Lower Mississippi River and New Orleans

Hello. We had a fun, busy trip this spring, 2017. Here is the story.

March 31, 2017. MEMPHIS: Our trip began 2 days ago with total of 12 hours of travel time to arrive in our Memphis hotel about noon yesterday. Tired, but we shot off to mid town to take in the Civil Rights Museum located in the Loraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

This was a very nice documentation of the Emancipation, early released slaves, the Jim Crow era, and conditions and protests that led to MLKs execution. It was well done and informative. But I think that some of the edge had been somewhat blunted for me because of many TV documentations that I have seen, the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, SA, and the occurrence of many of the events during my youth. Quite worth visiting, however. We crossed over to spend some time in the structure from where James Earl Jones fired the shot.

We were more tired by now. But we caught the City Trolley – about 6 to 10 blocks for $1.00 – to Beale Street for supper at the B. B. Kings Restaurant. I do not know how long Beale Street runs, but this block was cordoned off at about 6pm for a nonstop party and music. Nearly all of the shops were restaurants, music, or related-to-music. Menu items were mainly BBQ, ribs and pork, or catfish, Music – mainly blues, rock, or country. It was hot, the music was loud, and the food was tasty. This break helped but we were really tired by the time we got back to our hotel.

Today, we were scheduled for a Memphis City Tour. It began at a location at 930. About 20 min away by taxi. We had requested the hotel staff to reserve a taxi when we checked in. “No problem.” We were ready early, but the cab wasn’t. The staff called. Karel called. Finally the hotel stepped up and we got a ride from the hotel shuttle. Of course, the tour actually started about 15 min late.

The jump off location was the Tennessee Welcome Center. It was a nice place to meet our bus but it was, I think, not too welcoming. I think it was newly opened but it was barely populated with a nice panel presentation of the Civil War battle for Memphis and a lead in for the Civil War in Tennessee. In addition, they had brochures for other activities in the state.  

And we were off. Immediate on the horizon was a looming, but intriguing, 30-story, shining pyramid.

April 1. Well. This day has certainly started off appropriately. FIRE! alarm. 500am. Apparently, an electrical fire on 6th floor. We evacuated. About 4 fire trucks. Lots of milling around. No information. It appeared that only about half the people were actually outside the hotel. But before long, people began trickling back in. it was over. Our first April Fools event of the day.

That shiny pyramid? International(?) headquarters for Bass Pro Shops.  I didn’t catch it all, but this is the 3rd or 4th iteration of ownership. As the story goes – this is the version we heard – two guys were poised to decide to proceed with the deal so they did what any good old boy would do. They went fishing. And they made a bet. If they caught a 30lb catfish, the deal was on. They caught a 40lb catfish. The Bass Pro pyramid includes a 30story high restaurant, offices, live alligator, a bowling alley in the basement, and certainly more.

One of the next highlights was the General Peabody Hotel, a very old and famous hotel. Its greatest notoriety comes from - you have heard this before – the duck walk! Each morning (since 1932) at 11am five ducks are moved from the penthouse to the fountain in the main lobby and back up at 5pm. We piled out of the bus and charged the lobby and lined up. The first row was already filled… not much hope for us short folks. “When will they come?” “In 45 min.” Are you kidding me? I am certainly glad I did not have to pay for this. The time has come. The red carpet is rolled out. The elevator bell rings. But this is no duck walk. You know about the Running of the bulls… this was the running of the ducks. They sprinted the 30-40 feet. People pushing and flashing phones. Unbelievable. I came here for this? Another April fools event.

We passed old Cotton Barron mansions and historic buildings in this very old port town. Largest city in Tennessee. Our path led to a tour of the Danny Thomas St. Jude Childrens Memorial grounds. (If you are “old” as we are, you remember the Danny Thomas TV show.) The hospital and research facilities are a huge complex.

