By Boyce Upholt
Photos by Chris Battaglia
“The Mississippi is well-worth reading about,” begins the most famous book about the nation’s most famous rivers. To prove his point, Mark Twain (in Life on the Mississippi) offers a geography lesson, marveling at “so vast a drainage-basin,” which today includes parts of 31 states. And if there is one place where that drainage basin’s power is clear, it is at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, where the water stretches a mile and a half across or more, depending on the flood stage.
So if we were going to get stopped up by weather this week, there are worse places to be camped than at Birds Point, a small hump of land just across from Cairo, Ill., where the Ohio joins the stream. This is mile marker 0 of the Middle Mississippi River, the point where the Lower Mississippi River begins, and therefore, in my opinion, where Rivergator truly comes alive. Suddenly the floodplain widens, the bluffs disappear. I’ve heard that some through-paddlers, when they pass by Cairo, are so overwhelmed by the river’s new size that they retire from their trip. But as a Mississippian myself, this feels like coming home.
Birds Point, too, is a good place to watch the descendents of Mark Twain’s steamboats, because if you’re lucky — as we were on our first night in the camp — you’ll see a towboat chugging down the Middle Mississippi turn up the Ohio. The barges hold still, while the tow rotates counter-clockwise, nearly 360 degrees. Even as you watch the turn, the feat seems impossible.
Except for Dennis Van Norman, a kayaker who has joined us through Memphis to complete a stretch of the Big River he has not yet seen, we have not seen another paddler yet this season. But the tows are a reminder that we are not the only passengers on this river; the Mississippi has almost certainly been a passageway since humans first stumbled upon its waters. Some of the sights this week, as we finished our stretch down the Middle Mississippi, have likely served as waypoints for thousands of years: Tower Rock, for example, across from which we camped the first night of the week, was pointed out by Natives who guided Marquette and Jolliet. (The told the French explorers that this rock, the remains of an ancient mountain, housed a demon — a warning in narrative, perhaps, as the rapids in its backchannel have doomed many an unwary traveler.)
And then there are the nonhuman passengers: the birds who use this river as a corridor for their annual migration. I remain astounded by the beauty of pelicans, which before this trip I knew as simply an unwieldy-looking, fish-eating seaside bird. But this week we stopped paddling to look up at the birds’ drifting mating dance, which shifted in a wild vortex over the water. We applauded the appearance of terns on the river, harbingers of warmer weather. Even our campsites themselves are evidence of the river’s constant passage: one of the islands we chose does not appear on the 2007 Army Corps of Engineer maps; it has been created subsequently by sand, caught against a dyke. It is already topped with a thick willow forest, and home to beavers and coyote and deer.
This deep into an expedition, it seems, nerves can be frayed and elbows can rub. But the river itself is soothing. The people who live alongside prove that: in New Madrid, as we resupplied, the members of our expedition were offered free food, a hose for water, rides to the grocery, even free beer. As we stopped this evening and discovered ATV tracks on our chosen towhead, we worried that we’d be run back out onto the river. But when three ATV drivers arrived, they told us instead that next time we come through, we should make use of the riverside cabin we’d seen just upstream. There are only so many of us who care about this river, and we stick together.
If the theme of this week is passage, I have noted, too, the passage of the seasons. The willows budded overnight at our Birds Point camp; and today, finally, the water has warmed enough for me to take a swim. Clean and fresh — and awaiting Mark “River” Peoples’ campfire rabbit stew. Onward into springtime, with many miles to go
—Read about Week 1 of the Rivergator Expedition on the Mississippi.
—Read about more adventures on the lower Mississippi River on C&K.
Week 2 Paddlers:
John and LaNae Abnet (through Day 13), Chris Battaglia, Andy McClean,
Boyce Upholt, Denis Van Norman
Week 2 Crew:
“Big Muddy” Mike Clark (through Day 13), Mark “River” Peoples, Lena Von Machui
Week 2 Campsites:
Day 8 (March 27): Devil’s Backbone Campground (MMMM80.5)
Day 9 (March 28): Burnham Island (MMMM37)
Day 10 (March 29): Birds Point/Ohio Confluence (MMMM0)
Day 11 (March 30): Birds Point/Ohio Confluence (MMMM0)
Day 12 (March 31) New island, just above Island No. 8 (Lower
Mississippi Mile Marker 915)
Day 13 (April 1): Morrison Townhead/New Madrid (LMMM890)
Day 14 (April 2): Joe Eckles Towhead (LMMM861)