Natchez to Vicksburg
It was cool but fine. Chef cooked a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs. The kayak was loaded and ready to go. All up it was about 110kg. We walked to the boat ramp which was about a kilometre and a half. Trooper Green, whom I had seen on the road before I walked into camp turned up. “Did you have those beers for me?” he asked. “One for you,” I replied, “the rest were for me. Thought one was enough for ya.” Seems like the humour translates because we had a merry chat before he grabbed his hat out of the patrol car ready to push me into the water. “Need to do the job proper,” he reckoned.
Down the ramp, into the water and I grabbed a wheel and pulled it up. Klunk. Both wheels sat behind me in the raised position. Off up the river? Nope, not yet. The extra weight and the front wheel made the kayak a bit top heavy for serious turbulence. It had to come off so back into shore where I nosed up the ramp while Klaas removed the offender.
Passing under the bridge I could see a few buildings on the left and the town of Natchez on the right bank. The current was not too bad, a few people were walking and the kayak was slipping through the water OK, if slightly slower because of the weight. All in all a pretty good start to what was purported to be about 130km to Vicksburg.
For a send-off two sets of barges appeared up ahead. The first required paddling around them but there was space between the bank and the second set. That’s it for now I thought, and so it was. There were no more barges on the banks after that. It was five hours before I even saw the first pusher tug and barge set for the day.
About mid-day two islands appeared with a narrow gap between the first one and my bank. This was the smallest gap so far and the flow was only about 3km/hr. The levee was a long way back behind the trees somewhere. I was next to the tops of trees so there was no way to get out of the flow. It was a bit of a plod but slow and steady does the job.
The aim for the day was to get to the Farmers Silos about 32km from Natchez. Adam reckoned even an Australian couldn’t miss them. Actually, he didn’t say it that way, he is far too polite. At 2.00pm there they were right ahead and at 3.00pm I was there.
You will have to paddle off the river to get to them he said. Don’t think so
There was also some sort of loader ahead but something was moving towards the bank quite quickly. Powering up for a couple of hundred metres I saw that it was a deer. They are powerful swimmers and I had to be quick to get a photo before slipping too far behind. It headed back towards the bank after I backed off, climbed out over logs and bounded off up the river in search of its mates that I think I may have seen just ahead of it.
A few hundred metres past them there was a grassy clearing with some cattle yards right at the edge of the water. I went about half a kilometre past but decided to be cautious and pulled in for the night.
Within an hour everything was ship shape with the tent up and a fire going. The wind was from the south east and quite gentle. Making the fire was a challenge until I realised that I needed dry grass, not leaves to start the small twigs. A beer was in my hand, a bag of crisps in the other and I was about to cook dinner. The wind came howling across the river from the north east and blew the billyo out of the fire. The smoke took off across the ground, not rising much more than a metre all the way to the water on the other side of my little paddock.
I had a small stove with a tin with a wick coming out of it that I lit in the lee of an old cupboard that had floated down the river. Fair dinkum, if I had two candles it would have been better. It was cheap and might boil water for a cup of coffee in about an hour. The fire was still burning, even if horizontally, so I took the top off a can of stew and shoved it into the logs.
Before dark I crawled into my sleeping bag, read my book for a bit and fell asleep. The river was close but there was a mound about 100m away that I could retreat to if necessary, albeit that there were lots of fire ants about, and they like the high ground. Waking about every hour I kept a watch on the situation but all was well. Note to self: bring long johns camping next time. Brrrr.
It was a crisp morning but clear and bright. As the sun rose over the Mississippi its warmth penetrated my body and maybe even started to dry the dew from the tent. Stripping off my jacket I climbed into the kayak and rolled into the water for another slog up beside the tree tops.
After passing inside an island there was a clear path back out to the river but a substantial flow was coming down a channel towards me. The channel was only about 150m wide but opened out up ahead. Anything is preferable to the open river and I reasoned with all of that flow there had to be a way back to the river. A sparse forest of dead trees perhaps indicated the water had been deep through here for a long time. As the area widened the flow dropped down but that seemed reasonable enough. Eventually it became imperceptible and I ran into a log jam at 2.5km. No way through there. Maybe over to the left a few hundred metres. Nope. Give up mate. The flow coming in was all through the tree tops which are impenetrable. Tail between my legs I headed back the way I had come. Before turning left into the channel I should have taken I measured the flow at 4km/hr.
Outside and into the river the current was unforgiving. There was a constant drag towards the trees and thousands of logs crammed up against them. At least that confirmed the explanation of why there had been flow in a dead end reach.
