Where the Big River Gets Lost

Deserted sandbars, big broad skies, and even bigger catfish—the wilderness of the lower Mississippi River has made an indelible impression on American culture (think Twain, Eliot, and the Delta blues). So why do so few get out and see it firsthand?

Nat Geo Adventure, August 2007. Photography by Andrew Kornylak

WE HAVE BEEN PADDLING FOR HOURS DOWN THE GREAT RIVER,  straining hard against a rising current and a 15-knot headwind, when suddenly the sky explodes. Just a moment ago we rounded a bend to find a sleepy-looking flock of American white pelicans, at least a hundred strong, parked atop the rolling Mississippi. The white pelican is a jumbo-jet of bird, with a nine-foot wingspan, and looks far too heavy to take flight. But in an instant the river erupts in a blur. The behemoths spread their wings and lift off in undulating waves—a few seconds of chaos, then feathers and water transform into a torrent of birds carving up the sky.

We rest our paddles and let our canoe drift toward the scene, a matchstick in a maelstrom.

About half a mile away, the two paddlers manning our second canoe charge madly toward the flock, stalking the birds like oar-wielding Elmer Fudds. They’re so consumed they disregard the two hulking commercial tows closing in quickly from the north. For the past hour our VHF radio has been silent, but now it whines like a broken loudspeaker and crackles to life.

“Ya’ll, there are two canoes comin’ at ya,” the first tow captain says, sounding surprised and warning the second. “Keep an eye out for ‘em.”

“Why thank ya, pardner,” comes the tinny reply.

I breathe a sigh of relief as the VHF goes over and out—at least the boatmen are paying attention. Then I dip my paddle into the swirling brown water, warily keeping an eye on the tows (each pushing some 40 barges lashed together into six-acre mega-transport containers). Our friends slowly work their way back to us, timing their crossing so they don’t get sucked into the maw of a floating caravan.

“It’s a hungry river; you have to respect that,” our guide John Ruskey says quietly when they finally pull up alongside us. They grin sheepishly, water dripping from the ends of their paddles. “Ya’ll fall out here, you’re floatin’ hundreds of miles before you wash up.”

For those of us raised on the great novels of Mark Twain, the Big River is a mythical thing, more imaginary than real. But here in this moment, the palms of my hands ache from gripping a wooden paddle; the river is bigger, faster, and darker than I’d ever dreamed.

It’s been two days on the lower Mississippi and already the preconceptions I had—industrialized banks and polluted waters—have evaporated like a morning fog. Unlike the more northern reaches of the river, flanked by towns, cities, and heavily developed farmlands, the lower Mississippi is still a wild sprawl. Forested islands and huge deserted sandbars rise out of eddies the size of several city blocks; a bend in the river can take 20 miles to hairpin back to almost the same spot. At the water’s edge a dense strip of deciduous forest harbors bears and coyotes, opossums and beavers, and turtles and snakes. The 300 river miles between Memphis and Vicksburg, Mississippi, are the most sparsely inhabited stretch of the entire river. And that’s the exact reason we’re paddling them.

THE LOWER MISSISSIPPI IS LOOSELY defined geographically, but the name basically refers to the section of river that forms the western boundary of the Mississippi Delta—a wide, flood-rich alluvial plain with a lore and history so deep it’s been called the South’s South, Mississippi’s Mississippi, the most southern place on Earth.

Running through the Delta’s heart is Route 61, the Blues Highway, the storied escape of bluesmen heading north to the promised land of Chicago. Cruising that road with John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters rattling the car windows is like traveling back 60 years. The two lane blacktop cuts through an infinity of flat—cotton, soybean, and sorghum fields are interrupted only by the occasional farmstand or tumbledown shack. This is the land where cotton was king, where the blues began, where Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil, where Charlie Patton and Son House played at fish fries, and where Ike Turner and Howlin’ Wolf sang about big-legged women and bad husbands.

