By Wolf E. Staudinger / Photos by John Ruskey
Sometimes people go to the wilderness to feel small. Big skies are good at putting our existence into perspective and wiping away the pettiness of the city. The Mississippi River, as it eases a mind-numbing volume of water off the continent, can slowly and surely help a human refocus his or her existence.
But barge traffic makes those who paddle the Mississippi River feel small in the ways that they probably aren't looking for. The mega-machines wheeze and roar. Their presence scares people away from the quiet islands of the Mississippi. Some people even think that commercial traffic makes paddling illegal.
As the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail – The Rivergator – extends farther up and down the river this year, questions of a paddler's place in a commercially heavy river abound. The Lower Mississippi River Foundation will help publish two new chapters in the mile-by-mile paddler's guide this fall: one for the stretch of river between Vicksburg, Miss., and Baton Rouge, La., and one for the stretch between St. Louis and Caruthersville, Mo.
On a recent weeklong expedition that surveyed the route, our canoe circled around the six-mile Togo bend and began crossing the channel as a loaded towboat, the mighty Myra Eckstein, approached. The captain of our canoe (and the author of The Rivergator), John Ruskey, has guided trips on the Mississippi for 16 years and knows the routes and rites of the towboat traffic as well as anyone. But my heartbeat quickened as I sat in the bow and stared up the barrels of the monstrous heap of metal that is a raft of barges, and I dug in. We crossed with more than enough time, but I heard muffled voices coming from John's VHF radio in the stern (a long way back in a 30-foot voyageur canoe).
I assumed it was a territorial captain giving us a piece of his mind. Sometimes they stand on deck to wave us along with a middle finger to the sky. Another time, a deckhand loosened his belt to shown us his bare ass, itching for port. Still other times, they've stood atop their cargo—on hundreds of thousands of gallons of volatile chemicals, flammable gasses, and radioactive waste—and (without life vests) yelled "Y’all are crazy!" John recounts a time when he was guiding 30 people in three big canoes near Helena, Arkansas: "Helena Marine approached us in their harbor tow as we came under the Helena Bridge,” he says. “They hollered out through their loudspeaker that we were all going to die, causing many in our care to squirm with terror.” (None died).
The majority of the time, though, deckhands give a quick wave, ask "Where ya headed?" or snap a photo on a camera phone. Some captains open the door to the bridge, walk into the sun, and removing their hat in a gesture of respect that harkens back to the steamboat days.
I later learned that the radio transmission from the Myra Eckstein was a little bit of both. The captain, who spoke in a heavy Cajun brogue, wasn't angry. "We were showing him great deference in our route of travel around Togo," John said, "and (we) gave him lots of room for maneuvering … Then he got persnickety about the difference between a canoe and a pirogue."
"We have been tongue-lashed more than once for incorrectly calling a ‘tow’ a ‘tug.’ (Tow for the river, tug for the ocean). But this captain did not like being corrected with the word canoe instead of pirogue. We got into a silly tug-of-war about wording. It was comic. Charging down the Mississippi with a million cubic feet of water per second of water past the mouth of the Big Black River on the biggest river in North America arguing about the right word for our voyageur canoe … There seemed to be some underlying hostility in the conversation.”
John sometimes answers the barge question simply: "Look both ways before you cross." But in The Rivergator, there are mile-by-mile suggestions for crossings and lines of travel when it comes to commercial vessels, especially at the busiest places. There are tips for good VHF communication with captains. And with the general dangers, he warns paddlers, "Buoys endlessly twist and yank on their cables in the current and seem to come towards you at times. Watch for 'diving ducks'—the buoys that become submerged by powerful waters and unexpectedly bounce back up. When towboats are present, your safest route is outside of the navigation channel. Towboat pilots might notice you on their radars, but they can't tell the difference between a flotilla of canoes & kayaks and a pile of driftwood."
Later in the trip, towboats did notice a flotilla of kayaks. Near Natchez, we met a couple of guys on their way to Baton Rouge. They were jovial, adventurous, and drinking beer at 10 am. Later that day, as we paddled down the back channel of an island, we heard three quick warning signals from a towboat on the main channel. It was followed by the roar that happens when engines are thrown in reverse, attempting to halt the course of 75,000 tons of cargo (we later found out that the group had been cruising down the middle of the channel and ignoring commercial traffic).
Whatever your feelings may be about commerce and the natural world, a towboat is a commanding creation. One single rectangular barge—or "hopper," as they're called—can carry enough wheat to bake 2,190,000 loaves of bread, according to industry numbers. (As many as 35 hoppers can be pushed at a time.)
As the Rivergator expedition pulled into the Port of Baton Rouge, the Grasshopper canoe passed a super tanker from Monrovia, several tugboats prodding it out to sea, and a rusty casino built to look like a steamboat. Countless casinos and tour boats have been built by retrofitting old tugs with the façade of a steamer. Operators rely on popular nostalgia for Mark Twain days to attract hordes with money. The irony is that steamers were a treacherous business that combined tinderbox mechanics with hot-headed, money-hungry captains to produce horrific explosions that claimed thousands of lives.
Few people want to wax nostalgic and hang pictures of towboats on their walls. Even fewer want to share the river with the metal behemoths, especially not in a small, self-propelled craft. There are valid concerns with paddling alongside commercial traffic. But if it's done respectfully, it can be done. Some paddlers even enjoy the big "rollers" that tows leave in their wake: a welcome diversion from the wide flat water of the Big River.