Monday, February 18, 2013

Day 86: F 12/7- Plaquemine, LA

   We had not been able to find a spot in Baton Rouge to get water and resupply, so we stopped at Plaquemine the next day.  When we woke up, however, there was a dense blanket of fog and we couldn’t have left if we wanted to.  Instead, we read a paper, hung out and waited until 10:30 to push off.  When it finally cleared, in a quick burn off by the sun, it was sunny and warm and we were feeling much better after days of dreary weather.  As we approached the small town, we got our first glimpse of one of the large ocean ships in action.  Honestly, the ship was so large, towering over the trees and buildings along the banks, that it looked ridiculous.  For the first time since Minneapolis, the Mississippi River looked small in comparison.  After the ship passed us, heading south to sea, we crossed to the Plaquemine landing, dogging construction and barges and walked into town.
   It was a tiny place and it took a few tries to find supplies, but we managed to get cereal, eggs, bread, some snacks and some much needed adult refreshments.  There was a small church just on the other side of the levy where a nice man, one of the pastors, let us fill up our water.  We pushed off into the sunshine and finished the day at the Bayou Goula Towhead around 196.  We paddled into a lagoon-ish area on the bank side of the island and climbed out onto a broad shelf of sand.  The vegetation was thick and creepy farther inland and the cove was filled with dead trees that made the camp look even more unsettling.
   We had a pleasant evening, until Aaron spotted something swimming back and forth just in front of our fire.  We tried to convince ourselves it was just a curious beaver, but its persistence had us thinking scary alligator thoughts all evening.  We kept a close eye on Lilly and Aaron even through a few burning branches at our assailant.  Whenever he did, it would dive under water with a splash and disappear for a while.  Just as we’d begin to relax, one of us would spot the dark bump in the water trailing a wake as it swam back and forth.  I finally made a break for the tent with images of man-eating monsters clawing their way in to get at us and the dog and slept fitfully, to say the least.

Day 85: R 12/6- Baton Rouge!

   We started the day at mile 248, just 13 miles outside of Baton Rouge.  The weather of the previous days had us worried about fog and rain.  Paddling through cities was always a nervewracking experience and we didn’t want to head through Baton Rouge with low visibility.  Fortunately, however, the day held off the worst of the fog.  It was still overcast and threatened rain, but we could see fine and decided to try to get through.  The several miles leading up to the city proper were filled with barge and construction traffic.  As we rounded the final bend at 235, we could see the length of the city; we had a roughly ten mile stretch straight south to get to the other side.
   Baton Rouge marks a critical change in the river.  At this point, the nine-foot channel deepens to forty feet to allow large, ocean-going vessels to use the river.  From Baton Rouge south, there are no low bridges and we knew we would have to share the river with the huge, fast moving ships for the rest of the trip.  While we didn’t see any moving on the water that day, there was one moored on the east bank.  Huge doesn’t begin to describe it.  Several of the largest barges we had already passed could easily have fit inside the behemoth.
   Other than being catcalled with shouts of “Stroke! Stroke!” from the barge workers, the city passage went smoothly.  Fine, light rain began as we left the city, but sunshine was struggling to break through.  We stopped briefly on a sandbar at 222 for lunch and to celebrate getting to the last leg of the journey before finishing for the night.  We stopped at 216, having gone 35 miles for the day.  We were finally able to have a real fire and a hot dinner and were satisfied with the day!

Day 84: W 12/5- Animal Control

   Unfortunately, when we woke up early the next morning there was no message from the owner and the dogs were still hanging around.  They had apparently spent the night in some brush not far from the tent.  They seemed no worse for the wear, so we gave them some breakfast; Aaron got the fire going and made our breakfast while I looked up numbers for the local sheriff and animal control guys.  I talked to a few different people, they all seemed to think it would be too hard to collect the dogs on the river and I had some difficulty explaining that we would paddle them back across to the shore and we’d walk them to the nearest road.
   We finally made our arrangements, planning to meet the animal control officer on highway 420, which the map showed was close to the river.  We tried to get all three dogs in the canoe, but Jack and the black lab did not seem to understand how to sit in a boat.  After they jumped out for the second or third time, I waded back to the island and walked them to the other side while Aaron rowed the canoe.  Once we were opposite the landing, I climbed back in and we paddled across to the mainland while the dogs swum along after us.  Once there, we walked up the broad cow path to a fire pit and some benches, someone’s riverside hangout.  We walked through the wooded pasture, scaring a herd of confused cows coming to drink and found a locked gate just along the highway.  I called the officer and told him where we were; he picked up the dogs just a few minutes later and we were on our way.
   Later, the owner called back and left us a message.  He was a young man working on the oil rigs offshore and had left Captain Jack to stay with his dad.  The dog had run off and found his black lab friend along the way.  The guy seemed very grateful that we had taken the time to return Jack, but we never did find out what happened to the black lab.  We felt happy about helping out, but the ordeal had put us behind schedule and we were eager to get going.
   The rest of the day was warm, but foggy and raining all day.  By the time we stopped, at mile 248, we were soaked through and ready to climb in the tent.  We didn’t bother with a fire, just made some sandwiches in the tent and called it a day.

