There are many great canoeing options even within a two-hour drive from town. Canoes can be rented on-site for those who don't have their own craft, and rental fees include a shuttle to the upstream put-in point. Just paddle back to your car -- or simply drift downstream, letting the current do the work -- and leave all the logistics to the pros.
For those who prefer a bit of whitewater excitement, not to mention a change from New Orleans' relentlessly flat terrain, the best day-trip destination is the Okatoma Creek near Hattiesburg, Miss. Some 40 feet wide, the Okatoma winds through a gently rolling forest-scape beneath a tall canopy of trees. No roads run beside the creek, so silence prevails. The Okatoma is primarily placid, but several sets of mild rapids evoke images of Robert Mitchum in River of No Return or Meryl Streep in The River Wild. (Or poor Ned Beatty in Deliverance; do not shove off from shore if a six-fingered kid appears and starts playing the banjo.)
In paddling parlance the Okatoma is known as a 'pool and drop' river. This means that each rapid is followed by a quiet stretch with no current, so if you do flip over in a rapid -- especially the Okatoma's famous 'waterfall' -- you will wind up in 'flat water' within seconds, instead of being swept downstream by a continual torrent. For those who are unnerved by moving water, it's easy to walk around the Okatoma's rapids, on the bank. For those who can't get enough excitement, it's easy to pull your canoe upstream and run these rapids again and again.
Both a 6-mile and 12-mile trip are available, and there are numerous little beaches and sandbars that make ideal stops for a swim, a picnic or a nap. (Caution: The Okatoma does flow through one of Mississippi's dry counties, and gendarmes in wading boots have been known to arrest even the most social of drinkers.) Creek-side cabins can be rented for those who want to make a weekend of it. En route back to New Orleans on I-59, the McNeill Truckstop serves a Sunday buffet of roast turkey. More importantly, this establishment also provides a rare form of cultural nourishment: an extensive selection of tapes by a risque and rustic comedian named Gene Tracy.
For serene, bucolic canoeing without a trace of whitewater, head for Black Creek, near Brooklyn, Miss. This federally designated Wild and Scenic waterway is far more scenic than wild, making it a perfect trip for paddling novices and groups with young children. Much of the creek lies within the Desoto National Forest, ensuring pastoral calm as the landscape subtly segues from upland piney-woods to the Gulf of Mexico's coastal plain. Many people opt to make Black Creek a two-day trip, setting up camp by the water's edge. And there are numerous hiking trails for those who want to balance the upper-body workout of paddling by flexing their lower limbs, too.
The Northshore is prime canoeing country, too, with trips that are closer to New Orleans -- although driving time may work out the same with ever-burgeoning traffic along the Mandeville-Covington corridor. The Bogue Chitto River, accessible between Covington and Bogalusa, offers a pleasant float through forest and fields, with many broad sandbars and good swimming spots. (The setting is quite similar to the Tangipahoa River -- a former favorite among local paddlers. Recent efforts to cleanse its waters bode well for the returning of canoeing.)
As on the erstwhile Tangipahoa, canoeists must often share the Bogue Chitto with tubers. Many of these rubber enthusiasts rent extra tires for their ice chests -- and in a terrifying symbiosis of beer and music, an extra-extra tire for boom-boxes that are wrapped in waterproof plastic and invariably played volume-level 11 a la Spinal Tap. But tubers are a slow-moving bunch, and they move even slower as the contents of their ice chests are consumed, so it's usually easy to paddle hard and leave them far behind.
Some 45 minutes north of the Bogue Chitto's canoeing spots in Louisiana, a small stream called Magee's Creek flows into the Bogue Chitto at Tylertown, Miss. Narrow and twisty, with some mild rapids, Magee's is a brisk run through somewhat secluded country. (But not as secluded as it may appear, however; gamboling skinny-dippers have been known to mistakenly amble into locals' backyards, causing no little commotion at after-church Sunday gatherings.) Magee's Creek moves faster than the Bogue Chitto but slower than the Okatoma; with no mini-waterfalls, it could be considered an intermediate run. Several trips of varying length are available and the longer route, putting in at Lexie Bridge, is recommended. By comparison, the Bogue Chitto seems as broad as the Mississippi at the point where Magee's Creek joins it.
Back in metro New Orleans, where land and water meld as one, a completely different canoeing experience awaits -- the adjacent swamps of Barataria, Bayou Sauvage and the LaBranche Wetlands. Take one of these trips if you simply must have a Southern Comfort moment replete with Spanish moss, alligators and French-speaking locals. At Jean Lafitte National Park, take a guided trip with a knowledgeable park service naturalist -- and you might even catch a live, in-canoe performance by environmentalist/musician Bruce 'Sunpie' Barnes. Close your eyes and there you are back at Jazz Fest!
Musician and journalist Ben Sandmel also writes about canoeing -- in far-flung destinations such as Scotland, New Zealand and Montana -- for a variety of travel magazines.
NOTE: Never paddle without a high-quality preserver, and keep it fastened snugly. Always wear wading shoes that won't be damaged if they get wet. Sudden rain can quickly transform a mild stream into a raging torrent.
For information on Hattiesburg, Miss.-area motels and restaurants, visit www.hattiesburg.org/html/stay.html
For general information about canoeing, visit www.acanet.org
The following Web sites offer more information on area canoe rentals and lodging:
Black Creek and Bogue Chitto
Jean Lafitte National Park
And don't forget ...
Truckin' Comedy Classics