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 see the CNN.com expedition interview CLICK HERE and to view CNN.com’s “Down the Mississippi” retrospective CLICK HERE.
Category Archives: On the Mississippi
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
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.
Flash River Safari has been mentioned on CNN’s weekly citizen journalism wrap-up “This Week in iReport”. The short piece, which features Super Chickan, will run this weekend on CNN North America & the main page of CNN.com. To view the segment CLICK HERE.
Woke up early this morning in preparation for a 50 mile river run from just north of Tunica, Mississippi to Helena, Arkansas. Was in the water before the sun first broke, and when she did, I passed my first barge of the day. This photograph captures a glimmer of the scene. The entire hour before this barge I was in absolute wonderment over how beautiful the sky was. On this trip, it’s times like this, when nature quite literally surrounds you, that all of the pain and struggles wash away. Today there is a current and today is a very good day.
LOWER MISSISSIPPI RIVER
The difference in river currents post Cairo, Illinois, has been, to put it mildly, dramatic. Am now facing rising waters that two nights ago, could have taken me under – while in my sleep.
Had camped on a patch of sand known as “Moore Island” approximately 30 miles south of the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and come midnight, was forced to pull up stakes as the waters were lapping at my tent. Moved the tent to higher ground – back into the sands below the elevated trees, as high as it actually went on that island – but by 6am, the waters had climbed to the point where it was time to vacate. The water had actually risen five feet in total Sunday night, but it certainly felt like more. Still in the dark, my lantern, blowing in the wind like a hurricane lamp, guided my movements of bringing goods from tent to canoe as I was in essence evicted off the island.
Now in the river, I was greeted by raging waters, dangerous waves, monster barges, wind, and dark.
Made it to the first boat ramp I could find to get off the river where I met and befriended the pilot of the ferry service tug that operates between Missouri and Hickman, Kentucky. Edward Fuller has been on the river for some time, and had some ominous words regarding my mode of transport – pointing to a spot just across the river where a giant eddy has been known to spin full sized boats, as he put it, something silly.
After listening to my story, Edward told me, “I’m not sure if I should call you crazy – or praise you”. Edward gave me one of his bright orange rain slickers for good luck (so the barges could actually see me) along with some snacks and extra water. We talked shop while we waited for the next car to arrive as well as for the waves to calm down. During that time, I learned a number of good strategies to deal with the remainder of my trip: Hug the right side of the coast (at least for this portion of the river); get completely off of the river when a monster barge approaches; but do not step foot onto Island No. 8 (a large island approx 5 miles down from Hickman, KY), as “it is a hunting island where they will shoot you on sight.”
As luck would have it, I had to make two emergency stops onto Island No. 8, as two monster barges, one after the next, hugged the same stretch of coastline, immediately to my left. As Edward had explained, “hunters down here don’t care about Christmas. For them, it’s all about the start of hunting season. They stock that island with deer and if you land on their island without an invite, they will think you’re a poacher, and they will shoot you. They shoot on sight.”
Just before landing, the first time, I did see one deer who jumped out of my line of sight the moment I laid eyes on her. Laying low on dreaded Island No. 8, I was happy and quite fortunate that these were the only set of eyes to have seen me.
Am now talking with tug pilots whenever I get the chance to check out the rapidly changing conditions on this river. The waters continue to rise and it is now rare to find an island with a sandbar at all. Most islands are simply comprised of the top half of trees. I’d take pictures to show you but while I’m out on the river these days, I’m too busy concentrating. The river current has picked up to at times clock in at ten to twelve miles per hour. That’s up from two to five miles per hour prior to joining the Ohio River at Cairo. At such speeds the dangerous part of the river is not what is on top but indeed what is just below the surface. Logs, driftwood, and buoys. And at times, a medley of the three.
While that first morning out, post Moore Island, spooked me, the waves have not reached the levels that they did that day. I take solace in my suffering. There is still the nature. There is still the adventure. At this stage of the game, I am quite literally fighting to tell these stories – to make it to these towns. Upon landing at Cairo, at going on 10pm last Wednesday night, the good Reverend Kelly Cox asked, “Is this really worth the story?” To which question I answered honestly – without even thinking, “Yes, absolutely!”
