One year on the water and I find myself in New Orleans, the end of the second leg of my “22 Rivers Expedition” across these United States. It’s been a wild year for one and all, and for me, there’s been no exception. Weeks into my cross country paddle the Covid-19 pandemic hit. After discussing with trusted friends and colleagues, I determined that with the canoe as my only home, sheltering in place meant continuing the journey. New Orleans represents 4,400 river and portage miles behind me, leaving another 3,100 to go next year to make NYC. Cheers for everybody’s encouragement, friendship, and support. It absolutely means the world.
“Modern Day Huck Finn” Neal Moore stops in Louisiana
When the Down the Mississippi author and adventurer Neal Moore set out for the second great expedition of his lifetime in February of 2020, he had no idea that his two-year, 7,500-mile documentarian trek by canoe would wind up navigating a nation mid-pandemic.
The original plan was to exercise slow journalism while covering the distance of twenty-two rivers and twenty-two states—from Astoria, Oregon to New York City—all in order to “come face to face with America’s soul.” “The idea was to go, from coast to coast, within two years—leading into the national elections and the aftermath thereof,” said Moore. “What I’m trying to do is to look for positive stories of what unites us as a country.”
And while the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated some logistical matters of Moore’s trip—and in many ways made it more solitary—he admits to the value of being in a position to document this particular America, this particular moment in history. “If anything, this has enhanced the storytelling,” he said. “It’s during hard times when people and families and communities really step up, and I’ve been able to witness a lot of that.”
After completing the first of three “Acts” mapping his path—a 1,111 mile upstream and uphill journey up the Columbia, Snake, and Fork rivers to MacDonald Pass in Montana, completed in ninety-seven days—Moore headed 3,249 miles down the Missouri and the Mississippi, pointing straight towards our own Big Easy. And in mid-December, so close to the end, he made a stop in the Red Stick. Over the course of five days, he made the obligatory stops: beers in a Spanish Town backyard, three meals at Poor Boy Lloyds, breakfast at Louie’s. And from his Hilton room downtown, he spent most evenings looking out at the river, which he’s come to know quite well. And as an outsider, he observed that Baton Rougeans know her too: “The residents of Baton Rouge have relationships, with this river and with nature, and with each other—neighbors in Spanish Town who are friends and actually know each other—you just don’t see that in lots of larger cities.”
Just before our press date, Moore told me this on his cell phone, windblown on an island in Old Man River and shooting for New Orleans, where he would complete Act II and spend the holidays, mostly alone. “But I’m very excited about it, this solitary experience of New Orleans,” he said. “I’ve learned that traveling solo, you’re open. You’re more open to observations, to potential new friendships, to stepping out of your comfort zone, seeing things from a unique perspective.”
I’ll be doing a book speech about “Down the Mississippi” in Richland, Washington as I pass through the “Tri-Cities” of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco at the confluence of the Yakima, Snake, and Columbia rivers in Southeastern Washington. The event will be hosted by the Richland Public Library on Monday, May 7th from 7-8pm. The library is located at 955 Northgate Dr, Richland, Washington 99352.
It’ll be the first speech about the folks I encountered and documented on my voyage down the Mississippi in quite awhile and an absolute first at a library. Should be fun! If you’ll be in the vicinity it’d be great to meet up!
iReporter Neal Moore left the northern source of the Mississippi River in July and ended his trip in New Orleans in December, traversing the Mighty Mississippi the whole way by canoe. His mission was not only to document his canoe journey but also report on and participate in positive and uplifting stories of American communities along the way. To view CNN.com’s “Down the Mississippi” retrospective CLICK HERE.
I had no idea there was no perimeter wall at Angola as I canoed along the natural barrier that surrounds three sides of Louisiana State Penitentiary – the Mississippi River. The sun had broken thru the morning mist as I made my way upstream from my camp the previous night on Shreves Bar Island, about one and a half miles downstream. The short upstream trip was work but at long last I reached the prison’s ferry landing. I had read online that this was a ferry for prison guards only, and as such, I had hoped to catch a ride into the prison. The ferry was not operating and I was later told that due to high water, they were using a “crew boat” for foot passengers only, but that this only took place during a shift change.
