You’re Not In Kansas Anymore
02/13/2017 01:27PM ● Published by Robert Frey
Gallery: One Paddler’s Journey To And Through The Bayou Teche [10 Images] Click any image to expand.
By Shanna Perkins | Photos by Fusion Photography
Not all journeys from Kansas begin with a tornado and end with the clicking of ruby slippers. Lance Elliott’s began in a secondhand $150 Alumacraft canoe, and it ended on the banks of the Bayou Teche. If Elliott could have learned anything from Dorothy’s pilgrimage to Oz, it’s that his journey would be filled with accidental encounters, spooky creatures and a cast of characters who taught him more than he expected to learn.
Nearly five years ago, Elliott was working as a table games dealer on a gambling boat on the Missouri River. During his breaks, he would gaze over the sides of the boat and fall under the river’s dreamy spell. That summer, at a garage sale, he picked up a dusty, tattered copy of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Instilled with a proper dose of wanderlust, he devised a plan to paddle to Mobile Bay to see the Gulf of Mexico. On Aug. 27, 2016, he eased his canoe into the Kansas River, only three miles from his backdoor.
“I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was,
and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”
– Jack Kerouac “On the Road”
“After purchasing my canoe and reading enough blogs to know that it was possible, I decided I had enough camping experiencing to make the trip, but paddling experience?” Elliott questions with a laugh, “I probably quadrupled my paddling experience on this trip.”
Elliott could have never guessed the amount of possibilities the rivers before him had in store. No great adventure is complete without an unexpected change in plans - this one is no exception. The first deviation came not long after he began.
“I did 50 miles on the Kansas River, which flowed in above Kansas City at the Missouri River,” he details of the first leg of his voyage. “When I got to the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, I looked up the Ohio and I saw all of these barges and I knew I had to paddle 50 miles upstream. So, I decided to float down the Missouri River.”
“No, no! The adventure first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures & Wonderland
It wasn’t long after his initial change of plans that he encountered his first, and largest, challenge of the trip. When Lance arrived at the Port of Saint Louis, the port of Kansas City and Memphis, the rough waters almost ended the trip.
“The rough waters really threw me,” Elliott confesses recalling his shock. “It was in Kansas City on day four of the trip, and it was my first day on the Missouri River. When I passed six bridges and three tug boats, they chopped up the water so much that I thought about quitting.”
But, he didn’t. He floated 367 miles down the Missouri River to the Mississippi River in Saint Louis. And the deeper south he went, the more his plans changed. In Greenville, Mississippi, Elliott was trading stories with a fellow paddler about his plans. The man suggested to Lance that if he wanted to bypass Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which are heavy with barge traffic, in exchange for more intimate waterways, perhaps he should consider the Atchafalaya River. So Elliott changed his plans again, but not for the last time.
“I am looking for someone to share in
an adventure that I am arranging, and
it’s very difficult to find anyone.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
“When I got to Natchez, Mississippi, I was hanging out at the Under the Hill Saloon and a gentleman asked me about my trip, and I told him that I originally wanted to paddle to the Gulf. I explained to him how that had changed because I met so many great people that I now wanted to experience all of the communities along the way. And he said to me, ‘Well, if you really want to experience communities, you need to visit the Bayou Teche.’”
Elliott began reaching out to paddlers he’d been connected with through various Facebook pages and learned that his new route would require a 9-mile autoportage, meaning the canoe would have to be carried, he was seconds away from returning to his previous plan when someone gave him the contact information of Bayou Teche aficionado and promoter Ray Pellerin.
“When Lance reached out to me, I was very intrigued because I didn’t know of anyone who had made the jaunt from the Missouri River to the Mississippi River to the Teche,” Pellerin explains. “As one of the race directors for the Tour du Teche, we have a team of people all the way down the Teche. I put him in contact with them, and they opened their arms wide to help him fulfill his dream.
“One of the main reasons I wanted to help him was to introduce him to Acadiana and to our Cajun culture – he knew nothing about it,” Pellerin continues. “It was a great experience for him, but also for me to share our culture with someone new. I felt it was important.”
“The air smelled like Bayou Teche
when it’s spring and the fish are
spawning among the water hyacinths
and the frogs are throbbing in the
cattails and the flooded cypress.”
– James Lee Burke, “Creole Belle”
Pellerin prepared Elliott for what would be the final leg of his tour – a weeklong adventure winding through the Bayou Teche. Elliott admits that he never quite got used to the alligators, and didn’t so much buy the “they’re more afraid of you than you are of them” line. Aside from the bayou’s beasts, he fell under the swampland’s charm.
“I had never been to Louisiana before, and boy was I in for a surprise,” Elliott laughs “I absolutely fell in love with it. After being on all of those wide rivers, putting in at Port Barre, it was wonderful to have the birds only four or five feet from my ear. It was very intimate.”
Familiarity didn’t come only from the wildlife. Elliott immediately knew that he’d made the right decision by taking the advice of a stranger in a saloon in Natchez. “As for the people and the culture, I couldn’t imagine more hospitable communities,” he says emphatically. “Every person I encountered was so welcoming and so helpful. I stayed a night at the Franklin Firehouse, and they fed me gumbo. I’ve always heard about Firehouse chili, but I guess in Louisiana you have firehouse gumbo.”
Elliott decided that his experience on the Teche had been so rich that it was the high note he wanted to finish his trip on. Keeping with the theme of fate and chance encounters as the driving force of his expedition, Pellerin introduced Elliott to the Director for Culture for the Chitimacha Tribe, who took him to the Gulf of Mexico to see and touch his original goal.
It was always Elliott’s intent to give his boat away at the end of his trip, and after meeting and speaking with the children of the Chitimacha Tribal School he decided to donate his boat to the Chitimacha Tribe. A giving gesture that is reflective of what Lance loved most about his journey.
“What will stand out to me forever is the sense of community and the good spirit of everybody I came across – that still exists in America,” he reasons.” I was never turned down whenever I needed help, and these were total strangers. I had everybody who helped me along the trip sign my paddle, and I have 250 signatures on both sides of two paddles.”
A journey that began with a dreamy spirit and the inevitable intoxicating inspiration of Huck Finn and the Mississippi River ended on the Bayou Teche. The fervent belief that there are still adventures to be had along our wide, and sometimes wicked, waterways and the belief that kindness still abides among strangers, led Elliott to the sleepy yet exotic corner of the world that we call Acadiana…and home.
“If I come back, it’ll be by road,” he laughs in reflection. “But, I’d be back in a heartbeat. I call it my once in a lifetime trip. Everybody says don’t discount the future, and I won’t. But, let me write a book so that when I get old I can remember this one, and then I’ll think about the next one.”