Rivergator Dispatch #5: Our storm-camp homes

The crew reaches Louisiana & the "Chemical Corridor" on the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

By Boyce Upholt
Photos by Chris Battaglia

What will the river give us? That's the question these days. Howling winds and white-capped waves? Water still as glass? Some days our trip is easy and other days it has steep demands.

The week began in Natchez with a 30-hour layover. We arrived early and had to wait to pick up members of the crew. So we were granted the pleasures of the shore: cold beer, French-pressed coffee, some sort of highly gourmet and quite delicious apricot-bacon hamburger.

We think about those pleasures, sometimes, when our progress is slowed by rough weather of springtime in the South. It happened twice, like clockwork: We paddled half a day, found ourselves losing control in the wind, and then hunkered in a camp for two nights, until the weather calmed.

But we create our own pleasures out here, such as fine suppers of roasted chicken or willow-smoked catfish. And we spruce up our storm camp homes. At Ford Landing, John rigged a rope swing. At St. Maurice Towhead, Andy swept out lovely footpaths to lead to each of our tents. It’s the little things that makes a place feel more like home.

And that feels like the theme of the moment: home and what it means. Throughout these dispatches, I've been contemplating the different ways we see this river. There are some very human ways of seeing, ways that focus on putting the river to use: as a passageway, for example, or as property. In the last dispatch, I considered the river not on human terms but as fully wild.

But after almost four weeks out here–as the Gulf draws nearer–I'm ready to find a middle ground. The river can be wild and useful at once: The river can be home. And not just for the life we see–which this week has included alligator and alligator gar, box turtles and cypress and Spanish moss–but for us paddlers, and anyone who loves this river. We’ve met many helpful neighbors: the pair of through-kayakers we pass and re-pass as they make their way to the Florida Keys; the hunters on Profit Island who invited us to camp on their beach, and who shared fresh-caught catfish; the barge workers who toot their horns and wave to us; and the polite gas station attendant in Morganza, La. – he was no doubt bewildered by our sweaty presence when we hiked over the levee for ice resupply.

During high winds on St. Maurice Towhead, as tornadoes came through the South, we had a scary moment. A tree came down on Chris's tent, snapping two of its poles. (He, luckily, was not inside.) Our river home, we realized, is precarious. But so is every home, really: we build in flood plains and atop fault lines, or deep in tornado alleys, and we hope that doomsday will never come.

Chris, after repairing his tent, reflected on his choice of campsite. He knew he’d be there two days, at least, and wanted a space that was aesthetically pleasing. He didn’t think about safety at all. But when he chose his second site, he did. He’d learned. Perhaps that's the value of knowing just how precarious your home is, learning. We're all learning, about mortality, about how to use and protect the little time we have.

For now, though, we are paddling. We’ve entered the "Chemical Corridor," the long line of industry that runs from just above Baton Rouge to New Orleans. The air sometimes smells like a small-town gas station, sometimes like a high-school chemistry lab. On the horizon, we see vast complexes that look like the city of Oz. If Oz were merrily decked with a fringe of water and trees. But the weather is calm, and so we move forward. We take the days, and storms, as they come.

Read more:

—Dispatch #1: Into the Walled-in Wild

—Dispatch #2: Passage

–Dispatch #3: Whose River?

–Dispatch #4: We Are the Wild Ones

Campsites:

Day 36 (April 24): Natchez-Under-the-Hill (LMMM364)
Day 37 & 38 (April 25-26): Ford Landing/St. Catherine'S National Wildlife Refuge (LMMM354)
Day 39 (April 27): Tunica Bar Towhead (LMMM292)
Day 40-41 (April 28-29): St. Maurice Towhead (LMMM272)
Day 42 (April 30): Profit Island (LMMM252)
Day 43 (May 1): Bayou Goula Towhead (LMMM196)

Crew:

Mark "River" Peoples, John Ruskey, Lena Von Machui

Paddlers:

Chris Battaglia, Andy McClean, Boyce Upholt