Monthly Archives: November 2009

Neal Moore Canoes the Mississippi

MISSISSIPPI RIVER

I’ve been at this now for going on five months… my quest to canoe the Mississippi River from the source at Lake Itasca, Minnesota, to New Orleans.  Here we have some random video footage shot en route.  Am planning to make New Orleans Tuesday, December 1st, between 4pm and 5pm, if the weather cooperates.  If all goes well, the next blog should be from NOLA…  Once again, here’s to adventure!

Follow the journey…

CNN.com’s iReport: http://www.ireport.com/ir-topic-stories.jspa?topicId=321427

Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/mooreneal

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Filed under Americana, On CNN, On the Mississippi, Wanderlust

A Prison Without Walls

ANGOLA, LOUISIANA

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.

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Filed under Community Project, Mississippi River Town, On CNN, On the Mississippi

New Orleans Finish Planned for Tue, Dec 1st

I’m now on my final approach into New Orleans with plans to arrive into the city on Tuesday, December 1st to land at 5pm – if the weather holds up!  I’ll plan to be in town from Dec 1st thru Dec 8th.

Today is my birthday and I’ll be paddling with local Natchez kayaker Adam Elliott for the second part of the day. This is a sincerely beautiful portion of the river and the weather forecast for the next several days is bright and sunny. I couldn’t ask for a better day or for that matter spell of my life.

I’m really excited to be on this final stretch of the Mississippi. Am trying to enjoy the beauty of it all and to take it all in as the experience is about to come to an end.

So whether you can make it to New Orleans in person or meet up with me via this blog – I’ll look forward to seeing you all come NOLA!

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Racial Reconciliation in the Deep South

VICKSBURG, MISSISSIPPI

I joined a number of white and black ministers on my stop in Vicksburg, Mississippi for their special monthly breakfast sponsored by Mission Mississippi. Their goal: To cross racial and denominational lines by building relationships one by one.

Interviewed in this piece are: Rev. Reginald Walker, Word of Faith Church, Vicksburg, MS; Dan Hall, Special Advisor, Mission Mississippi, Jackson, MS; Rev. Chan Osborn de Anaya, Christ Episcopal Church, Vicksburg, MS; Rev. Randall Burge, New Christian Fellowship, Port Gibson, MS; Vickar Margaret Ayers, St. James Church, Port Gibson, MS; Rev. Lister Bowdoin, Bovina United Methodist Church, Bovina, MS; Rev. Linda Sweezer, House of Peace, Vicksburg, MS.

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Transcending sand dunes

I first met Sath Kandaswami at the Windsor Hotel in Cairo.  We had both just arrived into that city and immediately struck up a friendship over breakfast, identifying each other as fellow adventurers.  Sath had come in overland from Morocco and I had arrived via plane from Cape Town.  

Eager to experience the country, we booked ourselves onto a bus bound for Bahariyya Oasis, Western Egypt, where we heard rumors of a dusty frontier museum full of golden mummies.  From Bahariyya we continued onward, hiring a duo of Bedouin guides who took us out into the proper desert for a good handful of days. Here we experienced the Black Desert, Emerald Mountain, the Mummies of the Magic Spring, and the White Desert, camping out under the stars.  The sand dunes stretch forever.  Sath would climb one and I would climb up the next, sitting there at sunset, surveying a most glorious land.  You look and you look and at the exact moment when the sun disappears, there’s a magical puff of air.  You sit there on the dune and it blows directly into your face.  From the desert back into Cairo, we again joined forces for a trip down South – hopping on the Wagons Lit Sleeper coach.  I jumped off in Luxor while Sath continued on to the end of the line – Aswan.  

From Egypt, Sath travelled down into the Sudan, crossing the desert between the countries in a rented 4×4, later taking pictures on the streets – a practice that was banned and thus brave.

I met up with Sath again in Washington DC – a city we traversed in the odd down time between working actual jobs.  From here we shook hands and went our separate ways.  

