Lower Mississippi River Dispatch
Vol 10 No 1d, Monday Jan 27, 2014
Backing a Canoe into "The Castle"
Continuing in the Winter Paddling Series (great places to explore when its too cold & dangerous to get on the big river) we bring you the other-worldly Bayou Bartholomew and its spectacular Chemin-a-Haut Bayou, in the valley of big trees (one cypress monster is aptly named "the Castle" -- so big you can paddle an 18 foot canoe into its cavernous hollow belly!)
(Next week: the Big Sunflower River Water Trail. Also coming next month: Friends of the Sunflower River. BTW: my neighbor Professor Ed Silence is taking submissions for a Black History Month Poetry Slam February 22nd. See below for more information.)
Paddling down the middle of Chemin-a-Haut
(Trails coordinated by Dora Ann Hatch LSU AgCenter
and Louisiana Delta Adventures)
Bayou Bartholomew and its tributary Chemin-a-Haut Bayou is the crown jewel of the rivers of NE Louisiana.
Already a designated Scenic & Natural Waterway, the richly endowed Bayou Bartholomew springs from the Arkansas River floodplain hundreds of miles upstream in the middle of Arkansas near Little Rock and flows southward and parallel to the Mississippi River in a bewildering pathway of angular river bends.
It is said to be the longest bayou in North America (365 miles long). In addition it is the longest un-dammed waterway tributary of the Lower Mississippi River. This fact alone will be of great interest to any paddler, because paddlers know that un-dammed rivers are the wildest and most scenic, and they also know that they won’t have to paddle the boring flat sections of impounded waters, nor have to make a grueling portage to get from one side of a dam to the other during their journey. Although normally a gently flowing stream suitable to all levels of paddlers, beware of rain storms or high water which could produce dangerous swiftwater conditions.
Like most flowing waters of any size in the area, “Da By” (as it’s referred to locally) once provided transportation for the steamboats of the region who plied its waters to reach remote plantations & outposts. However, unlike most other waters of the South, the “By” somehow escaped the zealous river engineering of the last century, and was never dredged nor channelized nor dammed. As result it is a thriving paradise of bankside cypress forests & wildlife. It is the richest fish habitat of any bayou (over 100 species). It contains over 50 species of mussels, some not found anywhere else.
Bayou Bartholomew is a classic mixed cypress/hardwood bayou which reaches its most beautiful articulation at the confluence of Chemin-a-Haut, a forest of giant Louisiana Bald Cypress you can paddle through & explore.
A forest of tall Cypress Knees along the Chemin-a-Haut
Easy to Moderate to Advanced. Depends on water level, which can fluctuate as much as 30 feet in between drought conditions and flood events. Any route on Bayou Bartholomew could be classified as “Easy,” but beware fast rising waters following heavy rainfall. Inspect river conditions carefully before putting in. If the water is muddy and moving fast you’d better be prepared for turbulence, snags, strainers and sections of river that require quick decisions and a lot of fast water maneuvering. Heavy rain from thunderstorms out of view a hundred miles away in central Arkansas could lead to flash flood conditions here in northern Louisiana. If you camp anywhere along the By place your tent well above the water line and tie down your vessels.
All previous warnings aside this is usually flatwater paddling on a gently flowing stream. Pick length according to your strength as a paddler. At all levels paddling on the By might require some maneuvering through snags and fallen trees blocking channel. Rare portages might be necessary to get around blockages. Muddy banks and possibly slippery landings.
Depends on route length, river speed, and your own paddling ambitions. In general any paddler can sustain 3mph with strong paddling, 2 mph with casual paddling, and maybe 1 mph with gentle paddling. Add to that river speed and you can calculate approximately how long your journey will take.
As with all southern rivers, water levels can vary on Bayou Bartholomew and will have significant impact on water speed, safety and usability. Pay attention to descriptions throughout and decide when it is best to paddle based on your ability and the water level.
For this section of the Bayou Bartholomew, you can get an approximate idea of the water level using the USGS River Gage at “NW of Jones” or the “Beekman Gage” on RiverGages.com. The Beekman gage will best indicate current river levels. But consult NW of Jones for possible fast rises coming in from Arkansas.
