Lower Mississippi River Dispatch No. 274
Monday, Jan 19, 2015
Happy Rev Martin Luther King Jr Day. May your days be filled with peace and understanding. Look for the light in times of dark. Look for the beauty. Fight the good fight where it has to be fought, but fight it peacefully and thoughtfully. I love living in a community where MLK Day is actually celebrated. schools and banks are closed here, even the library. No mail delivery until tomorrow. Many blessings from the Lower Miss!
Atchafalaya Expedition, March 16-27th
Now filling seats in the big canoe for the March Atchafalaya Expedition, March 16-27th, Leave from Fort Adams, pass through the Old River Lock, confluence with the Red River, head down the Atchafalaya, the famed “River of Trees,” America’s Largest River-Swamp, lots of bayous and back channels to explore, annual songbird migration in full swing, three distinct biotas including bottomland hardwood forest, tupelo gum-cypress swamps, and ocean marshes, paddle to the Gulf of Mexico, investigate sediment accretion in Atchafalaya Delta and Wax Lake Outlet, where America’s mud is helping rebuild Louisiana and the coasts are getting bigger in the natural river delta process, take out in Morgan City. Comtact John Ruskey email@example.com for more information.
As a way of saying "Happy Ca-New Year," we Mighty Quapaws have been sending out some river experiences to help warm your lives in these times of long nights and cold days. This week’s edition comes from Mark River and Brax Barden’s Rivergator Expedition St. Louis to Cairo in the low water of November 2014 with a strong arctic cold front hitting them along the way. Journal writing by Mark River photos by Braxton Barden.
Rivergator Chronicles: St. Louis to Cairo, Ill- The Shuttle
It's three in the morning. Downtown Clarksdale is silent. Only the distant sound of stray dogs barking while they make their routine dumpster checks at the local restaurants. The Quapaws are packed ready for their fall expedition from St. Louis to Cairo, Ill. Quapaw pet, "Shady Cat", slowly walks over and lays on the nearby trailer checking to see whats going on or trying to get one more bowl of milk before we part ways. The north wind puts a chill in the air as I check my cell phone for the time. Shuttle drivers Ellis "Smooth" Coleman and Reilly are running a little late, but it's the Delta, and I'm somewhat use to that.I take the opportunity to have one more cup of ginger tea to warm my stomach knowing this would be the coldest expedition to date.
They finally arrive. Both are tall, lean, ex-basketball players born an raised in the Delta, now Mighty Quapaws and Red's Juke Joint employees. Working together, keeping each other company, while they shuttle us to downtown St. Louis to start our journey. I set my alarm on my cellphone so I won't miss crossing the Memphis Bridge to get my first glimpse of the Mississippi River at sunrise. It doesn't disappoint, as I smile while Ellis shakes his head in enjoyment. You see, every time I get close to the River , I can't help but smile, and Ellis has witnessed this behavior many times before.
We enter the Missouri Boothill. Even though a winter blast of cold has set in across the midwest, the rolling hills of southeast Missouri are bountiful and beautiful with the trees and fauna exploding with versions of red,purple,yellow, pink, and orange only seen in the natural world. Healthy hawks stand tall in the colorful, vibrant trees overlooking the highway hoping to spot an unaware rodent grazing in the grasses between the foliated limestone bluffs. Turkey vultures soar high over the rolling hills and grasslands. It's the start of hunting season in Missouri and we spot smart, experienced deer bedded down close to the highway in the thicket waiting out the season. Due to their winter coats, they could barely be seen. Ellis can't believe it, not ever seeing deer behave in this manner in the Delta where the highways are blanketed by crops of corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat, and milo.
We pass exits to historic river towns like Caruthersville, New Madrid, Cape Girardeau, and St.Genivieve as we get closer to highway 67 which leads to my family compound. I think about my Dad, hoping he has enough firewood to get through the winter. I predict that he's probably feeding the chickens , ducks, and fish before heading to town to get the newspaper. The thermometer inside the truck continues to drop as we get closer an closer to our destination.
We reach the Meramac River. Growing up in St. Louis, this river symbolizes the divide between North and South counties , somewhat how the railroad tracks use to separate the cultures of the Delta. I start to reminisce about my childhood and not being accepted for who I was, until I showed my prolific athletic ability. I've never understood how many young men sacrifice their minds, bodies, and souls for ten to twenty years , then to be told they don't have the experience or skill to be payed a competitive salary in the real world, while coaches continue to prosper from the success of their former athletes. Athletics teaches you discipline, fortitude, self worth , self-esteem, grit, character, work ethic, and to be an unselfish team player. If it wasn't for participating in football, basketball, and track; I wouldn't be the Quapaw leader, river guide, teacher, canoe builder, and river steward I am today.
