The Intracoastal Waterway runs 3000 miles from Boston down to the Florida Keys and across the Gulf Coast into Brownsville, where Texas joins Mexico. This network of rivers, bays, sounds, bayous, and artificial canals provides safe passage for industrial barges and pleasure craft without the danger of the open ocean. At the bottom of Louisiana where the land bleeds into the Gulf of Mexico, the Waterway is a hard diagonal slash from New Orleans to the sea.
On a Sunday morning my father and I put his little skiff into the water, wondering if we could make it to the Gulf. The grind of the motor emptied my head of everything except speed and smeared color: the dull blue water, the rust of half-sunk boats and wrecked machinery, and so much tropical green that it felt obscene. We motored through water with dark mysterious names like Lake Salvator, Wreck Bay, Lost Lake, Sun Lagoon, and — sounding like a dangerous gauntlet — a squared-off lake called The Pen.
My father’s first boat sank in The Pen. Sunken docks, busted gas lines, and shipwrecks live just below the surface of these waters, waiting to ruin your propeller or punch a hole in your boat’s bottom. My dad’s skiff hit a dock post with the throttle open full tilt, flinging him from the boat and gashing his leg. He floated in the water for two hours, watching the sun set until the Coast Guard airlifted him to the roof of a hospital. Now he sits next to me in his second skiff, deeply tanned and wearing his fishing hat and grinning, looking the happiest I’ve seen since my mom died three years ago. He moved from Detroit to New Orleans this year and it’s wonderful to see him on the water again. He’s one of those men that belongs in a boat, happily crawling around, throwing ropes and tightening lines and nevermind the pitching and rolling of the waves.
We cruise past defunct refineries and fishing towns with names like Lafitte and Barataria. Keep going and soon there are little villages without names down below where Route 45 ends. No roads can get down here because it’s all bayou and marsh. Ribbons of water create streets along the docks and porches of beat-up cottages and cozy shacks with manicured lawns. In a clearing, white gravestones run down to the river’s edge. Handwritten signs say “Slow Down! No Wake.” An old man puttering on his porch yells at me to slow down although I’ve got the Suzuki at five miles per hour and it’s nearly shuddering to a stall. A group of sunburnt men on a dock inspect each other’s fishing gear. Some give a friendly wave, others flash superstitious looks.
Louisiana loses a football field of land every 38 minutes and, showcasing one of the most demented arrangements in American politics, we have a governor who not only denies climate change but compels our schools to teach Christian nonsense rather than science.
The gothic trees give way to low grass and soon the water breaks into a sharp chop and the boat slams down hard again and again and I begin worrying about my spine. A spray of saltwater fills my mouth, knocks off my sunglasses, and the boat pitches hard starboard. While I wrestle with the wheel and curse, my father just grins all zen-like with his laminated map in his lap. We pass a fat seagull on a green buoy and then there’s nothing but wide open sea. This is the Gulf of Mexico and a storm is churning out there.