River levels (Using Beekman): Low water (Too Shallow) Don’t go below 2 on the Beekman gage (when some dragging through shallows & mud flats might be necessary. Ideal at 4-7 on the Beekman gage. Above 12 on the Beekman gage the current will most likely be swift and extra caution is advised. During the hot dry months of the summer & fall regional farmers pump water out of Bayou Bartholomew for irrigation, which sometimes might affect local water levels.
River levels (Using NW of Jones): Low water (Too Shallow) Don’t go below -.5 on the NW of Jones gage (when some dragging through shallows & mud flats might be necessary. Ideal on at 2-5 on the NW of Jones gage. Above 10 on the NW of Jones gage the current will most likely be swift and extra caution is advised. During the hot dry months of the summer & fall regional farmers pump water out of Bayou Bartholomew for irrigation, which sometimes might affect local water levels.
Internet URLs for Gages:
“NW of Jones”
Historical Water Levels:
looking at river gage data from the past 10 years (2001-2011), the Bartholomew (including the Lower Chemin-au-Haut) normally flow somewhere between 1-3 on the “Beekman Gage” with infrequent spikes due to rainfall, snowmelt and other runoff. This is a good level to explore these beautiful waterways which flow with the cleanest & clearest water out of any rivers or bayous in the area.
Tips for paddlers:
Carry plenty of drinking water in the summer & fall months. Tie bowline and stern line onto your canoe, kayak or SUP for tying up vessel on shore, and for possible drags or portages. Camp well above water line in case of flash flood conditions which might be precipitated by storms hundreds of mile upstream.
Bayou Bartholomew is the longest bayou in North America (almost 400 miles long). It has the richest fish habitat of any bayou (over 100 species) and boats over 50 species of mussels, some not found anywhere else.
At the confluence of the Chemin-a-Haut the By is graced with one of the most strikingly beautiful examples of the giant cypress bayous that were once common throughout the deep south.
Best time to explore Chemin-a-Haut: the paddle through the giant cypresses and dark pools of water is magical any time of the day!
Canoe, kayak or paddleboard. Paddlers will be happy to know that the By is normally too shallow and unpredictable for any power boats.
Poisonous plants & venomous snakes. Summertime: dehydration. Wintertime: hypothermia.
For any paddler visiting Northeast Louisiana who wants to experience a classic Cypress Bayou -- Bayou Bartholomew and its tributary Chemin-a-Haut should be your first waterways to explore.
1) Berlin Bridge to 425 Bridge 7.8 miles
- Chemin-a-Haut Bayou Lower approx 1.4 miles round trip
3) Chemin-a-Haut Bayou Upper approx 2 miles round trip
4) Bonner Ferry Bridge to Point Pleasant Bridge 6.5 miles
5) Shingle Landing to Water Pipe Landing 2.1 miles
Old Berlin Bridge to 425 Bridge 7.8 miles
Access underneath Old Berlin Bridge on the South side of bridge (left bank descending). You can park your vehicle underneath bridge if water isn’t too high -- but beware possible rising waters! Probably not a safe place to leave a vehicle overnight. Arrange shuttle if possible and park your vehicle at State Park.
Primitive put-in underneath bridge. Start off downstream in a narrow channel (maybe 25 yards wide). If the water is low you might need to avoid an old section of the original Old Berlin Bridge which has fallen into the water and rises up out of the sandy bottom. Look for the rims of wagon wheels and other artifacts of the bygone days. Float past several farm pumps and then leave all sign of mankind behind as you descend into a bankside wilderness lined by stretches of stately cypress trees alternating with stretches of overhanging privett (oaks, sweetgums & river birches above), on a hot summer day there is no shortage of places to sneak into the shade and enjoy some respite from the blazing southern sun.
