Water World

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Some time ago I read Waters of the New World , Jan de Hartog’s 1961 account of his voyage in a seagoing barge, with several companions, from Houston to Nantucket. His description of crossing the portion of the ICW that the Delta Queen would soon cover surprised me, coming as it does from a Hollander who says of himself, ”… I have lived most of my adolescent life on inland waters of the Old World, and most of my adult life at sea.” Yet this old salt didn’t find the ICW a route comfortably separated from the perils of the open Gulf, although he wasn’t bothered by the jillions of different canal hazards: heavy barge traffic, submarine pipelines, submerged pilings, cable ferries, pontoon bridges, drooping overhead power lines, masses of water hyacinth, alligators, and the incredible suction created by tows under way. Rather, he was disturbed by an older and less definable reason: his perception of wilderness, a wildness that Europeans commonly feel yet today whether they’re in a Utah desert or a Hell’s Kitchen in some city.

The response is not new. Puritan texts of the seventeenth century equate dark Massachusetts forests with natural evil; to subdue wilderness and its native inhabitants was to quell the devil, to bring them all into blessed light. De Hartog uses words like lonely, terror, hostile, desolation , and “creatures of the night,” “nightmarish country,” “the heart of darkness,” “a glimpse of purgatory,” “Paradise lost,” “in the atmosphere something beyond evil”—a language to lure me into a five-day passage through that soggy land.

I’d been near the region before by car and foot but never where the canal goes because only it goes there. A road map of the region reveals, but for pockets of water, an intriguing blankness surrounding much of the canal. In the Louisiana parish of Terrebonne, for example, south of the ICW are some 1,000 square miles without a highway.

The Delta Queen , built from 1924 to 1927 and a National Historic Landmark (a strange term applied to a boat), has a history of one narrow escape from destruction after another. The Sacramento River was the first home of the Queen ; in 1947 she survived being towed some 7,000 miles down the Pacific coast, through the Panama Canal, and up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to a refurbishing in Pittsburgh. Now, because of her appealing lines, steam-driven paddle wheel, and long operating history, she’s arguably become, after the USS Constitution , the most beloved large vessel in America. I’ve been aboard her from New Orleans to St. Paul, from Cincinnati almost to Pittsburgh, and I know of few other things that can so transport a traveler into our landscapes and history. She is, as her captain told me, “a time machine.” To see, for example, the technologically stunning Gateway Arch at St. Louis from her historic decks is like looking into the future: A voyage aboard her seems movement through an older time.

On an early December afternoon, the roustabouts hauled in her mooring lines, and we set out from Galveston, a small city at last returning from the great hurricane of 1900 that killed between 6,000 and 8,000 people there, making it the site of the deadliest natural disaster in America. To the vaporous notes of the steam calliope, the Delta Queen moved at five miles an hour up the channel behind Pelican Island, crossed the outlet to the gulf called Bolivar Roads, and entered the Intracoastal Waterway stretching into a 23-mile peninsula, a low-lying strip of sand that in places is barely broad enough to contain the canal. Past the abandoned lighthouse at Port Bolivar, we entered a 22-milelong channel that, but for one slight dogleg, deviated from straightness no more than a laser beam and lay between grassy shores and marsh, a few of them given to oyster beds.

To starboard was an old Indian graveyard, and everywhere drainage ditches led to dead ends, each parallel to the next in such a way that the peninsula was a place neatly, unnaturally scotched by water. From the highest deck of the Delta Queen at Rollover Bay, I could see the Gulf of Mexico only a few homerun swats away, but from that point on we would not catch a glimpse of it again. The canal bends three times at High Island, “High” there meaning 25 feet above sea level. We entered the country of Mud Bayou, which drains Mud Lake by flowing its long, crooked, and unhurried miles northwest even though the Gulf is only 750 yards south. The nature of slow-moving water is to turn upon itself, and in that land of twisted creeks and bayous, straightness is the signature of human hands.

Bayou, marsh , and swamp are not interchangeable words. A bayou is a river, a flowing; a marsh is a wet, sometimes inundated grassland; and a swamp is flooded woodland. Along the central Gulf Coast, those distinctions are useful.