At the Mouth of the Mississippi, a Weird and Fragile Beauty

In Plaquemines Parish, Fort Jackson, completed in 1832, was built to defend New Orleans.

If New Orleans is an aging beauty queen drunk on the fumes of her glorious past, Plaquemines Parish, to the southeast, is plain old sloshed — not to mention saturated, striated, slivered and surrounded by water. And no wonder: The peninsula that comprises most of the parish was born many years ago, when the Mississippi River shifted, creating a sliver of land melding into its extensive wetlands.

Even on the peninsula itself, things aren’t so solid, not with the Mississippi chugging down its middle at approximately the equivalent of 166 semitrailers of water a second, and the Gulf — flat, blue-brown and dotted with oil rigs — on both its eastern and western flanks. Route 23, the main road in and out, gets you just past Venice, the peninsula’s last town. Go a bit farther on Tidewater Road and you come to the sign that tells you that you have reached the “Gateway to the Gulf,” or “the southernmost point in Louisiana.”

If you want to go to the very end, where the river spills out in three different channels (called passes), you have to do it by boat. I did it years ago, albeit on a cruise ship. But on a cruise ship, you don’t really think about how strange the landscape is as the river churns its way to the rim of the continent, where the land is barely land at all, but rather, mere fingers of earth, clumps of marsh, mosquitoes and mist.

But when I took the same trip by car, paralleling the river until it could be paralleled no more, I got a fuller view, as if looking at the same picture from both sides of a negative.

Despite the immense ships floating by on the far side of the seemingly endless levee, Plaquemines appears to be like many other rural Louisiana parishes: dotted with churches, convenience stores, trailer homes surrounded by tender green fields, sprays of yellow wildflowers, live oaks covered with Spanish moss, vegetable gardens. In the town of Belle Chasse (not far from New Orleans,) there’s Woodlands Trail and Park, a recreational greenway of forested wetlands filled with palmetto and cypress — lovely, yes, but similar in many ways to other such woodlands in the state.

So too, there are antebellum plantations, including a handful of privately owned plantation homes in various states of repair (or not). In Braithewaite, Stella Plantation opened in 2012 as an events venue. Woodland Plantation, in West Pointe à la Hache, was built in the 1830s and was for decades dedicated to the propagation of sugar cane and the trading of slaves. It is now operating as a bed-and-breakfast, with five separate buildings for guests, including a raised Creole cottage with numerous guest rooms.

Farther on is Fort Jackson, completed in 1832 to defend New Orleans. During the Civil War, it was under Union naval fire for 12 days. It fell on April 28, 1862, after which Union forces captured New Orleans and used the fort as a prison.

It’s now a National Historic Landmark and the only one of three historic local forts that — despite having been badly damaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, before being re-soaked by Isaac — can be visited by the casual traveler. Dragonflies play in the rushes growing in the fort’s moat, and along the rim, which you can walk or drive along on a series of pathways, you can see that the fort is shaped like a five-pointed snowflake.

There are two other forts in the neighborhood. Fort St. Philip is on the river’s east bank, but as it’s privately owned and accessible only by boat or helicopter, it’s a bit hard to visit. Likewise, the circa 1700 site of Fort De La Boulaye — built by early French explorers and now situated on Highway 39, not far from New Orleans — is on private property, and there isn’t much left to see despite its importance to Louisiana’s first European settlers.

Plaquemines is an enchanted place, beloved by nature lovers and sportsmen alike, but given its fragility, how long it will remain a place at all — in the sense of a location that signifies firm land — is anyone’s guess. Even so, from its earliest days as a European foothold on the new continent, and on through hurricanes, wars, epidemics and social and economic upheavals, the region hung on. Then the 1927 Mississippi River flood came along, and when the powers-that-be in New Orleans realized that the flood would most likely inundate the entire city unless drastic steps were taken, they dynamited the levee some 13 miles below the city, sparing the Big Easy by funneling the floodwaters into Plaquemines, and, in the process, devastating it. Randy Newman recounted the disaster in his song “Louisiana,” which goes, in part: “The river rose all day, the river rose all night / Some people got lost in the flood / Some people got away all right.”

