Vol 10 No 6, Monday, May 26, 2014
The Wild Miles:
A One-Thousand Mile Journey
through the Gut of America
by “Driftwood” John Ruskey
Looking at a map of North America you will inevitably be drawn to the bottom center of the continent where a meandering blue line broader than any other of the blue lines gracefully loops southward and empties into the Gulf of Mexico. It reaches out with long fingers and tentacles of other skinny blue lines which branch out eastwards and westwards from the Rockies to the Alleghenies encompassing the second largest catchment basin in the world. Along the way this line carves elegant river bends and giant oxbow lakes. One of the loops goes twenty miles to make one mile. This enchanting blue line marks the Lower Mississippi River, the largest river on the continent. Its big muddy waters and wide floodplain create a paradise for paddlers, birders, and anyone else seeking the solace of the wilderness. Expansive swaths of green are seen parallel to the loopy blue line and indicate the extensive and healthy bottomland hardwood forests still surviving between the levees. (This assessment discounts the last 235 miles of the river below Baton Rouge where it leaves the wilderness and enters the greater port of New Orleans, also known as Chemical Corridor).
The origins of these waters are found upstream in America’s Heartland, St. Louis, where the Upper Miss confluences with the Missouri to form the Middle Miss. As it flows southward the Middle Miss separates the Pawnee Hills from the Ozarks and then meets the green waters of the Ohio at the southern tip of Illinois to form the Lower Miss. It is now the biggest volume water in this quadrant of the earth. You can trace this mysterious curvy blue line deep into the gut of America, the Deep South, down to the Gulf Coast. This valley was once an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico, then a glacial floodplain, and later a thriving jungle of 22 million acres. Even after it was settled, its forests cut, its back channels cut off and main channel vigorously maintained, even still the river rules the landscape with unimaginable power, annually rising and falling fifty vertical feet with fluctuations of millions of cubic feet per second, which prepares the stage for an unlikely setting in wilderness travel.
The wonderful thing about the Lower Mississippi River is that it’s still wild! You will see some industry and agriculture between Cairo and Baton Rouge, but for the most part your experience will be big water, big forests, big sandbars, big bluffs and big skies! Does this sound like Alaska? Or Lake Superior? Or Puget Sound? Yes -- but it’s not. It’s nothing but the muddy big river, the biggest river in North America, and the longest stretch of free-flowing waters in the Lower 48.
There are 515 Wild Miles on the Lower Mississippi River between Cairo, Illinois, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which means that 71% of the scenery viewed from canoes or kayaks paddling down that stretch of river looks & feels “wild.” Wild Miles are the places along the river where nature predominates and nothing is seen of mankind save passing tows (and other river traffic) and maybe a tiny hunting camp or a single fisherman buzzing by in a johnboat. These are places where the landscape is filled with giant islands bounded by endless mud banks and sandbars, where the river is overseen by big skies and where the sun sets uninterrupted by buildings or wires. These are places where the big river predominates with creative wild beauty, each high water results in shifting sand dunes and re-made sandbars. These are places where only deer and coyote tracks are seen along the sandbars and enormous flocks of shy birds like the white pelican and double breasted cormorant are comfortable enough to make landing for the night. These are places where it's dark and quiet at night, where the stars fill the skies like brightly shining jewels poured out on a dark purple velvet blanket, almost as thick & vibrant as the night skies of the Great Plains or the Rocky Mountains.
America has an opportunity to find the "wilderness within" by recognizing and preserving the Wild Miles in the center of the country. And it just so happens that the gigantic floodplain of the Mississippi creates these Wild Miles. These places have been preserved mostly by neglect, by the power of the river, by its catastrophic rises & falls, and the danger of building anything within its floodplain. Moreover, in light of recent flood cycles and the declining population of the lower floodplain, this area is receiving attention as one of the best places to restore native bottomland hardwood forests. Restored forest creates habitat for wildlife, improved water quality, a buffer to flooding, and is an important means of reducing the Gulf of Mexico's "dead zone," caused by nutrient runoff into the river. For this reason the recent efforts to reopen the New Madrid Birdspoint Floodway would have a detrimental effect on the entire Lower Miss, at the very least in flood control.
