Photos by John Ruskey
Story by Chris Staudinger
There are a lot of reasons not to paddle the Mississippi River below Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Back in October, I sat in the boardroom of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network with a small group of paddlers while Paul and Michael Orr showed us 200 of those reasons, lit up in bleak red dots, congealed along a map of the river. There were Superfund sites, hazardous waste disposal locations, aluminum smelters, paper mills, and plants that make chemicals I can't pronounce. The Orrs work with LEAN and the Waterkeeper Alliance to monitor these sites, and their red dots were connected to an array of facts, dates, and toxic-release figures associated with each plant, such as the 2,563 pounds of vinyl chloride leaked by a Dow Chemical facility near Plaquemine, La., in the 1990s. The chemicals were being ingested via groundwater by people in the riverside community of Myrtle Grove, and the Orrs helped expose that contamination, among many other instances along the big river.
Quapaw Canoe Co.’s John Ruskey had organized the paddling trip to scout camping spots, boat ramps, and refuel stations for the Rivergator: Lower Mississippi River Water Trail, a five-year labor he’s spearheaded, which comes to a completion this year. Countless paddlers do in fact paddle through this busy port every year on their way to the Gulf. If there's a stretch that needs a guide, it's the last 300 miles of the river. In the guide, Ruskey warns paddlers that below Baton Rouge, they will find "the most extreme concentration of riverside industry outside of the German Ruhr or the Yangtze at Shanghai" where "dangerous pollution can sometimes produce pungent smells, unnatural foaming, very dark or unusual colored water and oily sheen."
Fifty percent of the refining capacity of the entire United States sits along Louisiana waters below Baton Rouge, earning the area nicknames like "Cancer Alley" and "The Chemical Corridor."
Mike Beck, a paddler from Baton Rouge who works as an environmental consultant in the area, told us, "If you took the belly fat out of a catfish, you could find any chemical ever manufactured on that river."
Forewarned, the nine of us drove down to a landfill-turned-boat launch in South Baton Rouge, and we shoved off to see what such a nasty river would look like.
In the last installment of this series, Ruskey advised (with some pretty strong language) that paddlers dip out of the Mississippi and finish their trip on the quieter, wilder, safer Atchafalaya.
But on a shell bank five days south of New Orleans, dwarfed by the tall grasses of the Louisiana marshes, hundreds of miles from Baton Rouge, I asked John if he still felt like the Atchafalaya was the only good option for a long-distance paddler. From what I'd seen, I thought he might reconsider. He told me he would have to rethink that idea.
I didn't ask because the river turned out to be prettier than the Atchafalaya, because it wasn't. Nor did I ask because the security guard who kicked us off the "private property" of his ethylene glycol plant had some redeemable charm, because he didn't.
I asked because despite the gloom of the Chemical Corridor, there was something palpably special about this stretch of river. I might be biased because the group of people on this trip was so ideal: there was Ruskey, who has spent three decades paddling the Mississippi; Mark River Peoples, ex-NFL river guide, writer, and raconteur of wild game hunting; Zoe Sundra, poet, singer, songwriter, and river goddess; Robert Landreneau, a French-speaking Cajun romantic, seemingly impervious to the swarms of hungry mosquitos that sent everyone else to the tents at sundown; the Orr brothers, with all of their expertise; Ben Quaintenance, a slightly-crabby corporate retiree who carries the sweet memories of his late wife in his every breath; and three amazing writers, Mary Ann Sternberg (Along the River Road: Past and Present on Louisiana's Historic Byway), Donovan Hohn (Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea & of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists & Fools Including the Author Who Went in Search of Them), and Dean Klinkenberg (The Mississippi Valley Traveler).
In the Rivergator, John writes, "When you are located at the very bottom you receive all of the best of what that system has to offer, and all of the worst." The result, he says, is "a rich gravy broth" where "America's sediment becomes transformed into arguably the most mouth-watering culinary offerings the world has ever seen (Creole, Cajun), the most powerful form of popular music ever (Jazz), and one of the most vibrant cultural flowerings in history (New Orleans)."
But it's not like all of the trumpets and the fried shrimp just eclipse all of the sadness or the pain of the place. They're fertile with each other, overflowing and mixing. And what grows can be unexpected. It's the world flipped upside down. Water flows out instead of in. It's an environmental disaster and a natural treasure. It's the least rational place to build a city on the river and the most consistently populated. So instead of being alone in mother nature, you're alone in the swampy backyard of some carnival funhouse where it rains in ferocious sheets, and you're surrounded by people who might either shoot you or give you a stick of andouille sausage from their own freezer. It's exciting.
That scenario played out in Plaquemines Parish, less than 50 miles from the Gulf, when an airboat pulled up to a sewage-smelling sandbar where we were taking a break. The three men in the boat had either beers or shotguns in their hands. One had both, and they were grinning like hyenas. After the encounter, when they left to hunt wild pigs, no one was shot, and most of us had cold beers in our hands, but the feeling of being both welcomed and intimidated lingered, as it had in other situations upriver.
So yes, there are a lot of reasons not to paddle through one of the of the most compressing, pressurized human environments in America – last in education, first in incarceration, the fastest disappearing land in the entire world, the freighters, the tow boats, the opposite end of the Boundary Waters. But if you go, you'll be looking at the machinations of humanity dead in the eye, right on top of the beauty of nature. The contrast is almost as powerful as the river itself. You're not escaping from the world we live in, the chemicals in the hull of your boat, the oil that'll fuel your ride back upriver. It's all there, down to the bottom, when the brackish marshes of the coast slide open to reveal limitless salt water, horizon, oil rigs, and pelicans.
We slept on a thin sandbar, on sediment that followed the same path we had. It propped us up just inches from the high tide, too close for comfort, but enough to give us a morning on the Gulf watching thousands of pelicans, gulls, and terns, enough to blot out the sun, flying low in a single stream along the water, looking for breakfast. John described it as a kind of complex euphoria, a mix of feelings difficult to describe at the very end of the biggest river in North America. That mix is reason enough to go there on your own and see for yourself. There's a free guide for it, and if you live between Montana and New York, you've probably got a free ride down there.