Even with the rains, there are still the birds. Small birds with bright blue inner feathers, skirting about the canoe, as if to check it out, dipping and diving, always coming back for a second look. Today, the rain was sort of cool, scattered at first, like unto heavy sprinkles. But then it droned on and on, picking up steam, until it turned into a downpour. Cold rain that drives at you, in the case of today – all day long. Was so cold when I pulled out at Caruthersville, Missouri, late today that I checked myself directly into a hotel – with the kind (and essential) assistance of two new friends who live here locally. A wise investment for the hot shower alone. And now – at long last – for the bed. A bed that come morning, knock on wood, will not have floated away.
FLIGHT OF PELICANS
Approaching the town of Grand Tower I came across a flight of what appeared to be geese. One finds flocks of Canadian geese further up in Minnesota. Their flight pattern was so incredibly intricate I wanted to shoot but as luck would have it, a barge had just passed and the river was topsy turvy. Later on I saw where the group had landed. I started to count but lost my count after three hundred. At first I thought they might be simple seagulls but then I noticed the flapping – and the bills. As the crowd stood, they flapped their wings, like unto a plane winding its propeller down. Not sure if it was a sort of a dance or a mating ritual. My canoe spooked them and again they took to the air. Which is when I shot this short piece. I laid right back in my canoe and pointed my camera at the sky. Am not sure if this video connects the sheer excitement of the moment. This was the very first time in my life I have seen an actual flock of pelicans. Normally you see them one by one at the seashore. But here they were wild. I latched onto their wildness, for only that moment, and with them, for a little spell, felt absolutely free.
TRAIN PASSING ROCK ISLAND
I met the Mayor of Grand Tower, Ill, without knowing it. He was the manager of the RV campsite perched over the Mississippi River. A nice older feller in overalls. He shook my hand and I asked if I could camp down on the sand by the river. He said yes and asked if I needed anything to eat. An SUV he had been deep in discussion with volunteered to take me to dinner. All I had said was that I was canoeing the river. Randy Ellet was in the passenger seat and his wife, Linda, was at the wheel. Together we drove thru the sleepy little town of Grand Tower, population 750. Randy spoke of his work at the plant and how the old folks of the town were quite busy dying off. He told me he’d lived in this town for 51 years, and that this was how old he was. He said he loved the river more than anything, and then he told me he used to be the mayor. Directly thereafter sharing the secret that I had already shaken hands with the sitting mayor – the gent at the camp. Small world, this Grand Tower. Pointing across the river, Randy asked if I’d noticed Tower Rock – a solitary steep rock lording over the ebb and flow of the Mississippi – complete with old growth trees up top. I said I had and that it looked both old and mysterious. “It’s both,” replied Randy. “Loads of stories about that island.”
The following morning I awoke early to get out on the water – but couldn’t – due to dense fog. Which was exciting in a literary sense – considering I’m headed for Cairo, Illinois. Got myself packed and ready and as soon as it lifted, I set out, taking one long glance at Tower Rock – which was when I heard the train coming. Grabbed my camera – and this was the shot. Note: Tower Rock is the round island the train passes – in time.
MONSTER BARGE PERSONIFIED
Back on the Minnesota-Iowa boarder when I filed the story “Islands in the Stream” I thought that one barge pushed by a giant tow boat was exciting. Down here it’s a different story. This one was five barges wide and six barges long – note: you’ll count four across from the video but there was a sixth row hiding behind the furthest one. A lot of barges. Only one thing to do when the river is as narrow as it was when this tow passed. Get off the water. Hard to describe the power of such a machine unless you see it first hand, knowing full well it has within it the power to flip my canoe silly. Later in the day I’d pass an even bigger haulb by the name of “E. Robinson Ingram” – seven barges wide x seven barges deep. That’s 49 times larger than my friend’s operation outside of Brownsville. After such a beast passes, the river becomes a giant roller coaster of non-stop waves. Takes me back to being a kid learning how to surf in Hawaii. Nothing to be afraid of – you just roll with it.