By Chris Wolf E. Staudinger. Photos by John Ruskey
When people in the South say someone “showed out” the night before, there was probably dancing involved—more than likely, hard dancing.
Showing out is exactly what the Mississippi River did for us last week. On the first of three extended paddling trips to celebrate the newly opened sections of the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail, the big river strutted her stuff, got a little messy, and at the end, she landed on her feet and made it all look elegant. She showed out so hard, with her giant catfish, lawless islands, brutal wind, and water covered in early morning steam, that Tom Charlier, a veteran environmental journalist in Memphis, told outfitter and river trail mastermind John Ruskey, “I’ve been on a lot of trips on the river, but this has been the best by far.”
Ruskey has been writing the online guide, which he calls The River Gator, for the last two years. In a 34-foot, cypress-strip canoe, Ruskey, along with his crew, a couple of journalists, a pilgrim, and a priest, paddled 81 miles of the northernmost part of the trail, which stretches from Caruthersville, Mo., to Mud Island in Memphis. The weeklong trip started out big, with a commercial fisherman holding up a catfish the size of a shark. Then there was cold wind and raindrops in the stew. And then there were bluffs.
Ruskey calls this stretch of river “The Chickasaw Bluffs” for the three cliffs of red loess mud that begin rising out of the water 50 miles upriver of Memphis. He describes the bluffs in The River Gator:
“For an unsuspecting paddler it’s something like driving across the Great Plains and seeing for the first time the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains rising heavenward. For a floodplain resident who has never witnessed the bluffs in their raw state, you might experience vertigo. You will be filled with a strange feeling of not knowing where the heck you are, so foreign is the landscape. The bluffs keep growing and growing until you reach their base where they fill most of the southern sky in a roiling collision of colorful earth-tones, mostly yellows, oranges and reds … Adding to the thrill of this exotic atmosphere is a thick kudzu jungle that covers much of the cliff-side wherever it has been able to gain a perch, but also where it has consumed whole trees, filled shallow valleys, and created a green kingdom that could have come right out of the Tolkien’s Middle Earth.”
Charlier had never seen the bluffs as an unsuspecting paddler, rocked and nudged in a canoe by the gurgles of a big river. On Day Three, we landed at the foot of the second bluff and explored the bizarre landscape. In a flagrant affront to water and wind and gravity, a three-story column of mud sticks up in the air and holds a tree trunk in his cleft, like it’s twirling a baton. John Gary (the good profligate) told us about a time he had camped in the area: Two men in a johnboat had given his group a young wild hog, which they skinned and slow-cooked. Then that night, he told me, “These two love-birds we were with, they tried to set their tent up apart from everyone else—you know—but there isn’t too much space for that.” He pointed to the sliver of craggy ground that abuts the steep cliff. “In the middle of the night, we hear a big crashing sound. Boom. I come out of my tent and see the two of ‘em, naked, hauling their entire tent away from the bluff, scared shitless.”
The constant grind of eddies, sped up by high water, carve holes from the loamy walls of the bluffs, and in low water they calve under their own weight. The part where we stood juts boldly into the channel like a weir, and it takes a brutal left hook from a hard curve of the river. The river wants nothing more than to blaze a hole through the mud and quicken its path to Memphis. Gary looked up at the cliff, nodded, and said, “Get it while you can.”
On the final morning, Tom and I paddled together in a two-man Wilderness Systems Northstar toward the giant glass pyramid that flanks the Memphis skyline. He told me about his news stories, how the rice farmers in eastern Arkansas are draining aquifers at alarming rates to flood their fields. The bridges need to be braced for the threat of earthquakes. But the river, he said, is getting healthier. “As more and more people are kayaking out there and standup paddleboarding and canoeing, they’re paying more attention to it.”
And that’s the ultimate goal with The River Gator: for the beauty to stay beautiful. And it can only happen if people know it’s there.