The fog thickens as I round the bend and can barely descern the enormous concrete docks lined with coal barges for the Big Cajun Power Plant. I avoid them and start my morning with a channel crossing in a blind fog where I can just barely make out the opposite bank. The one beauty of fog is the ability for sound to carry for miles. I listen for the thud of an upstream engine but hear none against the din of industrial equipment and the hum of highway traffic in the distance. My map shows an enormous bridge spanning the river and I should be right on it but have yet to find it in the fog. This location is known as "the Narrows" by captains as the river shrinks to a mile wide corridor of fast paced water with swirling eddies and poqerful whirlpools beneath the bridge supports. This is not a place to meet a passing ship in the fog. Taking a sip of my coffee, I look up and behold the pilings of the bridge but cannot make out the deck some 70 feet above. I slide past on the left bank and continue paddling into the fog, enjoying the day and the quiet.
Within a few miles, the fog lifts and I set up my solar panel to charge my depleted battery. Glancing at my Rivergator guide, I notice a shortcut down Profit Island Chute accessible only above 15ft on the Baton Rouge gauge. Today its at 18ft so I take their word for it and head down the chute with eyes wide for the rock dam built for larger vessels. Fortunately I slide on over in a minor eddie and enjoy the back channel free of tow boats. The chute's exit was once the sight of a major ship collision during the Trail of Tears in which hundreds of natives died. I had a moment to consider that grim history and avoided a collision myself when starting to cross the channel before a downstream tow. Good thing I double checked since there were two ships coming down. They kept me in the slow water on left where I remained up to Thomas Point.
In the distance I can see the billowing cloud from the ExxonMobil refinery and smell the scent of pulp paper mill on the breeze. I hear a siren and loud whirring that I guess is a Tornado warning. Doubtful of that after a scan of the cumulus sky, I strain my ears and can hear the automated voice warning to evacuate now to a National Guard shelter. I just happened to float past one of the many flood evacuated towns north of Baton Rouge. It gabe a somewhat eerie feeling to the day, as though recreating through a disaster zone. 30'000 people have been rescued thus far from the rising waters. If only they had an Old Town Next Canoe!
Approaching the point, I could hear the crackle of my radio and the captain's southern twang as he said "Mary Clay southbound Thomas Point. Over." Glancing to the sky, the sun is directly overhead so I extract a can of Campbells Pork and Beans from my soggy backpack and eat it cold as the waves from the tow toss me about. This point however is one of the blind curves at nearly a right angle so the red buoys are right up on the point. I rounded the bend wide eyed and cautious but wasn't met with any northbound traffic. Phew! What I could see ahead was a staggering amount of boats, barges and equipment. It's hard to tell what's docked and what's moving among the many tow boats and fleeted barges. A sign should hang around Thomas Point saying "Welcome to Cancer Corridor" but I only noticed the eroding bank and a deflated basketball. Keeping the paddle swinging, I approach the last bend before Baton Rouge harbor. I key my radio and announce "Canoe southbound Wilkinson Point" then round the bend to behold the chaos. I keep right bank passing a couple fishing across from a dredging vessel emitting a 20 foot arc of brown water. I'd rather run afoul of their tackle than this ship and chat as I pass. The dirty yellow flames of an oil refinery gas flare dance on the wind and I feel bad for the folks who have to eat the fish from this portion of the river. A massive oil tanker showing 20 feet of its waterline is docked at the refinery but I don't have time to contemplate what that would look like bearing down on me. Continuing for a mile or two, I come upon two active tug boats and what appears to be an upstream tow under the bridge giving me nowhere to go. Shit. I change tactics and make the decision to pass to left bank across the busy lane while I have a chance. Turning perpinduclar to shore as instructed, I paddle swift and hard, digging deep to fight the impossibly strong current that builds against my port gunwale. A glance downstream shows me getting farther from the busy activity but closer to the bridge and fleeted tankers mid-river. My first though was that the tanker was barreling down the main channel but I soon realized it was stationary. To my left, the office buildings and uninspiring skyline of Baton Rouge loomed over the rows of fleeted barges. Halfway through. I pass under the busy stop and go traffic of the I-10 bridge and quickly must thread the needle between mooring pilings and the bow wake of an approaching tug.