We are working on a 4-year project to describe the Lower Mississippi River for modern day human-powered explorers, namely canoeists, kayakers, stand-up-paddleboards and rafters. We are creating a very detailed written guide called the Rivergator: Paddler’s Guide to the Lower Mississippi. The title Rivergator is derived from the national best-seller The Navigator. The Navigator was first published in 1801 by Zadok Kramer, with twelve subsequent printings. The Navigator described the Mississippi Valley for pioneer settlers streaming out of the Eastern United States in the first great wave of continental migrations that eventually led to the settling of the Wild West. Thomas Jefferson and other leaders were fearful that the French or the English would get there first. With the Lewis & Clark explorations and the introduction of the steamboat to the Mississippi River in 1812, Americans followed the big rivers up and down through the heart of the country, and The Navigator was their guide. In this spirit I have adopted the name Rivergator with the hope that Americans will rediscover their “wilderness within,” the paddler’s paradise created by the Lower Mississippi River. And that the Rivergator will be adopted by successive generations of canoeists and kayakers, and will be re-written as the river changes. Zadoc Cramer also invented the numbering system for Lower Mississippi River Islands, a system that survives to this day, and is used by river travelers including kayakers and canoeists.
Who is the Rivergator written for?
The Rivergator is written by paddlers for paddlers. The Rivergator will open the river for experienced canoeists and kayakers who have always wanted to paddle the Mississippi but didn’t know how or when or where to start. Canoe clubs, kayak clubs and outdoor clubs. Outdoor leadership schools. Friends and families. Church groups and youth groups. It could be used by the Girl Scouts for a week-long summer expedition to Tunica, or a group of Boy Scouts working on their canoe badge in the Memphis area -- or a group of KIPP middle schoolers from Helena who want to get on the river at the mouth of the St. Francis for an easy daytrip. Paddlers seek out new places to explore. You could read the Rivergator during the winter months from your home and by spring snowmelt you could be making your first paddle strokes on a life-changing adventure down the Mississippi! Rivergator will help you get there if you’re a long-distance canoeist who started at Lake Itasca, or a kayaker who is coming through south after paddling the length of the Missouri River from Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains. You could be a stand-up-paddleboarder who put in at the Great River Confluence of the Allegheny and Mongahela Rivers and followed the Ohio down to the Mississippi.
Us paddlers are all the same: canoeists, kayakers, stand-up-paddleboarders, rafters. We look for the same kinds of currents on the river, and enjoy the same kinds of remote islands. We are slow, but efficient. We know the river better than any other river pilots, at least the pieces of river we have paddled on. We have more in common with towboats than motorboats. Regardless of what you paddle, the Rivergator will you help you find the essential landings and the obscure back channels that you would otherwise miss. It will help you safely paddle around towboats, and choose the best line of travel to follow around the head-turning bends and intimidating dikes, wing dams, and other rock structures. It will identify which islands to camp on and which to avoid, and where the best picnic spots are found and where blue holes form. It will lead you to places of prolific wildlife and mind-blowing beauty. It will help explain some of the mysterious motions of the biggest river in North America. It’s written for canoeists and kayakers, but is readable enough to be enjoyed by any arm-chair adventurers including landowners, hunters, fishermen, communities along the route, historians, biologists, geologists, and other river-lovers. The river is the key to understanding the history the geography and the culture of the Mid-South. It’s the nation’s first high speed “router.” It connected our ancestors much like internet does today. It’s the original American highway, migration route, freight route, newspaper route, and trade route. But it’s also a church, a sanctuary, a playground, a classroom. The river is the rock star, The Rivergator is merely a guide to help you interpret and enjoy the songs of the river!
So what is it like actually paddling on the Lower Mississippi River? What is the experience from water level, over the gunwhales of your canoe or over the deck of your kayak? So far we have completed 413 miles of the Rivergator, covering some of the wildest of the wild river from Caruthersville Missouri, down the Chickasaw Bluffs into Memphis, and through the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta to Vicksburg. Here is a synopsis of the highlights along the way:
Caruthersville to Memphis:
This section covers the 113 miles of the big river from the paddler-friendly town of Caruthersville, Missouri to the thriving metropolis of Memphis Tennessee, the largest city south of St. Louis. Along the way you’ll paddle over mud that’s over 6,000 feet deep and an entire loess bluff caving into the river. You’ll see towboats and fishermen and a few crusty river towns like Osceola and Randolph. You’ll camp on beaches the size and feel of Caribbean beaches, and paddle through narrow chutes with lush overhanging willows and cottonwoods. You’ll be hemmed in by revetment and dikes in one place, and then released into long sections of the main channel with no levee -- where the floodplain forest/wetlands are still connected directly to the river, creating an incredibly vibrant ecosystem of bayous, sluices, chutes, pools, and back channels overflowing with wildlife. In some places you might think you’re in the Amazon jungle for all the mud and trees, in other places you might be overwhelmed by the large agricultural landscapes, or by a couple of sprawling steel plants. In one special location you’ll think you’ve discovered a land of the lost where the Mississippi River meets Utah (at the base of the startling candy-colored ridges and buttes of the 2nd Chickasaw Bluff).
