The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail


Poison Ivy

Poison ivy grows plentifully on the Mississippi riverbanks and in the batture south of Baton Rouge. In some places it practically carpets the ground. If you are allergic to poison ivy (and remember, many people who think they are not allergic suddenly find themselves with a bad case one day…) learn how to identify it and be cautious with where you set up camp. Very little will make a paddle trip more miserable than a bad case of poison ivy.

ATTENTION: Paddlers with allergy issues are strongly encouraged to make sure that their allergy meds are fully stocked and close at hand!


Nurdles: What Are Nurdles?

Donovan Hohn, the author of Moby Duck, introduced me to nurdles during the Rivergator Exploration through Chemical Corridor in 2015. The river is full of surprises, and some of them are man-made. Every time I think I know everything about the river, something new pops up.

Below Baton Rouge you might have noticed the beach strewn with tiny clear-white plastic blobs about the size of a tear drop. Maybe you saw them during your walks along the shoreline; they are especially noticeable at water’s edge with other micro-detritus. These transluscent globular “pills” are the basic currency of the plastic industry. Composed of high-density polyethylene they are mostly inert, and considered non-toxic. But they have been known to vent phthalates, and can cause digestive problems for living creatures. You probably haven’t seen them before now because they are not manufactured above Baton Rouge. But below Baton Rouge, they are manufactured by the billions -- by some of the industries found within Chem Corridor -- and of course are accidentally spilled during cargo transfer.

Nurdles or "nerdles" are mistakenly consumed as fish eggs. They have been found in the guts of fish and other creatures. Not only can they cause physical disruptions to respiration and/or digestion (in some cases blockage or suffocation), but they can emit toxins and simultaneously absorb toxins like PCBs out of the water. If you haven’t noticed nurdles, start looking, and then maybe remove them and add to your trash bag before some fish or turtle inadvertently eats one. The dozen you pick up are insignificant to the quadrillions of nurdles that are manufactured world wide every year, but as they say “every little bit helps.”

Leaving Baton Rouge and heading downstream

If you’ve gotten this far, to the port of Baton Rouge, congratulations, you’re doing good! Now you’re ready to continue on downstream into the most extreme concentration of riverside industry outside of the German Ruhr or the Yangtze at Shanghai. Keep it up, whatever you’re doing. Exercise caution in all grey areas, stay on shore when uncertain, and employ sailor’s sixth sense.

Welcome to SOLA (South Louisiana)!

Paddling downriver from Baton Rouge, you are leaving the last of the truly high ground on the Mississippi River. Historically, most of the land below Baton Rouge would be covered and nurtured by the annual flood waters of the Mississippi River. If viewed from upriver, this is the beginning of the end. The land here appears to be leveling out, sinking, melting away, and it is (another complicated and fascinating story we’ll get to later, downriver). But geomorphologically this land was growing. It is the youngest land of all the Mississippi river basin, laid here annually by the Father of Waters. That was until man flexed his mighty engineering muscle and chose to end a cycle that had flourished for millennia. After the Great Flood of 1927 and the Federal Flood Control Act, the Mighty Mississippi was tamed, confined within tall levees, ending the very process that created and sustained the land that lies on the other side. Here, this unnatural intrusion begins to come clear as you float the serpentine moat of Louisiana’s Petrochemical castle.

South Louisiana’s history is long and fascinating. The artery of its birth, triumphs and tragedies is of course the Mississippi River. From inside the levees paddlers are able to view this curious place from a vantage few ever have the opportunity to see. Yet whether you arrived with the “Indians” (the original Athabaskans who probably migrated down the continent from the Bering Strait) or with the pioneer Europeans, Louisiana was probably first seen from the Mississippi's waters. SoLA was explored, founded and settled along the banks of the mightiest of rivers. But from the beginning the treachery of this place was clear. The original settlement of the French explorers that founded New Orleans barely lasted through the first high-water season. And so began man’s quest to live in harmony with, or perhaps in conquest of, the Mighty Mississippi. Levees became a necessity of survival and have been growing ever since.