Lunch on Beale St. More BBQ pork. And we are off to Graceland. The second most toured house in the US… after the White House. This was interesting and worth visiting but it became a frustration in logistics for me. One arrives into a parking area and wait an hour in line to get to the mansion. There, snake through, room by room, guided by a video “e-pad” with 360 deg view and a set of earphones. As soon as we entered the main door, mine failed. No 360 and sporadically, no audio. And I couldn’t communicate with Karel because she wore noise blocking earphones. Unhappily, I survived but was impressed with the complexity, imagination, and splendor of the whole experience. We went on to see his collection of cars and motorcycles and other memorabilia that was amassed. All in all, the day was a success after another BBQ on Beale St.

THE RIVER: Back to April 1. We had another April Fools surprise when we arrived onboard. We found that our assigned stateroom was already occupied! And their boarding assignment was the same as ours. With a bit of effort, we found that we were reassigned from level 2 to level 3… no, make that level 4 (of 5 decks). A pleasant surprise. We are guessing that we booked early and as vacancies occurred, we got bumped up. We learned, later, that we had, in fact, been double booked and reassigned (by HQ) to a 3rd deck stateroom… directly in front of the noisy paddlewheel. A shipboard manager took pity on us and voluntarily reassigned us to this Level 4 room. All unbeknownsed to us and a pleasant April 1 surprise.

We attended two river lectures. One, about the geography and hydrology of the river and the economic importance of the river to the region and the history of the country and today’s commerce. We are recently back from another lecture, the compressed history of politics and events that exploded into the Civil War – in about an hour - and the battle of Vicksburg about 0.25.hr. Impressive. The presenter is a historian. And a showman. Very informative and interesting and easy to listen to.

We go to lunch in an hour. Then, we go ashore for a tour of the Vicksburg battlefield and museum and USS Cairo, a semi restored ironclad. I am looking forward to this tour.

Okay. This boat. We came aboard the paddlewheeler, America, yesterday, about 11am. And we were underway by 2pm. The America is 133 feet long and 53 feet wide. Draft is 8 feet and cruising speed is 15 mph. (I do not know how that is measured… flat water, upstream, downstream, average?) The ship was launched in 2016 and accommodates 185 guests. There are a total of 5 decks, including the main deck.  Oh, and the paddlewheel is decorative. We learned that in the beginning, operators quickly realized that a paddlewheel, alone, was totally ineffective and an operating paddlewheel was slower than diesel power and created more drag than value and when thrown into neutral both speed and efficiency were improved. Staff has been very friendly, helpful, attentive, and abundant. Various forms of entertainment, lectures, bluegrass music, bingo, banjo lessens, etc.

So far, the scenery has not changed much. Low lying countryside. Many trees. Sandy soil and sand bars. Little development besides bank stabilization and some levees. River width varies but is not as big as I had expected. Uniform sandy-gray color. Current velocity is 4-5mph. (I know this should be in nautical miles or knots, but this is what I got.) The river meanders downstream and so does the main channel; ergo, so do we. The sun may come to us from any angle and change abruptly. Look out and the riverbank is near to our starboard or right side. Look up again and it is to port. Not much wildlife; only a few birds. Strings of barges. Many. Some rafts of barges may be up to 24 or so at a time.

We toured the Vicksburg battlefield. It helped greatly to hear an hour long lecture on this topic before we boarded a bus for a narrated ride around the perimeter of the siege lines. Fortunately, the two presentations agreed with each other. You know, you can read a history book and have a good understanding of strategies and movements but when you compare that knowledge with a tour on the grounds, the understanding becomes much closer to reality. The ruggedness of the terrain with deep gullies, steepness of slopes, the closeness of the positions, and with gullies filled with felled trees, ends sharpened, and tied together with telegraph wire.

April 5. Just getting started today. We have a short tour of a pre- Civil War plantation, starting at 845. We will be back by noon and the boat will begin repositioning to Baton Rouge. The sunrise was fascinating. There was a light fog, enough to obscure the globe of the sun but it poked through the fog enough to cause a hazy transparency of the fog. A pleasant surrealism.