The river here rolls out of the Missouri Bootheel and into the wild floodplain below between Tennessee and Arkansas, it’s so wild that no levees are needed for 60 miles along the left bank side of the river from Moss Island to Memphis! This section is full of tributary rivers with deep woody bottoms, strange colorful mud slides, and dozens of islands and back channels to explore, many protected within wildlife refuges and state parks. There is some heavy industry along the way, a couple of noisy steel plants and a giant power plant (below Osceola), and some busy grain docks and two harbors -- none of which you’ll want to camp near. Nevertheless your hard paddling will be rewarded again and again with fabulous views of the Chickasaw Bluffs along the Western edge of the state of Tennessee and adjacent bottomland hardwood forests, including the colossal cliff-bluffs at Fort Pillow (1st Chickasaw Bluff), the astounding colorful chalky glacier of mud above Richardson’s Landing (2nd Chickasaw Bluff), Meeman-Shelby State Forest (3rd Chickasaw Bluff) and finally the sweeping view of the Memphis skyline, including the Memphis Bridge and the Pyramid, and downtown Memphis (which straddles the 4th Chickasaw Bluff). The vista from the river is unparalleled! Points of interest include Obion RIver, Moss Island Wildlife Management Area, Nucor Yamamato Steel, Island 30/Osceola Back Channel, Hatchie River Bottoms, Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park, Hickman Bar, Loosahatchie and Wolf Rivers, the elegant “M” Bridge and finally the eye-popping view of skyscrapers over the Beale Street Harbor and Landing. The vista from the river is unparalleled! You’ve never seen downtown Memphis if you haven’t viewed it from the river!
Memphis to Helena:
After exiting the Chickasaw Bluffs the Mighty Mississippi flows southwesterly in giant meandering loops into the verdant and fantastically fertile Mississippi Delta. This is the land that gave birth to the Delta Blues, and was once the cotton kingdom of the world. Its forest was America’s Amazon, millions of acres of deep woods now removed for farmland. Leaving Tennessee and entering Mississippi the paddler is welcomed by a long line of casinos that rivals Atlantic City, but which you’ll see little evidence of as you paddle behind long chains of islands in the same area, although you should stop for a visit to the Tunica Riverpark Museum. The river carves elegant S-curves through deep woods as it meanders through Commerce Bend, Mhoon Bend and Walnut Bend, and then wanders down through a floodplain fifteen miles wide to the mouth of the St. Francis River. The St. Francis is the biggest west bank tributary downstream of St. Louis (until you reach the White, and then the Arkansas Rivers, further downstream). The big river engulfs mind-boggling swaths of muddy landscapes as it is forced southerly by the strange geophysical anomaly Crowley’s Ridge, which parallels the Mississippi out of Missouri. Buck Island invites exploration, picnicking or camping, and Helena, Arkansas commands the base of Crowley’s Ridge. As result of the high ground Helena is the only population in between Memphis and Vicksburg (300 miles) that sits right on the main channel. Visit the Delta Cultural Center, or coordinate your adventure with one of the world’s greatest celebrations of music, the King Biscuit Blues Festival (October). Canoeists, SUPs and kayakers will find provisions, maps, gear, and paddling tips at Quapaw Canoe Company in Helena, as well as water and Wi-Fi.
Paddling past downtown Memphis you’ll swish under the last three bridges and some industry along the south bluff, and then you’ll quickly return to the wilds of the Lower Mississippi with nothing but forested islands, big river and big open skies as your scenery. Of course there’ll be towboats and fishermen and a few casinos along the way, but it’s amazing how quickly the city disappears into the wilderness. You’ll camp on beaches the size and feel of Caribbean beaches, and paddle through narrow chutes with lush overhanging willows and cottonwoods. You'll be hemmed in by revetment and dikes in one place, and then released into long sections of the main channel where the floodplain forest and riverbank wetlands are still connected directly to the river, creating an incredibly vibrant ecosystem of bayous, sluices, chutes, pools, and back channels overflowing with wildlife, notably at Tunica Runout and the mouth of the St. Francis River.
