, etc) making for an endlessly thrashing, tail-snapping cauldron of chem/ag broth, I got as mouthful-lapfull with a surprise rogue wave that tasted at once salty and caustic to my tongue...

First morning light from levee, Fresh Coffee, Scorpius, setting Equinox Moon Paulina (sketch, John Ruskey)

Wed, March 20 Hammock Camp, Poche Park (paddler's paradise and indeed it was!) crashing whitewater waves in mighty muddy tongue squeezed past the Vacherie Revetment roaring like Lava Falls all night and filling our weary dreams with endless nightmares, but all calm now in our slightly swinging, swaying hammocks, rocking in the gentle pulse waves with the pendulum motions of the water-bound willows, no one fell in the water, not sure how Bernie slept in cramped canoe, Venus a brilliant blob rising an hour before first light in the Grandview Anchorage, Fifty Mile Landing, Jupiter gleaming incandescently but less brightly, Saturn found in the same trajectory towards Scorpius, Mars somewhere near or behind moon, Antares, the heart of the scorpion slightly lower and reddish, the clawed crustacean himself making an elegant swirling sideways S-curve, maybe more like a swirling J-curve, Ophiuchus under Jupiter and Sagitarius under Saturn, the air crystal clear and slightly willow sweet, full spring equinox "Worm" moon setting as the sun rises, the shadow of the earth projected far over the horizon and glowing in vague candy stripes rosy teal and yellow, feeling like a fish in an astronomical fishbowl, or an aberration in a rainbow marble, feeling a calming reassurance to find all of my brilliant friends watching over us as we ply the throbbing turbulence of the Mighty Mississippi in its grand escapade through the heart of Chemical Corridor at 16.9 NO Gage, mallards in the water, herons in the sky, beavers building floating lodges (on piles of flood-rafted driftwood) and chewing fresh chiseled willow, crows cawing from the tallest dead cottonwood, keeping up a commotion until suddenly going dumb as the sun gets momentarily eclipsed by the dark silhouetted wing-shape of the king, wanbli bald eagle, everything seems to cower slightly in his presence...

The King, Wanbli Bald Eagle (sketch, John Ruskey)

Wed, Mar 21st day after equinox, the water slipping slurping past Nine Mile Point in parallel lines of energy, light and motion, rippling hypnotically in the first light of the day, swishing by so fast it is dizzying to behold, the outer edges curling around some sycamore trees growing around the batture houses (where Aretha Franklin was born & raised), slurping greedily around the trunks of the trees, another freighter appears upstream seemingly angled wrong for the direction needed downstream, making a 270-degree change of motion in the space of a tight river bend, it's fore-light beaming like a beacon torch head aloft by a goddess of light & freedom by the Statue of Liberty, alas, its nothing more than an oil tanker bearing a concoction of chemicals, an empty-handed upstreamer enters the scene and scratches across the river with perpendicular fingers scratching streams of light towards my eyes... but these aberrations pass on, as all things on the river do, and the balance of the wild floodplain valley returns, even as clouds of grain haze drifts across the channel from Bunge Mills... a giant block of ducks took to wing before sunset and swirled around in a river-wide loop-de-loop, thousands of grain fed ducks, a flock of crows later... earlier I heard wanbli's screech in his clucking sort of way, and then a screech owl with his high-pitched throb...

...The water whispering and singing softly as it whispers underneath my perch and on downstream, two tows pushed upstream full of empties and now a long freighter silently follows, Diana Shipping Inc emblazoned across its belly, the river pilots bring a serious businesslike demeanor to the river when compared to the crusty tow pilots whop throw around off-color jokes and spew free-wheeling observations over the airwaves, like old men on a porch spitting into their spittoons...

We paddled 46 miles yesterday through some of the biggest waves and strongest push and pull eddy maelstroms I have ever paddled, predictably at the bottom of every point (like Humas Point, etc), but some surprises roared to life under Sunshine and Grammercy Bridges, and at Paulina, which roared madly all night while we swung sweetly in our hammocks... looking at the ,map or bird's eye view on google earth, the river makes the gentlest of a course change at Paulina, but the water responds strangely out of proportion with a terrifying tongue of bucking big waves bouncing two expansive seething sheeting eddies which skeet diametrically opposed in a tug-of-war elbowing jostle for territory between the 1/2 mile wide eddy and the narrow channel constricted to under 1/8 mile wide between the edge and the opposite shore (West Bank)... an large upstream tow whipped this conflagration into enraged eruptions like Mark Twain's volcanic Capt Bixby, who periodically erupted, and then gradually dissipated, although in the case of Paulina this might be an hour of irrational spouting...

