From the works of Mark Twain to the songs of Johnny Cash, the Mississippi River flows through the country’s collective imagination. In Baton Rouge, the river is heavily traveled by gigantic barges and other industrial vessels.
Now, the waterway has gained a new reputation in the city as the site of the Big River Regional stand up paddle race.
This weekend, hundreds of paddle board racers and kayakers from across the nation will participate in the third-annual, 13-mile event. The race spans from the Capital City’s downtown region to L’Auberge Casino Hotel Baton Rouge.
“It kind of makes you feel like Huckleberry Finn, getting to take part in one of their adventures,” said Garrett Fletcher, a 24-year-old competitive stand-up paddle board racer from Destin, Florida. Fletcher has raced all over the world and has professionally competed in stand up paddle races since 2013.
Fletcher is just one of more than 200 paddlers expected to compete in Saturday’s race, placing it among the largest paddle races in the country. In just three years, the event has grown quickly, from 75 competitors in 2013’s inaugural race to 149 last year.
Founders of the Big River Regional attribute at least part of its growth to the mythic Mississippi.
“There is definitely the attraction of the Mississippi because it’s so large and so big,” said Walker Higgins, a founder of the race and co-owner of the Perkins Road paddle board shop Muddy Water Paddle Company. “That’s what the idea was, to try and show that off.”
Before 2013, Higgins and the race founders were unsure if they could ever schedule a race on Ol’ Man River. While the river has its history, the muddy water hides dangerous obstacles like trees and other debris.
“Growing up here, it’s always been you don’t swim or play around the river,” Higgins said. “It’s always been a no-no.”
While Higgins and a few experienced paddlers hit the river occasionally, most kayakers, canoeists and stand-up paddle boarders avoid the river. Higgins stresses to locals that paddling down the river isn’t something they should do on their own.
Higgins and the other founders knew safety would be key in planning the Big River Regional. They forged relationships with all the entities using the river — industries, local governments, law enforcement and the Coast Guard.
“It was kind of like an impossible task,” Higgins said. “We started working on it a little bit and gave it some pushes here and there and met the right contacts and pushed it through.”
For a few hours Saturday, the Coast Guard will ensure all industrial vessels on the river pause for the race so paddlers will only have to worry about the water, the wind and their competitors. An additional six safety boats will be on patrol.
As far as the competition goes, this year’s Big River Regional is set to be a fast and sunny event. Unlike last year’s race which had cloudy weather and low water levels, the Mississippi’s volume is now double, and the weather is set to be sunny with highs in the mid ‘90s this weekend. With those conditions, top paddlers like Fletcher are expected to knock 25 or 30 minutes off last year’s times to finish in an hour and 15 minutes or so.
“We expect some record times to happen in that 13-mile stretch,” Higgins said.
Saturday’s race will begin with a ceremony, including a priest blessing the boats and boards, a bag pipe and drum band and the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner. East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore will shoot a flare gun to start the paddlers. To witness the race, Higgins advises spectators to arrive at the Florida Boulevard levee entrance at 7 a.m. Saturday for the 8 a.m. start.
“You really get goose bumps,” Higgins said. “It’s really a neat thing you never thought you would see on the Mississippi River, 200 plus paddlers on the river getting ready to go.”