By Wolf E. Staudinger. Photos by John Ruskey
On the second River Gator celebratory excursion, John Ruskey and crew were two bends south of Memphis when he looked toward shore and said, "Huh. That looks like a raft." A white plastic chair and some buckets sat between bare uprights, and it looked from a distance like the remnants of a party. We landed and saw it was indeed a raft: rows of driftwood longs lashed neatly together around landscaping fabric and plastic bottles. Ruskey thought it might have been "the German." There was gossip in the Memphis river-rat community that a mysterious German had been camped beneath the I-40 bridge, steadily working on a raft made only of beaver sticks, discarded bottles, wire, and other gifts of the river. One morning a few weeks back, he and his raft were gone, and no one saw him again.
As strange as the circumstances were, even more remarkable is the fact that 1.3 million people live on the banks of the Mississippi River in Memphis and few of them would dare to stick a toe in. Yet this raftsman flew all the way around the world to make his break on their river.
Ruskey is familiar with this international amazement (and fearlessness) of the Mississippi. In 2009, he built two new 34-foot stripper canoes to guide a German Public Media crew on a canoe-maran-style raft from St. Louis to New Orleans. In fact, the very vessel that took us from Memphis to Helena, Ark., was built on an island north of the border in Lake Superior. And through the chop of last week’s windy days, John stood at the tiller of the 32-foot, voyageur-style York boat named Annie, built for Canadian adventurer Brett Rogers' documentary series called Old Man River Project.
International folk tend to see the Mississippi River the way that Twain saw it, as a "remarkable river." He writes in the first chapter in Life on the Mississippi: "Considering the Missouri, its main branch, it is the longest river in the world—four thousand three hundred miles." He goes on to say, "The area of its drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey."
As the smokestacks and harbor tows of Memphis disappeared behind the trees, Ruskey was asked why so many Americans had such a fear of the river. He said, "It's misunderstood and misrepresented … You know, the Industrial Canal of America."
Mark Kalch, an Aussie writer and adventurer who plans to go source to sea on each continent's longest river system, wrote about a similar perspective that outsiders have of the Amazon. "(The Amazon basin) stands for an impenetrable, remote green jungle, uncontacted tribes and limitless variations of animal life. Though the mysteries of the jungle remain, the river's reality does not quite match the posters. Boats of all persuasions ply this watery highway, everything from pirogues and putt-putting wooden skiffs to large passenger ferries and ocean-going tankers."
As Annie rounded Buck Island, north of Helena, an osprey raced over the tree line. Several months earlier, a flock of thousands of white pelicans rested on the upper edge of the island as John led a group of Tanzanians down the river. The ecstatic group erupted into a song about Mount Kilimanjaro in five-part harmony. Ruskey compared the river and the mountain, saying "They're both the biggest on the continents." And, far from industrial afterthoughts, he compares them to temples, "The wild places on the earth inspire music, poetry. They inspire painting… reverence."
Ruskey hopes the River Gator can lead more Americans back to their wildest big river, the way a family of Argentinians not long ago let their children play in the pools of water on Buck Island. Ruskey says they wondered why there wasn't anyone else on the island; "It was a beautiful fall afternoon, a Sunday, cool enough to keep the mosquitoes at bay, warm enough for children to swim in blue holes and bury themselves in the sand.
"Why don't Americans love their river with the same appreciation?"