Day 83: T 12/4- Dogs in the Fog

    We fought fog throughout the day.  Around 3 pm a dense fog rolled in as we made a crossing around mile 275.  We knew there was a barge headed upriver, but had enough room to get across before it passed us.  We got about half way across when the fog became so dense we could hardly see either side of the river.  It had come in so fast we weren’t sure where the barge was, so we hugged as tightly as possible to the opposite shore once we found it.  Even so, we could hear the giant engines of the barge pass close by, but couldn’t see it; it was an intimidating experience.
    After we got across, we decided it would be wise to stop on a beach, at least until the fog thinned.  It was close enough to dark that we considered camping where we stopped.  As we climbed out, Lilly went off to explore and quickly came running back with two dog friends.  One, a male mutt, had a collar that said his name was Captain Jack.  The other was a male black lab with collar but no tags.  We watched the three play for a while then decided the fog was thin enough to continue. 
    After we pushed off, we realized the two strange dogs were following us along the shore.  We thought we had glimpsed a cabin back from the river and figured they lived there, but as we paddled along, the dogs seemed more interested in coming with us than going home.  Finally, as we passed a cleared area that looked like a cattle watering spot, the dogs took to the water and tried swimming to us.  We paddled to shore and checked Jack’s collar for a number.  We called several times, but only got the voicemail of his owner.  Finally, we shouted for them to leave and chased them off a ways before continuing. 
   There was an island, the St. Maurice Towhead right off of the landing we had stopped.  It was getting dark and threatening to storm, so we made for the far side of the island to make camp.  Just as we were coming along the far side of the towhead, we saw the two dogs running down the beach towards us, they had swum the narrow channel to follow!  We tried calling the number again, with no luck, so settled in to make camp with our new canine friends.  It started raining lightly and it took a long while to get a fire going.  With no word from the dogs’ owner, we gave them some food, had our dinner and went to bed, soggy and worried about what to do.  We felt a little guilty about leaving the dogs outside in the storm, but one large, wet dog in the tent was enough.  We hoped they would decide to head home in the night if we left them alone.

Day 82: M 12/3- Rough Paddling

   The wind was mild as we started out, but picked up significantly as we rounded the bend at 318 and started heading east.  There is a stretch here that has a number of outflow channels, where they draw water off of the main river for industrial purposes.  The maps warned us to stay on the other side of the river to avoid turbulence.  We managed to do that, even with strong head winds, but ended up crossing back to the east bank too early.  We thought we were clear until we heard warning horns and saw flashing lights as we rounded the bend.  At this point we were in 2-3 foot chop that came from all directions.  There were a couple of tugs and construction boats who I’m sure thought we were insane.  We took it slow and made it through with no problems, in part because there wasn’t much large barge traffic to dodge. 
   By the time we made it past that mess, we were exhausted and it was barely noon.  We stopped for a break and an early lunch and by the time we started again, the wind had let up, thankfully.  We ended up stopping at 298, having gone 26 miles for the day.

Day 81: Sn 12/2- Gator Tracks

  We left from 356 and made 32 miles for the day, stopping at 324.  The weather was nice and we could see changes to the scenery once again.  The sandbars were becoming smaller and we had to be more careful about stopping when we found a suitable campsite, rather than going farther and risk getting stuck in the dark with no where to stop.  We spent Sunday night on an island that was pretty and sheltered, but obviously a gator haven.  There were tracks crisscrossing the beach, but we didn’t really have time to push back out to find another spot.  We tied Lilly up for the night and tried not to imagine giant reptilian monsters in the darkness.

Day 80: S 12/1- December in Natchez, MS

     December!  And no snow, in fact, it was warm enough in the morning for me to walk into the water and wash my hair.  It felt wonderful, but the water was still cold enough that I don’t think the soap washed out very well.  I was to find out that afternoon that this area is also the home of alligators; had I known that at the time, I probably would have refrained.
We fought a decent south wind coming down to Natchez, MS.  Even though we could see the town and the boat ramp, it took us a good long while to cross the river and beach.  Natchez is a small city perched high on the MS bank and the ramp we stopped at is at the bottom of the steep bank in their historical/tourist district. 
As we beached and hopped out a guy at the top of the ramp snapped a few pictures and when we walked up introduced himself as Keith, a local kayaker who hosts an annual 42 mile race on the river with his wife Melissa.  They were very nice, helpful couple and drove us to a grocery to resupply.  On the way back they took us around the historic district to see the antebellum architecture of Natchez.  It’s a very pretty town with neat old buildings.  Melissa and her brother own and operate a bar right by the ramp, so we stopped in to have a beer and look around.  Then we refilled water and they sent us off with a couple of ball caps and stickers for their race.  Keith said he’d be submitting our pics to a local paddling magazine he has worked with in the past, so that was pretty neat.
After lunch we started out again, but my tummy almost immediately started acting up.  We had to make an emergency stop on the bank, after which I felt much better, but still a bit shaky.  I was worried I had picked up Giardia from all the boiled river water we had been drinking, but it wasn’t a problem after that afternoon. 
Keith and Melissa had warned us that we were definitely in ‘gator territory and a 12’ had been spotted north of Natchez a couple of years back.  With that in mind, we carefully chose our campsite and made sure to keep Lilly close by.