The channel here is followed by parallel back channels on both sides through which the water flows during periods of high water. In high water you can enter these forested places but beware being swept into trees by swift water. During low water park your vessel along one of the many sandy banks and stroll through these backwater places, all undergrowth is cleared away and kept to a minimum by the high water. You can walk along the base of big cypress trees and through families of surrounding cypress knees with views deeper into the dark woods beyond and back into the bright opening of the river through these knees, some of which stand as tall as you. Keep your eyes open for the tracks of the animals, the birds and the mollusks. That’s right, mussleshells make wandering tracks as they move through the shallows water they thrive in and filter feed the muddy/sandy bottoms. Various frogs & toads will jump out of your way as butterflies flitter about and horseflies buzz the perimeter. You can of course stay in your canoe and keep paddling by these places, and enjoy the view from the canoe, but you will miss close ups of the healthy bank-side communities.
As you approach Chemin-a-Haut at mile 2 you will see some bigger cypress trees, bank right about one hundred yards above the confluence is one giant that has a hollow belly so big ten people could stand inside.
If you have an extra hour (or more) and want to visit on of the most beautiful cypress swamps anywhere in the south, take a right into the Chemin-a-Haut. This side trip is well worth the extra effort, even if it requires portaging over the mouth of the Bayou during low water. If you don’t have the time and want to continue on downstream, continue on downstream.
During low water you will paddle over shallow sandy shoals where the river spreads out and creates underwater dunes, navigating the shallows requires a little attentiveness to where the water flows, and reading the river. There is no hazard or difficulty running aground here. The bottom is a fine soft sandy layering, but stable, easy to walk on if you need to stand up and drag your vessel a distance. If you come to a halt, simply stand up and walk along until the water gets deep enough to paddle again.
These shallow stretches are followed by long pools of deeper water where you can paddle again with ease and enjoy the columns of cypress trees and fantastic convolutions of their roots and cypress knees. If you have a camera you will quickly fill up camera memory there are so many beautiful scenes you will want to record!
Along the way you will pass by many possible sandy landings where you can easily pull up your vessel and stretch your legs or have a riverside picnic. Please practice Leave No Trace principals and remove all your trash, and be sure to go far from the water’s edge if you need to go to the bathroom.
Downstream of the mouth of Chemin-a-Haut the river runs southward for a mile and then makes an abrupt hairpin turn, almost doubling back upon itself to exit in a northwesterly direction. From there its another mile until the next bend where the bayou now flows along at the base of the State Park. There is a possible primitive take-out at mile 37.6 at the old mouth of Chemin-a-Haut (where a small lake has been created within the park right bank descending by two earthen dams at either end) but access is difficult and it’s a muddy place.
As you paddle through the beautiful state park continue on around the 180 degree bend, this time more gentle, under tall riverbanks on your right where the Caddo ridges break off into the erosive action of the Bayou, the woods are deep here and there are no nearby roads. The riverbank becomes noticeably taller in this section, and this is another good place to locate a sandbar to picnic or make a landing to get out & stretch your legs. This entire section is relatively quiet and free of trash due to the lack of bankside automobile traffic, but as you approach 425 vehicular noises become louder & louder. At mile 34.4 the bayou rounds one last bend and your take-out bridge will be seen downstream. Until there is a ramp built, your easiest access point is bank left on the downstream side of the bridge.
From Highway 425 vehicle access is off the southbound lane and the south side of the the Hwy 425 Bridge. If you have 4 wheel drive, you can possibly drive over the grassy bank for ease of packing, but if you don't (or if its been raining) you'd be best advised to stay on the Hwy easement and portage you vessels and gear to your vehicle. This is part of the adventure for any paddler!
GPS Waypoints Old Berlin Bridge to 425 Bridge
LBD = Left Bank Descending
RBD = Right Bank Descending
Using the decimal system on all GPS readings
Old Berlin Bridge
Mouth of Chemin-a-Haut (RBD)
Chemin-a-Haut State Park (RBD)
possible take-out in State Park
Chemin-a-Haut State Park (RBD)
Closest River location to Park headquarters
Hwy 425 Bridge
Chemin-a-Haut Bayou Lower approx 1.4 miles round trip
Lower Chemin-a-Haut might be one of the most magical places you ever paddle anywhere. And yet “you can’t get there” and there are rumors of a reservoir which would destroy it forever. Hopefully this beautiful hidden wonder will be saved and plans will be abandoned to dam it.
