It’s a tough call but we’re going to stop canoeing the Mississippi River. That’s not to say our trip is over. Instead of New Orleans, our new destination is the Gulf of Mexico, via the Atchafalaya River.
We were somewhere between reluctant and dreading, depending on the day, to paddle the stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, known as cancer alley and sometimes called suicide alley. In this heavily industrial area, ocean-going ships, which put the tows we’ve seen so far to shame, move up and down the river while towboats zig-zag across the channel making and breaking tows. This is the part you don’t tell mom and dad about. I don’t want to give the impression that paddlers can’t make it through this section safely, because we’ve met several people who have done it with few problems. But with us not paddling at 100% after going nearly 2,000 miles, it was more risk than we are willing to take on.
So instead we’ll be leaving the Mississippi above Baton Rouge and locking through to join the Atchafalaya. The Atchafalaya is a 137 mile river that runs through the heart of Cajun country, and is a more direct route to the Gulf than the Mississippi.
If nature was left to her own devices, the Atchafalaya would be the Mississippi, but the Army Corps of Engineers has spent much time and effort making sure the Big River doesn’t opt to bypass Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The Atchafalaya actually gets about 30% of its water from the Mississippi, and in a bad flood there’s still a chance it could capture the majority of the flow and become the main channel. So I guess I sort of lied about quitting the Mississippi, because in a way we’re paddling the rightful path of the river.
There are a number of pros to the Atchafalaya over the Mississippi: it’s shorter, has much less commercial traffic and winds through wilderness filled with cypress trees and unique wildlife. Significant cons include the possibility that the current may slow down to a crawl (especially since the water level is low right now and dropping), and, as one person told us, guaranteed gator sightings. Swell.
The biggest con for us, however, is that we can no longer finish our journey in New Orleans. (I know, I know, settling for the Gulf of Mexico is rough.) We have friends planning to road trip down to New Orleans to celebrate our arrival, but now we’ll be ending at the not-quite-so-exciting Morgan City. Ultimately we’re still going to New Orleans, but by car instead of canoe. It’s unclear whether we have license to wear the New Orleans French Quarter hat that Mark, the first paddler we met on the very first day, gave us.
Some people may not want to paddle the Atchafalaya because they could no longer claim to paddle the length of the Mississippi, but we’ve looked at this trip as more of an adventure, wherever that may lead us, and we weren’t originally planning on paddling to the Gulf anyway. In fact the exact headwaters of the Mississippi is also a bit murky. We left from the traditional headwaters, Lake Itasca, as did most others we met along the way, but the day we started a man at the Itasca boat ramp asked where we were going, and after we told him he said, “I would have started at Elk Lake.” Apparently a small stream flows from Elk Lake to Lake Itasca, so which is the true start? The whole Upper River is also somewhat arbitrary. The Mississippi, running from Minnesota in the north to Louisiana in the south, has acted as a natural boundary separating east from west, and at one point marked the edge of the frontier. But, in terms of volume of water, the Ohio River, which joins the Mississippi at Cairo, IL, would be considered the main branch, and in terms of length, the Missouri, which joins at St. Louis, would be considered the main branch.
So I don’t know what to consider our trip. Hardcore paddler types might scoff if we claimed we’d paddled the Mississippi. Linnea feels her claim is even more tenuous since she’s been a part-time traveler since Lake Winnie blew out her arm way back on day 5. Instead of source to sea we’ll have gone from Lake Itasca to the Quad Cities, and Hannibal to just above Baton Rouge, then the Atchafalaya to Morgan City. There’s not much else to call it but a Mississippi River adventure, I suppose.
See you on the bayou.