We saw 2 adult bald eagles in a large nest above 12 Mile Point, around which the water curls tightly and responds turbulently, but 9-Mile Point seems comparatively calm and predictable, the fast water sliding outwards in a giant arc, slow water eddying inside point, I am guessing (hoping) the same will be found at Algiers, I wonder how far we should go today? The terrifying mystery of what lays downstream, and what upstream freighter will clear the deck in a table-top dance, how long will our luck hold? In this trip we have already used 4 or 5 of our cat's lives, but I will leave it up to my men and circumstance to make the decision for us, short & sweet or long & hard... All life existing in opposition and contrasts, for us the converse of the dangerous conditions is found in a dynamic synergy also nurtured by the same: the big water yielding us paddlers an additional freedom and opportunity not found in low water: the quick crossings and the ability to quickly switch between playing fields of mad whitewater chop and billowing glistening eddies, we switched such realities below Marquez (bald eagle overhead), and at Belle Point we slipped smoothly out of the crashing waves and into buttery folds of dreamy smooth-edged boil waves which peaked and troughed in succulent parallel ridges like the glistening edges of the moon flower in a dewy full moonlight bloom, like opening a ripe mango, the texture and flavors so smooth and almost erotically sweet and succulent, the color reflections drawn, the painted and stretched in syrupy oils over the face of every wave and wrapped seamlessly into and through the valleys in between creating an unbroken universe of watery ecstasy through which we bounded with unbridled joy...

Approaching freighter waves (sketch, John Ruskey)

Recap to Original Story:
Thursday, March 21, 2019, Vernal Equinox. It's Day 4 of Canoe Kamikaze. The voyageurs face certain capsize as they paddle a rolling maelstrom past Domino Sugar, Arabi, and are now approaching Chalmette and the Lower Algiers Ferry Crossing with no easy exit from giant waves rising and collapsing their way as they roll off the thundering prow of Freighter #74... Who is plowing upstream towards us...

...We were three slightly deranged guys jumped in the Cricket Canoe with the following travel plan: to paddle from Baton Rouge to Venice, LA, for documentation of the Lower Mississippi River in high water. My own part in this comes from an inconsolable itch I feel every time the river rises through the woods and touches the levee... which is usually near or after vernal equinox. I have trouble sleeping at night. Normal springtime activities like walking, biking, napping, cleaning, gardening, painting, etc, drain of color. Life seems to lose meaning; nothing makes sense except the river. Maybe it’s something similar to the beaver who cannot sit still when he hears the sound of running water? It’s the river rat disease. I am not alone; I know others who have feel this, maybe everyone does. Spring fever? But for me it's slightly more than that: I have a personal, professional requirement to see the river at all levels in all conditions. How can I intelligently be helpful if I have not seen it myself? Anyway, those were some of the reasons going through my head... in the heat of the affliction noted above.
At first we called our little adventure “CC 16.9” for Chemical Corridor at 16.9 New Orleans Gage. But further downstream we came to be known by passing freighters and tows as “Canoe-i-cide” or “Kamikaze Canoe” and other more colorful names not fit for print. Water levels were 43.9 in Baton Rouge (8.9 feet above flood stage and cresting). New Orleans reported 16.8 on push off day, but the next day it was upped to 16.9, and reported to be cresting (FS=17 at New Orleans). And so we were riding a giant river-pulse of sorts, a long frequency wave 200 miles crest to trough.

