By Wolf E. Staudinger / Photos by John Ruskey
I ended Part II in this series of tales celebrating the Lower Mississippi Water Trial with outfitter and water-trail guidebook mastermind John Ruskey’s simple question: Why don’t Americans love their river?
As I wrote it, I was sitting atop a bluff lit by a fabulous pink sunrise. The river was below me, swirling quietly and feverishly. It was the last of three weeklong trips celebrating and publicizing the launch of the Lower Mississippi River Foundation’s paddling guide, The Rivergator (click HERE to read about the second trip, and HERE to read about the first). John has been working on the project for three years, and he’ll work on it for three more until it stretches from St. Louis to the Head of Passes in Louisiana. That morning the sun was coming up as dramatically as it had gone down the night before. A line of catfish sizzled on a bed of green willow cuttings. American Bar, the island where we camped, stretched back in a long prairie, spotted with a few big trees. We were the only 12 people on the two-mile island. I could not understand why no one else was out there. It was one of a hundred-or so days I’ve spent camping on the Mississippi River without seeing a soul.
Every reasonable answer to John’s question was demolished by the scene surrounding me that morning. But a few weeks later, I visited the University of Mississippi where two professors, Dr. Cliff Ochs and Dr. Robbie Ethridge, had spent months asking John’s question. With their seminar of 10 honors students, they explored the murky cultural and ecological history of the Big River. Their answers made me understand why so few people recreate on the Mississippi River. Dr. Ethridge is an anthropologist, so she saw things with a wide perspective. When the survivors of Hernando De Soto’s expedition returned to Europe in the 1500s, they brought back stories of a dark and mysterious river full of angry natives. For days, the explorers were chased by an armada of giant cypress dugout canoes, 50 men in each, peppering arrows overhead, beating drums, and chanting in the incomprehensible languages of the notoriously brutal kingdom of Quigualtom.
The chase of De Soto’s men happened along the very same stretch of river as the final Rivergator trip – a 100 mile paddle from Greenville, Miss, to Vicksburg. John writes of Kentucky bend, south of American Bar: “The river feels very big around here, there are so many big islands and routes for the river to go it feels kind of like you have been washed into the Gulf stream where it flows through the Bahaman archipelago.” He goes on, “There are several steamboat wrecks hidden in the mud here,” referring to the Saladin and the Congress, which sunk after a head-on collision in 1846. And then there are all of the hidden things that we don’t yet about.
Hannah Wikoff, a senior in the Ole Miss river seminar, saw a love for the Mississippi River that’s been tainted by Western-style ambitions: with a shift from the “reverent regard” of the Native Americans “to the utilization of the river” by a developing superpower. America’s love for the Mississippi has usually meant a love for the cotton it transported or the war victories it could help win. This kind of love led to overcrowded, rickety steamboats that often exploded in horrific and grandiose fashion, which then filled headlines from Los Angeles to New York. The Great Flood of 1927 converted 23,000 square miles of land into flowing water, an area about the size of West Virginia. Back on American Bar, the pile of rocks that buttressed the bank below me was a result of that flood, whose toll of human and economic trauma caused the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build the system of levees that still works to subdue the Mississippi today.
Dr. Ochs, a limnologist at the university who studies the smallest river dwellers, knows firsthand why so many fear the Big River. “The river truly is a super-powerful fluid force,” he says. “It’s like the ocean in this way.” As he’s taken samples over the years in a small johnboat, Ochs has seen how the river’s forces present a special kind of danger, like “running into something tougher than your boat or motor, like the bottom or some riprap. That happened to us a couple of times, and it was always scary.”
“My impression is that it is probably safer in a stable canoe or kayak, even a paddleboard, than in a motorboat,” he added, “As a paddler, you have only your own muscle power to worry about.”
Perhaps, then, a better way to ask Ruskey’s question would be “Why don’t American paddlers love their biggest river?“ Paddlers don’t typically run from “super powerful fluid forces.” They run towards them.
Mark River Peoples, a guide at Ruskey’s Quapaw Canoe Company, thinks access is a problem, but he appreciates the extra effort it takes to feel the solitude that the Mississippi harbors. “I think the Mississippi River island camp spots surpass the unnatural parks set up that have easy access by humans,” he says, “The islands’ natural setting change daily, especially during the rise and fall of the river when all the cycles of life are in full swing.”
On the last night of the 100-mile trip, 12 of us sat below a wall of sycamores in a sandy cut of the riverbank, just upriver from Vicksburg. From the perspective of the bargemen, our fire would have looked like the end of a cigarette. But fog blotted us out entirely as burger grease crackled, and a small piece of slate was passed from hand to hand. It was found on a gravel bar the day before, shaped like a milk-bone and punched with two holes. Mark Howell guessed that maybe, thousands of years ago, an Native American woman once wore it around her neck like a bowtie. He’s the director of Winterville Mounds State Park, a collection of Indian mounds near Greenville, and his guess, that it was a “gorget”, was later confirmed by an archaeologist.
Talk around the fire mostly centered on back-channels, which were trickling with new water and growing new life. The Army Corps of Engineers has begun to open the dams that once stretched the length of these secondary channels; good news for paddlers and good news for the wildlife that thrives there. Libby Hartfield, the director of the Mississippi Museum of Natural History, talked about the environmental destruction wrought by the Corps’ cutting off and speeding up of the river. But her husband, Paul Hartfield, a US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, says that despite “the enormous geomorphic changes within the Mississippi River” over the last 80 years, the river has remained a resilient, healthy, and high-value ecosystem. Other manhandled rivers, like the Chattahoochie, the Tennessee, and the Arkansas, have not been so lucky, he says.
The notches in the back-channel dams represent a small but radical turn towards the environment by the Corps, an organization that has belligerently stopped at nothing to control water. Equally as radical, they’ve joined a group of organizations (including Ruskey and the Lower Mississippi River Foundation) to figure out how to “protect the long term vitality of the Lower River.” This can only mean good things for a river that has survived 80 years of man’s attempt to cover it in concrete. Paddlers and fishermen hope the effort, called the Lower Mississippi River Resource Assessment, will result in more access roads and boat ramps for the big river, a major barrier to recreation thus far.
But as per John’s assessment in the Rivergator: “There are 24 million paddlers in North America; very few of them know about the Lower Mississippi, and even less use it. The river is a mystery to even its closest neighbors.” It’s a mystery that will persist, even if the water trail works, and the Corps vastly expands access, and one million paddlers visit the Mississippi next year, because the river, with all of its cuts and its back channels, is big enough to handle a lot of us.