The unofficial capital of the Delta is Clarksdale, Mississippi. Its sleepy downtown consists of a few square blocks, but its legend as the land that shaped the blues resonates worldwide. It’s also the home of John Ruskey, 43, whose Quapaw Canoe Company is the only outfitter running wilderness trips of any kind on the lower Mississippi. John, in fact, is the Quapaw Canoe Company; founder, outfitter, guide, canoe-carver, artist, musician, and chef. Should you be lucky enough to catch him on the phone one of the days he’s not paddling, he will, in no great hurry, get around to telling you that he can take you out on the river to explore by the day or the week—his only requirements being that you are willing to paddle and can deal with whatever nature dishes up. For all this he charges next to nothing:  $75 a day per person.

Before connecting with John, photographer Andrew Kornylak, 33, and I blow into Clarksdale and spend a few hours prowling empty streets between boarded-up buildings and old cotton warehouses. We check into the Shack Up Inn B&B (Bed & Beer), which offers blues pilgrims a chance to bunk in refurbished sharecroppers’ shacks on an old cotton plantation. For $55 I get the “Fullilove” shack (cypress walls, peeling paint, tin roof, and a circa-1970s television programmed to get one station—an all-blues channel). There is a Canadian rockabilly band camped out in the shack next to Andrew’s. We hang out together and drink beer while they sing Elvis tunes with French-Canadian accents.

John meets us at the Quapaw Canoe Company the next morning in cut-off shorts and a tropical-print surf shirt, although it is maybe 45 degrees out and pouring rain. Trim and athletic, with a silver-streaked brown ponytail, he is padding barefoot around Quapaw’s rabbit warren of book-lined rooms—which everyone calls “the Cave.” While we change into full-length wet suits and hastily repack our gear into drybags, we check out the contents of the Cave: a back room filled with paddling gear; walls crammed with volumes of natural history, botany, astronomy, literature, and philosophy; and tables covered with river rocks, shells, and fossils.

Our plan is to put in at Helena, Arkansas (about 30 miles north of Clarksdale and across the river), and try to reach Greenville, Mississippi. It seems manageable: 126 river miles, or about 25 miles of paddling a day, camping on deserted sandbars at night. Andrew’s 30-year-old sister, Christine, has signed on for the five-day trip—along with John’s friend Paul Hartfield, 57, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In addition, John has lined up a rotating cast of paddler friends who we will pick up at various landings along the way. Before we leave he phones them with a standard caveat. “Hey, y’all,” he says, and then gently reminds them that on the Mississippi even schedules are fluid. “You know how it is…we’ll be on river time, not land time."

EVEN IN LATE AUTUMN, a time of modest flow, our first glimpse of the Mississippi is a rage of brown water, half a mile wide or more.  Andrew and Christine will be paddling the 23-foot Kevlar Minnesota IV. John, Paul, and I will be in John's 26-and-a-half-foot Ladybug, a sturdier boat which can seat six to 12 people and haul lots of gear.  John carved the 450-pound 'bug over six weeks from a Louisiana bald cypress, modeling her after a French Voyageur canoe.

Under a light drizzle and gray skies, we each grab a wooden paddle and dig in.  The water feels as hard and fibrous as a muscle; ominous-looking whirlpools and boils spiral around us at random.  "You're looking at turbulent motion!"  John yells from the stern.  "Water is chaotic!" I focus on my J-stroke, quickly grasping that the Mississippi is simply the biggest and most powerful natural force I've ever encountered.

Paul, who has enthusiastically ditched his desk job at USFWS to join us for the week, is blind to the steady rain and light fog that is already making me a little nervous; he knows what's to come.  Between strokes he says, "This river is so overlooked.  There are only five places where you can even see it driving from Memphis to Natchez, so people forget about it.  Even the locals dis it."

The river’s banks are lined with willow, maple, sweet gum, and white ash. Paul points out older sections paved with asphalt and newer parts stamped with articulated concrete rolled out beneath the trees. The rain picks up and we hunker down. By nightfall John gives us a choice, We can bail out and head back to Clarksdale to warm up and crash at his place, or we can keep on going. To reach the next island we will need to cross the river channel in the dark, cutting straight across the path of unstoppable towboats that have been plying the river all day. We size each other up in our wet suits and Gore-Tex, clammy and numb, tired from our first day’s paddle through mist and drizzle. “No reason to sit here getting cold,” Andrew finally suggests.