What Mr. Newman doesn’t sing about is how, in the aftermath of the flood, the Army Corps of Engineers was authorized to do what it had to do to prevent future catastrophes, the upshot being that it changed the course of nature, which in turn set in motion a cycle of increasingly more ruinous storms, followed by increasingly more expensive, if unavoidably temporary, fixes.

To understand the predicament that Plaquemines is in, you have to go back to prehistory, during which, for thousands of years, the river flooded regularly. Along with flooding, it frequently changed course to find the fastest route to the sea. Because that’s what rivers, left to themselves, do: They flip and flop around, creating river deltas and vast watery networks. These two behaviors — flooding and rerouting — created rich deep loam (as in the Mississippi Delta), and built both the barrier islands and the landmass of South Louisiana itself.

It’s a complex story with many moving parts (and many books devoted to explaining it, including the masterful “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America,” by John M. Barry).

But the gist of all this is that after 1928, the river was forced into a vast continuum of regulated levees and straightened, the idea being that the levees would prevent flooding, and the straightening would accommodate shipping. But with the levees keeping the water in, natural land-and-barrier-island-building came to a stop; with the waters rushing on at a faster pace (without natural twists and turns to slow it), silt began to collect in inconvenient places, such as in shipping channels, including in Plaquemines, where the Army Corps regularly dredges.

Faster-moving water also means that the river may be more insistent than it would otherwise be about where it wants to go as it wends its way to its final home in the Gulf. Because where it wants to go isn’t where it now goes (past the “big bend” at Baton Rouge, east toward New Orleans, and finally through Plaquemines Parish), but rather, straight down the Atchafalaya River and from there past the town of Morgan City (home of an annual petroleum and shrimp festival) and finally into the Gulf.

But since the forces of industry, trade and human settlement demand that the river remain where it is, the Corps built a collective of enormous and costly structures — most notably, the Old River Control Structure and the Morganza Spillway — in order to prevent the Atchafalaya from “capturing” and rerouting the Mississippi.

But the more the river is tamed and contained, the more the surrounding land sinks — crunching down to ever-thinner layers of earth as, deprived of the natural replenishment of regular flooding, it dries out like an old, brittle sponge. Hence, while New Orleans is, on average, one or two feet below sea level, Plaquemines is literally six feet under.

It’s both weird and fragile, this place, which may even be one of the reasons people keep coming here — for its swamp tours (by kayak, air boat and small motorboats), its cypress and tupelo forests, and its wildlife: turtles, bright green frogs, snakes, gators and, of course, its birds. Birds, birds, everywhere, including an abundance of water fowl — snow geese, mottled duck, mallards, shovelers, green-winged teal, pintails, white-fronted geese, not to mention white egrets, blue herons, bald eagles, ibis, pelicans, flycatchers, osprey, kites, falcons, buntings, sandpipers, hummingbirds and gulls. You float under ancient trees, past cypress knees and plants that look like they’ve been there since the time of the dinosaurs.

In point of fact, and despite the ubiquity of petrochemical all-stars like Chevron and Baker Hughes, much of the parish is designated as a wildlife refuge, including Breton Island, which, together with the Chandeleur Islands and other barrier islands, comprise the Breton National Wildlife Refuge.

Its enthusiasts claim that the fishing in and around Plaquemines is the best anywhere — tuna, dolphin, wahoo, whale shark and marlin in the deep blue seas; redfish, flounder and speckled trout closer in. You can fish in fresh water, salt water, on and offshore. There is fly-fishing, bayou- and swamp-fishing. There are nine marinas and hundreds (if not thousands) of charters and guides. Ducks abound, too, which is why many of the fishing-tour operators also arrange duck-hunting excursions.

Me, I neither hunt nor fish, but I do eat, and by the time I pulled into the Venice Marina, with its houseboats and elevated, brightly colored “camps” (small cottages), many available as rentals, it was well past noon. I was hungry. It was a quiet day, too windy to venture out. The boats moored in the marina danced on the current. I stumbled into Crawgator’s Bar & Grill — so far as I could tell, the marina’s sole restaurant — sat on the deck and devoured a platter of fried fish, sweet potato fries and toast, which was served to me by a young woman who, not surprisingly, couldn’t have been nicer or more polite. But that’s South Louisiana for you — the people are warm and friendly, the food is fabulous, and though the whole place could be washed away in a hurricane season or two, it sure as heck knows how to live.

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