Mississipi Million

The Great River Rowed

Cancer Alley……..

Cancer Alley……..

Posted by on Oct 22, 2014

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!

John and Paddy

John and Paddy

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.


  1. Great challenge, wonderful achievement so far. Brilliant.Thoughts are with you every inch of the way.

  2. I keep thinking of all the children who will benefit from your exhausting task. Found it emotional reading the blogs, you are nearly there so will miss them! Wonderful work and so interesting for the silver surfers in armchairs. Xx

  3. You must be getting close to tasting the beer at the finishing line. Phenomenal achievement!

  4. Your achievement is truly remarkable – seems like such a long time ago that Maeve and I were with you and it’s hard to believe that you’ve been grinding away pretty much every day since then! So excited for you now that the end really is in sight. Keep going!

  5. Congratulations!! Seems like SO long ago that we were in Northern Minnesota and then Iowa ( Go Hawks by the way!) Very proud of your accomplishment and commitment. Sorry to miss the party in New Orleans – well done!

  6. Dear John

    Nearly there – only four days to go (possibly three by the time you read this). So glad it is going well. The vestiges of the Hurricane passed Radley by with minimal damage – the odd rugby post pad flying into the woods notwithstanding – but apart from lots of autumn leaves everything else seems to be fine.

    Last stretch so I shall take a few liberties with the Mississippi connection:

    Sweet Home Alabama (Lynyrd Skynyrd – I am sure you have listened to this en route)
    Fortunate Son (Creedence Clearwater Revival – brilliant)
    Like a Rolling Stone (Bob Dylan – surely the greatest single record ever)
    Into the Great Wide Open (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – might be vaguely appropriate on the last stretch of the river)

    Best wishes for the finish line and well done to you and everyone else.


  7. Keep going John. The blog is fantastic and Paddy and your endurance inspirational. Enjoy the last few days and savour the first beer like you do the first Cobra in December!

  8. John we are so proud of you and pattie. What a awesome journey you have had.l hope when you are finished you will write a book of your journey. The mighty miss. Is really something and so are you guys party at the end and thank god.

  9. Been tracking you guys for several weeks now. Y’all are doing great. Just read Paddy’s blog and sorry to hear about the problems they gave you this afternoon at your take-out point. If you paddle 38 miles on Thursday you will be close to us at Mile Marker 149. You are welcome to take-out here and you can drive to the rivers edge making it really easy to load all your gear.(this is owned by my family and we are on the left bank… you will see 3 flags & a couple of windmills) For your road crew the address is 2940 Highway 44 Paulina. There is a ramp going over the levee there and just drive to the river from there. Hope you get this message soon enough.
    If you need any more information call me at (225)806-2026

  10. As usual, brilliant writing. Enjoy the last few days and have a fantastic celebration in NO. What an incredible feat…

  11. Just found this a bit late but wanted to post a shout out to Paddy. Glad you are still adventuring :) All the best Caro.

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