Saturday, thanks to my friend Jeff Easley, I had the opportunity to kayak down the Amite River in Watson. It was a great day, but as we headed down the river I realized that, although it had been here the whole time, this was the first time I had actually been on the Amite in 25 or more years. That realization was a shock for a Watson boy, who grew up on and around the Amite. But, more on that later.
Jeff called me last week and said he and some folks were planning to “float the river” Saturday morning. He was gracious enough to invite me to go with them. After last Saturday’s adventure on the Mighty Mississippi, I was definitely ready for a more laid back, rural float trip. We were concerned about the weather and the condition of the river, but when Saturday morning dawned, it was going to be a beautiful day. At least until around noon, when the rain was supposed to start. I called Jeff and found out that we were still on, so I packed my gear, loaded my kayak and headed out.
Jeff and his wife live up Hwy 16, almost to the parish line and have access to a beach on the river behind their house. Jeff’s family also owns a tract of land on the East Baton Rouge side of the river around Indian Mound, off Greenwell Springs Road. The plan was to make a 3 hour or so float from Jeff’s house to the other property. So far so good. There were six of us going today. Me, Jeff, my neighbor John Kennedy, Jeff’s friend Dean and Jeff’s brother and sister-in-law, Joey and Jan. We loaded the gear and the kayaks on a trailer behind an ATV and headed down to the beach. Well, nothing ever goes quite as planned. The first casualty of the day was when Jeff got the ATV and trailer stuck in the sand.
Not a big thing. We had enough man power to get it out and unload the kayaks. In just a few minutes, we were all geared up, in the water and ready to head out.
When we got on the water headed downstream, I was immediately impressed with the tranquil beauty of being out on the water on such a perfect day. The water was muddy, but the current was just about right, not to swift but not too slow. We were going to be able to do a lot of floating and less paddling. It was going to be a great day. As we floated along, the thought hit me that this was the first time I had actually been on the Amite in almost 30 years. That was quite a revelation for a kid from Watson, Louisiana. I spent a lot of time in and around that river, up until I was about 20 years old. When I was growing up, “the river” played such a big part in life around here. It was one of those things that was just always there.
The Amite River originates from two forks in Amite County Mississippi, which eventually join up and flows south through the Florida Parishes. It separates St. Helena Parish from East Feliciana. It separates Livingston Parish from East Baton Rouge Parish and further south from Ascension Parish, before it empties into Lake Marepaus. The lower 28 miles or so of the Amite, from Port Vincent south, are navigable. Which means that for years it was populated with camps and small houses. Today, many of those have been replaced with million dollar homes. But the portion of the Amite that winds past northern Livingston Parish, and therefore right through Watson, is a curvy, shallow, sandy, muddy bottomland stream. But for many years, it has been the heart of the community and the people who live here.
According to historians, Indians lived along the Amite, drawn here for its easily accessible sand and gravel deposits, as far back 4,000 B.C. How they know this is a mystery to me, because I am pretty sure the Indians did not write anything down and white people were still about 3,500 years from finding the New World. But, I am willing to take them at their word. which means that 1,000 years before the Egyptians built the first pyramids, there were people in Watson living along the Amite River. Pretty cool, huh?
Back in the day, even when I was growing up, the river was a source of recreation, food, income and pride. Many of us learned to swim in that river. Back then, no one in Watson had a swimming pool so the best way to cool off on a hot summer day was a family trip to river for a swim. It was a great place to fish, before folks were willing to drive several hours to Fourchon or Toledo Bend. Catfish, bass and sacalait were plentiful. The swamps and bottomland forest produced bountiful amounts of whitetail deer, rabbits, squirrels and ducks. Gravel operations were common as far back as the 1920’s and a lot of people made their living in the sand and gravel business. That muddy little river meant a lot to people around here.
For some of us, maybe it meant even a little more. If you read my previous “Being Underwood” blog, you know that I am an Underwood, like many of us natives of Watson. It is more than just happenstance of birth. It is a state of mind. Well one thing is for certain. The Amite River is as sacred to an Underwood as the Jordan River was to the Israelites. It is much more than just a geographic feature, it represents The Promised Land. Sometime after the War For Southern Independence, our family patriarch, John Zachary Underwood migrated from Pine Grove in St. Helena Parish to the Watson area and settled near the Amite River. He was a few thousand years after the Indians, but it must have looked pretty good to him too; it looked like home. John and his wife raised 12 children, most of whom stayed close to the river themselves. Their oldest son and my great-grandfather, Walter, wound up with a couple of hundred acres near the end of the Bend Road, which fronted the river. Some of his children set up homesteads on part of his land. The river always held a special place for all of them. Family picnics. baptisms, fishing trips, camp meetings and the like were, more often that not, held on the river. Many an Underwood child learned to swim in the Amite.
