Saturday, January 10, 2009

The End...For Now

What is next for me? That’s a good question. Honestly I don’t have any plans for the immediate future, but I will have to sort through five months of mail among other things. I will take the next month to get my life sorted out. I have been on the road for nearly four years straight, so I could use some time to take care of all the little things that I had to put off for the last four years. There is still the matter of finishing the final section of the Appalachian Trail, so that is certainly on the docket, but all I can say at this point is to check back in the near future as you can be sure that I will be documenting my next trip right here.

A big thanks to everyone we met and helped us along. I have always said that, yes, the trip is about getting to the Gulf of Mexico, but it is also about the history of the places and the people we meet along the way. Thank You!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Almost There

The nights sleep was better than many on the river, but at least on the river there was no lurching of my bed as it was stationary. By the time we hit Philadelphia it was snowing. We traded the 70 degree weather for snow.

Arriving in New York was a treat. I watched the bags as Kobie went to check on the kayaks. Kobie mentioned that when he went back down to the train platform, he saw one confused porter with two 17 foot kayaks sitting there. We were very fortunate as someone from Amtrak, helped us out big time by letting us leave our bags in his office while we took the kayaks through Penn Station, dodging pedestrian traffic, up the stairs, outside and to a loading area. We weren’t able to get the kayaks there through the freight elevator so we had to take the long way around.

Kobie watched our gear while I went to pick up the SUV with a roof rack that I had rented. I was given the run around at the place on 40th street and sent up to 77th street. While I missed New York and being back made me think about living there again, I didn’t really need to be delayed right then. Kobie was waiting outside in the cold watching all our bags and two kayaks in the middle of New York City.

It took over an hour to come up with an SUV with a roof rack, but finally the incompetent staff at the car rental place finally figured things out. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in awhile. I zipped back to grab Kobie and he was wearing every article of clothing he could fit on. We threw the kayaks on the roof, tied them down and then defrosted in the car.

The kayaks (and us for that matter) were heading out to Long Island. I really don’t miss rush hour traffic. I just thought about how nice it would be to wear cotton clothing and have a choice of footwear after four months in the same pair of hiking boots.

Once we were on the road I felt much better about the kayaks. Kobie and I even joked that we might pitch a tent in the back yard, if only there were some biting insects.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

All Aboard

We boarded the train without incident and I was actually looking forward to the 29 hour ride to New York. I cashed in some frequent flyer points to set us up with a nice sleeper room on the train, so we had some space and would be able to have a proper sleep.

Kobie and I watched some movies, did a bit of writing and what ever else struck our fancy. Best of all, the meals were included. It gave us a chance to hit the dining car next door and stretch the legs.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Off to New Orleans...Again

Well, we decided that Amtrak would be the way to go in getting the kayaks back to New York. It took more than a few phone calls and research on the internet, but we learned that at least in theory we could take our kayaks on the train.

Ken drove us to New Orleans, we packaged our kayaks and we got them checked in without an issue. The guy there said that they usually get a few kayaks a year. Had we only known it would have saved us a major headache. They did however charge us each a $5 handling fee and $12.50 for $2,500 worth of insurance. Truly a bargain at twice the price.

The three of us made our way to Central Grocery, the place where the Muffulletta sandwich was created. We had to have one last meal. We also bid Ken farewell as he had to get home, having already missed a day of work. Not only that but he drove about 20 hours in picking us up for Christmas, picking us up from Venice and dropping us off in New Orleans. Seriously Ken, Thanks buddy. I don’t know what we would have done without you.

The miserable weather that had been forecast was upon us, but as Kobie hadn’t been to New Orleans before we had to head down to Bourbon Street. It was awfully quiet on a rainy Wednesday, but we strolled around and had a few drinks. As our train was early in the morning, we made it an quiet one.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Relax

Kobie and I spent several days in Lafayette with Ken and his family, stuffing our faces with Cajun food. Ken’s wife Michelle is a great cook and on top of that, we had to hit a few local establishments to sample the grub: Crawfish etouffee, Alligator Boudin, Shrimp Po’ Boys, Catfish, I could go on. I put on at least several pounds.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Finished Paddling

I wasn’t surprised that fog covered the river in the morning. The sky seemed as if it would cut us a break in the way of thunderstorms, at least for the time being, but our visibility was quite limited. We jumped in our kayaks and paddled the short distance to the confluence of the Mississippi river and waited for the fog to clear. Then we waited some more, paddling nearly continuously as if on some aqua tread mill, maintaining a stationary position relative to the land.