The Mississippi is the reason SoLA (Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Venice, etc.) exists, and still sustains it, altered as it may be. As with all things, there are trade offs. To protect communities like New Orleans and Baton Rouge, SoLA confined the ever shifting Mississippi, essentially cutting the arms and legs from the heart, leaving them to starve for lack of the life giving blood the river once provided. But as intended the communities that inhabited the floodplain of the river have been saved from the seasonal flooding and perpetual meandering of the water. SoLA was saved from being washed away, or so it was thought. Here in the industrial corridor vast agricultural plantations gave way to sprawling industrial facilities. Both of which located here because of the Mighty Mississippi. Slaves that once inhabited these plantations often settled communities adjacent to the land they had once worked following their emancipation. As SoLA’s industries evolved, these communities along the banks of the river, at the edge of these historic properties, found themselves on the fence line of a new generation of plantation. Communities up and down the river, once at home in vast fields of sugarcane and lush landscapes, became neighbors with oil refineries and chemical manufacturers, confined by an ever-constricting infrastructure of rail cars and pipelines carrying the new commodities of SoLA. Commodities that might make your eyes burn, your throat tighten and lungs gasp for breath. Having tamed the natural flooding of the Mississippi, SoLA began displacing its historic river dwelling communities with a new danger: “Industrial Progress.” Sadly, this conflict, and has played out for decades throughout SoLA. Some of these stories are mentioned elsewhere in the Rivergator (see ExxonMobil and Sunrise) as you travel downriver.

Downstream, as you reach the terminus of the Mississippi River you will witness another story of displacement. The imprisonment of the Mississippi (as well as other factors we’ll discuss later) has led to the most rapid rate of land-loss seen anywhere on the planet. There in the real delta of the Mississippi, another type of flood is consuming communities, directly as a result of man’s effort to prevent that very thing. Call it a curse of SoLA’s past indiscretions or a lesson from Mother Earth about the control of nature: the Mississippi River takes what it wants, despite the will of man. (Michael Orr)

The End of the River (and life as we know it!)

The end of the River (and life as we know it in North America -- as paddlers): Living at the end of the river has its soaring highlights and its sobering unpleasantries. Geographically speaking SoLa is of course the very end of the entire Mississippi River system. Or better said: its roots. From these roots (the gnarly channels reaching down to the Caribbean) stands strong and tall the river’s massive main trunk (the Lower Miss), its gargantuan main forks (Ohio, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee) and all of its hundreds of branches (tributaries) and thousands of twigs (smaller tribs) which all reach upwards and outwards from continental divide (Rockies) to continental divide (Appalachian) into smaller and smaller springs, seeps, and tiny drainages that catch and funnel every dewdrop and drop of rain and melting snowflake downwards and eventually southwards to this location. This catchment basin drains more of the earth than any other save for the Amazon (and possibly the Congo). If the Midwest is “the heart,” then the North Woods is the “head,” the Great Plains and the Eastern Woodlands are the “arms,” and the Deep South is the “gut.” We sometimes refer to this stretch of river, from Memphis down, as the “stomach” or the “gut of America.” Some people turn up their noses at this nickname, but the gut is every bit as important to the whole as any other part, and more important than some. You can live without your arms, for instance, but not without your gut. And this nickname also fits the general atmosphere where people tend to “go with their gut,” and let their gut hang out, and also enjoy a feast of “Hawg-Maws” or Chit-lins (also known as Chitterlins) as a hangover favorite after a night’s revelry surrounding some live delta blues, zydeco, second line, or swamp rock.

Not only does the river here wind through this muddy landscape with serpentine meanderings similar to the lower intestine, but it also digests the water, and revitalizes the whole with the transformed energy. (That is, when it’s working correctly). In this scenario the rich gravy broth of 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 the history of mankind (New Orleans). Before humans started mucking with things, SoLa boasted one of the richest fisheries in the world for its shrimp, tuna, oysters, and other fishes & crustaceans, and the biggest migrational flockings of shorebirds, songbirds and waterfowl, which congregate here twice a year in their annual migrations to and from Central/South America over the Gulf of Mexico.

When you are located in the gut you receive all of the best of what that system has to offer, and all of the worst. So there it is in a nutshell: the geography has created in SoLa the pinnacle of human culture within the deepest pits of its greed and corruption. Needless to say this makes for a forever fascinating landscape to paddle through. If my name was Dante Allighieri and I wanted to make a fresh rendering of my trilogy the Divine Comedy, I would most certainly set it in SoLa, and the river would be the vehicle for the narrative. Because on the river you see the worst of the worst; and in the remaining wild places and cultural highlights, the best of the best. Probably everything you have heard about canoeing or kayaking through Chemical Corridor is true, or could be true. But voyageur, take heart and pay attention. Exercising some strong paddler’s gumption and a lot of intuitiveness, you can enjoy an educational, inspiring, and oftentimes life-changing journey through this land at the roots of the river, in the gut of America.