This story package is featured in the December 2011 issue of Canoe & Kayak, available on newsstands now.
By John Ruskey
As the greatest flood in nearly a century neared its apex in the second week of May, it brought a change of weather to my hometown of Clarksdale, Mississippi. The typical spring southerlies gave way to an unlikely cool breeze, which blew steady from the north for five straight days. The shift felt preordained, as if the heavens themselves were acknowledging the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity the flood carried with it, and which had begun to consume my thoughts. When my writer friend Hodding Carter called with vague ideas about wanting to see the flood, it seemed the river was asking for a visit.
We quickly concocted a plan to ride the crest from Memphis to Vicksburg, some 300 miles of the wildest and most remote paddling on the Lower Mississippi during this extraordinary flood, which surpassed, in peak volume if not human impact, even the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The crest had already passed when Hodding, Chris LaMarca and I put on in Memphis, but we managed to catch it 200 miles downstream at Greenville, Hodding’s hometown, and then ride it into Vicksburg. We accomplished this not because we are monster paddlers and worked so hard, but because the oceanic outpouring of the White and Arkansas rivers created a secondary surge that carried us to the Mississippi crest. Water from these flooding tributaries slowly swelled up into the forests, fields, back channels and bayous, creating a pulse-wave that in some places stretched 30 miles from levee to levee, and which, in the timeless rhythms of the Mississippi, poured out into vast wetlands, peaked, and then slowly drained backwards into the Mother River.
The entire Lower Mississippi Valley breathed deep and inhaled water into places it has not inhaled in a long time. It held that breath a long while, letting all the aquifers and dried-out wetlands rejoice in the deluge, and then exhaled in a long, slow outpouring that continued for months as the floodwaters trickled back into the main channel, rejuvenated and refreshed.
Riding this secondary wave, and paddling hard from sunup to sundown, we caught the crest below the mouth of the Arkansas, and arrived in Vicksburg as it was swelling to fullness.
The valley had been swept clean of all land-dwellers, man and beast alike. Only creatures of the water and air survived—in some cases thrived—in this new waterscape. The least terns were in the midst of their annual migration and mating season, the males diving and snatching small fish from the river, then lighting on driftwood to strut for the females. They occupied every floating log and stick, and it made us lonely paddlers happier that someone else was alive in this deluge.
The river seemed joyful and youthful, and moved with a cohesion not seen in low water. As we entered each turn we considered the mile-wide channel as a whole, riding the fast-flowing tongues and staying well clear of the slow places and eddies which kissed the swift water in violent smacks of leaping spray and indecipherable whitewater commotions. In several places we saw logs in mid-river, their trunks stained with ancient blue mud, as if unearthed from some deep riverbank that had consumed a forest in some previous flood decades or even centuries ago.
I made a connection not before understood, but which makes obvious and perfect sense: When allowed to spread out, the main channel was calm and serene, but where the levees encroached the river became fast and unruly. It exploded into violent boils and chaotic maelstroms of eddies and whirlpools. This explains why the river at Natchez, Miss., constrained between bluffs on one side and the Vidalia waterfront levee on the other, reported the highest water level in recorded history, a full two feet above the 1927 crest.
The river was so fast it was dizzying at times. We traveled 10 miles in 40 minutes as we swirled around Catfish Point. We flew by the familiar islands and back channels and forests in such a continuous cataclysm of swiftly sliding water and boils and eddies and whirlpools that the trip began to feel like a stream-of-consciousness dream, and every night at camp I felt light-headed as all of the places I know so well, and am used to seeing at the Mississippi’s regular pace, replayed themselves in an endless frenetic reel. Imagine a highway that you know well, and normally drive at 65 miles per hour. Now imagine what confusion and fear and also exhilaration you would feel driving it at 260 miles an hour, four times the normal speed. The river’s accelerated rhythm left me feeling unbalanced and dreamy, and it took me a while each day at camp to come back to earth and perform even the simplest of tasks. I wondered if Hodding or Chris noticed, and what state my mind would have reached had they not been there.
Months later, I’m still processing all that I saw and experienced in this short but intense burst of motion, colors, smells and feelings of fear and joy over four days and 300 miles of river. The flood changed me, just as it changed the river. It left me feeling energized, rejuvenated, and clean.
—John Ruskey is the founder of Quapaw Canoe Company in Clarksdale, Miss., where he also mentors youth from severely distressed neighborhoods. The locally renowned bluesman has made a short film about paddling the Great Flood of 2011. See the trailer here or visit Ruskey’s website for more information.