Last days on the Mississippi

My last day before getting to Baton Rouge was exhausting. It was exhausting because I wanted to reach 100 nautical miles in one day. To reach these 100 nautical miles I knew that I had no more than two days maximum left of paddling before reaching New Orleans. I had to paddle a lot during the day to reach 100nmi; instinctively I woke up very early and was on the water at 7am. Early morning two boaters told me to keep to the right of the channel further down on the Mississippi to avoid a very strong current used to divert excess water. I was aware of the channel but they made it sound a bit scary so I paid a lot of attention. I did not need so much because when I reached the channel there was a continuous background alarm so I knew I had to keep left.

The day was extremely warm even for someone like me who hardly complains about heat or cold. It had been many many days I had lost my “Castro military hat” and I could feel my head heating up. Every 30min or so I was pouring the Mississippi water on my head to cool down. The air was humid and I did not need to check the weather channel to realize that there was going to be a storm. I had hopes however. Early afternoon extremely strong head winds started to pick up. My kayak was really not meant for headwinds. It had a bit of ‘bulky’ profile and while it was great for tailwinds on the other hand headwinds were a disaster. The wind picked up very quickly and the speed of the events caught me in surprise. I did not have the spray-skirt on and was being pushed to the banks of the mighty river. Out of desperation and hope I battled for an hour against the wind but hardly advanced. The water was gushing in from every side. Waves were forming… small ones, big ones… and they were all ending on my kayak. I was trying to follow and predict their movements and kept trying to avoid them and move at the same pace with them to avoid having more water. This was all happening while I was trying to beat the wind and move closer to my 100nmi goal. The wind picked up even stronger and I was out of strength. I could not feel my arms and decided to let myself drift at the will of the wind. The wind ended up crashing me on the trunks of flooded trees. I was exhausted. I had kept a reference of ‘most exhausting moment’ in my life and I think this experience bet my previous most exhausting experience. I was out of strength and discouraged. The situation made me feel annihilated. My biggest worry was not my safety but rather failing to achieve my 100nmi goal before the end of the trip. And then it happened. Heavy rain started to pour down. I grabbed my jacket and zipped it up as high as I could and put the hat on. It was raining very hard there was hardly any visibility. I was just staring in emptiness. I was mesmerized. Mother Nature was not another ‘God’ making its subjects suffer every once in a while because ‘it is written’. I did not need to curse the wind or the rain. I saw it happening in front of my eyes from early morning. Mother Nature was just trying to reach equilibrium for the triumph of life. At that moment I thought of Schrödinger and his views on life. A living organism knows how to use the energy from its environment to rearrange matter, reach equilibrium. As these thoughts were going through my head I put my skirt and started paddling, to reach my ‘equilibrium’. The waves were big, and every once in a while my kayak was ‘jumping’ on the waves with the tip heading in the river. Several barges passed by. I wonder what they thought of me kayaking under the rain, completely zipped up? I had a great time fighting the elements.

Just when I was completely wet and could not care of the rain anymore the sun came out. I had a lot of paddling left to reach the 100 nautical miles. I paddled for a long time lost in my thoughts. I was so close to the end of the trip. The sun was going down and before I knew it was dark. I knew I had not reached my 100 nmi goal yet when darkness started to surround me. I knew as well that to reach this goal I had to go past a bridge in construction (according to the nautical charts). This bridge, the John James Audubon, I could see it further ahead. It was a construction area and the industrial lights were glowing strangely on the river. I was getting closer to the bridge but when you are on water everything seems closer than the real distances. By the time I got very close to the bridge it was dark. As I passed close to the right bank, close to the construction area a construction worker yelled at me: ‘hey you what are you doing, you are not allowed to do that’. The construction site, the darkness and the glow of industrial lights gave a scary echo to his voice. I had been on the river for a month and fear did not come from nature but rather a fellow human. The whole experience and enviroenement made me think of the famous [======].

