The Other is an Angel

“I am only one, but I am one.  I cannot do everything, but I can do something.  And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

– Edward Everett Hale

Top 4 Highlights:

  1. Boarding the Alitis– Once we hit Baton Rouge the ocean going vessels appeared.  We remember how massive the first barges seemed, and the barges were now dwarfed by the cargo ships.  We waved to the crews three stories above our heads, and after passing 30 or so vessels, the captain of the Alitis happened to be taking an evening walk with his wife.  After hearing our story he insisted that we join them on board.  We ate dinner with the captain, swapped stories with the Filipino crew (two of which were aboard ships that had been taken hostage by Somali pirates for 6 months!), gazed at pictures taken from around the world and had a great interview with the captain before paddling away the next morning.

alitis crew

  1. Staying in Paulina, LA– Paddlers are often seen as an inconvenience in the industrial parts of the river, so you can imagine our surprise when we saw a sign that said “Welcome Paddlers” in Paulina.  We ate some incredible gumbo, restocked on groceries and talked into the night with Trixie, Charlie, and Wayne about our trip and what it’s like living in Louisiana.

paulina crew

  1. Reaching the Gulf of Mexico– We both vividly remember looking at a map 50 days into our trip, still in Montana, and wondering how in the world we were going to get Louisiana.  We’ll try our best to describe the complex feelings we had below.

thegulf

  1. Celebrating with loved ones in New Orleans– In what we would call one of the best weekends of our entire lives, friends and family from coast to coast joined in New Orleans to celebrate with us.  If we had known all we needed was to do was a little paddling to get such wonderful people together we would have started a lot sooner!

nickscrew joecrew

Bottom Lowlight:

  1. Paddling the “Cancer Corridor”– There are so many oil refineries, power plants and chemical plants lining the river from Baton Rouge to New Orleans that locals call that stretch the “Cancer Corridor.”  With the boat wakes and wind it was impossible to eliminate contact with water entirely.

CF factory

Blog

7 months ago we thought we knew the world.  We were college educated with degrees in anthropology, business, film and ethnic studies, and we felt we had a grasp of the challenges and their antagonists surrounding our waterways.

It felt like we were embarking on a noble march to expose the abandon and potential malice that people have towards the river.  We were subconsciously separating and “other-ing” (creating a “them” in an “us vs. them” binary), and if we could only show what these people were doing wrong we could start improving the water’s quality.

What we found couldn’t have been further from our assumptions.

Meeting Them

The term for someone who helps a distance paddler is a river angel.  Unknown to us before we began, river angels assist with some of the difficulties faced when stepping away from the conveniences of traditional life.  We had angels who drove us to far off grocery stores, they let us recharge our batteries and shower at their house and others who gave even more.  Typically not incredibly wealthy, they went out of their way to participate and support us.

Many of these people were also involved in contributing to the river’s challenges.  We met ranchers raising livestock for feedlots, salespeople for agricultural chemicals, industrial farmers and oil and gas workers.  While riding in the back of their car we’d invariably think, “wait a second, this person is supposed to be part of the problem, but yet they’re extending kindness to us.”  It becomes difficult to keep seeing someone as the “other” after you find you like them.

We met hard-working Americans focused on providing the best they could for their families.  They want clean water for their communities and their downstream neighbors and found themselves operating in a system they didn’t design.

Gradually we understood that many people didn’t realize how their actions impacted the waterway.  Other times they felt there were not viable alternatives.  Still more attributed their choices as responses to the desires of consumers even further removed from the waterway (Nick and I are certainly among these consumers).

Salt Water

At 10:30 am on November 14th, we made our final paddle-strokes to the Gulf of Mexico.  After 163 days of camping, kayaking and living outside we had reached salt water.

Out of curiosity we researched the average time it takes to do other adventures:

  • 4-7 weeks to bike across the United States
  • 6-9 weeks to climb Everest
  • 8 weeks to walk across Antarctica
  • 9-13 weeks to paddle the entire Mississippi River
  • 13-15 weeks to drive from Alaska to Argentina
  • 20 weeks to hike the Pacific Crest Trail
  • 23 weeks to kayak from Browers Spring, MT, to the Gulf of Mexico

I don’t know if my writing skills are fully up to the task of describing what the moment felt like when we reached the Gulf.  Words like “surreal,” “amazing,” and “unbelievable” seem empty and underwhelming.

There was certainly elation and an energizing pride in our accomplishment.  For almost 6 months we woke up every day with the singular goal of reaching the ocean.  But there was also melancholy in knowing it was all over.  The days of sleeping in a tent, being present for every sunset and routinely seeing wild animals were about to come to an end.  And mixed in as well was relief- relief in knowing our boats, our bodies, our gear and our resolve had lasted the entire way.

But there was one more emotion present as we floated into the ocean, one that would have been hard to imagine before the trip started. Gratitude.  A soul-warming, can’t-help-but-make-you-smile gratitude for the people we met along the way and all that they taught us.  Our classroom assumptions were broken down, and we found the antagonist we formerly envisioned was actually a friend and ally.  They were on our mind when we drifted into the Gulf, and they’ll be on our minds when we create the documentary.

The world became more vibrant and complex once we left the classroom.

Shoutouts

  • We needed to charge our batteries and restock on food before paddling through the “Cancer Corridor,” and Travis Allen went above and beyond.  We had a blast hanging out with him, hearing about his adventures and learning more about Baton Rouge.

travis

  • We stopped for one night in New Orleans on our way to the Gulf, and A.J. Foret was remarkably helpful.  He gave us a walking tour of Bourbon and Frenchmans St, the ability to charge our batteries and cooked breakfast for us the next morning.

photo

  • James Madere, on behalf of Parish President Billy Nungesser, coordinated a pick-up for us by the Port Authority at the end of the Southwest Pass.  James, Billy and the Port Authority crew made our lives so much easier by allowing us to avoid paddling back up river 20 miles to the closest road.

Gear Review:

Our final gear review has to be about Hobie.  This is the first time a Hobie kayak and a MirageDrive (the pedal system) have journeyed from source to sea.

Most paddlers sell their boats in the over-supplied market of New Orleans for a fraction of what they’re worth because it makes traveling home easier.  There was no way we were going to get rid of our boats after everything we’ve been through with them.  The boats arrived at the Gulf in superb condition (other than the many scrapes and scratches), and we wish would have known not to worry about something breaking when we first started.

Hobieedited

What’s Next:

It’s time to bring our experience to life for others.  From 1,000s of hours of footage we’ll bring you the most entertaining 1.5 hours accompanied by colorful and expert interviews. Interviews like this one we did with Norm Miller (river angel and historian):

Norman Miller Interview from BLACKWATER DRIFTERS on Vimeo.

We’ll continue to post about our progress through our website.  Future blogs will recount what the transition back to “traditional life” is like, changes we’ve made to our lifestyle after our experience, and our top lists of meals, campsites and cities.

The next phase of the project now begins…