A Paddler's Worst Fear: Here are a couple of possible outcomes:

Scenario 1: Caught Sideways and Capsized (sketch, John Ruskey)

Scenario 2: Signaling Passing Freighters for Rescue (sketch, John Ruskey)

Scenario 3: The last Sighting of the Paddlers (sketch, John Ruskey)

Rest of the Story:
(three days later, March 25) Back on land with my gals and thankful to be alive, it has taken three days to reawaken out of the adventure, my body busted & bruised, sleeping a lot in recovery, but now finally reawakening to reality (or unreality), scenes from the odyssey are returning to me, as well as the feeling of being on an endless escalator riding through the boisterous heart of America's industry, our passage watched over by the good spirit and presence of wanbli bald eagle, all traffic eliciting an endless numbing barrage of colorful crude commentary, which while offensive and derogatory nonetheless all captains showed us respect to the very end by slowing their vessels and not toppling us in their crashing wakes. We would have rolled over most of them, maybe bailing our way out of some, but there were some waves witnessed that would have surely eaten us whole, and drowned our entire 24' canoe and our mound of gear in one gulp, or flipped us over with ease, I have experienced capsize more than once in the middle of the Mighty Mississippi, the first time when we wrecked our raft in 1983 below Memphis, I saw the wave trains in the out-thrust of some of the fast-moving tows and in the the wake some of the freighters that made my eyes pop and my heart stop, the face of the channel covered with a rolling bumbling cauldron of hay-stacking and crashing waves that would have chewed us up and spit us out -- or swallowed us whole.

So, #74 finally showed some respect and good seamanship by adjusting his barreling upstream speed downward incrementally by degrees, not sure if he was motivated by his conscious or the attention of traffic control, regardless his plowing whitewater prow stopped roaring like a lion, and became a purring kitten as it passed upstream, the resulting waves still bounding and rebounding behind but diminished, we still had to tenderly work our way over each train, and cautiously creep through the troughs, paddle too hard and you might torpedo the wave instead of lightly bouncing over the crest, on the other hand paddle too light and you lose momentum and your prow might be side-swept mercilessly, the resulting 90-degree angle would mean canoe capsize in the fragile balance of perpendicular liquid force (ie: a canoe caught sideways in a crashing wave), water has little grip on the ends of the canoe, but completely commands it sideways.

And so we dipped and darted along like a minnow in and out of wave trains as we were swept past Lower Algiers Ferry and then the lock & dam entrance to the Algiers Ferry, and although still the bounding 'main of whaling days, we had to attempt a crossing as another freighter not far out of sight around 12-Mile Point was charging upstream just having come out of the English Turn Bend, and was following the same path as #74 and once again we might be faced with the same circumstances.... Our frayed nerves were being stretched to the limit, and so I meditated deeply on our position and the extraordinary journey made thus far, and decided enough is enough.... I made a pact with wanbli and counted the last remaining cat's lives left in my quiver, and decided the next landing downstream would be good enough for this sailor, we had successfully sailed through Chem Corridor at the highest flood levels allowed by engineers (16.9), and the rest of the route to the Gulf could be made at a later date with refreshed bodies and cleared minds, and maybe a re-packed quiver of cat's lives.

Bouncing on around Lower 12-Mile Point, the following freighter seemed to adjust his speed in our favor, the big waves still bouncing like a bombardment basketball barrage from miles of the one-inch steel walls of fleeted barges RBD (West Bank) below Algiers Canal, but several miles downstream, as we rotated around the endlessly long Lower 12-Mile Point Bend past Meraux, Poydras Crevasse, Docville Farms, Caernarvon Crevasse, and and into the final approach to English Turn Bend, and the river calmed completely as if gifting us with a final vision of a mirror-surface river on a bluebird day, fleecy sheep clouds sliding by as we slid downstream and the endless forests (West Bank) scraped slowly against the sky especially healthy looking around the Studio in the Woods, all seemed quiet and peaceful and reconnected, at least momentarily, and we all slowed our pace a bit, and lounged in the luxury of smooth sailing...

To be continued?

Takeout at English Turn Bend, RBD 78 (West Bank). Thanks to the Canoe Kamikazes Birney Imes and Boyce Upholt for the voyageur camaraderie and great adventure. Thanks to Michael Orr (seen in background) of LEAN for ground support.

PS: for those who missed the first installment in this adventure, go to Quapaw Canoe Company Dispatch at or click here.


Our Dream for Quapaw Canoe Company in 2019:

"To share the raw, wild, power & beauty of the big river
with patience, balance and compassion
for our clients
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for all its creatures
and for our mother earth"


The Lower Mississippi River Dispatch "Voice of the Lower Mississippi River" is published by the Quapaw Canoe Company. Photos and writing by John Ruskey, Mark River and others. Please write for re-publishing. Feel free to share with friends or family, but also credit appropriately. Go to www.island63.comand click on "Quapaw Dispatch" for viewing back issues of the LMRD.


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