Helena to Greenville
You are entering one of the wildest places in North America -- and not because its so quiet, or so remote. Actually there is a lot of activity here from the nearby Rosedale Harbor, and from all of the hunters and fishermen that frequent the area. Indeed it’s not the absence of humans here or lack of human activity that makes it feel wild. Instead its wildness comes from the meeting of two great rivers, the Mississippi and the Arkansas, and the dynamic shifty landscape created at their junction. The last 40 miles of the Lower Arkansas Valley is so flat and flood-prone -- and the river waters so unpredictable -- that the Army Corps never tried to make it navigable, but instead created access through the White River and Arkansas Post Canal. As result the Lower Arkansas runs untamed as a young tiger as it approaches the big mother river the Mississippi.
If there was any question before, all doubts will now be erased: you are on the B-I-G R-I-V-E-R. The beautiful word Mississippi is derived from the Ojibwe name misi-ziibi, meaning "Great River", or gichi-ziibi, meaning "Big River." The awe-struck DeSoto expedition called it “El Rio Grande” the big river. You often hear it called the Father of Waters, although I prefer the name “Mother River” on the Lower Miss because it runs so wild and has so many moods, and simultaneous gave birth to the productive Lower Mississippi Valley. Paddlers in Natchez have named it the “Phatwater” and celebrate its greatness with an annual forty-five mile challenge.
Whatever you call it, the big muddy river dominates the landscape more proudly and pervasively than any of the many forces which combine, multiply & divide over the middle of America. The sun rises and sets. The moon rules the night sky for a time and then is reduced to a sliver, and then ends its cycle as a pale ghost. The wind blows itself into gusts and gales and then subsides and stills. The forests explode in greenery through the warm months and then become naked barren brown & blacks in the cold. The passage of severe thunderstorms comes & goes. Hurricanes threaten for a season. Only the river remains present -- forever strong, unruly, unstransmutable. It fluctuates in scale, from low water to high water to flood, but its inherit character remains constant.
The 1475 mile long Arkansas River drains all of the Great Plains from Kansas down to the Texas Panhandle, including most of Oklahoma, and everything west to the continental divide of the Colorado and New Mexico Rocky Mountains. It’s the biggest and longest tributary of the Lower Mississippi River (and the largest drainages basin), it’s water volume sometimes swells to 200,000 cfs during flood water stages. This makes it one of the five largest and longest rivers in the continental United States. But even so the rugged Arkansas pales in comparison to the mother Mississippi which swells to over 2,000,000 cfs during flood stage, a ten-fold order of difference!
Below the Arkansas everything increases proportionately: the face of the river, the pools between shoals, the size of the islands, the sweep of the sandbars, the length of the willow forests, the depth of the muddy banks. Even the narrows are less narrow. As you look downstream you will find an enlarged expanse of muddy brownish greenish water rolling & tumbling through incrementally bigger river bends. There are a few smaller tributaries downstream, notably the Yazoo and the Big Black, but none effect the scale of the big river as significantly as the Arkansas. Here the Mississippi River swells to its mature fullness and happily fills its wide valley with the gurgling waters of a nation, everything in between Montana and New York State, everything from the Rockies to the Appalachians, from the Smokies to the Alleghenies, from the New Mexican Plateau to the Cumberland Plateau, from the Great Plains to the Eastern Woodlands, and through the heartland, the midwest, the mid south and deep south, and most famously from the North Woods (Lake Itasca) to the Coastal Marshes of the Gulf of Mexico (Birdsfoot Delta).
For the paddler this largesse can be at turns enlightening, frightening and overwhelming. It can inspire you to new perspectives and motivate life-changing decisions. It can subdue you to the point of boredom, and leave you confused and feeling utterly alone to the point of despair. You’ll never feel more challenged; you’ll never be more humbled.
