Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Canoe Adventure Down the Red River

I've had a long-standing fascination with rivers. Before there were planes, trains, and automobiles, rivers were the highways. Rivers were everything from water sources to geo-political boundaries, travel thoroughfares to critical commerce lines. Since time began really, as far back in human history as we can study, rivers like the Tigris and Euphrates were basically the most critical component of human development and progress. But we live in a different world now, where rivers – although still important – have taken a backseat to other modes of transportation and commerce. What remains are the ghosts of a fascinating era. The Red River that slices through the Ark-La-Tex is no exception.

For a long stretch of it’s history, the Red River was held hostage by something called The Great Raft, a monstrous river obstruction of driftwood that blocked the river 165 miles in varying sizes and depths. Its removal has to be one of the most unheralded demolition projects in American history. You can read about it at this link: http://www.caddohistory.com/great_raft.html. The Great Raft had been in place for so long, the native Caddo Indians simply said that it had always been there, through thousands of years of oral Caddo history! It’s ultimate removal took the better part of the 19th Century, but it was spear-headed and made possible by Captain Henry Shreve, which of course where Shreveport gets its name. The affect of The Great Raft was so widespread I can’t write it all, but it’s vast and lengthy – everything from the birth of bayou boomtowns like Jefferson, Texas, to a multi-million dollar cotton trade – all were affected by The Great Raft.

That brings me to the whole point of this post: my canoe trip down the Red River in my refurbished canoe, the Donna Lynne. For a long time, I’ve wanted to spend a long day on the Red River. (I'd done a short trip before in an inflatable boat with my friend Matt Keim.) I guess in part this trip was fueled by my desire to take a epic river journey one day which of course was inspired by Lewis & Clark.  I decided to set sail south from a Red River crossing in Hosston, Louisiana, (about 10 miles from the Arkansas border) and head south toward Shreveport. I guesstimated that with a little luck and a tail wind that I could at least make it near Shreveport before the sun went down. Early in October, the perfect weather forecast came along and I couldn’t help myself. I enlisted Donna’s help, who despite having to arise at 6 a.m. got me and her namesake, the Donna Lynne, delivered to the boat ramp in Hosston. Donna snapped this pictures before I took off down the river. I decided not to take my dog Hart. Even though he loves canoeing, I was afraid his endless exuberance at every passing furry creature and his added weight would slow me down entirely too much for this trip. You can see in the photos he was not happy about being left behind. He even chased me down the river a short ways before Donna called him back. The morning broke bright and clear and I set off into the morning light. It was sublime watching the river awake as I embarked on my short journey. 

Although the beginning of the trip was beautiful, it quickly turned from an adventure into a painful, laborious, arm-wrenching struggle. This happened for two reasons. First, the weather forecast called for a slight breeze from the north. Instead, what I got was a stiff breeze which always came from whichever direction I happened to be paddling. The only thing I can attribute this meteorological oddity to is that the river channel itself serves likes a wind tunnel, funneling whatever wind there is up or down the river. (In this case up.) My heavy canoe quickly turned into a sail spinning me around and blowing me upstream. I spent half the trip sitting in the front of the boat and paddling backward. The other factor that contributed to this unfortunate event was extremely low river levels. What this meant is that I only occasionally managed to maneuver into a flowing stream of water. The rest of the approximately 35 mile trip was spent paddling across essentially a lake on a windy day.

That of course is not to say I did not encounter some wildlife. At one point I passed within about ten feet of a big chubby beaver sitting on the bank. He gave me curious stare as I paddled by. I saw numerous birds and fish, as well as the occasional turtle. The Red River above Shreveport is sparsely populated.  Almost the entirely of the day I did not see any human beings. Of course the low water levels kept powered boats off the water so the entire day I had the river to myself.

In retrospect, I would make this trip next time in a one-man kayak.  The problem I kept running into from a navigational standpoint was that I was relegated to simply guessing where the deepest channel was. Needless to say, more than once I got it wrong and ended up grounding the heavy canoe, then had to backtrack upstream and try again. This ate up precious daylight - which ended up costing me later, not to mention the extreme physical toll on my arms. 

By 2 p.m. I stopped for lunch on a beach. 

The Donna Lynne, docked for lunch

It was apparent by this point that my mission was in jeopardy. The slow current and headwinds were simply too much to overcome. Even by this point of the day, my arms were burning with soreness from the paddling. The next five hours would simply be five of the most miserable hours I’ve ever spent in a canoe. Mindless, painful, paddling that droned on and on. At one point I even stood up in the canoe, not wanting to concede the time it would take to stop and stretch my back. In the most awkward moment of the trip, which would have made me look like a crazy person to any one passing by, I laid a paddle across the canoe, leaned back against it and and splayed my legs out forward across the bow. At that point I was doing anything I could to relieve the back pain and cramped legs. Somewhere along the way I snapped this self portrait. 

I could have exited the river at Cash Point Landing, but mistakenly (and hard-headedly) believed I could push on to my final destination near Samstown Casino in downtown Shreveport before dark. About two miles past Cash Point it became obvious I had made the wrong decision and called Donna and asked her to meet me upriver from the casino, officially conceding defeat. I had been on the water for twelve hours and had been out of the canoe a grand total of about twenty minutes. Donna met me (with Hart) in a gated community where we drug the canoe up a steep slope and using every last ounce of engery I had, we managed to get the canoe on top of my car. I was literally unable to lift my arms above shoulder level once my muscles tightened up. Donna snapped this nice pic of me after she saved me from the river.

 Like Apollo 13, my journey down the Red River was a successful failure. It was successful in the sense that I quit talking about doing it and actually did it.  It went from something I was going to do to something I did, which is a surprisingly empowering idea that many people do not fully understand nor appreciate. And it was successful because I gained a basic knowledge of that stretch of the river. It was a failure in the sense that I did not make it all the way back to Shreveport. (Instead of the 42 or so miles, I only made it about 35.) But the urge to explore and persevere never really fades away, so I’m pretty sure I will accomplish this goal one day. All I have to do is wait for a favorable wind, a strong current, and get my hands on a kayak…

Until the next adventure! 


  1. Thanks for writing up your trip! I'm going to try a stretch in Texas this fall, and have been doing my homework. Your article helped!