*You don't beat this river*
The Mississippi River calls to me in an irresistable siren song. Down here in Louisiana, it is powerful as it sinuously snakes its way down into the Gulf of Mexico. It river has a histroy which stretches back before written time. The first european explorer, the Spaniard Hernando De Soto, thought he would never get to the end of it so he and his men took their armor, beat it into nails, and constructed boats to cross it. Jean Lafitte, pirate scourage and gentleman, haunted Baritaria Bay - one of the many such open bodies of water in the area. He knew so well that he refused to help the British gain access to an easy landing and so the US was able to win the Battle of New Orleans. So when the offer was make to accompany some friends to the mouth of the mighty Mississippi River, perhaps you can understand why I could hardly refuse.
We like to go fishing out of Venice, La. The marshes and esturaries produced by the Mississippi River are some of the most fertile fishing grounds in the world. The Mississippi River is the largest river in the United States and in all of North America. It drains both the East and the West parts of Canada. The volume of water is drains is tremendous. Venice is almost at the end of the line - it is called by some locals “the End of the World” - and it is as far as you can drive a car down the river. To go any father you need a boat.
My friend has a 24-foot Bayliner deep v-bottom boat with an outboard motor. It is more than sufficient to go out in shallow lakes like Ponchartrain and into the bays which dot the Southeastern part of Louisiana. You can take such a boat out to the rigs offshore when the weather cooperates - which it was. The Gulf of Mexico was glassy smooth and the skies were crystal clear. It was a fine day to go out. With any chop, we keep our activities closer to home.
After a long day of fishing - both offshore around producing oil and gas rigs and some inshore fishing around the Southwest Pass (which is the main entrance into the river. There are three “mouths of the Mississippi which look like a crow's foot from the air and on a map), we decided to come on in. We had done well, catching our limit of “bull reds' - very large and very old redfish which weigh around 30-40 pounds each and put up a heck of a fight. Think of a catfish on steroids and you'll get an idea.
The light was rapidly fading. In our exubarance in catching the big reds, we had stayed out way too long which meant that we would be coming up the river at night. Boats of all shapes and sizes share the river - which means we would be coming up river with the big boys - petroleum tankers. These monsters thow out huge wakes and don't slow down for anything when they are navigating the river. They can't afford to because they must maintain steerage in a very deep and swift river best by shoals and shifting sandbars.
Normally, no one would attempt such a feat. However, we had gone out through bays and marshes and canals which would be almost impossible to navigate at night because we don't go down there enough to learn the areas well enough to do so. So to get back to the landing we had to go up the river.
Another factor people do not consider is that going up river take a whole lot more fuel than traversing a bay or going down river. By our measurements, we had nearly half a tank of fuel left. We had topped it off carefully earlier in the day on our way to the launch. We were going to need every drop of that fuel to make it home.
We were competing with one tanker, a couple of small craft and at least two crew boats as we began the trek back home. The pleasure craft and the crew boat sped on by us. We were taking our time to conserve fuel. We didn't want to fun flat out because we were unsure of the exact distance we had to go to get to the landing. A tanker plodded up the river behind us and we overtook one tanker, which threw out a tremendous stern and bow wake we had to traverse at night. The bigger waves in the wake were hard to see because they did not have a white cap. We were motoring along when suddenly, we hit a trough created by one of the waves. It was like hitting concrete. The impact jostled us around pretty hard, but did not damage anything. Then we were on top of the wave trying to avoid being swamped by it.
At this point, I put my life jacket on which was provided by the skipper. I should have brought my own because this jacket was ill-fitting. I hoped like heck my life wasn't going to depend on it. After I cinched the jacket up around me and gripped the center console rail tightly. The ride was going to get rougher because we still had to negotiate the bow wake, which ultimately we managed to do with less trouble than I anticipated.
Once past the tanker, the skipper increased speed a bit to keep WAY ahead of her. As fate would have it, both gps we had had malfunctions of a different sort. Once was operating on low batteries and the other couldn't get a fix. So we were unsure of our exact whereabouts. When it is dark, you are on the mighty river where everything looks the same - ominous - and you are not sure where you are, some people tend to panic.
The boat had a good skipper who was very familiar with his boat. He was not as familiar with the river. We sped along, which felt like we were creeping because of the sheer size of the river, until we saw lights. I knew they were not Venice. The skipper started freaking out and became convinced that Venice was on the west bank of the river - when it is actually on the east bank. We had come upon Pilot Town - the last inhabitated spot on the river before you hit blue water.
By controlling my voice and soothing the situation, I
managed to convince the skipper that we had to go on
to reach the landing. After a few minutes he calmed
down and we proceeded at a more cautious pace. About
two hours later, we saw a huge light in the distance -
this was Venice. We managed to dock without further
troubles. All in all it was an incredible trip. There
is something about the majesty of the river which
keeps drawing me back to it. Even on routine trips,
you have to be on your toes. When you are out on the
Mississippi, you are always in a survival situation.
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