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More photos from the trip

Aboard the River Explorer on the lower Mississippi –

The River Explorer looked strange when we first saw it … low, square, boxy, just sitting there at the dock … well, like a barge. At the back was a tug, snugged up tight ready to push the barge at tomorrow’s early morning departure.

We had just arrived in New Orleans. The barge was tied up at the river, right along the Riverwalk. We came aboard for a quick no-hassle check-in (there are only 198 passengers at capacity).

It all looked different when we got aboard. The lounge was big,
with sofas and easy chairs and booths along each side, each with
a window for looking out at the river. After check-in, we headed
for sandwiches in the Room for arriving passengers, then unpacked
and began exploring the barge.

The setup is unique. There are two barges. The front barge where we came in has the big lobby and front desk, a show room, and all the way across the front the Pilot House with a full view of the river, charts, maps, monitors showing radar and course. You could be here and see every bend of the river coming ahead and hear the radio transmissions between barge pilots. At the deck below was the dining room. The deck above, the Sun Deck, was wide open for great viewing and picture taking.

The back barge held passenger accommodations with cabins on two decks, some with a little balcony and some without. The window opened so you could enjoy fresh air as well as the view. The Sun Deck at the top of this barge held a bar, a shaded eating/mingling area, and lounge chairs for those who preferred the sun. The helmstation was up a few steps overlooking it all. The pilot gives orders from this helmstation. But the engine power comes from the engines of the towboat and its z-props that can be controlled in any direction provide the steering instead of a rudder.

Each barge is 295 ft. long, and the towboat, Miss Nari, is 140 ft. Long so we make a pretty impressive combination going down the river.

That afternoon there was time to walk to the Hilton, and Harrah’s Casino, and check out the French Quarter and other New Orleans places. (If you get tired walking, you can buy an all-day bus ticket and explore further by bus.) I walked along the Riverwalk and stood for a while on the place where in 1996 a freighter lost power and crashed into the walkway, collapsing two levels of stores and four levels of the Hilton Hotel. It must have been incredible.

The River Explorer is the dream of Edward Conrad, in the barge and towing business in New Orleans since 1960, who wanted to offer travelers a chance to see America differently. The barge travels the inland waterways of the United States in 4 to 10-day excursions of the Mississippi, Missouri, Cumberland, Ohio, and Atchafalaya rivers, as well as along the Texas-Louisiana Intracoastal Waterway. Guests get to experience the heritage and culture of the nearby towns when the barge ties up for shore activities during the day or overnight.

The decorating is quirky, but comes together amazingly well. Whenever Conrad saw something he liked, he bought it and brought back to the barge. The lobby decor came from shoe store fixtures, the booths in the lobby have glass etchings of the bridges we will pass under. We will see many of them, of different kinds. If you are a bridge man, you will love this trip.

The dining room on the River Explorer has open seating, sit where you want, with whom you want. Breakfast and lunch are buffet, dinner is served. There are at least two entrees per night, with at least one regional dish, including crawfish, gumbo, or shrimp. And there is a popcorn machine, juice, coffee and iced tea, a big cookie jar always full, and a refrigerator with snacks open 24 hours a day, just in case you are still hungry.

Our barge trip of the Atchafalaya River Basin and the lower Mississippi was centered on Cajun and Creole cultures and went by southern Louisiana towns in the Barataria area, heart of Cajun territory. We took swamp tours, saw dozens of alligators, heard great Cajun stories from our guides, listened to Cajun music and zydeco, and even learned some Cajun dances.

Our first day of barging began with a short ride on the Mississippi, then we entered the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway through the Algiers Lock. Going through locks in the barge, we were just inches from the walls of the lock and could see the entire operation as the gates opened and closed to let the water levels change. On the other side on the Intracoastal we began to see lots of waterbirds, and our first alligator. Later in the trip we will also see lots of river traffic – other barges, fishing boats, oil tugs, commercial vessels of all kinds.

That afternoon we arrived in Lafitte, Louisiana. This is the heart of Bayou Country. The barge pulled up to a neighborhood barbecue being set up and we piled into a 50-passenger awning-shaded boat called the Lil Cajun and met Cyrus Blanchard, our Cajun captain and colorful narrator. Once we got used to his accent, he kept us laughing. He was born and raised on the bayous and told story after story. He kept the alligators around the boat by feeding them marshmallows. He said he was going to be on the Travel Channel, where they called him "Crocodile Dundee of the Bayou". His brochure says "They don’t come no better!" I gotta agree. I must learn to carry a tape recorder with me on my journeys!

When we came back we were given tours of the towboat, which is probably a good time to tell you that towboats don’t tow, they push from behind. Tugboats are a different shape and design. Miss Nari is a towboat, tied firmly to the stern of the aft barge to stay there without moving around.

That night the Jerry Embree Cajun swing band came on board and we learned some Cajun dances. A waltz is a waltz and always fun, but only Cajuns have Budreau and Thibidealt jokes between each song. To top off the evening Cyrus came on board with his pet alligator … yard dogs they call them. We all learned the phrase Laissez les bons temps rouler (Let the good times roll!)

The next day I woke up to a sunrise just coming up over miles of marshlands with the flat water of the river and all the marshland shrouded in morning mist. It looked like a still-life painting that changed every minute with new shades of pink and yellow overlaying the gray of the fog.