Lower Chemin-a-Haut is a small lagoon of tannin dark water but densely packed with giant cypress rising out of the water in fantastic other-worldly shapes. It could be the highlight of some National Park, and yet you can’t get there except via the 7.8 mile paddle down Bayou Bartholomew from the Old Berlin Bridge to 425 Bridge (described above), although you could make a round-trip by parking at the New Berlin Bridge, paddling to the Chemin-au-Haut, and then paddling back upstream to the same Bridge. This could be challenging depending on water level.
As of writing time there is no other way to access this bayou without crossing private property. But maybe that’s a good thing. If it was easy everyone would be doing it, right? Since you have to paddle so far to get there down another bayou that rarely sees paddlers most likely you will be alone when you visit. And maybe this is how it should be.
The Chemin-au-Haut is a spiritual place full of incredible natural beauty that will leave you feeling closer to heaven and supreme creativity of the highest order. It would be sacrilegious if there were too many people there. You won’t see any trash. Indeed you won’t see any signs of human civilization at all once you get past the neck of shallows connecting it to Bayou Bartholomew.
Access Lower Chemin-a-Haut Bayou from Bayou Bartholomew across a shallow inlet lined with big cypress and crowds of cypress knees. At 2.0 on the Beekman Gage you will have to drag your vessel across some of the shoals here, below 1.0 it will become a portage. Above 2.0 you can probably work your way in without having to abandon ship.
The waters deepen immediately past this short shallows and the creek opens up into a delightful lagoon of dark still waters which offer sparkling reflections of the overhanging bankside trees, shrubbery, through which numerous giant cypress can be seen emerging and monolithically reaching to the sky. The cypress are so big they look like gnarly cliffs rising out a fjord. It’s hard to get a perspective of just how big they are until you paddle close, or if you see someone else paddle by their base. They fill the sky when you get close. Trees this big are at least a thousand years old. Approach and respect them with reverence. They saw the native peoples of the last millennium flourish and disappear. They saw Hernando de Soto, La Salle, the rise of the French Empire, and the sale of the Louisiana Purchase. They lived through the birth of the American West, the Civil War and the Industrial Age. If not logged or submerged they will outlive us all, the champion bald cypress of North America is 3,000 years old!
The giant cypress in the Chemin-a-Haut are so big and have so much character some of them have gained names accordingly.
First you will paddle past “The Jester” a twin-trunked giant, the two trunks cross each other like pointed crowns of a jester’s hat. Shortly thereafter is the “Blowdown” a giant cypress that fell over in some previous storm. You will have to find passage through the “Blowdown.” Depending on water level inspect the choices and pick your best route. The Blowdown is so big it would require an industrial crane to remove, maybe something like one of Colonel Shreveport’s snagboats, and so it will remain a landmark until it rots away. Being a giant cypress this process might last a few hundred years!
You might notice huge stumps closer to water level -- the remainders of other giants that were pushed over in tornadoes or front line winds. As you wind your way through the maze of trees, stumps and knees, you will see the biggest cypress of all filling the middle of the bayou. This is “The Castle,” which is unmistakable because there is a hollow within this tree so cavernous you can actually nose you canoe or kayak into it and become engulfed in its belly of wood. From the distance the sides of the “Castle” flow outwards in the classic bell shape like a woman in a wide dress, of old cypress trees, this tree is particularly wide, at least 20 feet in diameter.
Continuing on adjacent to “the Castle” you will paddle by the “Leaning Sisters” a small grove of tightly situated medium-sized cypress trees in the water, 4 of them are leaning over at a severe angle. Shortly thereafter is the largest stump yet, “Old Stumpy” a reminder of other giant cypress trees from centuries past. The deep pool begins to shallow and narrow as the Chemin-au-Haut bends to the East. At “Knee Forest” you will have to pick your way around a broad swath of very tall cypress knees packed around the base of several big trees whose presence have built a bed of soil, needles & cypress cones packed around the knee forest, and filled in with river mud from previous rises.
