ENGINEERING WONDER

THE BEGINNING AND THE END OF THE WORLD'S LONGEST UNBROKEN LEVEE

Northernmost extent of the world's longest leveeThis is the north end of the world's longest uninterrupted levee. This point is about a mile north of lock and dam #4 (the Emmett Sanders Lock and Dam) on the Arkansas River. Just below and behind the little white car in the picture is a break in the levee through which a railroad track passes on its way from Pine Bluff to Altheimer. If you start at this point and walk south for 350 miles without leaving the flood control structure you end up here....

Southernmost extent of the world's longest leveeThis is Venice, Louisiana, and this is the same little white car parked at the southernmost point of that same levee. You can't go any farther south in Louisiana without waders. The levee doesn't simply run into the sea alongside the Mississippi River as I had expected. Rather it loops at the end into a hundred-mile hairpin that flanks the road leading to the toe of the Louisiana Boot.

I first learned of this engineering wonder from the Great River Road Commission publication which said that this levee was the highest in the world (at a point near Lake Chicot--some 35 feet high) and also the longest in the world at 640 miles. When I traced the river on the map, however, the figure seemed excessive. I called up the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers district office in Vicksburg to ask about the 640 mile figure.

I didn't get any firm numbers, but one of the engineers offered this: The 640-mile figure might include ancillary structures connected to this levee, like secondary levees around flood zones, the old levee system and so on. A hike of 350-miles on the levee is a more reasonable distance from Pine Bluff to Venice. Also, it's not exactly correct to say the levee is unbroken. For example, there are places like the Huxtable Stormwater Pumping Plant, where a flood control structure connects the levee. There's also an enormous lock in Baton Rouge that blocks the Red River. Those barriers can be crossed and so if you want to argue semantics, it's not an unbroken levee so much as an unbroken flood control barrier. So there.

I asked the engineer if he had ever heard of anybody making the hike and he said he hadn't, although he had heard of lots of people making such long trips by kayak or canoe. So I started looking into the feasibility of hiking the distance. It looked easy at first. Cover twelve miles a day and you're done in less than a month. There are lots of towns along the way so you can reprovision often and therefore you won't have to carry a lot of weight. The trail is as flat and level as you could ever want. A hiker could even spend every third night in a state park or motel. I wondered why somebody hadn't done it. Seems like an easy way for an experienced backpacker to get his name in the paper. I wondered why Pine Bluff hadn't exploited the levee as a history/ecotourism hike, seeing as Pine Bluff would benefit as the trailhead.

So I tried driving the distance and I have personally verified as much as is reasonable that the structure is intact from Pine Bluff to Venice. I estimate that I either drove on or in sight of the levee for about 80% of its length. There is a road on top of the levee most of the way. It turns out there are a lot of practical problems keeping hikers from actually making the 350-mile levee walk. One of the most important is the fact that eight miles of the walk crosses the Cummins Unit of the Arkansas penal system. You'd also have to get permission from International Paper Company, shipyards, chemical companies, petroleum storage facilities and on and on and on. Because of this the levee hike is just one of those stunts that will probably ever remain hypothetical.

Even so, there are long sections that are flanked only by private agricultural land; and I saw nothing that would prevent a conscientous hiker from taking long sections, say the 40 miles from Back Gate to Eudora. I did not check into the legalities of traveling levees which cross private property, but the fact that there are roads atop them makes me think they are as public as any other easement.

RTJ--12/15/98


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