Having already painted an aerial view of the Head of Passes area at the mouth of the Mississippi River, I was eager to revisit the site by boat. My son David hunts ducks in this region, and I had heard so much about his adventures there that I could hardly wait to explore it myself close up. Arrangements were made for a motel room, and we drove for 40 miles southeast of New Orleans on the west bank LA Hwy. 23 to Empire, where he keeps a boat. We planned to launch the craft in Venice (at the highway dead end 20 miles below Empire and 12 river miles northwest of the beginning of the passes) in time to capture late evening sky and landscape colors and then head southeast down the Mississippi River. Early on during the junket all of the flags that we saw were blowing hard at right angles to their poles, so we knew this was going to be a very windy afternoon. Thus, soon after we were waterborne it quickly became apparent that the wind waves were far too high for us to make a safe journey to the Head of Passes. Though we tried exploring a few nearby inland areas, in the end the wind got the best of us, and we headed back to the boat launch site. We thought perhaps the next morning the water would be calmer, but that did not come to past.
In an attempt to make the best of an initially disappointing trip, we decided to explore and learn more about Plaquemines Parish, which has not only a colorful history but also 14% of America's wetlands! The long meandering Mississippi River ends its course here by flowing 70 miles through the central corridor of the parish and into the Gulf of Mexico.
The fertile delta that makes up the local terrain was created beginning roughly 1,000 years ago, when the river first abandoned its major route to the Gulf via Bayou Lafourche and shifted 50 miles east to create the most massive delta in the world. The verdant land has attracted about 200 producers of Louisiana's citrus fruit, including sweet naval oranges and satsumas. These trees number over 100,000 in the parish, which has a minimal frost hazard, and produce $9 million of fruit annually. It has about 1,000 acres of commercial vegetable gardens, and plant nurseries are visible on both sides of the highway, as well as many fruit and vegetable stands, now (in late spring) almost empty after the Creole tomato season but soon to be refilled with this autumn's citrus crop. The timely peak of citrus production is toward Christmas, and is highlighted the 1st weekend of December by the annual Plaquemines Parish Fair and Orange Festival held at historic Fort Jackson near the small west bank community of Buras.
But all is not well in this rich farmland. Each year as more wetland areas subside below sea level or erode, the groundwater becomes more saline. Once salt clusters around moistened citrus fruit tree deep tap roots, it is absorbed, and the trees begin to defoliate and die. Plant researchers are trying to develop root stock that is salt tolerant, while some growers are planting dwarf trees with shallower roots. Whether or not these valiant efforts can save the 200 year old citrus farming tradition in Plaquemines Parish remains to be seen.