The Kamikaze Canoe
Boyce Upholt ’06 recounts a perilous trip atop a record-breaking flood—and an attempt to understand what we’ve done to America’s iconic river.
On a cold morning last March, I gathered with two companions beneath the interstate bridge that crosses the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge. Just after sunrise, the bridge already rumbled with Monday-morning commuters; the steady hum of wheels covered our quiet chatter as we clipped shut drybags and stowed them in our canoe. It was a busy morning on a busy stretch of river. Across the water, at the city’s port, deep-water freighters were anchored, awaiting cargo; on the levee behind us, dog walkers trotted. Alongside our boat ramp, a postmodern glass shard of a building stretched into the river, the lights winking on as workers arrived. At this place, the Water Campus, scientists study the Mississippi’s furious flow.
And that morning, the river—muddy as always, dark and viscous—snarled with particular fury. We were in the midst of the wettest 12 months ever recorded in the United States, and the Mississippi River was more than full. Its surface was torn with whitewater. Logs tumbled past at alarming speed.
The river was set to crest in Baton Rouge that afternoon—the seventh-highest level ever recorded in the city, it would turn out. Two days earlier, a tugboat had sunk, and Baton Rouge had briefly closed to river traffic. Upstream, in Mississippi, recreational boats were forbidden; in Louisiana, an emergency rule prohibited us from mooring our canoe on the levee—or taking any other action that might endanger its structural integrity. But if anyone tried to stop us, we would claim the excuse of journalism: We were here to document the latest of the river’s epic floods.
As we pushed into the current, an office worker, framed in one of the endless windows of the Water Campus, offered a wave. It was impossible to know what he meant to convey: bon voyage to merry adventurers or good riddance to three fools with a death wish. Either way, he was quickly out of view. We were captured by the flow.
This trip was the brainchild of John Ruskey, who almost certainly has spent more time paddling on the Mississippi than anyone else alive. He first came down the river in 1982, a plucky teenager in a sloppy, hand-built raft; he crashed near Memphis and nearly died. Within a few years he was back.
He settled along the river’s banks in northern Mississippi, and eventually became a guide. For 20 years, he’s steered clients through its channels and backchannels, becoming the river’s foremost evangelist—gray-maned, wise, playful, a charismatic wilderness shaman. Four years ago, after I wrote a profile about John’s work, I fell under his sway, and eventually decided to write a book about the Mississippi River.
Since then, we have paddled more than a thousand miles together, from the ocher bluffs that edge St. Louis down to the salt marsh that fringes the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a landscape that—despite the river’s outsize reputation in American culture—is to most people, even most Southerners, entirely unknown.
Once, the river was tumultuous and ever-changing, constantly eroding its banks, forever selecting new passageways, flooding often, filling a massive valley that stretched in places a hundred miles across. Its bayous and swamps were dense with hardwood trees—tupelo and sweetgum and the still-famous cypress, which grew ever-larger across its millennial lifespan, until the largest trunks stood nearly 20 feet wide. Wetlands covered 24 million acres along the lower river; combined with the adjacent gulf marshes, this was among the world’s largest expanses, critical to the biodiversity of the North American continent. It was critical, too, to a way of living. Before Europeans arrived, a million people lived along the Lower Mississippi River in a network of fortified cities. The largest was, at its peak, home to as many as 16,000 people within one square mile—making it not just the largest prehistoric city north of Mexico, but larger than London at the time. These were a people who depended on flooding. The river filled their bayous with fish and poured rich, nutritious mud into their valley farmlands.
Europeans, though, preferred their farms to be floodless. And once the steamboat arrived in the 19th century, their descendants wanted a river that ran deep and straight and constant. So began a long fight. In the late 1880s, almost 200 years after the first levee was built in New Orleans, Mark Twain declared the Mississippi a “lawless stream” and predicted that it would never be tamed. He should know: He had spent years traveling the river as a steamboat pilot.
But after a terrible flood in 1927, the effort to control the river went into overdrive with the Mississippi River & Tributaries (MR&T) project. Construction began on 3,700 miles of levees, floodways, floodgates and reservoirs, as well as a thousand miles of concretized riverbank. From Cairo, Illinois, south to the gulf, the river was firmly shackled in place. In the 90 years since, no MR&T levee has breached or overtopped.
That doesn’t mean the fight is over. Starting in mid-2018, rain began pouring into the Mississippi’s Midwestern tributaries, where the levees are far less robust than those included in the MR&T. By March, many had burst; towns were evacuated. An agricultural data firm estimated that 16 million acres of farmland were inundated, an area larger than West Virginia. These Midwestern disasters actually helped Louisiana by storing some of the water. But that water eventually poured back into the river and—like all the water from across the 1.25 million square miles that drains into the Mississippi—pushed downstream. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the MR&T, launched its flood fight in October 2018, sending out patrols every day to ensure the levee remained secure.
