By Chelsea Brasted, | The Times-Picayune


For the third time in three years, the Mississippi River will shut down for a 13 mile stretch in Baton Rouge. Instead of the big engines on tankers and ferryboats churning the murky grey water, about 225 smaller vessels will glide from downtown to the L'Auberge Casino.


The Big River Regional, scheduled for the morning of Aug. 29, is the result of a partnership between several local and regional entities and the Coast Guard, but it really started as one big idea from three guys who liked to paddleboard.


"(Troy Archer) and I had mentioned it before to each other like 'that would be cool, that would be awesome to one day put on a sup race in the Mississippi,' but never really thought it would be doable," remembers Walker Higgins, co-owner of the YOLO Board Dealership Muddy Water Paddle Company. "The idea grew ... until we had this glimmer of light."


In the first year, Higgins, Archer and fellow partner Bryan Prince didn't even have approval until two weeks out from the race.


"We were (thinking) we may have to cancel this race because the Coast Guard and industry representatives for all the major powers on the river weren't sure about these crazy guys who wanted to put a race down the Mississippi," Higgins said.


"This stretch of river is pretty much the heaviest-trafficked area along all 2400-plus miles of the Mississippi, so it's a significant thing to shut down the river for a four hour period," he added.


But it worked out, and in the late summer of 2013, the trio oversaw about 72 paddleboarders, kayakers and other small paddle boats make the trek. The result, Higgins said, was unlike anything he'd ever experienced.


"It gives you goosebumps. It's pretty neat," he said.


The Big River Regional is geared toward stand up paddleboarders, but it's open to any small paddlecraft. The key, Higgins said, is that anyone interested in shoving off with the group really should have a little more than novice experience.


"You need experience navigating waterways and obstacles," he cautioned, adding that 15 safety vessels will also be on the water to ensure that everyone gets any help needed.


As the number of people participating in the Big River Regional grow, so does the popularity of paddleboarding in Louisiana and beyond. The Outdoor Foundation began monitoring the sport in 2010 and saw it grow to a record 21.7 million participants in 2014, according to a foundation report. Paddleboarders — including rafters, canoe users, sup board paddlers and kayakers — comprise 7.4 percent of the country's population.

Higgins credits the growth to how easy it is to jump in and get going.


"It's so easy to grasp right away, and it's a totally different perspective than any other water activity," he said. "And paddle communities have a different vibe. They're very laid-back people, and that lends itself well to Louisiana. ... So many people in Louisiana have water backgrounds or water in their history, from growing up going to camps, being in the bayou or even in pirogues."


The Big River Regional, which is still accepting online registration, will kick off at 8 a.m., and racers should expect to be wrapped up by 1 p.m., although Higgins said most will finish between 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. A finish party at the L'Auberge Casino and Hotel will be waiting for racers to celebrate.


Even for those not yet willing to hop onboard a paddleboard, the Big River Regional offers some interesting river viewing as the small vessels make their way down the river. Higgins recommends watching the morning start, where Fr. Jeffrey Bayhi will do a blessing of the fleet before they head out, or heading to L'Auberge to see everyone finish.


"It's a thing to be proud of for Baton Rouge," Higgins said. "We're just real proud this race has turned into a destination for a lot of people and that it's showing off ... everything Baton Rouge has to offer."