Beyond Knee Forest the Chemin-au-Haut bends Eastward into “The Tunnel” where it narrows into a thin shallow channel shadowed with overhanging privet and a few younger cypress. (Younger being a relative term here, these cypress are hundreds of years old compared to the thousands of years of their downstream neighbors!). At normal water levels (1-3 on the Beekman Gage)you will find it too difficult to continue somewhere before or in “the Tunnel.” When you’ve had enough of bottoming-out and becoming high centered on hidden roots and submerged stumps, turn your vessel around and return downstream to the Bartholomew. As you paddle back you will be able to enjoy once again all of the marvelous trees and magical pools of water in this wondrous place called the Chemin-au-Haut.
GPS Waypoints Chemin-a-Haut Bayou Lower
Using the decimal system on all GPS readings
Mouth of Chemin-a-Haut
Landing at old farm logging road
“The Jester” (Giant Cypress Tree)
“Blowdown” (trunk of Giant Cypress Tree)
“The Castle” (Giant Cypress Tree)
“Leaning Sisters” (4 Med Cypress Trees)
“Old Stumpy” (stump of Giant Cypress Tree)
“Knee Forest” (cypress knees)
“The Tunnel” (overhanging privet)
Note: These trails were coordinated by Dora Ann Hatch LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Delta Adventures. Photos and text by John Ruskey. Go to www.lsuagcenter.com/agritourism or
http://www.louisianaagritourism.blogspot.com for all trails and photos of the rivers of Northeastern Louisiana.
The Water Trails of Northeastern Louisiana:
Paddling in Northeast Lousiana?
While canoeists, kayakers and Stand Up Paddleboarders may not not have ever heard of the Tensas River, Bayou Bartholomew, or Bayou Macon, they will be excited to learn about these beautiful waters and many spectacular attributes, and will want to make plans for a future visit for paddling fun & adventure!
Northeastern Louisiana is bounded by the Mississippi River to the East and the Ouchita Ridge to the East. All its waterways flow parallel to the Mississippi River, indeed all inhabit old channels of the big rivers that engorged the valley following the melting of the last ice age. The Arkansas River used to flow on the East side of Macon Ridge and confluence with the Mississippi hundreds of miles downstream of where it today confluences. Some of the waterways, such as the Macon Bayou and Bayou Bartholomew are born in Arkansas and flow long distance southward along the old Arkansas River valley into Louisiana. Others, like the Tensas, meander along entirely within the state of Louisiana. The Tensas comes to life as an old channel emerging from the South end of Lake Providence. Similarly, the Macon emerges out of the waters of Chicot Lake, and inhabits old channels of the Mississippi River.
On the map all NE Louisiana waterways tumble & fall from the north in a complicated zig-zag labyrinth of blue lines, but there is an order to the chaos when seen in relationship to their mother river, the Mississippi, and the old channels of the Arkansas. On the river themselves, your paddling experience will be one of great beauty, plentiful wildlife and gentle flatwater paddling.
All waterways in Northeast Louisiana drain into the Atchafalaya, the river of trees, the largest river swamp in North America, a recognized world heritage site.
Like all waterways of the Southeast, these three flowing streams meander through little seen landscapes, visited only by the occasional fisherman or seen by the seasonal hunter. For the paddler this means two things: 1) the wildlife viewing is superb; and 2) you will likely be the only person on the river. You will be seeing more wild turkey, foxes and white-tailed deer than people, and more egret and bear tracks than human. Paddling these waterways is “voyageur style” paddling, mostly flatwater through hidden & forgotten landscapes.
You don’t have to travel to far flung corners of North America or South America to reconnect to nature and enjoy the peace and rejuvenation of the rivers. Why fly to Alaska or the Amazon when you can find wilderness right here in a forgotten corner of the Deep South. These waterways deserve your attention! With relatively simple preparation & logistics involved you can have a rewarding daytrip. Make a long weekend out of it for an adventure, or a plan a week-long expedition for a life-changing experience!