I was preparing to make the trek up to Angola on foot when I met my first convict “trusty”, Charles Martin. Mr. Martin had driven up in a truck while I was pulling my canoe out of the water and had busied himself working on the ferry structure moored into the banks of the river. When asked how far it was to the gate of the prison, Mr. Martin turned towards the road from where he had just come and replied, “What gate?”
Angola has transformed itself from what Collier’s Magazine once called “the most dangerous prison in America” into what observers are now calling the safest. According to Warden Burl Cain, this about face has taken place with two words: “morality” and “communication”.
The communication in the prison, afforded by Warden Burl Cain, gives the men a sense of freedom, a sense of hope. It is a psychological barrier that has been taken down – and the men are truly appreciative. From my interview with the warden, I was led to a meeting with the radio station, newspaper, and television station, before being brought to the prison’s hospice, into a room where Richard Vinet was on vigil, awaiting his death. Mr. Vinet, age 54, whose liver is failing, has been at Angola since 1984 and is officially now “on vigil” which means he was not expected to last the next 24 hours. As I spoke with Mr. Vinet about his love for the radio station and the chance he had had to request his favorite songs, a USA Today photographer snapped photos. When asked what it was that he wanted most to say, Mr. Vinet pointed towards his nurse, as well as one of Angola’s vice-wardens, Cathy Fontenot, stating, “I want to thank these two women here.” According to Ms. Fontenot, “No inmate here dies alone, a stroke of compassion which tends to lead the prisoners here in hospice to the realization of the gravity of their past actions.” When asked for specifics, Ms. Fontenot quoted a late prisoner who had spent time here in hospice as saying, “I realized the last person I was with when they died was my victim,” going on to say, “I’m truly sorry.”
Warden Burl Cain takes a similar approach when it comes to the men on death row, a people he refers to as “his children”, taking the trouble to hold their hand as they are executed by lethal injection. In so doing, Mr. Cain, who will have worked with these inmates on getting as right as possible with their maker, is able to “communicate” in a wholly different fashion. There is nothing fake or pretentious about Warden Cain. The man commands respect thru his presence alone – when he enters a building. Among multiple people I spoke with, both outside and inside Angola, the idea of Burl Cain as a good and honest guy was unanimous.
Approximately 86% of the 5,000 inmates at Angola are never going home – a sentence of “life” that in the State of Louisiana actually means it. The strategy of Mr. Cain is simply to let these men he has custody over have the chance to better their lives, to communicate, to be men.
As the sun began to set, I asked to be taken out to the prison’s old cemetery, a place where 1/3 of all those who die here will be buried, having no family or friends to take their remains away. I found a bronze marker set up for the “Unknown Buried Here” with the dedication: “Remember not my name nor my sins nor guilt nor shame; only that I was a man.”
In the end it was two inmates who pushed me and my canoe back out into the Mighty Mississippi. The sun had gone down, and the Mississippi was shiny black, reflecting the lights of the crew boat. I was not afraid. I knew exactly where my island lay, having approached the night before under similar circumstances. There comes a time on this river when you become one with your craft, where the danger of a seriously dangerous river is outweighed by a sense of calm, of a cocoon that envelopes you and lets you know you’re going to be alright. It could very well be due to the fact that I was only a visitor, but I felt this same safety – this same calm feeling the entire day at Angola – my very first day in a maximum security prison. My canoe with my gear in it had been loaded on a truck, and together we heaved it out and into the water. It was a strange feeling to step in and glide away. The convicts whose names I had forgotten to ask waved and wished me Godspeed. The sliver of a moon had broken thru the clouds for a moment and as the current took me, I waved back, feeling a certain camaraderie with the prisoners and their warden, but thankful to be free.
Thanks for making this story possible:
Vice-warden Cathy Fontenot.
My guide for the day was Major Joli Darbonne.
Interviewed for this story on video at the “Ranch House” – Warden Burl Cain.
KLSP (Louisiana State Penitentiary) — a 100-watt radio station that operates at 91.7 on the FM dial from inside the prison to approximately 6,000 potential listeners including inmates and penitentiary staff. The station is operated by inmates and carries some satellite programming. Inside the walls of Angola, KLSP is called the “Incarceration Station” and “The Station that Kicks Behind the Bricks.” Interviewed for this story is KLSP disk jockey Keith Alexander. Mr. Alexander is 44 years old and has been incarcerated at Angola for 21 1/2 years.