The density of fog varied, but it wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination clear. We waited and waited some more, but I had no real hope of the fog clearing to the point of allowing enough visibility to see any great distance. We listened for other boats and could hear several. The bigger problem was that those large ocean going ships are silent as they leave little wake and engine noise is minimal. What surprised me was that there were pleasure fisherman out, as one cut close to the buoy where we were waiting. While I was surprised I hoped that a fishing boat with radar would escort us across the southwest pass. It didn’t pan out.

We could have potentially waited all day for the fog to clear. As a last ditch effort we waited until we didn’t hear boat traffic and I put out a general broadcast on the emergency marine radio channel: “Attention all mariners in the immediate vicinity of the southwest pass and the confluence of the Mississippi River. For the next several minutes there will be two non-motorized watercraft crossing the southwest pass from the south pass to the west bank of the Mississippi River; all mariners are urged to proceed with extreme caution.”

Then we paddled like mad across the southwest pass. Arms pumping, hearts racing we followed the GPS route to the far side of the river. By the time we were half way across we could hear a boat nearby. We paddled harder if that was even possible. I felt better when I could see the far side of the river, but by no means did I slow my paddle stroke.

We managed to cross the to the west bank of the Mississippi river unscathed. As we took a rest on the far side we heard a ship passing in each direction behind us. We hoped the hardest part of the day was over.

There were varying levels of fog throughout the morning, though make no mistake it was constant. We saw very little in the way of boat traffic late morning, until all at once we saw probably a dozen at one time. I could only guess that the fog warning had been lifted and the boats left Venice Marina in an exodus.

We approached Venice where fog hung heavy in the hectic harbor. The harbor was rife with activity and at no other point in the trip did I feel this “in the way”. Kobie and I found a small beach that we paddled over to, taking our last paddle strokes for this trip. We exited our kayaks and with a hand shake officially called an end to our kayak trip.

Venice is a commercial town and only the basics seemed to have been rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina. We walked through a parking lot and down the road where we knew a marina to be. It would have been easier to paddle there but we had enough fog over the past week. We walked through a business parking lot and out to the road to look for a celebratory drink. While the marina was further than we thought, there was a little seafood stand where I asked a patron for directions. As the road to the marina was being redone and narrow, we were offered a lift, being able to put our kayaks in the back of his pickup.

The pickup truck was fairly new, but especially beat up. When the fellow tore out of the parking lot with two guys and two kayaks precariously perched in the truck I had a feeling I knew why his truck appeared as it did. Kobie and I did our best to hang on and keep the kayaks from sliding off the side of the truck. We thought the guy might take it easy, but perhaps this was easy for him. Either way, we were once again grateful for the ride.

At the marina we were able to set out our kayaks and begin cleaning them out, after stopping at the marina store to pick up our celebratory beers of course. We met a rather colorful fellow as we were cleaning out the kayaks. Following our explanation as to what we had just done he responded that “there isn’t enough room in those kayaks to fit enough dope for me to paddle that far”. If he says so.

We spoke to another local who mentioned that he had a hunting/fishing camp south of Venice; actually he and his friends have had five since 2001, all having been destroyed in various storms. They keep replacing the camps and will continue to do so we were told.

The last of our encounters was with a couple of fisherman who have a friend that put together outdoor stories for a local print publication. They took a few photos of Kobie and I with our kayaks and as we have always done on the trip, asked for them to e-mail us the pictures. In the eight or ten times people have taken photos of Kobie and I on the trip, exactly zero, yes zero, have e-mailed us photos.

