Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 21st October
Today marked another small milestone in our journey to New Orleans. Paddy and I paddled 38 miles from St Francisville to Baton Rouge this morning and this marked the last day that we will row together on this trip. It was a stage full of event, as I will relate, but it was also a little emotional for the two of us, bound as we now are by literally thousands of miles together down this river. I will not even begin to try to encapsulate what a hero he has been on this trip – that will be for another time – but we were both conscious of ending our partnership in a boat together. A small matter for others, but rather bigger for us. For the next (last) four days, we will have guest rowers with us, so whilst we will be on the water together, we won’t be in the same boat. We joked today that after literally hundreds of thousands of strokes together, it is a shame we can’t get into a race sometime soon! We did, however, have a crack at the top speed record for the trip and we ripped hard for 20 strokes and hit 14.3 mph. Not bad for two old geezers and a victorian skiff!
So to the rather unprepossessing title of this missive. We have been warned constantly that the river from Baton Rouge to NO is a horse of a very different colour, with full sized ocean tankers and barges over a quarter of a mile long. They have also been warning us of the chemical plants all the way to NO, giving (allegedly) rise to the largest concentration of cancers in the local population, hence the name they give to this section of the river, Cancer Alley. However, they assure us that four days out there will be fine for us….
Baton Rouge was named by the earliest French explorers who, on venturing up the river, came to a point which was marked by a large cedar log, covered in blood and the carcasses of animals. This pole marked the territory boundary between two native tribes and given its prominence and gruesome colour, it was unsurprisingly called Red Stick. And so the name stuck.
We set off at 08.00 this morning and although the setting by St Francisville was nicely rural, we were quickly aware of a very pungent smell wafting at us on the wind. It was a nasty combination of something chemical which caused your throat to catch as you breathed, enhanced by what smelt a little like organic death of some kind. Lovely. It reminded me of the story of the always blunt Duke of Edinburgh arriving in Lagos in the 60′s with his equally outspoken equerry, Lord Rupert Neville. When the plane door opened, the Duke stepped out and said “my God Neville. What is that ghastly smell”? “I believe it is shit, sir”, replied Neville. “I know that”, said the Duke, “but what have they done to it”??
This smell set the tone for the trip, which was unusually serpentine, a trait we now have all the way to the gulf. As we came towards the first of the two bridges at Baton Rouge, I glanced over my left shoulder and saw around the bend in the river. All I could see on both banks were endless chemical and power plants, belching white smoke into the blue sky. It may, of course, have been steam, but the sites from which it looked pretty forbidding. We plodded on, through several tugs with huge barge loads, to the site of Baton Rouge proper, marked by two huge stationary riverboats, now used as floating casinos. These are, in common with all the others we have seen, operated by members of various native american tribes, I suspect as some sort of appeasement after decades of disadvantage. Somehow, it seemed to me appropriate that the original Red Stick, with its gruesome cargo, has been replaced by a glitzy, ersatz riverboat – a modern day totem if ever I saw one.
Today we are joined by Kyra Felisky, a rower from DC, and Gavin Sayers, who was with us for a couple of days early in the project. They will row with me and Paddy over the next two days. We are also joined tonight by my great friend, Derek Mayne, who will row with us for the last two sections, but rather fancied some Louisiana food to get him ready. Lots of others joining us daily now as the team begins to gather for the finish.