Delta Dispatches

Paddler tales from the historic Flood of 2011

For the last 29 years, Joe Royer has spread his love of paddling the mighty Mississippi River each spring with the Outdoors Inc., Canoe & Kayak race. Royer founded Outdoors Inc., a Memphis-area outdoor equipment chain, in 1974 and watched his annual race swell last year to 500 entrants, including around 50 elite competitors.

Unfortunately, after seeing NOAA forecasts that the Mississippi would be a least 8 feet above flood stage on the Memphis gauge for the scheduled May 7 race date, putting the event parking lot underwater, Royer canceled what would have been the race’s 30th installment. There are no plans to reschedule the race known for its spectacular mass start. (Watch the 2010 race here).

"It would be unsafe to put people out on the river," Royer said.

That doesn't mean Royer hasn't been out paddling. Or that the river is unsafe for all paddlers.

"With all due respect to the couple thousand people dealing with tremendous difficulties—the paddling right now is world-class, and for the last 10 days, has been phenomenal," Royer said on Tuesday afternoon, citing the river's current cresting height at 48 feet. The all-time recorded high, 48.7 feet, was measured in 1937. Official flood stage is 34 feet.

From Elmore Holmes: "My wife and I went out and took some pictures on Sunday, when the level was 47.4 feet on the Memphis gauge. This shot was taken in Tom Lee Park, which is flooded for the first time in my lifetime. Tom Lee was an African-American resident of Memphis who, even though he couldn't swim, went out in a rowboat and rescued over 30 people from a sinking steamboat. The statue in the photo stands in Tom Lee Park in honor of this heroic feat. I am the paddler in the photo, and my wife, Martha Kelly, shot it."

Royer, 63, is quick to add that the paddling at this level is reserved for those with a very advanced skill set. "Not even intermediates should head out there—it's very unforgiving,” Royer said. "You need a bulletproof roll, a well-maintained boat and know your self-rescue techniques … there's big hazards when it gets high. The barges are running. In the trees, those turn into strainers, so you need to have a sense of judgment and paddling experience.”

Royer reveled in his Sunday night paddle, that, much like his race route, took him seven miles upriver from the Memphis Harbor to the slack water at the mouth of the Wolf River, where he used GPS to navigate the flooded forest. Then it was back out to the roaring main current and under the Hernando-Desoto (I-40) Bridge to the setting sun.

"I've paddled rivers for 40 years—and this is as good as it gets right now," Royer said. "Just the power and the size of it. You could go to the Grand Canyon when it’s hot, it’s cranking and they need power and (the Colorado River’s) at 30,000 cubic feet per second. We're at over 2 million cfs."

While Royer can't get enough of the fast-moving water, he describes the floodwater's inundation of parts of Memphis (particularly north Memphis) as a far less chaotic scene than depicted on some network news coverage.

"It's been a real slow-motion event," Royer said. "It was going up about a foot and a half a day, then slowed down to a couple tenths of an inch a day. The crest will probably stay at this cresting level for about 24 to 48 hours, but this flood water will probably be here until June."


Meanwhile, farther downriver, John Ruskey's Quapaw Canoe Company, which outfits day and overnight tours from its Helena, Ark., and Clarksdale, Miss., bases, offered the following update report today from the "Upper" Mississippi Delta:

“Thank you for your messages of concern and support—and sorry I haven't been able to write personal responses, we're turned a little upside down (and I've been doing some exploring on the side)—but please know that everything is mostly okay here in the Northern Delta Counties—except for the farms and businesses on the "other" side of the levee. Any prayers and wishes should go to the employees of the Helena and Friars Point granaries and the Lula and Tunica casinos—who have been sent home and have no idea what they will return to after the water recedes.”

“We're shut down indefinitely for overnights but I'm offering personal tours of the high water for anyone brave enough to venture out—today and tomorrow I'll be in Helena, and this weekend in Memphis, next week back in the Delta, I've posted some photos to Facebook.”

“It seems like the crest might be sliding through the area today and tomorrow, but our worries here are going downstream to all those south of us, the good people of the South Mississippi Delta, Vicksburg, Port Gibson, Natchez, Vidalia, all western Louisiana, Baton Rouge, New Orleans and all points south.  The Yazoo Backwater Levee will be breached but no one knows exactly to what extent it will flood the southern Delta counties. Bonnet Carre Spillway has been opened and it seems like the Morganza Floodway might be reopened. Our prayers go out to all the people in the Atchafalaya River Basin. The addition of the overflowing Arkansas River and flooding White River is adding even higher waters downstream. While we're seeing the second highest water ever north of the Arkansas, they will be seeing record water heights below—even higher than the historic record high of 1937.”

“What will happen now that we are cresting? Will the river fall back down? This all depends on what happens upstream with any future rainfall, and also ground saturation, Montana snowpack, and the mysterious pulses of the largest watershed in North America that continue to evade even the most informed predictions. I’ve been swimming every time I go out, but am thinking twice about it now that I am seeing all the stuff getting washed out of places not used to being covered in water.”

“What will happen after the river falls? On the islands we'll be left with most beautifully sculpted sandbars and freshly cleaned and rejuvenated forests imaginable, it will be like God has re-created the world anew, all the plants and birds and animals will rejoice in the falling waters and the return of sunshine in the reemerging landscapes.”

“(On May 2) they exploded the Missouri Bootheel levee to relieve pressure on Cairo Illinois and Hickman, Kentucky, river water now flowing down the Birds Point New Madrid Floodway which hasn't been opened since 1937.  We saw premonitions of this when the Black River levee broke at Poplar Bluff, and then the Coldwater levee broke at Crenshaw & Sledge at the end of April.  Will these smaller breaks will save us from larger ones? They  are preparing to open the Bonnet Carre Spillway to save New Orleans. The water has come up so fast and now suddenly there is an historic high looming on the horizon. The flood of 1927 was the result of eight months of sustained high waters, but the flood of 2011 has reared and appeared in the space of a month. What's the difference? With the loss of wetlands and river floodplains there is less space for the water to flow in the greater Mississippi Valley.”

From Keith Benoist / "This is the Chief of Police of Natchez, Miss., Mike Mullins, paddling in front of the oldest Saloon on the Mississippi River, the Under-The-Hill Saloon. The water on the Natchez Gauge when this photo was taken at 4 p.m., Sunday, at 55.8 feet. The sand piles in the background are for Hesco Rapid Levees, which later today, Monday, will be strung and filled in front of the saloon to prevent the flooding of Silver Street. The concrete pad behind Mike is the top of the ramp, which is the finish for our annual, October Phatwater Kayak Challenge. The Saloon, which dates to 1834 or 1835, and has served as a Brothel, Grocery Store, Bar, and/or gambling hall in the past, is the official Phatwater Headquarters."

From Keith Benoist / "The Under-The-Hill Saloon was opened for business in 1975, by the late André Farish, and is now run by his son, André (Jr.) and his daughter, Melissa Morrison, co-founder of the Phatwater, above."

Photo Keith Benoist /