Canoe & Kayak managing editor Dave Shively and art director Robert Zaleski paddled over 100 miles down the Mississippi River's wildest lower-river reaches with Quapaw Canoe Company owner-guide John Ruskey in his handcrafted 30-foot voyager-style canoe. In the March 2011 issue of C&K, on newsstands now, the pair goes deep into Ruskey's big-water world of desolate bends and uninhabited mid-river islands, illustrating the on-river experience and detailing the conservation battle to preserve the crucial public-use pockets along this apparent, yet overlooked expedition destination.
Click HERE to view more original C&K video on Ruskey and his operation.
In late October, the American Land Conservancy and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service penned an agreement to permanently conserve the 880 timbered acres on Buck Island, solidifying the long-awaited, crucial first step in its permanent protection. Buck Island lies a short paddle north of Helena, Arkansas, and provides the crucial launching point into the fledgling Lower Mississippi River Water Trail—the route highlighted and paddled in the story, which runs to Choctaw Island, an 8,000-acre island near Arkansas City, Ark.
"It's such an untapped resource," said Arkansas House Speaker Robert Moore, a champion of the momentum-gaining cause just a concept of the Lower Mississippi River Conservation Committee not long ago. "My vision, and as a kid growing up in Arkansas City, is that there's a beauty in the river we need to tap into, and the river trail has that potential … we'll get Buck Island wrapped up because it's like building a house, you have to start with the foundation, and that's Buck Island."
Check out interviews below with Kevin Smith and Tim Richardson, two keys conservation players speaking about the Lower Mississippi River restoration stakes from the water, as well as a few more, unseen shots from Zaleski of sunrise on the big river, capturing the same scene Mark Twain described over a century ago in Life on the Mississippi: "… when the sun gets well up, and distributes a pink flush here and a powder of gold yonder and a purple haze where it will yield the best effect, you grant that you have seen something that is worth remembering."
Ready to paddle the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail yourself? Consider basing out of Helena. It's not just home to the only bridge spanning the river for 200 river miles between Memphis and Greenville, Miss. Check out Sonny Payne's King Biscuit Time broadcast, "the oldest, longest-running blues show in the world," recorded live, weekdays at 12:15 p.m. from the downtown historic district's Delta Cultural Center, where the 85-year-old radio icon plays deep-cut blues tracks and will be willing to trade an Elvis story or two with you. The Magnolia Hill B&B on Perry Street (magnoliahillbnb.com), is only blocks from the Helena River Park launching ramp, or head for the historic colonial-revival B&B Edwardian Inn on Biscoe Street. Some serious soul-food stuffing awaits at Granny Dee's Homestyle Cooking on Cherry Street. Plan your trip outside the most sweltering summer months, or to coincide with the worthy events like October's Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival. Don't forget about the blues hub of Clarksdale either, and its famous Juke Joint Festival, April 14-17. Stay at the Big Pink Guesthouse, a quirky and historic ice cream factory turned B&B, also full of Elvis stories and a stone's throw from the Delta Blues Museum and world-class juke joints.
Also consider the last 40 miles of the Arkansas River, which provides some of its wildest stretches, due to a transit canal that leaves the final stretch to the Mississippi River confluence free of tugboat traffic (or can also provide a connection worth exploring to the historic Arkansas Post National Memorial). Multi-day trip options are endless, with a 250-mile circumnavigation of Big Island as an incredible, three-river expedition option, between the lower Arkansas, a back-channel connection to the White River, and then back to the Mighty Mississippi (or using an old channel of the White River as mentioned in the March issue story). You can put in at State Highway 1 bridge in Pendleton, Ark., below Dam #2, the last dam on the Arkansas, or access from the Mississippi side in Rosedale, from Terrence Landing, and go up the Arkansas to explore into the White River National Wildlife Refuge. Weekend warriors could go for a smaller circumnavigation of Choctaw Island using Arkansas City as a base, or likewise an overnight to Buck Island paddling out of Helena or the mouth of the St. Francis River 10 miles north of Helena. See Ruskey's maps of the Buck and Choctaw island areas, respectively below, for reference. For more information on paddling the trail, equipment and guidebook resources or guided paddling options, visit the Quapaw Canoe Company, with bases in Helena and Clarksdale.
The trail highlights in Ruskey's words: This is a journey through some of the wildest and remote islands and forests of the Lower Mississippi. Great back channels and oxbow lakes to explore. Fossil finding and rock hunting at Buck Island, Knowlton Crevasse and Catfish Point. Great swimming throughout. Abundant wildlife, exceptional birding, world-class fisheries, the greatest concentration of white-tailed deer in the country, as well as the Louisiana black bear. No towns or industry. The only evidence of civilization is the tugboats on the river. Paddle by the mouth of DeSoto Lake, where nearby its namesake explorer Hernando DeSoto is thought to have discovered the "Rio Grande," as he called it, the "Big River." He and his men witnessed an armada of 200 Indian canoes on the river. Some of the canoes held 70 to 80 warriors. Opposite Smith Point (Camp II) is the mouth of the White River, through which commercial traffic can access the Arkansas River through the Arkansas Post Canal. This region saw the visit of explorers Jolliette & Marquette (1673), LaSalle (1681) and John James Audubon (1820). It was also the heart of the Quapaw Nation, the Siouan tribe who followed the rivers downstream out of the Ohio River Valley and settled within the forests of this dynamic confluence
This section of river is a Water Trail being developed between two public-use islands, Buck Island and Choctaw Island, with passage through or alongside St. Francis National Forest, Great River Road State Park, White River National Wildlife Refuge, and Choctaw Island Wildlife Area. The Arkansas River is the biggest Lower Mississippi River tributary, and also highest drainage, running 1475 miles from the 14,000-plus-foot peaks of the central Colorado Rockies. The Arkansas River Confluence is a wild flood-prone archipelago of islands with superlative habitat for all wildlife.
The ultimate Delta adventure for someone with two weeks of adventure time? Ruskey recommends the Mississippi 440: Running the length of the state, 440 miles from Mud Island, Memphis, and past the Natchez Under the Hill Saloon to the Fort Adams takeout. Start out at the foot of Beale Street in the Memphis Harbor, round President’s Island and into the Josie Harry Bar section, then Cat Island, the Tunica Riverpark Museum, and on to Helena, the mouth of the Arkansas River, the Greenville Bends, Stack Island, Lake Providence, the mouth of the Yazoo River, to Vicksburg, the mouth of the Big Black River, Grand Gulf, Natchez, and the Homochitto River. Then the journey ends at the state line on the towering bluffs at Fort Adams, just above Angola, Louisiana.