A piece of high ground appeared. It stood out of the water by about half a metre but it was back about 20m inside the tree line. Picking my way inside the trees a huge log barred my way. It stood out into the river creating a flow that might have been possible to paddle against but maybe not. With dry ground though, there was the option of walking around it. Stepping out of the kayak I was careful not to disturb a group of fire ants floating on their nest. Wheels down and along the grassy shore to the other side of the log. Bugger, bites to my left ankle. Must have missed seeing that one. Into the water, find the fire ants and despatch them. I reckon the blighters come back from the dead and have another go. It took an hour before the last one was finally gone.
An hour later there was a fast section to get through so I filmed it and filmed me when I made it past. It wasn’t the hardest or most dangerous that I had been through, nor would I be going through but the footage is a bit alarming at how much effort it takes. No wonder a few minutes is required for recovery before moving on after something like that.
Back into the flow again for 400m which took about ten minutes and I pulled back in for another rest. Filming my reaction this time I was tired, out of breath, but still in control. After a sandwich and a drink I headed into what I reckoned was another 400m of slog. Boy was I wrong, it was about 4km. The reward at the end was worth it though. My first racoon, going about its business on a log jam near the bank watched with passing interest in this strange yellow thing coming past. Its eyes reminded me of the strange animal I had seen that night which seemed so long ago.
Towed up the river again, popped out and easily made it past the point and there was another set of silos. Adam had not told me about them but they had to mean dry ground. The land around them gradually formed into a clear picture. There was a gravel parking area and maybe the top of a boat ramp just before them but I paddled past that and onto a concrete apron to step out onto. No fire ants on the concrete there.
The lawn had just been mowed and there was some sort of elevated office about 100m away. Next thing a dog spotted me and started barking. Guard dog maybe? A bit small I thought and the way it was carrying on I reckoned its position would be low down in the pack, just the one to sound the alarm and let the others fix it. Within a couple of minutes we were mates and set off together to explore.
The wind was from the west and quite strong so behind the silos, right beside the river with the fire set up where the silos met was ideal for camping. Being the weekend there was no-one there and I figured any security would not come around that side anyway. With my new friend the camp was set up, would found, fire lit, beer and crisps opened and things were about as good as they could get.
I hadn’t seen my mate for a few minutes and wondered where she could be. Uh oh, there she is on the other side of the kayak. She had put her head inside the hatch and taken out the plastic container with my muesli that Lynne had made. With a gaping hole now in it 2/3 of the muesli was on the ground. I’m not too proud to share with a dog so I grabbed what was left and put the container in the hatch with the cover securely fastened. A repeat of that would not have been advisable so everything was locked away and just the essentials brought out for dinner.
The fire was very welcome as the sun went down behind the silos and it became cold with a chilling north wind building. My mate insisted that she sleep in the tent with me, but I was even more insistent that she didn’t. She slept all night beside the kayak. I was cold in my sleeping bag so I guess she was too, but she had survived colder nights without me.
About midnight a barge went past and sent waves crashing against a log that was on the bank just near the tent. There had been a few barges but my ears reckoned these waves were closer. You don’t get flash flooding on the Mississippi so I reasoned that the kayak was on the uphill side, that my feet were the closest thing to the water and worst case would be that I got wet feet before climbing out, unpegging the tent and moving it up the hill.
Dawn brought a realisation that my ears were correct. The water was not far from the tent, but not close enough to cause concern. While I had breakfast my mate took advantage of my carelessness and sneaked inside the tent. She was curled up and sound asleep just inside the door when I found her twenty minutes later.
My utensils leave a lot to be desired and I used the small skillet for heating up my coffee. After filling my small cup I sat it beside the fire, savouring its warmth while watching the sunrise. Whoosh, a gust of freezing wind and the ash was in the skillet. “Start again,” I thought, “Nah, let the day on the river begin. And so it was goodbye to my mate and into a stream of water coming under the loader. The river was up and the velocity through there was less than I had noted the previous evening. Wondering whether this was a good omen I streaked up the rapids before common sense came. The water was deeper than yesterday, that’s why the velocity was less just there. No good omen, sorry.
Late morning I came to a large island that was a major landmark. Adam reckoned it had high ground on the far side but mid-day was too early to stop. The plan was to use the island as a cross over point. Vicksburg is on the east side so it had to be done some time. The trick was to paddle far enough up the left bank before launching into the flow to get to the downstream tip of the island. Too early and I would miss it and have to start the process again. Too late and valuable energy would be wasted flogging upstream.
