More than a century and a half ago, one American author wrote of the cold, desolate, distrustful, phantoms that invariably haunt the mind, on the eve of adventurous enterprises, to warn us back within the boundaries of ordinary life.
Last day of September, and staring out a motel window into the growing darkness of a Natchitoches, La., evening, my “phantoms” are full-faced and screaming. Newly retired and still at the tender age of 66, the plan was to begin a solo canoe trip downriver, this morning, tracing the old French water trail from here to Biloxi, Miss. But the rain that has been with me for days is still poring down; it’s cold, dark, wet, and dreary outside. My options are running out. Tomorrow it’s, “go, or go home.” With some reluctance, I deep-six that idea of heading back to Morgan.
• Day 1: Morning, canoe loaded, and dipping my paddle in the Red River, I begin pushing 400 pounds of canoe, equipment, and me towards Biloxi; only three rivers, three bayous, two large lakes, a Gulf, and 420 miles to go.
• Day 2: The Red River is longest stretch of the trip at 152 river miles. Entering the first of four locks between my starting point and the Mississippi at Lock & Dam #3, Colfax, La., is like paddling into an enormous slimy, septic tank (without the odor). Huge steel gates close behind me and the water level drops. The whole process is surprisingly fast, about 15 minutes--if there are no towboats or other river traffic to wait for. Towboats push barges along the river day and night. For evening entertainment, powerful spotlights mounted above a towboat’s wheelhouse flit back and forth across the river, like bright antennae feeling their way along the river; and visible long before you hear the powerful marine diesels.
• Day 10: Noon, and clearing the final Red River lock, I make my way into the Mississippi River at last. Towboats are bigger and more numerous on this river, some pushing 36 barges with up to 10000 horsepower engines. From my campsite on a broad sandbar above St. Maurice’s Towhead, I watch them pass by. As two approach from opposite directions after dark, they turn off their spotlights and glide past each other in the night with only red or green running lights and flashing orange lights at the bow of the leading barges, showing.
• Day 14: Early morning, cruising through Baton Rouge, the area named by French explorer, and fellow canoeist, Sieur d’Iberville, for the red pole found imbedded in the riverbank (1699). Tonight’s camp is a few miles south of the city and the end of the 90-mile Mississippi River stretch. Tomorrow a ¾ mile portage to the bayous of southern Louisiana.
• Day 18: End of four days of misery. Made 12 miles total, one day only 1½ miles for an entire day’s hard labor. Low water, dozens of downed trees, and waist deep mud means unloading, carrying my canoe and gear around seemingly endless obstacles, and reloading. This experience is getting a lot closer to that of my ancient French comrades than I had bargained for. Finally make Bayou Manchac, and open water, by late afternoon. This little waterway, barely more than a creek, was once one of the most important in the country, the “backdoor” from the Gulf to the Mississippi River.
• Day 23: Early morning. Made my way down Bayou Manchac to the Amite River and from there to the west shore of Lake Maurepas. It was here, in the spring of 1699, d’Iberville sighted a herd of more than 200 buffalo grazing along the bank. At nine miles straight across the lake, I can’t see the opposite shore. Guided by a compass bearing, I head out. Wind and waves build all day and at its worst, I have to back-paddle on the crest of on-coming waves to keep the bow from plunging into the trough between. Nine hours to cover as many miles and I’m exhausted. In camp, the NOAA weather band radio reports small craft warnings predicted in the Gulf of Mexico beginning Friday, day 26. This will be the cold front that slams into Hurricane Sandy to the north. My plans have to change. Tonight, I’m at the western entrance to Pass Manchac, the seven-mile channel that connects Lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain. Tomorrow, when I reach 40 wide Lake Pontchartrain, I’ll go south along the lakeshore another two and a half days, heading for New Orleans rather than Biloxi, as my final destination. It’s a disappointment.
• Day 26: A heavy, wet fog covers everything this morning and visibility is limited to a few hundred feet. I estimate a bearing based on what I remember from yesterday’s shoreline and head out into the gloom. In an hour or so the weather clears, a beautiful day, the wind at my back, pushing me south. By 3 p.m. I raise my journey’s end, a hotel just across the levee from Lake Pontchartrain. Friday evening, and as I get ready for my first hot shower in close to a month, the predicted heavy winds begin to bend the trees just outside my hotel window.
At the end of the trip, someone asked me if I had fun. The answer would have to be, “No.” Paddling a loaded canoe solo over long distances is hard work. I would say it was an adventure: exciting, drudgery, interesting, overwhelming, fascinating, boring, delightful, exhausting, and inspiring--but not fun. And, I’d have to add, after reading history for years; now I’ve lived it.