My dad bought the family homestead in 1936. Our land is in Paulina, La., on the banks of the Mississippi. The only time I've ever lived out of Paulina was after I finished high school and joined the Army; I was in Germany for 30 months.
I started working in operations at the Texaco refinery in 1967. It was a hazardous job, so as soon as I could retire, I did. I first got on the computer the year after that. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have known about the river travelers.
I came across Big River magazine on the internet in 2009 and learned that a group of travelers were paddling a canoe down the river. My son-in-law and I went to hear them talk in Baton Rouge, about 230 river miles north of the Gulf of Mexico. I offered to fix them a meal if they'd stop downstream at my place, at mile 149. They got here on the coldest day of the year, seven people in one big canoe. We had cooked a big jambalaya, and a gang of family members welcomed them. They slept in one big tent by the water, about a quarter mile from our house.
My whole family enjoyed that experience, so I started scouting the internet for people floating down the Mississippi, and I cleared out a camping space for them. Whenever I learned someone was coming, I tried to get in touch. One year I met about 40-some paddlers. We always chop some firewood to leave for our guests. We've taken them to the store, given them water; some of them have taken a shower and washed clothes at our house. I feel good when I can lend a helping hand to perfect strangers and become their friend.
I read about the “river angels” in the upper river who host a lot of paddlers. They're good-hearted, charitable people. It makes me feel good to be called a river angel, too. I'll do this as long as my health keeps up. We're Cajuns — we welcome people.
— As told to Mary Ann Sternberg