LSP TV Station 21 is a one-room television station that serves Angola State Penitentiary. Interviewed for this story: Matthew Morgan, sports editor; and Shawn Vaughn, editor.
The Angolites interviewed for this story are: Lane Nelson, managing editor, age 55, incarcerated at Angola for 28 1/2 years of a life sentence for murder; Kerry Myers, editor, age 53, incarcerated at Angola for 19 years of a life sentence for murder; and Klye Hebert, age 44, incarcerated at Angola for 9 years of a life sentence for attempted murder.
In the hallway of Maximum Security Cell Block D are: Marlo Green and Devon Morris.
Interviewed at Angola’s Hospice: Richard Vinet, age 54, incarcerated at Angola for 25 years.
A number of habitat islands are taking shape in the Upper Mississippi River just below Brownsville, Minnesota near the Minnesota-Iowa boarder – islands in the stream now being reclaimed for wildlife that were once prevalent before the Corps’ locks and dams were introduced back in the 1930s. The project is an effort by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in conjunction with Fish and Wildlife, and Minnesota and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to “restore lost and diminished fish and wildlife habitat in the pool by restoring islands.”
According to Jesse Weymiller, a local tow-boat sub-contractor tasked with moving rock via barge to help construct the approximate 22 islands in the project, the work is moving along well – now in phase three of three phases.
Jesse represents three generations of river-men who presently man their set of two tow boats and multiple barges – a local family run business who represent over 100 years of experience working the river between them.
“I started working when I was 15 – first working summers,” explained Jesse, now age 29. “I guess my future was pretty well set out before me.”
Jesse’s uncle, Tim Weymiller, who has worked dredging, towing, and construction on the river with his father from the age of 12 likes the idea of local workers included in the project. According to Tim, most jobs go to out of state contractors and sub-contractors, up from Mississippi and Louisiana, with locals making up about 20% of the current workforce. “But that’s really okay – because we also travel. We go where the work is. It just so happens we’re now working local.”
The islands are comprised of a layer of sand which is dredged from up stream in the river, a layer of rock, followed by the planting of native grasses and rows of willow trees to help buffer the island while attracting a number of waterfowl, turtles and fish.
I spoke with local resident and fisherman Jody Sonsalla who talked about the cost involved – stating it was a very good thing. “A number of years ago, the Mayor of Brownsville – Tim Sears – stood up and told the different people at the [town] meeting – ‘You know, $100,000 worth of rock in 1980 would have saved us $15m today’ – and it’s true – and you know, it’s one of those things that if we wait till tomorrow its just going to cost us more.”
While I canoed through the three-mile construction zone taking shape in the middle of the river, it was pleasing to see a return of the waterfowl that were once so prevalent in these parts. I noticed bald eagles, pelican, seagulls, as well as a great egret who stood watching the cranes, tugs, tow boats, and barges, busily re-creating a once-lost habitat.
WANAGAN LANDING, Minnesota
I stopped off at Wanagan Landing, a good six hour paddle from the source of the Mississippi River, where I met a gentleman who represents six generations of homesteaders – by the name of Donald Keith Butler. Mr. Butler expressed his love of the land and of the need to protect it for future generations to enjoy. He said that he had been taught by his grandfather to respect the land and that he was passing these values on to his children and to his grandchildren. Mr. Butler explained that “there were originally ten important homesteading families who really set the stage for the last century.” A number of these present-day homesteading families have banded together to jointly preserve the land as “a wild and scenic refuge for the soul.”
Mr. Butler represents positive voluntary action in action. People who are familiar with the land – who know it and who love it. Mr. Butler showed me a point on a dirt path not far from the Mississippi River where I conducted this interview. He told me of how he remembered his grandfather back in the 1930’s being wheeled away in the family Chevy when he got sick, pinpointing the exact spot where the grandfather had rolled out of the truck. “We picked him up and put him back in and then went over the bridge and to the hospital – where he died some twenty days later.” For Mr. Butler, this land is personal. People naturally get a love for the land. And when they do, they want to take care of it.
My niece Janet and nephew Forest took me to Lake Itasca for a successful launch last Friday. It was such a perfect day. The day before the lake experienced severe thunderstorms in the morning and afternoon, large hail, and severe wind. So I decided to wait a day! Will be posting more video and still shots of the first four days of absolute solitude here shortly…