We barged along the Intracoastal Waterway all day. The experience was so unique we hated to take time to eat. But even in the dining room, you could watch the river scenery going by, a patch of iris here, cypress trees there, turtles basking on a log in the sun, Spanish moss hanging on a close-by shore, a flock of ducks or egrets taking off, a lone Great Blue Heron stalking a meal in the shallows. You always had the feeling of being close to the shore, part of the river life. Best picture-taking was from the big top deck, but it was also neat to sit by the forward windows in the Pilot House and track our progress on the maps and hear the barge radios in operation or to hang out for a while with the bargemaster at the helmstation. And when you got tired, you could go to your cabin and sit on the balcony to watch the scenery go by, look for alligators or wave to people fishing on the river banks, or stretch out on your bed and watch the progress on the TV monitor, the view captured by a camera on the foredeck. Or you could check out a book or video from the library or browse the gift shop. I bought a tape of Cajun music.

I did not realize how much commercial and industrial development we would see. I understand a family member several generations back in my family was a riverman, floating barges down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, then dragging them back up the river by mule. How the river has changed! Now we see towboats pushing six barges at a time loaded with containers or bulk goods or cranes headed for the offshore oil fields. Mile after mile after mile we saw shipyards, tugs and tows being built, barges being built or repainted, equipment being loaded for the oil rigs.

The next day we barged some more along the Intracoastal, and by evening arrived at Morgan City, and tied up at the Shell Off-shore Terminal. We had more Cajun music that night – Les Amis Cajun Band.. The next morning we bussed most of the day through Cajun Country, stopping at Vermilion Ville, a Cajun-Creole Heritage Park with set up as a living history museum interpreting life in this area between 1765 and 1890. And we learned things such as 25 million pounds of crawfish are shipped per year from this area, Spanish moss is used for car upholstery, and the water hyacinths that are choking the waterways were brought in as part of a world’s fair. And we learned a lot about Cajun culture – they are a very independent self-reliant people and came to Louisiana from Arcadia in Nova Scotia after being persecuted there.

On Day 5 we heard roosters crowing as we left Cajun country early in the morning. See you later alligators. We barged the Port Allen Canal and passed through two more locks. By afternoon we entered the Mississippi again and traveled upriver to Baton Rouge. We docked at the city waterfront and had time to walk to the State Capitol Building, now undergoing restoration. I heard snatches of Huey Long speeches (this is where he was impeached), admired the grand spiral staircase and stained glass windows, stood at the podium of the Senate chambers, and did a few whirling waltz steps in the magnificent ballroom. What grand dances must have been held here.

On Wednesday in Baton Rouge I visited the USS Kidd, a World War II destroyer that was part of combat force at Okinawa and other Pacific encounters. Youth groups can now camp overnight in the destroyer as an educational field trip. The Louisiana Maritime Museum was there also and the Red Stick sculpture, which I looked at for a while, wondering, until it dawned on me. Baton Rouge. Red Stick. Duhhh. We had now switched from Cajun to Creole culture and that night pulled up along the banks, tied up to a tree, and visited Laura Plantation, a traditional Creole plantation home, held by one family for several generations.

Then we barged back to New Orleans with a night available to go to some jazz spots, and the next morning had a complimentary city tour on the way to the airport.

Who are the passengers that come on the River Explorer? They came from all over ... mostly couples, a few widows, a retired head of a department at National Institutes of Health and his wife of a lifetime that he met when he applied for his first job, a couple who have been on the River Explorer four times and plan to go again. Some people like the fact that there is no rough water, others like the informality and not having to dress up (there is not even a captain’s night), and others are just river-lovers and this is the best way to be on rivers in the heartland of America. Some others said they would not take it again because there was not enough to do. Four couples signed up for their next cruise before they left the barge.

The River Explorer is owned and operated by River Barge Excursion Lines. The barges were built in1997 and 1998; the huge towboat Miss Nari was built in 1951, then given powerful new engines in 1990. It was called "The Hulk" by rivermen. The River Explorer goes on some rivers not navigated by other cruise vessels, such as high up the Missouri River, giving guests an opportunity to explore unique destinations and see historical towns from a new perspective. The focus is always on the rivers, and how they shaped the towns and villages along the way. One trip visits haunts of Jean Lafitte such as Galveston Island, his headquarters, and Port Isabel, his last known address. A trip of the Delta South features Dixieland jazz and Memphis blues along with southern cooking. Other trips are of the Cumberland River with a stop in Nashville for the Grand Ole Opry and other country music.

River Barge Excursions has four-day, 10 -day, and sometimes longer excursions. Children under age 12 travel free on summer vacation when staying in the same stateroom as parents or grandparents. Teenagers are half price up to age 18. Teachers or retired teachers can travel at half price when traveling with a full fare companion. Previous guests get a $200 savings. Some special cruises include excursions on the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers to the Kentucky Derby and a 10-day excursion that spends several days in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Bonfires on the Levee is an excursion from Galveston to New Orleans during Christmas in which bonfires traditionally light the way for Father Christmas. There is also a Civil War cruise on the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers.
A neat extra – keep your name tag, and if you are ever in a town where the River Explorer is tied up you can come aboard for lunch or dinner.

    -- Shirley Linde

Click here to book a trip on the River Explorer.

Click here to see more photos.

Click here for River Explorer southern recipes.

Click here to order some Cajun, zydeco and other New Orleans music.

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