For John Ruskey, an epic flood sparks what he calls the “river-rat disease.” Life starts to lose meaning; all he can think about is the river and its chaotic shape. He says that he is required professionally to see the river at all stages, to understand how it behaves—but I think that’s an excuse. To see the river at its wildest is a thrill. Which is why, when he asked if I would join him on a trip atop the flood crest, I immediately said yes. After a flurry of phone calls—and many declined invitations—we eventually found a photographer, Birney Imes, brave and foolish enough to join our crew.
We planned to travel from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, then another hundred miles to Venice, Louisiana, the southernmost point on the river that is accessible by road. This stretch is known as the “Petrochemical Corridor” and is home to more than 200 plants and refineries, which together produce a quarter of the chemicals in the United States. The five deep-water ports, including the largest in the Western hemisphere, process 500 million tons of cargo each year. This is the MR&T at its apex, the most industrial stretch of the world’s most engineered river. What better place to see this flood?
That first morning, after we loaded the canoe—ropes and flares, a VHF radio, a solar battery, bailers and sponges, along with our few belongings—we simply paddled, covering as many miles as we could. The day was gray and somber, and we paused only for lunch. Even then we did not leave the canoe. We let the river—raging with more than eight million gallons each second, nearly twice its typical discharge—carry us. I spied a few branches struggling up from the surface of the water, and realized that two years earlier, I had camped on an island here. Now it was completely submerged.
Near sunset, John spied a rickety old fuel dock, long abandoned, and we clambered up the rotten wood and pitched our tents. We had paddled 85 miles, and I was so exhausted that I could not stop shivering. After two cups of tea, I was able to take in the scenery: Young willows rose from the floodwater, everything gilded pastel-golden with sunset. I took photos and texted them to friends who had declined to join us—sure that we were insane—gloating about the scene.
The next morning, though, was windy. John decided this was too much. So much water squeezed into the narrow channel was churning up massive waves. When the freighters tore past, the wake reached 10 feet, more than enough to swallow a canoe. I spent the day reading and writing, walking out to the edge of the dock to watch the whitewater as it ripped beneath a bridge. John often talks about the “wilderness within,” the untamed landscapes that persist here, at the heart of the continent. They can be easier to find along other stretches of the river, where there are willow forests and empty sandbar beaches. But even here, amid the industry, pockets of beauty persist. It’s one of the great pleasures of traveling the Mississippi.
Late that afternoon, as I sat at the edge of our dock in the sunshine, jotting notes in my journal, I heard Birney calling to me. Come back to camp, he said, and bring your ID. A few minutes later, we stood atop the levee while a pair of sheriffs searched their database for outstanding warrants under our names. We had spent too long in paradise. Our little camp had been found.
One of the sheriffs was stern; the other played good cop, talking about his own riverine fishing adventures. There were other men and women there—presumably the captains of industry who owned the dock upon which we had been squatting—and, after a quiet huddle, they seemed to decide we were harmless fools. No one would press charges so long as we left. We climbed back up to our perch and repacked our bags while one official lingered on the levee, making sure we were true to our word.
The sheriffs had suggested that a boat ramp just downstream might make for a good camp. It was strewn with trash, and a cloud of amber smoke smeared the horizon, exhaust from the bauxite plant on the far side of the levee. So instead we clung to the bank and pushed upstream, but there was no land to be seen. The water lapped against the levee, and if we camped there, we knew the police would evict us again. Eventually we decided our only option was to string hammocks between the flooded willows. The water below us was around 40 degrees, and whenever a freighter passed, it rose a foot or more. As I drifted to sleep, my mind kept returning to an uncomfortable fact: I was dangling precariously atop one of the greatest floods this river had ever seen.
The next morning, we woke—dry, blessedly—and disassembled our precarious camp. Twenty miles later, we passed the Bonnet Carré Spillway, a cornerstone of the MR&T. This set of gates opens as a release valve, diverting some of the floodwaters away from New Orleans and into a 12-mile strip of wetlands that extend to Lake Pontchartrain. The spillway had been opened a few weeks earlier, and now, nearly 1.5 million gallons roared out every second. To avoid being sucked into that maw, we clung to the far side of the river. Bonnet Carré looked to us just like a long, low wall of concrete.
After being used just nine times in its first 84 years, the spillway had now been opened in three of the last four years. It’s a signal that something is changing along this river: Despite our engineering, Mississippi River floods are growing worse. Indeed, a paper in Nature last year found that their severity is worse now than at any point in the past five centuries. On other rivers, too, flood frequency and severity has increased over the past 50 years.
The International Panel on Climate Change has determined that humankind has mucked up the water cycle, changing the frequency and severity of rainfall. That could help explain why the 12 months from June 2018 to July 2019 were the wettest ever recorded. The scientists who wrote the Nature study attributed a quarter of the increased flood severity to climate change. But the bulk of the problem, is actually our attempt to control this river. The levees we’ve installed to stop flooding, the dykes built into the river to control the channel—together these have narrowed the space for the water, which has nowhere to go but up. As we’ve cleared forests for farmland and then paved farmland for suburbs, this has added to the problem: Water runs quickly over this landscape and pours back into rivers, delivering a bigger flood all at once.