Greenville to Vicksburg
On south out of Greenville the Mighty Mississippi continues south in more miraculous meandering loops and on down deeper and deeper into the Delta, Mississippi on one side and Louisiana on the other. The blues musician Muddy Waters was born near Rolling Fork, and a thriving blues and arts scene survives in Greenville. There are no tributaries along this 100-mile stretch of river, as result the water gets cleaner and cleaner the further downstream you go from Greenville (no point-source pollution), and by the time you enter Vicksburg the sandbars are almost completely free of trash and the water at its cleanest since leaving the state of Minnesota! The Mississippi floodplain forest was once America’s Amazon, but millions of acres of trees have been removed for farmland. Remnants of the deep woods are protected along the river between the levees by the extreme rises and falls of the big river. Giant oxbow lakes are found on either side of the river, notably Chicot Lake (largest oxbow in North America), and the oxbow congregations found at Possum Chute/Old River and Chotard/Albermerle/Eagle Lake/Paw-Paw. The river carves elegant C-curves and S-curves through deep woods as it meanders through Kentucky Bend, Sarah’s Chute, Marshall Cut-Off and then wanders down through its deepest woods above the mouth of the Yazoo River, the “River of Death.” Here the big river engulfs mind-boggling swaths of muddy landscapes as it is forced south-southeasterly by Macon Ridge, which parallels the Mississippi out of Arkansas into Louisiana. The big river slams headlong into the towering Vicksburg bluff at the Yazoo confluence and here ends the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. Possible alternate route through Paw Paw Chute for expert paddlers only. Vicksburg is the best place for resupply and reconnoiter. Paddlers will want to visit the Mississippi River Museum located inside the MV Mississippi towboat, as well as the National Military Park, and Vicksburg’s other offerings.
You are now paddling down the last 100 miles of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, from Greenville, the Queen City of the Delta, to Vicksburg, the Gibraltar of the South, at the confluence of the Yazoo River. After escaping the industrious Greenville Harbor and paddling past Warfield Point you’ll quickly round Vaucluse Bend and be propelled under the new Greenville bridge and go flying past some grain elevators in Arkansas. And then you’ll quickly return to the wilds of the Lower Mississippi with nothing but forested islands, big river and big open skies as your scenery. Of course there’ll be towboats and fishermen and a few more granaries and refineries along the way. But it’s amazing how quickly the city disappears into the wilderness. You’ll camp on beaches the size and feel of Caribbean beaches, and paddle through narrow chutes with lush overhanging willows and cottonwoods. You’ll be hemmed in by revetment and dikes in one place, and then released into long open sections where the main channel meanders through enormous swaths of floodplain forest and riverbank wetlands still connected directly to the river. The river and its floodplain create an incredibly vibrant ecosystem of bayous, sluices, chutes, pools, and back channels overflowing with wildlife, notably at Cracraft Cutoff and Paw Paw Chute.
The Floating Sensation
However you do it be sure to stop paddling at some point and enjoy the sensation of floating along in the meeting of the big rivers. If the wind is contrary you might only be able to enjoy this for one minute. But on a calm day with no tows to navigate around you can float for miles. Floating with the flow of the river will enable you to best appreciate the dimension and scope of this landscape as you silently roll over the curvature of the earth and are buoyed along by the big waters. With a little imagination you can dwell upon all of the places this water has travelled from to reach here and visualize the big bends upstream and downstream that come together at this location like the forks of the world’s largest peace sign.
Big Trees and Floodplain:
The lower Mississippi River Valley was historically a vast expanse of bottomland and adjacent upland hardwood forests with scattered openings primarily created by fire, beaver, or large flood events by the Mississippi River and its tributaries. These openings were generally comprised of herbaceous moist-soil areas that created excellent waterfowl and other wetland wildlife habitat or giant switchcane that was almost impenetrable and an extremely important habitat component for a variety of wildlife species. Once covering 22 million acres in the Mississippi River Alluvial Plain, bottomland hardwood forests have decreased in extent to only 4.9 million acres. Extensive clearing for agriculture (i.e. soybeans, corn, or cotton) and urbanization are two of the primary reasons giant bald cypress and oak trees of pre-settlement times no longer exist. However, giant bald cypress and oak trees characteristic of yesteryear can still be seen on some of these sections of the Lower Mississippi.
Note to Developers:
Instead of building any new sites within these Wild Miles, please consider placing new industry and agriculture construction outside the Wild Miles -- and stay within those places already industrialized such as within one of the many harbors along the way, or building it far enough behind the levee that it won't be seen or heard or be directly connected to the river.
For More Information:
For more information about the Wild Miles please go to www.wildmiles.org. For detailed reading and photos concerning paddling the wilderness of the Lower Mississippi River visit www.rivergator.org. (c) 2014 by John Ruskey firstname.lastname@example.org.
Selections from the Rivergator were included in the recent publication of I AM COYOTE: Readings for the Wild http://www.readingsforthewild.com/
© 2014 John Ruskey for an upcoming article in
The International Journal of Wilderness
Lower Mississippi River Dispatch
brought to you courtesy of the:
Lower Mississippi River Foundation
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