As you study the 2007 USACE Maps of the Lower Mississippi you will notice the recommended line of travel following traditional crossings with colorful names like “Red Eye Crossing” and “Sardine Crossing” and “Bayou Goula Crossing.” Freighters and all big commercial traffic follow these traditional channel crossings over shoals between deep pools from West Bank to East Bank and vice-versa. Smaller vessels like tugboats and tows can go just about anywhere during medium or higher river levels, but at low water most will follow this traditional route for making a safe crossing to deep water. You paddlers can continue on whatever routes suits you best. To avoid traffic stay out of the crossing and continue on whatever side you’re already on. You might drift into slower water, but often in a shorter line of travel. If you stray into the channel for faster waters stay vigilant for oncoming fast-moving freighters. Monitor channel 67 if you have a VHF marine radio for an indication of what’s coming around the bend.
One of the dramatic river changes below Baton Rouge is the presence of “blind corners” -- that is: tight bends of the river. Unlike the gently curving bends you’ve enjoyed above Baton Rouge, for some aqua-dynamic reason the bends of the river below Baton Rouge often curve around a single crux point, sometimes with a 180 degree swing of direction. The river seems to eddy, and sometimes pool with giant boils at these crux points, and the normal flow of water displays strange behavior, from smooth laminar flow to massive boils and swirlings that seem to wander aimlessly about the river face, and can leave paddlers in a bit of confusion. It can be a bit un-nerving to lose all your current at one of these points. But imagine the extra fright when you lose all your current and then simultaneously you are confronted with an oncoming freighter the size of Fort Knox who has suddenly appeared downstream, seemingly hugging the bank, and you seem to be directly in its line of passage!
Safely Paddling around Blind Corners
Downstream freighters and big tows normally follow the traditional lines of crossing, as indicated on the 2007 USACE maps, from deep within the bend, staying with the swift waters center channel, or towards one of the banks, gradually crossing over and above the shallows of one bend, and then dropping again into deeper and swifter waters as they enter the next bend downstream. Paddlers should be aware that upstream freighters and tows often stay in the slow water below the crux turning point of these blind corners as long and as far as they can find enough depth, and then jump out around the crux point blind corner at the last possible minute to plow through the faster and deeper waters beyond, and then when possible reach the slower waters towards the next blind corner upstream. This is a typical pattern for all commercial traffic, especially bigger vessels. If you are approaching any of the sharp points from above be extra cautious about the possible approach of big upstream vessels coming towards you and around these blind corners. Every corner is different, and every moment of the day brings new challenges according to traffic. Best decisions are made on the spot based on what you see in front of you, and what you hear on your radio. Normal best route is running wide and getting into the safety of the outside of the bend. Staying on the outside of these bends close to shore (closer than large commercial traffic will go) is normally your safest bet. The water on the outside of a bend tends to be flowing more swiftly than on the inside of a bend anyway so the longer distance shouldn’t affect your transit time too much.
Commercial pilots often toot their horns to each other, as signals of which side to pass on, or in respect of each other. Modern pilots have adopted this system from steamboat pilots who used whistles in the days preceding radio communication. “One whistle” means pass on port side to port side. Two toots means starboard to starboard. While they won’t use this system for us paddlers, they might give a toot of salutation, or maybe an angry HONK! as a warning. This could happen anywhere along the river, but is especially common in the tight bends and crowded fleeting and wharfing areas of Chemical Corridor. The last thing a commercial pilot wants to encounter while maneuvering thousands of tons of freight through hazardous stretches of water is a canoe or kayak in the middle of the navigation channel. If you hear two toots in succession that means “hullo!” Raise your paddle as a return signal of respect, or even better remove your hat and give a bow (also a courtesy harkening back to the steamboat days). But if you are shook by a prolonged blaring horn (sounds like a deranged tuba player) that means the pilot thinks you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Re-assess your line of travel and make any possible adjustments. If your vessel is again shook by prolonged screams of the air-horn, again and again, that means that this particular pilot has taken an extreme dislike to your position in the river, and thinks you (or he) is in imminent danger. This might be the time to make a beeline for the quickest safe side of the river you can see. But take a minute, dear paddler, and turn around and carefully examine the channel and what is going on before acting. Sometimes commercial pilots mis-judge what us paddlers are capable of, and react with anger, or maybe fear. Ultimately, paddlers will have to make their own best decisions about what is the best line of travel, and suffer whatever consequences come what may.
False Points and False Tips
Similar to the occurrence of a “false summit” on a big mountain, the “false point” surprises paddlers who think they have reached the turnaround point of the big bend here only to find there is more coming! This actually happens at every point along the Lower Mississippi, and furthermore around every island. You might experience the same effect paddling around the outside of some of the big islands, like Bayou Goula. If you are looking for the bottom of Bayou Goula, and paddle around its outer perimeter you will pass by a number of false points searching for the tip of the island. Everything is so big, and so over-blown in the proportions most people are used to paddling through, that the feeling is just like the feeling you get climbing big mountains. The false point experience can have consequences on the psychology of your day’s paddle, and can cause problems in a group relying on an ignorant wayfinder. It is a common human practice for shorten distances in our imagination. This happens to me all of the time, and I have heard others experience the same.
Here is an example: you are coming around Missouri Bend, and prepare to find camp. You haven’t been able consult your maps because you inadvertently packed them away as you left Baton Rouge, but you know from your memory, or maybe from what someone told you, that good camping follows Missouri Bend on Manchac Point. That is true. But what you don’t know is how big Manchac Point is! What you know for certain is that Manchac Point is West Bank. You’re not sure exactly how far this is. But it can’t be too far, right? Little do you realize that Manchac Point is shaped like a baseball bat, and the actual point sticks out far beyond the entry into the bend, in fact about ten miles! So you plan cut through Red Eye Crossing and then follow a line of travel along the right bank below Missouri Bend to Manchac Point. You do this. You cut across Red Eye and round Missouri Bend and start looking. A point take shapes downstream. There it is! That was easy. So you think. You paddle a couple of miles and discover “that point” is in fact not Manchac, but a jog in the West Bank at the beginning of Sardine Crossing and there is another point further downstream. That must be it you think, a little less certain. You paddle there, but you find another point beyond it, another mile downstream! This time you don’t make any definite predications, but paddle on resolutely. If you have someone paddling with you, they might have stopped listening to your guesswork. Manchac gently curves eastward a long, long ways. In fact, it gently curves eastward, and then southward another six miles from Sardine Crossing! It’s not until you are well into the bend that you are physically within hailing distance of the big sandbars at Manchac Point. As you approach the turning point of the bend, the false points actually get closer and closer together, as if intent on proving Zeno’s Paradox (that is: halving every distance as you approach the final turn, so that you’ll actually never get there!) If darkness is falling, your vision gets worse and worse. You might have some dissension in your canoe, or your group. You’ll definitely have a serious self-examination. That is, if you haven’t already stopped somewhere along the way to pull out your maps. Or pulled out your smart phone and bring up Google maps. Or maybe just given up in frustration and climbed one of the steep muddy banks along the way, and set up camp in the mosquito thick woods.
Hint: save yourself this confusion and keep your maps handy!