In his decades on the river, John told us, he’d rarely seen waves as big as those we saw that day. The river was laced with eddies, where the current turns back on itself, and so we were constantly pushed and pulled in different directions. And often, as boats tore past—their pilots already edgy in the dangerous current—we had no choice but to steer into the edges of the river, out of their way. These dangers trimmed our ambitions. This, we decided, would be a shorter day, 46 miles. We stopped in late afternoon at a riverside cottage owned by a friend of a friend of Birney. We entered the yard by paddling through a back gate. The house, built on stilts, was surrounded with water, which lapped a few feet below the floorboards.
There used to be many more homes like this, here and upriver. Our host, Macon Fry, was writing a book about “river rats,” and told us their history: The people who’d built these homes were often poor frontiersmen who clambered onto the Ohio River and drifted downstream, settling into shantytowns of houseboats and rickety cottages. In New Orleans, the homes once stretched six miles along the riverbanks. As the world modernized, most were dismantled and replaced by infrastructure and industry.
Here in New Orleans, just 12 remain standing, some, like Fry’s, modestly modernized. It’s a precarious life. Floods erode the sand beneath the houses; waves send trash and — sometimes—whole loose barges crashing into the homes. The people who live here tend to be aware that nothing is permanent. Which also means they know to enjoy the moment. Fry drove off, and returned with a bag of hot boiled crawfish. We spent the evening cracking them open, slurping out the flesh and tossing the shells into the rolling flood.
We left late the next morning, which we knew would be our last on the Mississippi. The river provides a different view of New Orleans than most tourists ever see: For miles and miles, there are wharves and cranes and docked tankers, expelling their cargo or taking on new contents to carry across the sea. But there are also bald eagles perched on electrical towers and herons basking in the flood. Downtown, a highway bridge stretches overhead, the last bridge before the Gulf of Mexico. Just beyond is the French Quarter, where the water turned choppy as it ripped through a particularly sharp bend. The bottom here plunges suddenly to 200 feet; below us, we knew, swirled a cauldron of watery tumult.
Months later, this flood would be marked by a grim superlative: It became the longest ever recorded almost everywhere along the Lower Mississippi River. The water did not drop until late July, and by then the disaster had raised a number of thorny questions. The Bonnet Carré Spillway sent a trillion gallons of freshwater into Lake Pontchartrain and eventually into the Mississippi Sound. This influx of freshwater caused a disaster for the local fisheries. Mississippi officials are demanding that the Army Corps develop some new approach to controlling flooding. It’s not clear what might work, though. One study, looking at land-use patterns and carbon emissions, calculated that the discharge of the Mississippi River could increase by as much as 60 percent by the end of this century. Most hydrologists I’ve interviewed worry that the protection of the MR&T is bound to fail one day—and maybe soon.>
I tend to think of the river’s troubles as a microcosm of a bigger problem. We decided we needed a world that was stable and comfortable and predictable, but that’s just not how the world works. To stop its wildness, we’ve had to pursue ever-more-elaborate schemes. On the Mississippi that meant first levees to stop the flooding, then reservoirs and spillways when the levees made the flooding worse. We’ve turned the river into a rickety machine and built our lives around it, and we have no choice but to keep updating the machine until the day it gives out. Climate change may push it over the edge.
Past the French Quarter, the river quickly quiets. The refineries and wharves and docks are interspersed with wider stands of greenery; cormorants drift on the water. I live near here, a few blocks from the river, and sometimes walk out to the banks to appreciate the quiet. But on our trip, the traffic remained relentless. One freighter loomed above us, seemingly unaware of our presence. We were relieved to hear the voice of a Coast Guard officer crackle onto the radio, advising the pilot to slow down. “Maybe I will,” the pilot replied, then paused. “I wonder how those fellows will do?”
At the last moment, he shifted course, sparing us. But it was too close a call. We climbed out of the canoe a dozen miles downstream, at a flooded boat ramp, the first exit point we could access. We waded to shore amid washed-up driftwood; there was a stink to the air that we eventually identified as a dead hog. Only later did John admit that, despite his years of experience, this trip had left him frequently terrified.
We had listened, throughout the trip, to the radio. Most pilots were not as aggressive as the one who nearly killed us, just irked by our presence. They would relay to one another our position, often accompanying their reports with commentary. “Canoeicide,” one captain called our adventure. Another dubbed us the “kamikaze canoe.” One suggested we must be escapees from the local asylum. And perhaps we were crazy. But to me the chaos we saw was a reminder of a greater form of foolishness: thinking we can ever tame a lawless stream. Thinking a wild planet can ever be held still.