Now, I figured. Let’s do this. It was only about 400m. Lining up trees on the island I could tell that I was crabbing across nicely, almost holding my position. Woops, lack of concentration and 100m is lost. About 2/3 of the way across I was going hard, losing ground and hoping that when I got behind the tops of the trees at the bottom of the island the flow would drop enough for me to catch up. The current started to slow a bit, I held my ground and made it with over 100m to spare.
Starting up the other side there was no current. None at all. That didn’t last of course, pretty soon it was just the general slog beside the tree tops. The other bank was a long way off but I could see a house on a hill. That had to mean there was land somewhere over there. I was beside the high ground Adam had referred to and when I thought I could reach the other side just downstream of the house I set off.
Slipping, slipping I crabbed across the wide expanse. A white strip of sand appeared up ahead on the island. Now that would have been a nice place to stop. No time for those thoughts so battling on I made it again about 2/3 of the way when things changed. The great mouths of the Mississippi were appearing. These are what I call the white water standing wave that is about 3m wide and 10cm high that comes out from the centre of the whirlpool. You don’t want to be in the centre of these big ones. Crash, splash, I slipped through the outside edge of one. A merry dance on the rudder pedals followed as I tried to miss the next one. Crash, splash again and then a rapid pirouette followed by a right turn to the bank and I was in big upflows. Water welled up in whorls about 30m across. Using the edge of these I could easily gain on the river and I made my way into the trees just upstream, of the house.
A couple of old guys in a tinnie came out from behind the trees and we tried to talk. They couldn’t understand me, and I struggled with them but they did say to go behind the next set of trees and there was land near the house. With the water bottle in the cockpit getting low I needed the water from the rear compartment. The land was steep but it was land and I did get my water out. A stinging nettle attacked me through my trousers but that was a small price to pay for a replenished cockpit supply.
The next few kilometres was all about fighting a great rush of water heading through the trees into some sort of wetland area I guess. The other side of the river was where Adam had marked a section as tricky. He said he had come through that bit with river levels up near this height and recorded 11.1mph (17.9km/hr) so it goes without saying that I was not keen to go there.
The wind started to build from the west and things got wet. By things, I mean me. The wheel support make waves splash up to my armpits which is where the top of the spray skirt sits. The current was not too bad and I made good time, especially when some land appeared about 10m in on my right side. I even got an eddy but it stayed wet and messy.
The mouths of the Mississippi were smaller here, just licking their foaming lips, but they were there alright and not in a friendly way. A big log jam jutted out into the river. White water rushed past. Not wanting to think about it I paddled hard towards the edge of the log. Crashing into the white water I was thrust 30m into the river in a second. Two seconds it was 50m as the rudder responded. Paddling desperately I had held my ground but only just. I crept back towards the log jam just holding my ground. About 3m out there was a standing wave. That gave me enough to inch forwards. Go, go, go. With every ounce of strength I had, the kayak inched forward. The top of a small tree was 30m ahead and just inside the line of logs. Got to make that. Got to make that. Got to make that. It echoed around my head. The carbon wing blade flexed in the water as I thrust like a man possessed. Past the point of no return I was above the log jam. A broken blade, even maybe a missed stroke and that could be my last. The river was rough, it was ugly and I was bouncing like a cork. This was committed. No way back. The tree under the water started to break the flow, I was winning. Thirty seconds later it was all over, I was through. Tricky was not the word I would have used. It was a bastard! Never, ever again do I want to flex a carbon fibre wing paddle.
There is something about the limit of physical exertion that impacts on the mind. Half an hour later I was recalling an email from my daughter Heidi. She had reckoned there was still time to do my Canada paddle in a few years. After all, I would live forever. I guess children like to think like that. This dredged up the reasons for the trip, my kids, their kids and I was a blubbering mess until I straightened myself out.
It was two hours before land appeared again so although there was a boat ramp up ahead I pulled in at 4.15pm. With nothing really to gauge against I didn’t realise how fatigued I was. Setting up camp, lighting the fire, washing and drying clothes and a quick wash for me in the cold, brown Mississippi settled me down nicely.
There was a lot of leaf litter about, as well as lots of dry timber. Being a like a local now, ha ha, I found some dry grass and made the fire easily. To put the tent up I used my paddle to rake the leaves back to bare sand. Stupid. The fire ants were down there. My solution was to cut off the stalks of the thorny green vine and anything else that could stick through the tent floor and lay the tent on top of the leaves. Give me Australian camping any day.
