By Boyce Upholt
Photos by Chris Battaglia
Spend enough time on the river and you're going to learn what a storm looks like.
In the distance, in the big sky above the river, it's just a shifting grey mass. Rain streaks down in ghostly tendrils. But from inside the storm it's different. The water is scalloped by rain drops, and wind drives down in angles. The world closes in, grey and white and cloudy. Then, suddenly, it opens up.
We've been lucky to suffer only a few passing storms. This is springtime in the Mississippi Delta, after all. Thunderstorm season. (I'm writing this on Earth Day—April 22, the 34th day of our expedition—and we have ducked into camp on Island No. 110 to avoid one more thunderstorm.)
This segment of our expedition began on Friday, April 14, in Helena, Ark., after a four-day layover to rest and resupply. It was the beginning of Easter weekend, and we were in the Quapaw Canoe Company's home territory. There were four canoes in total. We had so many friends along for the ride, I had to end my tradition of tracking which paddlers came along for different stretches of river. Each day, we dropped off a few more visitors to return to the workaday world. By Monday morning we'd been reduced to our smallest crew of the trip: just the three through-paddlers—myself, Andy McClean, and Chris Battaglia—with John Ruskey as our leader and our guide.
With this group, we hit our first downpour. We were in what John calls the "Muddy Waters Wilderness," the most remote 200 miles of the river, where there is just one bridge and very little industry. It's green and lush, especially with spring arriving, but it seemed like the right place for the river to show us what it's got.
At Warfield Point Park, we dropped off John — to be replaced for a few days by Adam Elliott, the owner of Quapaw's Natchez outpost — and picked up a few new friends. And then we were back to the wild and the storms. Lightning flared around us, and we got our worst dousing yet.
These dispatches have become a kind of reflection on the different ways people view the river. As a passageway, for example, or as property. On Earth Day, in particular, I think it's fitting to consider one more vision of the river: it is something wild.
Wilderness is a complicated word, with a thousand definitions, all of them personal and distinct. But to me, water is one creator of wild: water creates chaos, after all. Water is turbulent, here on the Mississippi as much as anywhere, with its boils and eddies and backflows and whirlpools.
And that turbulence carves out room for life. We spent our night on Arcadia Bar discussing the life we'd seen or heard on the river, during this trip and in trips past. A pair of bobcats. A swimming black bear. The howl of the coyote, a recent migrant into this territory. And the omnipresence of Canadian geese, who were introduced here in a failed scheme to please hunters. On Easter Sunday, we'd stumbled upon a nest of eggs, speckled and black, a delightful impromptu Easter-egg hunt. Paul Hartfield, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Biologist who'd joined us for the evening, confirmed that they were the eggs of an interior least tern. A once-rare animal is coming back.
Our skeleton team has built up a rhythm that adds something to this sense of the wild. Andy builds the fire; Chris cooks dinner; in the morning, I load up the canoe. In these remote corners of the river, we've banded together in our routine. It's been a pleasure to have the quiet campsites—though those early days, with the many companions, are important, too.
Paul, when he joined us, mentioned a recent trip to Springer Mountain, Georgia, where the Appalachian Trail begins. He had first gone there forty-odd years ago, when a long hike was still a rare thing. Back then, he figured, there were only 70 through-hikers traveling each year. Now? It's more like 7,000. Still, the trail is a delight, he said. Everyone is friendly and warm, enjoying their time outdoors.
The annual number of through-paddlers on the Mississippi, it just so happens, is around 70 right now. One of the purposes of this expedition is to increase that number—maybe, if we're successful, by a hundredfold. Some losses will come with that: the pleasant solitude of a camp after a storm, for example. But it's what the river needs.
For now, though, I'm reminded that our trip is a rare one. On Friday—Day 33—as we ferried across the river, seeking a campsite, cutting through the biggest white-cap waves we'd yet seen, the American Queen, a luxury steamboat, was passing us upstream. "Wave for the tourists," said Adam. They were looking at us, I realized, the same way we look at the bears and geese and coyotes: a river curiosity. We are the wild ones now.
Day 26 (April 14): Island No. 62 (LMMM640)
Day 27 (April 15): Smith Point "Secret Backchannel" (LMMM600)
Day 28 (April 16): Choctaw Island (LMMM563)
Day 29 (April 17): Tarpley Island (LMMM539)
Day 30 (April 18): Island 86 (LMMM520)
Day 31 (April 19): Ajax Bar (LMMM481)
Day 32 (April 20): Arcadia Bar (LMMM470)
Day 33 (April 21): Delta Point (LMMM436)
Day 34 (April 22): Island No. 110 (LMMM417)
Day 35 (April 23): "Adam's Island" – just above Natchez (LMMM371)