The forests at this latitude are caught in between the sub-tropical swamps/marshes of the Gulf Coast and the temperate hardwood forests of the middle of America. You will see some giant cypress covered with spanish moss, and glens overgrown with palmetto. But you will also glide through classic hardwood forests composed of stately oaks, locust & sweetgums and some of the healthiest remnants of shagbark hickory in North America. Deer, bear, wild turkey, bobcat, squirrels, and other common American forest dwellers roam these woods, but also typical Southern creatures like possum, armadillo and wild boar. Beaver are found along the banks or swimming in the river but also river otters and nutria. Various turtles thicken the waters alongside alligators & a wide variety of snakes, skinks, toads and frogs. You can pick several varieties of wild grape but also enjoy muscadine, mayhaw, persimmons and paw-paws.
Spectacular Because: Last known confirmed sighting of the Ivory Billed Woopecker (1937) (?) and still very wild. You feel like you are a visitor in a lost world. 100,000 acres of protected forests & wetlands.
Spectacular Because: longest bayou in North America (400 miles long). Richest fish habitat of any bayou (over 100 species). Over 50 species of mussels, some not found anywhere else. Incredible cypress bottoms at Chemin-a-Haut Bayou confluence.
Spectacular Because: this waterway meanders through the site of the largest, earliest and most advanced Native American Society, Poverty Point, where 2-3,000 people lived from 1650BC - 400BC, predating Confucius, Christ and the flowering of Ancient Greece!
When to go -- Water Levels:
To get an idea of what each river is doing, overall rises and falls and area precipation, the US Army Corps has developed a useful site at www.RiverGages.com. Go to the Beouf-Tensas Basin for Bayou Macon and the Tensas River. Go to the Ouchita Basin for Bayou Batholomew and Chemin-aHaut. Both of these basins are found in the Vicksburg District and this website will provide quick and easy viewing of all waterways in this drainage area with tabulated info on latest levels, 24-hour change (rises or falls), 24 hour precipitation and also when you want to avoid going, which usually occurs when any given waterway rises above flood stage.
When to go -- Seasons:
In general Fall and Spring are the best seasons to paddle any of the rivers of the deep south. This is because of the hot & humid conditions of the southern summer. If you go in the heat of the day carry plenty of water and be aware of the conditions that lead to heat exhaustion. Stay cool by seeking shade when possible and don’t be afraid to splash water on you for an easy and quick cool-down. The water might be muddy but for the most part in all sections described it is clean. Its much better to get a little muddy or a little wet than get over-heated!
Another reason you might want to avoid hot weather is the added annoyance of mosquitoes and possible encounters with snakes and alligators which are all much more active in the heat, and almost completely disappear in the cold. If you are a beginner paddler the rivers are usually lower, and hence slower, in the Fall. If you enjoy a little more water speed, more maneuvering, more action, then you might want to consider a Spring trip when the rivers are generally higher and faster moving. Of course in any season the water levels can change dramatically according to local rainfall. Be sure to always check forecasts and river levels at rivergages.com.
The scale of difficulty used in this guide is Easy, Moderate and Advanced:
Easy: Doesn’t require any special paddling skills. Anyone can safely paddle this section of river. No special duress or physical hardships involved.
Moderate: Some maneuvering required through possible obstructions, long paddling, challenging put in and/or take out.
Advanced: Snags, sawyers and certain obstructions requiring advanced paddling skills, especially in high water levels. Probable portages. Difficult entry at put in or exit at take out, or both. Involves long-distance paddling.
For the paddler, there are two kinds of trips, 1) the social trip or 2) the nature trip. Rarely do these mix very well. You’re either talking to the people paddling with you, or you’re watching nature. To fully experience nature you have to enter as a visitor and be quiet, and watch and listen carefully. Most animals run when they here noise, or smell invaders. Paddling is the best way to get close to local wildlife, but if you’re being noisy you might not see anything!
In general boat ramps & river landings are okay for the daytrip, but not safe for overnight parking. Inquire locally about any particular landing and be sure to lock valuables out of view or take them with you. In places where there isn’t a boat ramp you might be tempted to park your vehicle underneath the bridge if water isn’t too high, but beware rising waters! When possible arrange shuttle and park your vehicle at one of the State Parks or other secure public place.
Put-ins are rated as Good, Rough and Primitive in this guide:
Good Boat Ramp: Well designed boat