That night was warm. The air was still warm in the morning. As usual it took about an hour and a half to pack up and move out. My land was the last I saw for nearly two hours as I paddled beside the trees watching the water rush into them.
Something caught my eye. It was like a white box moving across the river very slowly. It eventually disappeared around the bend on my side, only to reappear five minutes later going the other way. Ah ha, it had black bits sicking out in front and behind. Could it be a ferry? Land appeared and the flow eased. The ferry came back. I was in an eddy and streaming along at up to 6mph. Could I get to it? Nope, it beat me, sliding in behind some trees about 5 minutes up ahead. I was nearly there when there was a great roar and back out it came. Churning white water it backed 200m into the river and then lo and behold, the white box broke away from the other bit and turned round., It was a small pusher tug controlling a barge with landing ramps at either end. As it crabbed its way back across the river churning white water rooster tails were thrown 2m into the air gradually melting into the river as they were swept downstream.
A barge set ground its way slowly behind me. Some sets are slow enough that I can hold them for maybe an hour so the race was on again. This one was slow and when I got an occasion bit of land and a break in the current I could make ground. This battle, all in my mind of course, raged until he crossed to the other side as I rounded a bend and saw the bridge. It was still 1½ hours away but it was Vicksburg.
With the clock at 2.30pm and the GPS registering 81.93 miles (131.9km) I found a gravel ramp upstream of the Ameristar casino. It was deeply rutted and very steep, but it was dry and it represented safety. Austin from the Vicksburg post came down to do an interview an take some photos. While he was there the security guards came to tell me to bugger off. That wasn’t going to happen no matter what but they made a phone call and I was allowed to leave the kayak behind some concrete barriers just off their paved area. There was no chance of them allowing me to leave it with them. After a quick change of clothes I headed for the casino. The doorman was very friendly. Yes, they had cold beer. No there could not be a steak as the restaurant was not open. There were nice salads in the bistro though. Bloody rabbit food I thought as I set off up the hill to start hitch hiking back to Natchez.
Two hours later, a five kilometre walk to highway 61 that runs between Natchez and Vicksburg, there was no lift. I had a green and yellow kangaroo flag. Some people tooted and waved, even a truck driver. Fat lot of good that was when I wanted a ride. In the end I decided people don’t hitch here. The locals are all lovely when you meet them but they a very fearful lot. In the end the crew picked me up, not without problems but at least I was back in the van at 8.45pm and the good thing was the kayak was back in its box on the roof.
The next day we moved to the RV park at Vicksburg and settled in for at least a week. Layne Logue came to see us. Like Adam Elliot at Natchez he is a River Angel. Nothing is too much trouble for them. They help people on the river with whatever they need. Layne is even a civil engineer so there was much to talk about over a beer.
We launched Steve on his way to Vicksburg in style.Trooper Green drove his squad car down to the ramp and wanted to know all about it. Steve had forgotten something back at the caravan so the Louisiana State trooper drove him there and back and helped launch Steve with a mighty shove.The kayak felt unstable with all the extra weight from food and water for three or four days so Steve came back and we removed the front wheel and off he went.Lynne picked up the front wheel and its solid aluminium frame but Trooper Green would have none of that and put her and the wheel in the squad car and drove her to the trailer park. What a nice man.He wistfully said he wanted to arrest me for being “Past my Use By Date” but could not be bothered as the paper work would be too much.
Hi everyone. Yesterday Lynne and I crossed off one of my long standing wishes of my “Bucket” list. We went on an airboat on the great Bayou. It was fantastic and better than I thought it would be. These craft fly over the water and land at over 100 km per hour. It was a thrill of a life time. They stop every now and then to show you an alligator, including “Big Albert” who measures 13’2″. Plenty of bird life including breeding Bald Eagles and large South American water rats with a bounty of US$5 on their heads. It was a fascinating day. Master Steve in the meantime is still paddling towards Vicksburg, overnighting wherever he can find a spot.
SOS-Mayday- Mayday/// Exiting , news worthy. Last night a big bang, than sirens going off and pandemonium on the mighty Mississippi.A tugboat pushing loaded barges down river collided with a pylon of the bridge ,the multiple barges broke apart and drifting at around five knots down river threatening to take out everything in their path.Tug boats big and small came to the rescue, pushing the barges around the bend and into the bank. Two tugs took about five minutes to slow down two of the heavily laden barges and push them away from the main loading docks threatening to smash up the infrastructure. The police closed the bridge while engineers looked if the bridge was compromised but the all clear was given and we all went to bed.