We push on toward the channel beneath a full moon, digging our paddles into the darkness below. The Mississippi at this hour feels as wide as a liquid Grand Canyon and reminds me of a passage from the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “The river looked miles and miles across. The moon was so bright I could a’ counted the drift logs that went a-slipping along, back and still, hundreds of yards out from shore. Everything was dead quiet.”

The river does look miles and miles across - except instead of silence we can hear the low rumble of an approaching tow; in the distance I can make out its probing searchlight. We have to time our crossing exactly to beat it with room to spare. The hydraulics created by six acres of displaced water can swallow a small canoe whole.

When John is certain the coast is clear, we dig in and paddle like crazy. My heart is pounding and I know that, like me, Christine is scared to death of getting sucked under. (Andrew is too, but being her older brother he can’t admit it.) At the same time it is exhilarating. Fighting our way across the dark river beneath a black sky feels like paddling through the night itself. Eventually we reach a sandbar on the opposite side, stumble out of our canoes, and set up our tents in the dark. Paul builds a blazing fire, and seemingly out of nowhere, John produces a hearty vegetable stew. The last sounds we hear are coyotes howling at the moon and a ticked-off beaver, slapping his tail in the shallows, an unsettling thwack-thwack.

The next morning the weather has cleared. We sit around the warmth of a campfire and sip coffee from tin cups, drying our socks and watching the stillness of the water. It is strangely beautiful. The river is wide and flat, with silt-brown water, thick vegetation on the opposite bank, and infinite sky—more as you’d imagine the Amazon than the American heartland.

“It’s a quiet beauty,” John says, “not jaw-dropping like Switzerland. After a while you’ll see the subtle variations.”

The Mississippi runs approximately 2,350 miles from its headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Measured from the head of its largest western tributary, the Missouri, it’s the third longest river system in the world. Its drainage basin stretches north into Canada and south to the Gulf; spreads east to New York and North Carolina and west to Idaho and New Mexico. Within its watery reach lies 41 percent of the continental U.S. Only the Amazon and the Nile have greater reach.

Andrew, Christine, and I take a half-hour hike across the vast sandbar, an expanse of sand broken only by the occasional piece of driftwood, stand of willow, or tuft of dry grass. Walking along, we watch a flock of Canada geese in V-formation following the river south. The Mississippi is the flyway for 60 percent of North America’s breeding birds, such as migrating mergansers, mallards, Caspian terns, cormorants, the big white pelicans, and so many great blue herons they seem as common as crows. “It’s like being in a secret wilderness,” Andrew says, racing off with his camera, then he turns back to add, “in the middle of a highway.”

You can’t truly comprehend the Mississippi as a conveyor of commerce until you see it in action. Tens of thousands of tugs and barges move more than 550 million tons of good each year; 60 percent of the nation’s inland waterway shipments winds up and down the river annually. Historically, of course, the river has always meant money—both the money that comes from trade throughout the Mississippi Valley and from the farming of its rich floodplains. Which is why, for close to 200 years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has tried—with varying degrees of success—to control the river.

For hundreds of centuries the Mississippi roamed over its vast natural floodplain, constantly seeking to maintain a state of equilibrium. After the 1927 Mississippi River flood, which killed more than a thousand people and displaced up to a million others, the decision was made to confine the lower river behind massive, fortress-like earthworks. Today roughly 80 percent of the entire river’s length is contained behind fixed levees, and its flow is controlled by a series of 34 locks and dams, which hold water back and assure that even during summer droughts the river is deep enough for barges. The rub is that over time, these levees, locks, pools, and dams have severed the river from nearly all of its original floodplain. As a result, the Mississippi now carries some 436,000 tons of sediment a day, an 80 percent decrease from pre-dam levels. Also, because the river is constrained, it moves faster and channels deeper. With less sediment moving downstream more quickly, the riparian environment deteriorates. “The upshot is that Louisiana’s wetlands are dying,” says Bruce Reid, director of the National Audubon Society’s lower Mississippi River programs. “They need constant [silt] replenishment, and today big slugs of sediment are shunted out to the Gulf.”