This is a picture of Grandpa Walter and some of his grandchildren at the river in the 1920’s. My Daddy is the one on the left with his head turned. By the time I was child, Walter’s daughter and son in law, Margie and Ken Goodman, had purchased the land at the dead end of the Bend Road. From where their house was at the end of the blacktop, there was a gravel road that lead down the hill to the sandbar on the river. They had fixed up a beach and picnic area for the extended family and whoever else wanted to use it. Each Spring, they would go down to the river and wade in, checking for logs, snags or drop offs. After this reconnoiter, they would rope off a safe swimming area. They painted old Clorox bottles and use them as the boundaries. One set was painted blue and was were the water was only a couple of feet deep. This was the younger kids area. The other set was painted yellow and marked the general swimming area. I remember spending many a hot summer day, and every 4th of July, on that little beach, swimming, playing and eating watermelon cooled in the river. Those were some good times.
Later when I was a teenager, the river played another large part in my life. Sometimes my friends and I would put a boat in up around Cloverleaf Farms and float down the river to the Bend Road area. Sometimes we would fish and sometimes we would just float and partake of cold malt beverages we were too young to buy but acquired anyway. A buzz bait with a white skirt thrown up against a log was the undoing of many a bass and sacalait. Other times we would run lines or put slat traps in the river to catch catfish. When we weren’t fishing or floating, Keith Jones and I spent many hours in the swamps along the river, coon hunting and trapping. We had visions of getting rich on selling those hides, but somehow we never really did. Those were the days.
One of my best memories of the river were when I was in my high school and early college years. My Daddy and I had cows for many years. Uncle Howard Underwood, Walter’s only son, wound up with the bulk of the family home place. When I was 15 or so, my Daddy leased it from Uncle Howard to run cows on. So, for the next 6 years or so, I spent a good deal of time on the “old family place”. It had open pasture, plenty of woods and some swamp. Two of the most noticeable features were a long sand beach about 50 yards wide and, just upriver, a cleared pasture which abruptly ended at a 30 foot bluff that dropped straight down to the river. My Dad and I spent many long days there working cows, building fences, cutting and bailing hay, planting rye grass, birthing calves, spraying and worming cattle and many other things. We even set some lines and traps in the river and did a little hunting. I thought it was pretty cool to be able to work with my Dad on the same land he told me he used to help his grandfather, Walter, work when he was a young boy. At the time I didn’t really appreciate it like I should have. But it was quality time. Some of the best times I spent with my Daddy during my youth happened right there. After I graduated from high school, we sold the cows and gave up the lease. I went on to LSU, got married, started a family and found other things to do for fun that did not involve the river.
So, as I headed downriver Saturday, a lot of these thoughts were running through my head. Had it really been that long since I had been on the Amite? And if so, why not. I needn’t have worried though. Like an old friend you haven’t talked to in a long time, but discover they have not changed much, the river was still the same. The simple beauty and rustic charm were the same as they had always been. The day was bright and clear and the water was cold and muddy. The scenery was spectacular.
Just like it had for years, the river had drawn a group of friends to it to rest and recharge. We had a great time, just floating and visiting, chasing the shade as we went.
As we made our way down the river, I kept looking for things that were familiar, but most of it, while beautiful, looked the same. Brown water, woods and sandbars. Jeff told me about the route and where we would take out. His property on the East Baton Rouge side had two sandbars. The farthest one was across from the end of the Bend Road, where the tubers put in. By my calculation that was or next to Aunt Margie and Uncle Ken’s old place. The first sandbar, where we would take out, was just past a bend in the river and was right across from a steep bluff with a large clearing at the top. My mind started racing. Was it? Could it be? Probably not, but then you never know.
As we neared the end of our trip, I saw Jeff and John round a bend and then head for the bank on a wide sandbar. We had reached the take out point. I was excited, but didn’t want to get my hopes up too much. But then I made the turn, and there it was.
Yes. that was “our” bluff; mine and my Daddy’s bluff. The clear area at the top used to be our rye grass field. I have plowed and seeded that thing many times. I beached my kayak and stood and just took it all in. I walked down the beach for a better look. I could see the north end of the sandbar downriver on the opposite bank.
Yes, this was Underwood land for sure. I stood there and all the memories and stories came flooding back. I felt like I should do like Moses and take my shoes off. I was almost on holy ground! I was home.
So, thanks to Jeff for inviting me. He thought he was just taking for a float down the river. But it turned into much more than that. I look forward to the next time so I can do it again.