I was about 300m away from the bridge. I ignored him, he did not sound friendly and from previous experiences I did not want to interact with him. The previous night I let the 100nmi goal slip by a few nautical miles, this time I could not let it happen. It was really my last chance pretty much to paddle 100nmi in a day. I continued in darkness for the last 300m and reached the John James Audubon bridge. I was happy but worried. It was dark and there was no where I could find a spot to camp. The temperature was dropping fast and it made me feel less secure. All my senses were feeling it and on alert. The Mississippi was flooded and finding campsites was not an easy daily task. Just getting to shore is a very difficult task because it’s very swampy and I was blocked by vegetation… so finding a campsite was even a bigger challenge. The previous days many times I was close to attach myself to a tree and sleep in the kayak. I was lucky to find a campsite at critical times. I was really lucky. As I was thinking of alternatives I continued paddling in darkness and opening my eyes as much as I could to discern forms and potential campsites. The landscape was blurry like a drawing of an impressionist artist. I was despairing and was looking for a good tree to attach myself to  when out of the blue on the other side of the river I saw a light and what seemed to be like a road/ramp going in the river. Crossing a river like the Mississippi is a tough job. First because the current is very strong so while you are crossing you don’t end up right across but further down. It’s a fatality you have to accept. The other danger are the barges. You cross the channel and can encounter a barge at one point or another, in darkness it’s very dangerous. I did not have a choice so used my last forces to cross the river as fast as I could. The river was a bit narrower past the bridge and there was a very strong current creating big waves making me tip right/left. I kept fixing the spot with the light on the other side of the river. As I was getting closer to it I knew I was going to end up further down. It is very hard on the mind to try to reach a point on the other side because you see it and you desperately paddle to reach it but see yourself moving further down from the point. And the closer you get to the point the faster the water flows around you. When I reached the other side I was further down from the light and could not see my potential campsite. I turned around and paddled upstream. Paddling upstream very close to the shore is possible but can be very hard. You can see the water flowing very quickly around you and sometimes you have the impression to not move. After a lot of efforts I reached my hope point. It was a boat ramp and there was a light. I had as well a nice view on the future bridge. It is a spot and a view I will never forget (=======). I set up quickly my tent, cooked some pasta and went in my sleeping bag. I was excited I had reached my goal and that I was so close to New Orleans. I was 160nmi from New Orleans. I knew that if I wanted I could have reached New Orleans late at night the tomorrow or worse come to worse the next day in the morning. It was perfect because it would have been less than a month after my departure from Chicago (04/05/2010). I was sleepless. I had to try to sleep. I had not much slept during the previous days. My thoughts were racing at nights and I had pictures of the river, the sucking holes, the never ending flow of the river. I stepped outside of my tent, looked at the ‘skeleton’ of the future bridge standing there lifeless with no car, sat a bit in front of the river and went back in to get some rest after meeting a rather strange animal. Later on I thought about the animal I saw. Was it looking at the river and thinking as well ? Was it looking for food ? I was wondering if it was dangerous or mean ? Are animals mean ? And my thoughts drifted to humans. What was the difference between us and animals ? There are so many differences and similarities… But I realized one thing and it struck my mind. Animals can smile, they can think, build things for beauty, sing depending of the species… there are many humans traits that can be found in animals. But one thing I never found is ill will, malice, malevolence, cruelty, hatred, evil. That’s why I never ‘hated’ an animal. I have never heard of an ill willed, evil animal. Their intentions are clear. The only ‘evil’ animals I have met throughout my life are the so called ‘humans’…