The Mississippi runs through some of the flattest land in the world, which gives the impression that it’s rolling sleepily through the belly of America. But it isn’t. the river’s current accelerates as it journeys south—from about 1.2 miles an hour at its start to up to three miles an hour by the time reaches New Orleans—and its sinuosity creates enormous power. As the river snakes gulfward in a long series of tight S-curves, the collision of water and earth generates tremendous turbulence. Water levels sometimes fluctuate 50 feet from spring high to summer low. Currents can drill straight down to the bottom of the river scouring out holes several hundred feet deep.

John discovered the complexities of the Mississippi firsthand in 1982. That was the year he graduated from a prestigious Connecticut prep school. Instead of moving on to the Ivy league with the rest of his class, he decided to build a 12-by-24-foot raft out of scrap wood and 55-gallon drums and float the river from top to bottom with his best friend. And so, just like Huck and Tom, they set off.

The first day they caused a barge to run aground. The second day they had to pull out a crowbar and tear down the homemade shack they’d hammered together atop the raft (they realized it was acting as a sail, with the wind blowing them upstream). But eventually they got the hang of the rudimentary sweep oars they’d rigged, and, flat broke, managed to run the entire river in five months, subsisting almost entirely on peanut butter.

After his voyage, John majored in philosophy and mathematics at St. John’s College, in New Mexico. By the time he reached 26 he was back in Mississippi, a blues nut who landed in Clarksdale carrying a guitar, an accordion, and one backpack. He camped out on the banks of the river until he got a day job driving a tractor for a Mennonite farmer. John studied with master blues guitarist Johnny Billington, played the juke joints, taught guitar riffs to schoolkids, and was hired as the first curator of the Delta Blues Museum. By then he’d begun making hand-carved canoes and paddling the river. And because in the South locals tends to avoid the river like an evil spirit, he had it all to himself.

THE DAY AFTER OUR RUN-IN with the pelicans and the two tows, Andrew, Paul, and John are up before sunrise. I’m so worn out from paddling that I sleep on like a stone, river traffic and all. By the time I come to , the sky is awash in a soft pink light and an eerie mist hugs the water. Another slow-moving tow passes our camp, its wake pushing big waves our way. The deckhands wave.

Over a breakfast of camp coffee and steaming steel-cut oats with Mississippi pecans, the talk segues to Euclidean geometry and hydraulics. The river has begun a series of tight meanderings here, snaking back and forth so close that the zigs almost touch the zags. The Mississippi, John tells us, turns every time it travels seven times its width. He also mentions that we’re not far from the spot where Hernando de Soto supposedly encountered the Mississippi in 1541, after wandering the Southeast for two years. As Twain describes it, the conquistador practically stumbled over the river. “When de Soto found it, he was not hunting for a river, and had no present occasion for one; consequently, he did not value it or even take any particular notice of it.”

Nearly 150 years went by before French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, having heard about the great river system and convinced that it must empty into the Gulf of Mexico, led a small expedition from the Great Lakes down the Mississippi. “Day by day they floated down the great bends, in the shadow of the dense forests,” Twain wrote of the La Salle party, “and in time arrived at the mouth of the Arkansas.” There, in a nearby Indian village, La Salle leaped from his boat, planted a wooden cross, and informed the natives that their land was now under the dominion of France.

I think about all this around mid-morning, day three. With more than 30 miles to paddle before camp, it’s hard to imagine how La Salle kept it up. This is our first day paddling into strong headwinds, and it’s pretty tough-going. We hunker down and stick to it, going from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with only two short breaks, for a total of 36 miles.

The day is perfect; 70-some degrees with a cool breeze, clear blue skies, and bright warm sun. We paddle barefoot, stopping for a snack around noon. When the two canoes tie up for a break, John passes around wedges of Camembert on a paddle.

We stop at one of the few accessible landings along this section of river to pick up John’s buddy, Keith Kirkland. Keith has a grin as friendly as a fried egg, and a case of cold Colt 45s. “Ya’ll want a beer?” he asks, popping a cold one. “Back in Memphis you get to feelin’ kinda closed in,” he tells me, paddling some. “But what I like about the river is it’s almost Western in scope. Man, you get out here and the sky’s so big and there’s just something compelling about the river sweeping around the next bend.”