The moment I realized I was going to canoe the Mississippi, one of the first people I contacted was Sath, who was now based in Dallas, Texas.  At that time he thought he’d either do the first half or second half of the river with me, but as I reached St. Louis, Sath said he might be game for Oxford, Mississippi.  I had given him the hard sell a couple of times and didn’t want to push him, so when I got to Oxford, I didn’t contact.  

Two days ago I got back on my canoe from Quapaw Landing, Mississippi, and paddled south.  From the river I found a sand dune, right out in the middle of the mighty Mississippi, and readily made for shore.  The dune was highlighted by the sun and even though it was an hour before sundown, I thought I’d stop here and make camp and enjoy the sunset.  My map said Island 67 and after setting up camp I checked my email and found a note from Sath’s sister, Chithra.  The sun was on its final descent when I read the news that Sath had died suddenly, in Texas, back on October 30th.  

I couldn’t sleep that night and I couldn’t contact anyone from where I was.  My phone had no reception and my email became spotty.  It was a hard night, full of memories, and as the sun rose the following morning, I shouted out, “You could have been here…  Look at this sunrise…  You should have been here!”  Which was when I realized that I was a fool.  Of course Sath was there. 

First light on Island 67, Mississippi River

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Life lessons of the dugout canoe

HELENA, ARKANSAS 

Canoe guru John Ruskey’s exploits along the Mississippi River have been featured in Southern Living, Outside Magazine, and National Geographic.  But it’s his work with the at-risk children of this region of America that intrigued me: the idea of using a canoe as education; of transforming a log into useable art; of the dugout canoe as a life-changing experience.

QaGaron, Fredrick, Brooklyn, and Veronica, four KIPP Charter School Middle School kids from downtown Helena, Arkansas smile as they walk the levee from their school to Mr. Ruskey’s Helena-based workshop.  This is their second class at Quapaw Canoes, and even though their friends are catching the bus for home, these kids walk with a stride in their step.

Helena has a rich and illustrious past.  As one of the few original bluff cities on the Mississippi River, the boomtown that once was is now an economically-depressed region, save – one of the only things going for it – the hope, promise and vision of the children. 

Mr. Ruskey has been volunteering his time with the local KIPP Charter School for over a year, so when the principal phoned and asked if it would be possible to transform a log into an original dugout canoe, comprised of KIPP-only students, the answer was, “We’d love to do that.”

QdMr. Ruskey does not speak in sound bytes. He speaks from his soul and he speaks with conviction.  When asked how art, education, and the Mississippi River come together, Mr. Ruskey explained, “They come together with each paddle stroke you take.  If you watch the way a paddle cuts thru the water – it creates a double spiral on either side of it – and if you look at the shape of a classic canoe, it’s almost the same shape you see created in the water as you’re stroking the paddle.  And that’s the wonderful thing about the Mississippi River and any moving water – but on the Mississippi you see it more than any other body of water I’ve ever experienced.  You see expressions of patterns, of life patterns – the very basic patterns that govern our life – you see them expressed, constantly being expressed and then re-created over and over again.  And so it’s actually there on the face of the water that you see all those things come together.  One of our mottos here is Qcthat the River brings us together, and in that sense it literally does bring together education and canoes and art – they all come together as you’re paddling the canoe.”

The KIPP Dugout Canoe Project, as it is officially known, is a twice-weekly after-school class that begins with a pad of paper and a pencil.  The students are asked to sit quietly and look at the log and visualize what it will one day become.  Some draw the log as they see it while others draw a dugout canoe with an animal head.  At some point, the kids, in coordination with their school, will vote democratically on what the final shape is to become.  For now, part of the fun is just that idea alone.  The idea that this cottonwood log can one day become anything and everything they hope and desire it to be.

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Filed under Americana, Community Project, Mississippi River Town, On CNN, Wanderlust

Hurricane Katrina Survivor and Mighty Quapaw, Shemiah Timberlake

HELENA, ARKANSAS

Video interview with “Mighty Quapaw” canoe apprentice Shemiah Timberlake.  Shemiah, age 15, a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, speaks of his family’s departure from Louisiana, of his time in Mississippi, and of his love for the Mississippi River.  Filmed at the Quapaw Canoe Company, Helena, Arkansas.

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