I'm admiring the size and design of the tanker to my left when I hear a ship horn blow behind me. Constantly scanning my horizon, I'm horrified and disappointed to see a downstream tow 5 barges wide barreling down on me. It must have been obscured by the fleeted barges and blended in. It's narrow between the moored tanker center channel and the active petroleum barges nosed into the bank. The horn bellows once more and although I'm already paddling to shore, I get a small jump and paddle faster. The blades whir over my head as spray splashes my face and pelts the canoe. I make out the heaping piles of coal on the approaching threat and consider how unlikely it would be that one of Appalachia or Pennsylvania's mountains sunk me to my end. Since you are reading this, you know I made it out of harm's way but it was one of my closer calls thus far. The trees begin to reappear on the banks and after the appropriately named Red Eye Dikes, I'm through the Baton Rouge harbor. Phew.
As if on cue, a rumble of thunder breaks from the towering cumulonimbus to the south. I had been dodging the storms all day, really for two weeks, and hoped I may be able to keep ahead of this one. I was making great speed when suddenly a wall of water began dancing across the river toward me from the southeast. The splash of the driving rain turned the river white and drowned out all sound of macinery and equipment from the adjacent fuel refineries. I kept paddling on waiting to hear thunder again, as if the first rumble belonged to another nearby cloud. Sizzle and KA-BOOM! So much for finding a safe place to stop. The eroding muddy bank was narrow and steep leading to a 6-10 ft vertical wall of mud and soil horizon held together by gnarly roots. This will have to do for shelter so I pull up and step out, sinking my Croc to the ankle and nearly losing it when suction rips it off my foot. I heave and drag the canoe up the steep chunks of mud, losing a half pull for each yank of the canoe. It keeps trying to slide back down the slippery mud into the river but who could blame it with the 30 degree angle of the bank. Good ol gravity. It's too muddy and messy to flip to boat so it quickly fills with rainwater turning into a swimming pool. Kneeling in the mud beside my boat, I shield my eyes from the brilliant flashes of light overhead. I count "One Mississippi, two Mississippi", chuckling at the apropritate absurdity of it all as I'm only two feet from the Mississippi itself. The crash comes before I can count to three meaning it's within a half mile of me. The rain hammers on with an intensity not yet felt on the two and a half months of travel. I kneel in the growing stream of mud from the bank, feet slowly sinking in, shivering from the cold rain and consider how thankful I am to have made it through the port before this deluge. The next two hours are spent on the verge of shivering huddled in the mud staying low to avoid getting zapped. The bank is to sheer to climb and there's a solid chance my boat my slide away if I let go. Every thirty minutes I shimmy down to the stern and use my trusty metal cup to bail out the foot of water pooling amid my water jugs and tarp bag. The storm was really a series of continual powerful cells that raced upon each other creating multiple squall type walls of water and shore obscuring density. It was intense and now growing darker with the onset of night. The oncoming clouds were obscured by the mud bluff so I had no way of knowing what was next to come. The rain let off but the lightning continued as the storm raced north. I weighed my options and decided to shove off and paddle to the first reasonable landing with access to the forest. No sooner had I dipped my blade in the water when a shocking bolt of lightning arced across the sky overhead accompanied by a cacophonous explosion. "Sorry Dad" I say out loud, remembering my promise not to paddle in lightning. The continual flashes posses a golden color in the twilight offering snapshots of the insurmountable shoreline. I stick a flashlight in my mouth so upstream tow can see me and paddle hard and fast, body fueled my adrenaline. There! A shallow sloping bank. Leaning backward, I approach with such speed that I slide halfway up the mud shore and step out onto the harder sand. Camp. The forest is a dense jungle of vines, invasive species and short willow so I clear a spot large enough and put up the tent when I'm not being carried away by the skeeters who've taken to my exposed flesh. I hit the OK button on my Spot tracker and know the batteries are nearly dead and there is a slim chance the message will get through. In lieu of the email, as the SPOT message says, I'm just writing to let you know I'm "OK".