I woke up early. Maybe around 5.30am. I was feeling fully charged. I boiled some water for the breakfast and as I was starting to eat the construction workers started to show up. The supervisor told me that a boat will come to pick up the workers but to take my time and not worry. They were all quite relaxed and we talked around a bit. After they had left I packed up as well and started to paddle towards Baton Rouge. I was 30 nmi away from Baton Rouge, and Baton Rouge was 130nmi from New Orleans. I reached Baton Rouge in the morning. Everything seemed normal. Only two major changes: A cargo ship I saw parked on the side past a main bridge and very big oil refinery/processing centers, with countless pipes.
I had decided to not stop in Baton Rouge. Black clouds were gathering in the sky and I knew a storm with thunders was going to happen during the day as I had heard on the radio. I was rather irresponsible however and wanted to reach New Orleans by late night or early morning storm or no storm despite very unpleasant experience with thunders in the previous days (there is something quite scary to be ‘stuck’ in the middle of a river and have thunders around you while you are paddling as fast as you can to get to the shore on a wide river). I was at the same level as the red ‘Baton Rouge’ letters on the shore when I saw a sheriff boat with their headlights on. I thought it was a simple ID check and at first it was. The two sheriffs asked me for my ID and I gave them my Canadian driving license. They asked me what I was doing on the river, whether I was on a life mission… I told them that I just wanted to paddle and see the Mississippi River and ‘relax’. They had a hard time understanding that I just wanted to ‘paddle on the Mississippi’. They started to explain me the situation past Baton Rouge pointing to the Cargo ship first. From Baton Rouge and beyond, the river is deep enough for Cargo ships to travel without a problem. Cargo ships can’t really ‘stop’ if you are on their way… they just go over you. They are so heavy that with inertia there is no way to stop and it takes them many kilometers to stop. They are very silent and you don’t hear them coming either. They create a different type of wave that makes you ‘smash’ against the shore. On top of this beyond Baton Rouge there are many ‘security’ areas around the processing centers of oil companies. This meant that I could not even paddle close to the shore because by paddling close to the shore I could have paddled through a security area and the sheriffs would have been called to check my ID. I did not have a radio to communicate with the boats nor a ‘water plan’ (I think that’s how they called it). Meaning a system where every 30 min or so I call someone to let them know that everything is going ok.
They were predicting a lot of thunderstorms and rain as well.
Both of the sheriffs seemed to be very serious. They advised me to take a day of rest and think whether the one day of paddle was worth the risks. I agreed to take a day of rest and look into the situation but in my head I knew I was going to keep on going. They offered to escort me to the other side of the river (I was on the right shore and Baton Rouge was on the left shore) I accepted and asked them before whether I could take a picture. One of the sheriff told me they were the ones who should take a picture of me to make it easy for body identification later. I would have not taken seriously this sentence had he even had a bit of smile but he said it extremely seriously not even hinting a smile. For me it was a turning point in my thinking. The sheriff told me that they ‘fish’ bodies even with life jackets. I crossed the river followed by the sheriff boat and their headlight. A cargo ship was coming towards us as well. We reached the other side and the sheriff told me: you saw that cargo ship, they were very pissed we crossed the river in front of it. I don’t know if that was true or he just made it, maybe it was but regardless I asked him ‘why?’ and he told me ‘Because it’s their river’. It was very disappointing to hear this. It’s a whole debate however. I went toward the shore and as I was waving goodbye the sheriff made me sign to come back to the boat. He told me to very seriously reconsider and stop my trip here. It was more than enough ‘paddling’ compared to ‘everyone else’ he told me.
I thanked him for his advices and told him that I would consider them then waved goodbye and made it to the shore. I parked my kayak beside the USS Kidd. At least it was a secure area and I knew the kayak would not have gotten stolen. Just when I was done taking out my belongings a very violent rain started. I took refuge and went in the USS Kid store and asked for the closest hotel. It was a few meters away and considering the heavy rain I decided to go there. I started to look for info past Baton Rouge and the Mississippi and after reading a bit it was clear that I needed a radio even if I did not want to consider all the other safety issues. I started to look for a place where I could buy a marine radio and then all of sudden I could hear thunders. A lot and very close. At that point I was glad in was indoor and safe from the rain, the thunder, the cargo ships, the security areas… I knew I had to stop there, and I was happy to take the decision. For someone like me this was a very big turn in my life (a I should rather a very big turn in my brain). Maybe a whole new sets of neuron connections happened at that point. I don’t know what happened exactly but I just felt happy, I felt like I won the jackpot. Maybe it was instinct, maybe it was because I wanted to make sure to see again the people I liked/loved, maybe something else. Regardless I learned a great life lesson.