By Boyce Upholt
Photos by Chris Battaglia
Let me begin with a word of praise for what may be the best-ever campsite of my life: last week I pitched my tent atop an eight-foot cutbank on Mosenthien Island, a few miles upriver from St. Louis.
It should not have been so pleasant: the wind was blowing all night, so sand scratched across the bottom of my tent; and by morning the temperature had dropped to a crisp 35 degrees. But the sunset was worth it. Downtown St. Louis sat just on the horizon, and as the sky dimmed, the city lights came up, their shadows trailing across the water. Twinkling there were thousands of people, and almost none of them knew what they were missing.
This is what John Ruskey—the founder and owner of the Quapaw Canoe Company, and the lead guide of this expedition—calls the “wilderness within”: a thin strip of wild lands through the heart of the continent, all but forgotten by those in the cities and farmlands it rubs against. (How close it lies to civilization speaks to the second meaning, a metaphor: there is a wilderness within all of us, too, if we are willing to find it.)
A novice paddler, I have joined Ruskey and his crew for the Rivergator Celebratory Expedition in order to document this wilderness, as part of a book-in-progress on the Lower Mississippi River Valley. That valley is contained almost entirely by the 3,700 miles of the Mississippi River levees, which, if taken together, constitute the single largest object ever built by humankind.
To me, it’s a symbol of our era. We used to fence out the wild, to keep our fields safe from wild predators. Now, as the environmental journalist Robert Moor has noted, we are “fencing in the wild, to keep it safe from us.” While I’m all for environmental protection, I find myself entranced by the idea that the Mississippi River offers a last remnant of that old-style wilderness, walled away behind its levee because we cannot manage to keep it in control.
Which means there are places like Mosenthein Island, a playground for coyotes and eagles and swooping pelicans. Indeed, nine miles of the Mississippi River along St. Louis are as wild as you’ll find. Because the “Chain of Rocks,” a set of underwater ledges, impedes commercial vessels, a canal was built along the city, leaving the river open to paddlers. If they’re willing to run the rocks, that is. We were—though only after unloading our gear and portaging a few hundred meters past the Chain—and the quiet sunset on Mosenthein was our just reward.
Last year, Ruskey completed his work on “the Rivergator,” the first paddler’s guide to the Lower Mississippi, to help others find such rewards. The guide begins at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers—the continent’s riverine heart—so that’s where we began, too, late on Monday, March 20, with 13 expeditioners in two 29-foot cedar canoes. We launched from Columbia Bottoms State Park, and drifted three miles through Missouri River sunset before setting a late camp on Duck Island, mile 195 on the Upper Mississippi.
It, like all of our campsites, might be considered semi-wild: as we looked upstream, we could see the lights of one of the nation’s largest refineries. On Tuesday, on Mosenthein (mile 188), we watched the city, and, after a stop at the foot of the Arch to celebrate World Water Day, paddled through its 20-mile harbor on Wednesday. That night, on Beaver Island (mile 161), we sat across from a power plant, and the next, on Salt Lake Island (mile 139.5), John painted the shimmering tower of a Chilean-owned cement factory. There, waylaid by dangerous winds, we stayed another night.
But that summary fails to reveal the beauty of this walled-in wild. On Saturday afternoon, we paddled onto our second Beaver Island (mile 188). And there, yes, were the lights of industry—the locks of the Kaskaskia River—but also a flock of nearly a thousand pelicans. Reluctant and brave, they did not want to leave, though eventually, dozen by dozen, they ceded to us their beach, looping away in their beautiful swoops across the sky. (They would have had to leave before nightfall, anyway, to avoid the coyotes in the woods.)
Our vessel—the 29-foot Grasshopper, a cypress canoe—has been accompanied this week by Junebug, another 29-footer, owned by Mike Clark of Big Muddy Adventures. Along with Janet Moreland—the first paddler to travel source to sea on both the Missouri and the Mississippi—he has guided us into a stretch of river new to me.
Often a defender of the Lower Mississippi River, I love its wide, flat floodplain. But I have to admit that this Middle river is a revelation, lined along its west bank with sharp cliffs and bluffs. The river here, then, is perhaps only half-walled. But that’s still a wall worth climbing over, to find the wilderness slicing through our nation’s heart.