By David Hanson
The Mississippi River almost killed John Ruskey in 1983. He and a buddy had taken to America’s great brown artery in a handmade log raft. They made it a long way, south of Memphis. Then the raft broke apart on a freezing February night. The two young men made it to an island minutes before becoming human driftwood.
They survived and Ruskey has dedicated his life to saving that slick, bullish, indifferent river ever since. His method: build beautiful, hand-carved Voyageur canoes, bring as many people to the river as possible, and open their eyes and hearts to the country’s least appreciated wilderness.
Canoe & Kayak and others have told the story of John Ruskey and his Quapaw Canoe Company. On multi-day river trips the shaggy-haired, bearded messiah of the Mighty Miss cooks barbecue ribs and potatoes and onions and boils coffee over a driftwood fire on football-field-sized sandbars. Ruskey ran the Mississippi during the historic flood of 2011 and wrote about it for C&K. I’ve written about him, too. That’s how we met years ago. I’ve since joined John for a week-long expedition paddling up the Mississippi near St Louis.
I’ve seen his work off the river. Ruskey teaches KIPP Charter School students the art of hand-hewn canoe building. He hires and trains Clarksdale youth – a population with very few alternatives to a poor education system and job market – to be Quapaw river guides. He’s a student and player of blues music in the Mecca of American blues.
It’s hard to read John Ruskey. His long-distance stare can seem aloof, intimidating even, until you look back at the stern while floating down the middle of the half-mile-wide channel and see him propped against a dry-bag, a paddle cradled under one arm for steering and a paintbrush in the other hand. He’s dipping the brush tip into the river, picking up water and silt that’s moved through the heart of the country. He then taps his messy plastic palette and makes a swirling, fading, dripping pastel of the scene around us. So then, from the front of the canoe, you’re compelled to look out and see the landscape as art. And you understand Ruskey’s far-off look. He’s constantly capturing, chronicling the dynamic, shifting, moody world around him.
Ruskey’s body of work on the Lower Mississippi is now poised to take its biggest step in saving and celebrating the river. For the last two years, Ruskey, in that far-off, determined way, has been fighting a quiet battle to save his livelihood, and secure the future of the nature tourism businesses in Mississippi.
This January he shared that story with the public. The basic issue is a sales tax that only the State of Mississippi—not the federal government or other states—levies on river trips. Ruskey didn’t know about this tax, and his Quapaw Canoe Company had never charged clients for a sales tax on river trips. He operated under the assumption of a federal exemption for business on interstate, navigable waterways. It’s an exemption with precedence in river-running states like Utah, Idaho, and Tennessee. Instead, Mississippi conducted an audit and lumped Quapaw into the taxable category of “Amusement,” like a casino. Quapaw now owes the state $41,000, and Ruskey doesn’t have that kind of money.
Now that the story is out, Ruskey’s decades of work is crystallizing into an outpouring of support across the region. In less than three months, he and his crew have managed to push two bills before the Mississippi State Senate (SB2792) and House (HB1604) that would exempt Quapaw and future nature businesses from river operation taxes. The bills are garnering bi-partisan support. Lifting a tax burden from a small business rooted in good works and environmental stewardship is an issue that both parties can get behind. The House bill passed with 113 Yeas in a chamber with only 121 lawmakers. The shifting sands of the Mighty Miss seem to be moving in favor of Ruskey, the Quapaws, and the next generation of Mississippi River lovers.
Ruskey’s latest noteworthy cause is mapping the Lower Mississippi River through his River Gator project to open it up as longest riverine water trail in America. C&K recently ran a three-part series on the expeditions to finish the mapping effort.