Flood of the Century: Mississippi III
When the Levee Breaks
This story package is featured in the December 2011 issue of Canoe & Kayak, available on newsstands now.
By Barry Boyette
We’re right on the bank of the Mississippi River in northeast Louisiana. There’s about 10,000 acres here that are surrounded by a levee that was built in 1912. We call it the Old Levee, and it held in ’27, which was the highest water on record. A lot of people thought, ‘Hey, it didn’t over-top or bow out in ’27, so what do we have to worry about?’ But I’m a crop duster. I was flying over that levee nearly every day, so we knew what was going to happen.
This levee stands about 30 feet high. At the base it’s probably 300 to 400 feet thick, and at the top it’s wide enough for two pickups to pass each other. When it blew, the gap was 300 yards wide and the water came through with such force that it scoured out a hole at the base of the levee. Some guys went up there in bass boats with depth finders, and they said the hole was 125 feet deep.
A buddy of mine, Wayne Parker, came up with the idea to paddle it. It was kind of spur-of-the-moment, but as soon as he said it, there was no doubt. We had to do it.
About a week after the breach, we put our sea kayaks in at Old River and paddled through the break in the levee, across that 10,000 acres and into the Port of Lake Providence. It’s about a 19-mile paddle. The only thing sticking up was a few power poles, and the tops of trees. We went by a roof that was floating and only attached to the house by the electrical wires. The farm shops and the grain bins—all that stuff was completely underwater.
The only turbulence we went through was right at the break in the levee. We paddled approximately 10 miles to the south levee, which had breached in about six places. Those breaks were very turbulent. I’m not a whitewater guy at all, but if Class V is the top, these were sevens. So we pulled across what was left of the levee, then paddled through the woods on out into the Mississippi River. It humbled me. I don’t know how else to put it.
—Barry Boyette and Wayne Parker live in Lake Providence, Louisiana. They paddle the Mississippi River as often as they can, which, in the eyes of their neighbors, certifies them as crazy. As told to Jeff Moag