Ken turned up before we finished our first celebratory cocktail. As Ken arrived he commented about the area by saying, Wow, this is the ass end of nowhere”. When a guy from Louisiana says it, it means something. I have no idea what we would have done were it not for Ken driving the four hours to come collect Kobie and I. In trips such as this the beginning and the end are the most difficult; the end more so than the beginning in this instance. The three of us sat looking at the water enjoying our beverages as Kobie and I regaled Ken with the minutiae of the final days of our trip. We got the kayaks on the roof of Ken’s car and we were off to Lafayette, LA for a few days.

While Lafayette was northwest of where we were, we first had to drive north, then west as there were no roads through the swamp. It gave Kobie and me a chance to see our route from the land up to New Orleans then further to Baton Rouge, before heading away from the river. We got a kick out of driving over all the bridges under which we had paddled. Things looked much smaller from atop a bridge then from on the river itself.

Friday, January 2, 2009

But Wait...There's More

We had achieved our overriding goal but there was still the matter of retracing our route 25 miles back to the town of Venice, where my buddy Ken would be picking us up. South of Venice there was little more than wetlands and reeds, so unless Ken had a boat, we would have to meet him in Venice.

It was strange to flip my maps around the opposite direction and look at them the other way as we paddled north, albeit much slower. The current of the river wasn’t as bad as we have seen and we managed a speed similar to that of the Red River at the start of our tip, in the vicinity of 2.5 miles per hour. We had gone slower in the other direction at times.

We made a stop at the lighthouse on the way back north and it seemed as if the door was open. I decided to paddle through a bit of marsh and shallow mud to get to the base of the lighthouse and check things out. I went inside and found the lighthouse in sorry state. Years of neglect led to decay. Wood was completely rotted in sections of the wall, but the stairs were iron and though rusted in spots seemed sturdy. I figured it would be safe enough to climb up to have a look at the area through which we were paddling. I have said once before that sitting in a kayak I sometimes feel like a dog wondering what is on the kitchen table. I know there is something there, but what? Sitting in the kayak I can’t see more than a few feet off the ground if the object is close by and hidden in the underbrush. The view from the lighthouse confirmed what we had seen from the river; there was pretty much nothing there.

It was nice to paddle back, at least at first as we recanted tales from earlier parts of the trip. We also talked about what we would be doing when we returned back to civilization and how nice it would be to have a steak.

Just past the lighthouse is an area known as Camp Eads. The camp is rudimentary housing for hunters or fisherman that stay in the area. Kobie and I paddled in to see if anyone was heading to Venice, but as it was Friday they all had just arrived at the camp.

We grew weary as we paddled north. The current wasn’t running particularly hard and we knew it was only 25 miles, not the 500 we had to paddle against the current up north, so we pushed on. I was thinking how nice it would be to have the father & son fishing team come back for us. We would be back in Venice by late afternoon and sitting at a bar shortly thereafter, celebrating our four month journey. As the day wore on we were losing hope. Late in the afternoon another boat come by and said they had spoken with the father and son, who told these folks about us. These folks mentioned that the father and son were planning to come get us once they were done fishing, though they might stay out until dark. At least we knew they were still out on the water.

As with the rest of our day, during the critical moments, the fog laid low on the water, significantly truncating visibility. There would be no part of the end of this trip that would be easy. In the foggy dusk both Kobie and I used our headlamps as strobe lights alerting any boat traffic of our whereabouts. The range of visibility for the strobes wasn’t great, but was still better than nothing. We hoped that even if the father and son didn’t find us, no one would run into us. Visibility was absolutely minimal, possibly no more than 15 feet at times. We heard one or two bots pass, so we made noise and shined our lights in the direction we heard the boat motors. Whether the father & son fishing team came looking for us or not I don’t know, but I do know they sure didn’t find us.

By the time dark rolled around we had several problems. One of my more pressing concerns was that the foul weather, described on the weather radio as including everything shy of locusts would be rolling in the following morning. For that reason, we wanted to make as much northbound progress as possible. Another issue was that even if we wanted to camp, there was no earth upon which we could set our tents. We were paddling through marsh and with nary a bit of solid ground. We were surrounded by reeds. The fog is obviously a problem as it prevents us from seeing where we are going, but it also prevents boats from seeing us. While boats could smash into us, it was the commercial boats that passed nearby that didn’t know we were there and should reduce their speed so as not to swamp us with their wake.