As riveting as that unstoppable momentum is, it can be just as terrible. Earlier in the day we’d stopped for a few minutes to stretch our legs on a gravel bar that is said to mark the approximate site of the former town of Knowlton. In April 1927 the levee system broke nearby, stranding about 10,000 residents who scrambled to high spots or atop their houses. According to the May 2, 1927, issue of Time, 18 flood refugees had just been plucked from their rooftops by a government launch and were waiting to be transferred to a steamer approaching from upriver when, suddenly, the levee broke. The pent-up waters “boiled through the gap, sweeping the [launch] with them.” All aboard drowned.

The river is still hungry. The beast imprisoned within the Army Corps’ walls flexed it’s muscles once more in August 2005, breaching the levees and floodwalls outside New Orleans on the heels of Hurricane Katrina. The river is wild and random, we’re learning all too slowly; it never rests. Just like the Delta blues, the Mississippi moves—both languid and roiling at the same time.

AT THE CONFLUENCE of the Mississippi and the Arkansas Rivers, you can see exactly where the two meet. The Mississippi flows brown on the left; the Arkansas flows green on the right. We paddle the seam, dragging a bare foot alternately on each side to test which is colder. The Arkansas is warmer and visibly clearer than its muddy cousin. The two flow side by side for a long stretch, until the greenish Arkansas disappears altogether and the mud prevails.

John keeps stopping to pick up passengers, like a very relaxed Greyhound bus driver. On today’s prearranged landing, the new arrivals are a trio of heavyweight river scholars: Bruce Reid of the National Audubon Society; Luther Brown, Ph.D., from Delta State University; and Paul’s wife, Libby Hartfield, director of the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science. By the time we make it to shore, add everyone’s gear, and shove off, we’ve got our own Mississippi River summit floating along.

Since we’re in the South, a whole lot more talking gets done than paddling. The topic du jour, not surprisingly, is watershed maintenance reform, and all afternoon we debate the same old question in any manner of new ways. How do you do it in a way that doesn’t kill the very thing you’re trying to safeguard? It’s a big subject, and complex enough to see us the full 25 miles or more to this evening’s camp on a broad sandbar. Paul and Christine toss nets into the river, hauling in a catch of small silver chubs.

“Man, I wish we could haul in a big-ass catfish!” Paul says.

After a grilled steak dinner, once again cooked over a roaring inferno (there are no formal regulations on this section of the river. Want to build a 12-foot bonfire? Go right ahead!), we all sit around drinking whiskey, telling stories, and helping ourselves to bottles of red wine our new friends have brought.

“You know what Mark Twain used to say about the river?” Libby asks with a wink. “You can drink Mississippi River water if you have somethings else to wash it down with.”

We pick out Scorpio, Sagittarius, Cassiopeia, and Pleiades rising low to the East, then turn in for the count.

Sometimes before dawn I hear a snapping sound, sit up, and peer out of my tent into the dark. It’s John and Paul. I check my watch. It’s 4:30 a.m. Paul is crouched over last night’s embers. John is breaking twigs for kindling. He walks down to the river and turned on his headlamp. It illuminates a white canvas against a sea of black. He’s painting. I watch him stand on the shore and move his brush quickly, like a conductor, capturing the moment. Presently, the stars fade and the sky brightens with soft orange light. A flock of white-fronted geese fly south, following a bend in the river, and a mist that smells like willow rises of the surface of the water.

Later that morning, we pack up our tents and sleeping gear and drybags for the last time, load up the canoes, and head on around the bend. It’s 20 miles to Greenville, and we’re battling 25-mile-an-hour headwinds, sidewinds, and haystacking waves. During the long paddle I watch bald eagles soaring above us, and above them, dark cumulus clouds, backlit by the sun. As much as I’m looking forward to a hot shower and real bed, I know that I’ll miss the endless sky and the simple pace of our days. Just outside Greenville, when I’m sure I can paddle no farther, John passes around a sheet of paper and pencil and ask each of us to spare a thought for the Mississippi.

I set aside Twain for the moment and try to recall a line from St. Louis’s own T.S. Eliot, “A strong brown god,” I finally scrawl, “Sullen, untamed, and intractable…almost forgotten.”

I’ll grant Eliot the first three. But forgotten? Not a chance.

By Kim Brown Seely.  All rights reserved.