Rivergator Dispatch #6: Beyond the Levees

By Boyce Upholt
Photos by Chris Battaglia

Past Baton Rouge, the river begins to change.

Some of the changes are invisible. The city lies as the edge of the Pleistocene Terrace, so all land downstream is built from fresh alluvial soils. This is the youngest land on the continent, all less than 7,000 years.

Other changes are more apparent. At Baton Rouge, the river becomes the domain of ocean-bound freighters. These massive ships, many stories tall, slice the water with their curved hulls and dwarf the familiar tows.

As we paddled past the city into a long industrial stretch, these freighters gave us new ways to entertain ourselves. As we approached each boat, we tried to glean from its name (and its general rustiness) where in the world it calls home. The cities and countries listed on their hulls — Singapore, Panama, Wilmington – clarified the scope of this river. Our end goal may be the Gulf of Mexico, but the water keeps flowing, connecting to every nation in the world.

For us, though, one thing did not change at Baton Rouge: the windy, stormy weather continued to scuttle our plans. Which meant that time was running out before this expedition’s various members had to get home. To make the Gulf on time, we committed ourselves to early rises and long days — fifty miles of paddling, back to back to back. When the winds were calm, that was not so hard an order; when we were battered, it was no fun at all.

From upriver, another challenge was approaching: flood crests coursing down from regions we’d already passed. The river was closed to traffic near St. Louis; the water was busting through levees in the far reaches of the valley. As we neared New Orleans, we learned the city would soon be entering flood stage.

And the storms returned: as we paddled through the city’s first suburbs, we donned our raingear, and eyed the lightning blowing in from the horizon. Just before the storm’s worst hit, we arrived at the boat ramp at the Bonnet Carre Spillway, and we took generous shelter inside the local office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. When the weather calmed, we set our camp and hunkered in early, anticipating another bout of heavy rain.

At midnight that night, I woke to shouting: a tree had fallen and smashed a tent — the second time that’s happened on this trip. The first time, the tent was empty, but this time not so. Lena, the tent’s occupant, was unhurt but trapped. She had to be released from her tent. A few inches difference and she might have been killed.

In my first dispatch, I talked about my attraction to what I call the “walled-in wild.” The batture, or woods inside the levees, is a small, wild space that we’ve forgotten about. A wilderness within. Now, after six weeks between the levees, I’m beginning to think about the world beyond the levees, too.

Once, of course, much of the land beyond the levees was river. Its floodplain stretched up to a hundred miles wide. That was good for the soil and good for its wild inhabitants. This fact was ignored for centuries but is now becoming apparent. And people are thinking about letting the river run beyond its levees again. Along the Ouachita River, a tributary in Louisiana, the levee has being torn down so that 11,000 acres can go back to wildness. Downriver from New Orleans, in Plaquemines Parish, huge plans are being debated to open a gap so that the river and its dirt can build new coastal land.

But the world beyond the levees is, at this point, mostly a human place. This has become clear past Baton Rouge, where the levees are close to the river. Here, the batture is thinner and the un-wild life is harder to ignore. We see the power lines and steeples of old, small-town churches. At night, from camp, we hear the radios and revving engines and shouted comments of people back on the banks. And there’s value in that life. Every time we stop for a break, I remember that: how much I enjoy hot showers and cold, fresh-tapped beers.

After the tree fell, our crew gathered for a powwow to decide our next move. The decision was unanimous: It was time to head back home.

There were various reasons. Too many scary close calls. More bad weather to come. A family emergency was calling John back home. But most of all it was that coming flood stage: as John made clear in Rivergator, the river is not safe when the waters are that high. During floods, he recommends that paddlers stay home.

During the powwow, we discussed the purpose of this trip. It was not to do something extreme, something novel, something that’s never been done before. While not enough people paddle this river, we are hardly the first.

No, the point of the Rivergator expedition was to invite others out to this wild place. We’ve accomplished that: more than 40 people have joined us along the way, many experiencing big-river paddling for the first time in their lives.

The best ending, then, doesn’t have to be the river’s end—that last bit of freshwater pouring into the salty Gulf. Our ending can instead be a demonstration of wisdom: take to the river, and enjoy it, but be wise. She is more powerful than us, and if we want to get back to our lives beyond the levee, we have to pay her respect.

So we will finish at some point – there are a little less than 150 miles remaining – but for now we’re signing off, with respect, and love for this big river.

—Read about Week 1 of the Rivergator Expedition on the Mississippi.

—Read about more adventures on the lower Mississippi River on C&K.

Crew: Mark “River” Peoples, John Ruskey, Lena Van Muchui

Paddlers: Chris Battaglia, Andy McClean, Boyce Upholt


  • Day 44, May 3: Poche Park (LMMM 149)
  • Day 45, May 4: Bonnet Carre Spillway Ramp (LMMM127)

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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