We heard an oil rig transport boat approaching and as we were listening a wall off water climbed up in front of me. I had just enough time for one or two paddle strokes to get me up and over the wave. I looked back and couldn’t even see Kobie until the front of his kayak punched over the wave at an awkward angle. I yelled for him to paddle as the outcome would not have been pleasant should he not make it over the wave. There were several other waves behind the first, but none as bad. My heart was racing after the encounter. We were in a bad situation. So much so that I thought about lobbing a call to the Coast Guard to see if there was perhaps a patrol boat in the area. We had no safe haven, not even the banks of the river. We could do nothing but paddle on, navigating by GPS.

An emergency broadcast came over the marine radio that the emergency beacon sounded for a 90 foot ship. It didn’t bode well for us if 90 foot boats were having problems.

At one point the fog cleared and we could see the marker lights on the river. Visibility shot up to half a mile. There was also a hint of moon light, giving us enough in the way of assistance. It was almost pleasant at that point. If the conditions remained as they were, we could even paddle back to Venice that night, although we would arrive in the wee hours of the morning. I just wanted to beat the incoming weather. I am not a fan of lightning while out on the open water.

The break in the fog wouldn’t last very long forcing us to navigate by GPS once again. We managed to cross to the other side of the river before we approached Head of Passes and the confluence of the Mississippi River.

Just before entering the Mississippi we came across a small bit of solid land that would allow us to get our tents on solid ground. We were just shy of Head of Passes and were even able to see across the southwest pass, something I hoped would remain constant until the morning when we would need to paddle across it.

I also hoped that the thunderstorms that were forecast for tomorrow would hold out long enough for us to paddle the remaining 12 miles back to Venice.

I had a couple of granola bars for dinner while Kobie cooked up some noodles using the river water. I was just looking forward to wrap us the last little stretch of the trip. I called Ken several times to try and coordinate our completion of the trip with him and very fortunately for us, he has an understanding wife and boss (those are two different people…I think).

Gulf of Mexico!!!

Someone doesn’t want us finishing this trip as we woke to heavy fog, rain and lightning. The lightening was to the point where Kobie, while still in his tent asked if the flashes were a strobe light. Heavy storms were forecast for all of tomorrow and continuing throughout the week. In checking the marine radio for the weather they also said that the possibility of tornados cannot be ruled out. Tornados? This is most certainly not what I signed up for. We were so close. Weather hung heavy in my mind, but if we didn’t go for it now we would have to wait for several days or longer to try and complete the last 25 miles of the trip.

We sat in our tents for a bit and as we did the rain ceased. By the time we got packed up some of the fog even lifted. I was hoping that we could make the dash to the Gulf and perhaps hitch a ride back up to Venice. Did I forget to mention that? Once we paddled to the Gulf, we would have to turn around and paddle 25 miles against the outgoing river to get back to Venice, where my buddy Ken was going to pick us up. I have hitchhiked before, but never while in a kayak.

I was heartened by the lifting of the fog as it even revealed a piece of clear sky. Within a half hour of setting off paddling the clouds opened up and a large blue swath ranged across the sky, allowing the sun to shine on in.


As we paddled along there was heavy boat traffic on the river. It made me feel better about the possibility of catching a ride back to town. I still had my concerns about the weather, but if we could catch a ride back we would be set.

We paddled the ten miles to the end of the Mississippi River and as soon as we did the fog once again rolled in. It wouldn’t have been so much a problem if we didn’t have to cross the main shipping channel to get to the middle of the three outlets of the Mississippi River Delta. If you look at this satellite map, you can see the area. The "A" on the map is Head of Passes and the end of the Mississippi River. The main shipping channel is on the far left and the south pass, that we needed to take, is the next one over. So we had to cross from the west bank of the Mississippi River to the south pass.