We are approaching Baton Rouge. The shoreline appears to be more stable and the trees are bigger and thicker. And the river is more busy. The far shore is simply lined with barge ‘tows’ and pushers. Now, tied up at BR, we see all sorts of hustle and industry, along with navy ships. BR is the main intersection of downstream moving commerce and incoming oceangoing vessels. Barges, bridge, grain elevators, vehicles, petroleum, and bustle.

April 6. We are well fed. We have been diligently trying to try all the “southern” and “New Orleans” dishes that we can. Usually, soon after breakfast, we are hustled to a tour bus. This is no easy task. We go across the gangway to shore; but then, is a steep incline – about 30deg – some 50 to 75 yards to the bus. This is the levee works. And of course, these are mainly an older crowd. (Golf carts are available as needed.) I should guess that we are on the side that pulls the average age downward. We pile into the bus, and we are off. Across a town and maybe through a countryside. To a battleground, a mansion, a museum, a country store, a plantation, or similar. Including “Grandma’s Buttons” store. Each is interesting or educational in some way. Then, back to the boat for lunch or supper.

In fact, we will soon head down for lunch and we will be off for a tour of Baton Rouge. Interestingly, we learned that many flags have flown over Baton Rouge. This was native land until the French arrived, then England took over until it became Spanish. For a short period, it was controlled by the “Republic of West Florida” before it became briefly CSA and the state of Louisiana, United States of America. We stopped at a museum and fanned out. Whoa!! Wrong museum!! Get back on the bus. Eventually, we got to the right museum.

April 7. I find myself, here, a bit of a novelty character. Usually, after introductions and small talk comes, “Where are you from?” “Alaska” usually draws wide eyes and “Really?” Or “I was in Alaska once…” Often a second query, “What is your line of business?” “Fish Biologist” usually draws an “Oh.” And a blank stare. Some 15 or 30 minutes later, “So what does a fish biologist do?” It’s all a big stumper. They just can’t handle the overload.

Today we had, logistically, the most unusual tour. After breakfast, we walked off the boat, over the levee and across the road, down a lane to the “Oak Alley” plantation house to tour. This was a very nice tour and a pleasant walk around afterwards – including a free mint julep. The levee here is about 40 feet high. It is interesting to put this all in perspective. Here, apparently, very high water of 40 feet is expected (and hoped) to not exceed 40 feet. In Amazonia, nearly this much water fluctuates annually and in Anchorage a big tide will exchange 30 to 35 feet in six hours. Here, at New Orleans, I was told, the tidal exchange is only 1.5 .to 2 feet.

Tomorrow, we disembark from the boat tour and head off on our own for about 5 days in NOLA before we are back to Alaska. We had a great last night supper and a great evening entertainment of Andrew Sisters hit songs. Lively fun.

NEW ORLEANS: We disembarked onto a tour bus and started a NO city tour. It was a great way to get an overview of the city and the neighborhoods. We learned about the “shotgun homes.” Basically, these were duplexes, with a connection with a space…   so you could fire a shotgun down the connection and not hit anything. Some areas were very old; others, more modern. There was little apparent evidence of flood damage. Of course, we had to stop to visit a graveyard. You’ve heard the story. Typical graves do not work because the water table is too high. If you bury a body, the casket will float up and pop out. The solution? Build crypts, not holes. What was interesting is that some well to do patriarch purchases a site and builds a crypt to hold four or more bodies… and the chronology takes over. When a family member dies, the body is inserted and denoted. After the crypt has been filled and another family member passes, the remains of the “oldest” member are pushed forward and out of the way and the newest body is inserted. Almost like musical chairs except the empty slot is predetermined.

