Rivergator Dispatch #3: Whose river?

Fighting gusty winds, the Rivergator crew continues their exploration of the lower Mississippi's wild side.

By Boyce Upholdt
Photos by Chris Battaglia

The week began with a bang—or, more accurately, a long and howling windstorm. Around 2:30 on Monday morning, I woke to a tent bending in on itself, victim to unexpected 40-mile-an-hour gusts of wind. We had sited our camp poorly, and now, for the hours of the bad weather, there was nothing to do but sit through. Our bodies, after all, were the only thing keeping our tents in place. The tents survived, but I got at best another 30 minutes of sleep.

Fortunately the winds calmed after breakfast, and, paddling hard for two hours, we made it safely to Caruthersville, Mo. There John Ruskey, our leader, rejoined us after a week at home to tend to family. The sun was shining, the water looked calm, and John was eager after a week on land. So of course we paddled out.

And of course the winds returned. We fought waves for an hour—the canoes nearly out of control—until we spied a promising campsite. By the time we'd picked it, we were downstream, and the current was too strong for us to return. So we continued into the wind, working hard to avoid the pylons of the Caruthersville Bridge, towards which the winds seemed determined to send our canoes. After ducking to avoid decapitation via overhanging branch, we made emergency camp on the other side of the bridge.

That, in many ways, was the story of the week: fighting windy weather. We took advantage of calm skies the next day for our longest-yet paddle—62 miles—so that we could hunker down for the two following days of forecasted gusts. When we were yards from that bridge; when we were fifty miles deep and exhausted: this week, for the first time, there are moments when I've wondered why I'm here on this big water.

But—as always—the camping reminds me of the value of this walled-in wild. Even our spot beneath the bridge was cozy. (It didn't hurt, of course, that we were tired enough to be unbothered by the rush of interstate traffic over our heads while we slept.) The next evening, as we set ourselves up for two days of camp on Deans Island, we were surrounded by nothing but wilderness—including the tracks of one beast of a coyote, who was out there, somewhere, prowling around.

So many places exist like this, overlooked but beautiful. Even at the edges of the walled-in wild—as I call the lands inside the levees, along the Mississippi River—there are places of refuge for those who have chosen to live outside the mainstream. As we left Memphis on Day 19, for example, we spied a tent encampment; its two occupants watched dispassionately as we drifted away. In St. Louis, too, I saw a tent pitched beneath a public pier. It's easy to assume that these folks are desperate—why else would you live beneath a bridge—but I've known people that have chosen to live alongside rivers, in humble freedom, simply because they find it a better home. My days in this wilderness have taught me to sympathize.

This river, like all navigable rivers, belongs to everyone; it is public property. But its banks, where we sometimes camp, are not. As we paddle further downstream—into the Mississippi Delta now, the home territory of the Quapaw Canoe Company and the Lower Mississippi River Foundation (LMRF), the sponsors of this expedition—that fact is becoming increasingly clear. More and more we see small white signs tacked to the trees on the riverbank. We can't quite read them, but we know what they say: "NO TRESPASSING." This is hunting land, and you need to be a millionaire to pay the dues to join. (The 6,000 acres on Island 35, north of Memphis, were recently listed for sale for $12 million.) Beyond the forests lies more private property: the farmland that funds some of those millionaire lifestyles.

This is where Rivergator—the project we're currently celebrating—comes in handy. It will guide you to the islands and riverbanks where you won't be bothered, and steer you to the wildest, most remote stretches.

Still, there ought to be more of those stretches. We passed industrial developments this week, places John noted out as newly built, marring what were until recently "wild miles." The LMRF is advocating for legislation that would limit new construction to areas already developed, rather than continuing to impinge on an overworked floodplain.

The LMRF is also working to create more public islands—like Buck Island, also known as Prairie Point Towhead, a fitting place for our final camp site of week 3. In 2008, the LMRF helped the island be saved from the auction block. Now managed by the state of Arkansas, you will be unhassled if you camp or picnic here; which is lovely, given that it is some of the most beautiful land in the area, and only a short five-mile paddle from the landing in Helena, Ark.

We made our short paddle on Sunday morning, looking forward to a four-day layover in the Mississippi Delta while we resupply. We figured it would be an easy morning, then—though perhaps we should not have been surprised to find the river had something else in store. The wind that morning was blowing as strong as ever—the river slashed with white caps, the water from our paddles blowing up into our faces. A hard five miles, but now we are home and safe.

Just before this expedition launched, three world rivers were granted the same legal rights as human beings. These rivers are no longer objects to be managed, or to be owned; they are things to be kept alive. It's overly romantic—because of course the towboats were still out there, pushing their commerce up and down river, no matter the winds—but I like to see the weather this week as the Mississippi River's way of asserting that it, too, is not something that can be owned. It is its own beast, wet and windy, and no matter our plans and our policies, it's going to do what it likes.

Read more:

—Dispatch #1: Into the Walled-in Wild

—Dispatch #2: Passage

Week 3 camps:

Day 15 (April 3): Island 16 / Caruthersville Bridge (LMMM 839)
Day 16 (April 4): First Chickasaw Bluff (LMMM 777)
Day 17 (April 5): Deans Island (LMMM 759)
Day 18 (April 6): Deans Island (LMMM 759)
Day 19 (April 7): Cat Island (LMMM 710)
Day 20 (April 8): Buck Island (LMMM 668)
Day 21 (April 9): Arrival in Helena, Ark., for re-supply (LMMM 663)

Week 3 paddlers:

Chris Battaglia, Robin Colonas (starting Day 19), Christine Ingrassia (starting Day 19), Emma Ingrassia (starting Day 19), Allen Johnson (through Day 19), Andy McClean (through Day 19), Jen and Nick Lyman (starting Day 19), Abby Ruskey (through Day 19), Boyce Upholt, Dennis Van Norman (through Day 19)

Week 3 crew:

John Ruskey, Mark "River" Peoples, Lena Von Machui