We sat and waited to see if the fog would lift before crossing the channel. We could navigate by GPS but couldn’t see what else was on the river. Listening for boat engines is of some assistance in that we know another boat is out there, but it doesn’t tell us exactly where the boat is, or more importantly, tell the boat where we are. It was frustrating trying to wait out the fog. After 20 minutes we were able to see a buoy across the way. We figured that if we could get to that buoy we could hang out there waiting for a further break in the fog as no boats would, in theory, run over the buoy. It turned out that the buoy was actually the entrance to the South Pass and our 15 mile paddle remaining to the Gulf. The buoy was at the end of a break wall that was built at the front of the pass.

As we got into the south pass it was about a quarter mile wide, down from three quarters at the mouth of the Mississippi River Delta.

For a short time paddling in the south pass it was a beautiful warm sunny day. The cat and mouse game continued with the fog as at one point the GPS seemed to show that we had navigated out of the south pass and into marsh area. We couldn’t see so we backtracked and tried again. In a break of fog we saw that we had in fact gone off course, but we were able to correct ourselves.

I could hear a fog horn in the distance for many miles, but it was of little use to us. I also noticed many seagulls, reaffirming that we were getting very close.

Late in the morning the fog had cleared and the sun made its presence known. About a half dozen people stopped to ask what we were doing. A few comments were: “Did you jump ship”? and “Are you guys lost”? One of the boats was a dad and son fishing. I asked if we could possibly get a tow back once we wrap things up. He said he might be able to give us a lift as they would be out fishing for awhile. I was somewhat relieved that we had a potential ride the 25 miles back to Venice.

All at once the boat traffic stopped. I hoped everyone was out for the day and would come in later; not that there was some weather warning that only the locals knew about, forcing them back home. I was somewhat relieved though as I flipped the map southbound for the last time, showing a large open expanse of water.

The lighthouse that we were able to see in the distance for a number of miles was deceptively inland. I was hoping that the lighthouse would be the end of our southbound journey, but it was still several miles further to the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

We again ran into the father and son on their fishing boat. Since we had last seen them they landed a sizable redfish. They said that they would be out fishing for awhile yet, but when they were going back they would look for us. Again, I felt so much better about the prospect of getting a ride back to town.

As we neared the ocean, the breeze picked up as did the chop on the water; but after what we had been through the last four months it was of little concern. We could handle some simple wind and waves. We could tell we were approaching the end of the line when I could see oil platforms in the distance. Sight of the platforms would be short lived as the fog would again come in at a critical time. If it didn’t happen to me I would think it was made up, but I kid you not, the fog covered our view.

Again we stood pat waiting for the fog to lift. In about ten minutes it did and we paddled out passed the jetty in to the open water of the Gulf of Mexico. It was a somewhat anticlimactic ending to the trip and we only had a vague idea where it ended. There was no real finite ending. We timidly paddled out into the chop of the open water and sat for a few minutes bobbing in the waves, paddling every minute or so. At one point I looked at Kobie and said some thing along the lines of, “I think we could be done here”. There was no land to our left or to our right, so we must have been in the Gulf of Mexico after four arduous months and 2,734 miles paddling. I will leave you with a small clip of video:

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year

There was a smattering of fireworks throughout the night, with the expected concentration just after midnight. My watch read five past 12 when I looked and I did little more than acknowledge the New Year before drifting back off to sleep.

The morning was warm and dry, which makes it so much easier to pack everything up. As we set off the river was calm; still enough to show reflections on the surface. Blue sky however was a rare commodity, with it being nonexistent in the three compass quadrants to the south and west.

By mid morning the wind picked up to about 15 miles per hour. I am sure I don’t have to mention that the wind was blowing in the exact direction that we didn’t want it to. 15 miles per hour isn’t all that bad, but it was enough to slow us down. If you would like an idea of what a steady 15 miles per hour wind is like, stick your head out of your car window while you are driving at that speed. Better yet, do it while someone else is driving.

The landscape was becoming flatter, if that was possible. Along one side of the river I could see telephone poles down the entire right side. I counted as high as 60 until the river turned ever so slightly away from my line of vision and the remaining telephone poles appeared as a clump.

