Water World

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Among the variety of American travelers, those who visit a place ostensibly lacking any feature other than mere existence aren’t numerous, although by educating ourselves as peregrinators, we may be increasing that number. Undoubtedly, the growing hordes crowding national and theme parks and any piece of sand leading to waves anywhere in the country encourage some of us to find places more obscure than a travel agent might suggest. Like George Mallory and his Himalayan mountain, this other kind of traveler, resolutely curious, goes to a somewhere simply because it’s there. If the possibility of discovering a place for all humankind hardly exists any longer, that joy will always remain for personal discovery. A mundane place, if we’ve never seen it before, can astonish us in a way that oftenpictured Yellowstone or Epcot cannot.

I’m now among those escaping fabulous American spots, partly because I’ve visited most of them; in fact, with a couple of exceptions in Nevada, I’ve been to within at least 25 miles of any place in the contiguous states. For a half-century, I’ve been trying to see and comprehend every square mile of this nation. From the rain forest beyond Seattle to the turtle crawls in Key West, from the chamber of the Supreme Court to the bottom of the Deep Tunnel near Chicago, I’m possessed with discovering the country.

That’s how it came to be that I went aboard the venerable steamboat Delta Queen , tied up at Pier 21 along the Strand in Galveston, Texas. The last Christmas of the millennium was three weeks off. We were bound for New Orleans, some 350 miles distant via the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, popularly called in its own territory the ICW. A few years ago, when one old pilot heard the Delta Queen was going to initiate roundtrips on the ICW, he said, “What the hell for? It ain’t nothin’ but an industrial ditch. Nobody’s goin’ to come see that.” He was, I’m happy to report, too pessimistic.

I’d never before been to where the canal goes, because only it goes there. In one place, there are a thousand square miles without a highway south of the ICW.

In a massive wet lowland where humans for two centuries have dug and dredged uncounted miles of ditches —some wide enough only for a canoe, others for a span of barges—the ICW is the lone watercourse there that is “the canal.” It runs about 1,000 miles from the Brownsville Ship Channel near the mouth of the Rio Grande, to just east of Apalachicola, Florida, most of it sheltered from the open water of the Gulf of Mexico by slender islands, spits, and peninsulas; in that way it resembles the Intracoastal Waterway along the Atlantic shore. Nowhere else on the Gulf portion does it get so far from ocean as it does between Galveston and New Orleans; over that route boats move entirely in a dug channel, something not true even for the Erie Canal, which, by happenstance, is about the same length. Dredging out the ICW effectively made the Gulf coastlands between those two cities into an island, or, better, a chain of islands, and in that alone, there is no other place in the United States like it.

Since its completion in 1949, you cannot in that section reach the Gulf by foot or auto without crossing a bridge or getting onto a ferry. The entire ICW, elsewhere a concatenation of dug channels linking dredged lakes and bays, is, in a nation of monumental navigational undertakings, among the most impressive engineered works of the last century, the fulfillment of an idea that first appeared two hundred years ago. If the locks of the East Texas-Louisiana portion are not as big or numerous as those on the Erie Canal or on the Mississippi, Ohio, and Columbia Rivers, the central ICW does have the distinct and astonishing ability to keep itself from being absorbed, dissolved, or overtaken by the thousand swamps, marshes, bayous, lagoons, and drainage ditches along its miles. To see the engineering difficulty, imagine digging a trench in a shallow pond. So many different watercourses cross it, natural and humanly made, that one can further wonder why it doesn’t in a couple of hours drain itself into the Gulf, at one place only about 500 yards of low sandy beach away.

Any passage we create, whether footpath or superhighway, is never entirely benign to the life it bisects, but compared with other major transport constructions, say, the first transcontinental railroad, the ICW is a project almost unmatched in America; its power to alter is the reason a couple of proposed extensions of it across and along Florida were stopped 30 years ago. It is good to remember, though, that long before the canal existed, the Texas-Louisiana lands it traverses had been dredged and channeled to a fare-thee-well.