April 10. Departing shortly for a “Food and History” tour. This was fun and interesting. we stopped in at about 6 sites, each provided some different food to try: pralines, NOLA PoBoys, sweet potato beignet (“ben-yah” – a sort of donut) catfish, gumbo, Muffuletta sandwich. Whenever we had a chance, we tried a local dish. Very tasty soups, various shrimp recipes, and crawfish… this was crawfish season here and they sure boiled and shelled a LOT of crawfish for all sorts of recipes. Later, we walked to the French Quarter and listened to several jazz bands.

This trip has produced a good crop of museum tours so yesterday should not have been a surprise. The WWII museum. Located in NOLA because it was here that the widely-used landing craft was designed and built. Often recommended. Very well done and very impressive, along with about six or more actual aircraft just hanging around. Tanks and other vehicles. We went on a simulated submarine mission…   and got sunk. But about 10% of the crew survived; maybe we did too. Many of the presentations included quotes from participants, not just a spewing of facts.

We headed over to see the Aquarium but it closed too soon to make it worthwhile. No matter. We found some shade and settled in to listen to more free live music. The crowds were big – and pressing. The heavy metal was a bit too heavy for me, but the Soul Jazz was very agreeable. Another good day. Tomorrow, a half-day trip fly fishing/ sight fishing for redfish and sea trout.

April 11. We had a 7am pickup. An hour drive to a boat launch and 45 min trip to the fishing grounds. Almost immediately, the guide spotted a redfish but we could not get set for a cast. Spotting more fish became more challenging and the wind started building. I had a few more shots but after a couple hours I put down the fly rod and switched to spinning gear. Within a half dozen casts, I caught a nice 8ish pound redfish or red drum. (Redfish are caught in the 30 to 40 pound range and one was reported at 94 pounds.) I had near misses by a small sea trout (weakfish) and alligator gar. We did see some nutria, herons, coots, white and brown pelicans, blackbirds egrets, ducks, and hawks.

As it happened, sis, Marge, and Harry arrived about this time. Coincidentally, they had planned a trip to NOLA this week from Wisconsin with friends. When bro, Jim, and Polly learned of this, they elected to drive from Iowa to Kansas City (home of daughter, Vanessa, and Gary and granddaughter) they flew to NOLA and back to KC for Easter. So we all had a fun time together, including a supper at Antoine’s (old and famous) restaurant. And we had a fun, personalized tour of the many, opulent rooms where parade planners and others often met. We learned some history, too and viewed a block long wine cellar.


We toured Mardi Gras World. Essentially, a “factory” to make Mardi Gras floats. This was a fun and informative tour, even if it was a bit overwhelming. Another day, we headed out on the Honey Island swamp tour. We boarded a motor-powered pontoon-style boat with about 20 other people and we were off on a small river. We pulled into a small lagoon and abruptly, an alligator was spotted. Another. And another. A total of about 6 or 8 . It was cute, but the gators were obviously well trained to appear.



After a pleasant slow chug down a picturesque bayou plugged with cypress trees and Spanish moss, we pulled back out and down the river. Going and coming, we crossed Lake Pontchartrain on a bridge. Finally, on our last full day, we boarded a fully functional steamboat for a tour of the NOLA harbor area and some short distance downstream.







April 13, evening, we are off to the airport for the trip home. This was a satisfying and informative trip to a part of the USA where we had never toured.  BTW… I should apologize for never having provided a re port about our international (or multinational) trip in 2015. It was another well intentioned but never completed task. It started near Paris when we went aboard a river boat on the River Seine. The cruise line was AmaWaterways, a Viking tours look alike. Smaller than the America and designed to move through locks and under bridges built many years ago.




Making stops along the way, we went to the Normandy battlefield. That was an impressive trip but it is impossible to make a good comparison with our trip on the Mississippi River. That was France and French cuisine, after all. The second leg of our trip included a ride through the Chunnel to London and a bus tour back and forth across the country. Send a note or call if you want more information.

I hope you have enjoyed this brief review of our recent trip.




Good tripping to you all. Love. Keep in touch. BillKarel