The morning saw quite a bit of large ship traffic. We have been more diligent in checking behind us for ships and in one instance noticed a ship behind us, causing us to slide further to the edge of the river. As we turned around a few minutes later, the ship was far closer to us than we would have cared for. We thought we allocated sufficient space to the ship, but apparently not. We could have thrown a rock and hit this hulking cargo ship. As I had mentioned previously, the large ships generally create a rolling wake, so other than bobbing up and down, it wasn’t an issue. Getting sucked into a 20 foot propeller would be.

The day grew brighter though the sun remained elusive. We had to contend with only a brief bout rain but it wasn’t going to be the last time we saw rain for the day.

As we paddled along we passed some fantastically named towns: Happy Jack, Promised Land, Port Sulphur and Waterproof. Port Sulphur I get as it used to be a company town for Freeport Sulphur Co., but the others must have been either picked out of a hat or named by some bar patrons at the end of a long night.

Our goal for the day was to reach the town of Venice, LA. Venice is the southernmost town that is accessible by car and a place where we could stop for some food and water. The town of Venice was mostly destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, but as it is a base for workers and services for the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, the town has been at least somewhat rebuilt. The most important point of note for us is that the town lies exactly 10 miles from the southern terminus of the Mississippi River at Head of Passes. For us though that is not yet the end of the trip, as the actual Gulf of Mexico doesn’t begin until 15 miles beyond that.

Kobie and I skipped lunch to push on and do all we could to make the town of Venice by nightfall. Also, were we to stop for lunch it probably would have begun raining again as soon as we got out of our kayaks. Quite oddly, there was a several hour stretch where we didn’t see a single ship on the river and only one lonely tug. We figured that at some point when we needed to cross the river all the traffic would come barreling past. There was a significant amount of helicopter traffic though, shuttling people back and forth to the oil platforms.
I felt as if we were nearing the ocean. There was very little in the way of trees, nothing on the horizon and there was a smell of salt air. As we were rounding the last bend before a several mile straightaway leading to the town of Venice, there was Fort Jackson. I’ve made several mentions of Andrew Jackson on this trip and Fort Jackson is cause for another. The fort is in his namesake as it was he who in the Battle of New Orleans (defeating the British) learned the strategic necessity of fortifying the mouth of the Mississippi River. In the 10 years leading up to 1832 Fort Jackson was constructed. The fort was later used in the Civil War and as a training ground for World War I.

On the final straightaway Kobie and I noticed a pick up truck pull to the side of the river. Two kids got out and began firing guns into the Mississippi. One kid had a handgun and the other a shotgun. It seemed that they were taking target practice into the river. One guy would throw up a bottle and the other would try and blow it to bits. Apparently this is legal in Louisiana. Have you guys heard of a firing range? Hello? It made the two of us nervous to the point of paddling much further out in the middle of the river. At least they didn’t shoot in our direction as we were passing.

We paddled into Venice harbor at dusk and as it was entirely for commercial activity, decided that there was nothing for us there. There was heavy traffic in the small marina opening and we were just in the way. We didn’t really need food & water as we still had a small supply and were hoping to wrap the trip up the following day.

We paddled a bit further past the town and set up camp on a very small patch of land amidst the swamp. As soon as we got on land we were instantaneously set upon by small biting insects, possibly beach fleas. At the same time it began to rain. I didn’t know what to do first, put on long pants or get my tent set up. I erected my tent to the point that rain wouldn’t soak the inside and then threw on pants and another shirt while I was at it. I still had dozens of mosquito bites on my ankles from sitting outside the other night causing me enough grief.

There was a fair amount of boat traffic, mostly pleasure fisherman coming home so we did get a few odd looks in the waning sunlight. We had been sitting our kayaks for ten and a half hours and had a poor campsite, but as usual we made do. As I was mostly out of food I had to cook some rice for dinner. It was the first time I cooked a meal in several weeks. On the entire trip I didn’t use the contents of a 200 gram container of isobutene fuel to cook. My lack of interest in cooking is a holdover from living in NYC. Perhaps it’s not the cooking so much but the cleaning up afterwards.