We bend with the highway and I see a welcoming site-the Gateway Arch. My emotions flow cause I know it's time. Time to focus on the mission in conditions not favorable for paddling. The temperature is barely above twenty degrees and storms are expected throughout the expedition. I feel as if I'm getting ready to play football, but this is for humanity. I have the opportunity to be apart of documenting, mapping, and exploring the islands, sandbars, and back channels of one of the most celebrated waterways of the world. To share this incredible river with humanity at www.rivergator.org is an honor and duty as a steward of this great river. A river that has sustained many cultures for centuries and was the key component in the building of our great nation. Thinking about all these factors, all I could do is smile. -Mark River
Rivergator Chronicles: St. Louis to Cairo, Ill- Elements and the Log
We pull into St. Louis. The cobblestone riverfront brings back memories of fishing with my father and late nights with high school and college friends. I meet our expedition partner, Tom, a videographer from Washington University of St. Louis. A prestigious university, who offered me an academic scholarship to play football out of high school, but I couldn't afford the application fee. They didn't give athletic scholarships, so you had to have the grades to earn an academic scholarship. Tom and his concerned father greeted us. To break the ice, we talked about the rivers of Missouri like the Huzzah, the Current, the Meramac, the Osage-and the White River in Arkansas, which we both grew up exploring. His plan was to document this expedition to introduce the Rivergator water trail to the masses in the surrounding area. We equipped him with a wetsuit and boots because the water temperature has dipped below sixty degrees.
It's twenty-two degrees. The wind is gusting out of the south at twenty-five miles and hour. It's so cold that the shuttle drivers refuse to leave the vehicle. The Port of St. Louis is busy with towboats and barges, while waves are white capping in the channel. A service boat heads directly towards us. I hope it's not the Coast Guard knowing these are dangerous conditions are not manageable by novice paddlers.
Two men yell out," What are you guys doing?"
I respond with confidence," We're headed to Cairo!"
They respond sarcastically," Good luck?"
Assuming we knew what we were getting into, they continued on . The boat is packed and lowered into the channel, as we say goodbyes to our land crew. We paddle out to the middle of the channel. The white caps are bigger than observed from the shore. Our light weight canoe feels like we're paddling through cement. The headwinds, temperature, white caps, towboats, and barges makes the River confused and defiant. Our plan of a twenty mile day has change drastically and doubt starts to creep into my mind. Waves and swells are crashing into the sides of the canoe, causing sprays of water, which freeze upon contact with my Filson wool overalls. I look down at my overalls, and they are frozen and feel like cardboard. My dreadlocks are frozen, as they scrape the side of my face, causing minor irritations and abrasions. My face feels like leather, as the wind and sun combine , causing a burning cocktail.
I settle down, as the sweet sounds of the seagulls sooth my mind. I realize that I would be fine. The combination of my wetsuit and wool overalls were keeping me warm and I'm doing exactly what I was born to do. We agree that we've had enough. Hunger has set in, burning extra fuel, do to the elements at hand. It's fall, so the sun is setting fast, and we need to find a campsite to protect us through an arctic-like night. We pick a spot across a luxurious neighborhood on a high bluff. The home must be owned by an artist-as a sculpture of a woman with unusually long legs , dive into a pool.
The sandbar is littered with driftwood, frozen solid in the sand. We set up tents on the bluff in the forest to stop the frigid south wind. We dig firewood out of the permafrost type environment and make a needed fire. Instantly the feelings in my toes and hands come alive. I never appreciated a fire more than now. I stare at the fire and I write this poem.
The grandfather log,
so perfect in size,
a symmetrical cylinder.
Part of the tree of life.
Floating downriver from where?
Preserved and seasoned,
with its soul not settled.
So we free its soul by burning.
Benefiting from its warmth,
that frees my soul,
around the fire.
- Mark River
Rivergator Chronicles: St. Louis Riverfront
Growing up in St.Louis, one of the highlights of the city is its riverfront. In elementary school, the field trip of the year was to visit the Arch and take a ride on the Admiral. The Admiral was a sold out attraction. You had to reserve your trip months ahead of time. The Admiral had a signature song called the "Hoky Poky" in which everyone sang at the top of their lungs . It was the main event and conclusion of the field trip.
As I got older, my dad would take us to the St. Louis Cardinal baseball and football games. The ritual was, get there early and spend some time by the River before and after the game. Busch Stadium was only a modest walk from the Arch and Riverfront, so many made the park part of the day. Laclede's Landing was the food and beverage district where everyone visited before and after games.
Coming into my teenage years, we would express our independence by spending many nights sitting on the Arch stairs gazing into the River with our favorite girl. We would walk from the Arch through the Riverfront, through Laclede's Landing , and do it over and over. We didn't have much money, so it was the thing to do. During the high school football season, the playoffs where held at Busch Stadium, so if your team did well, you got the chance to play in the stadium. Over the years they landlocked the Admiral and it went from a McDonald's to a Burger King, eventually being removed for good.
The music scene in St. Louis was vibrant when the nightclub, Mississippi Nights, hosted up and coming bands on there way to stardom. They had a under 21 section so we could see great bands and watch the mischief that went along with coming of age. It has been closed since the 90's , but everyone remembers the iconic club.They also had a club called Muddy Waters that hosted blues bands from all over. St. Louis is still a blues town.
The Riverfront is also the location for the VP Fair held every year during the week of the 4th of July. The host bands from all over for a free week of music and sun. Boats fill the port and it's one of the biggest gatherings of its kind. During the summer months, every weekend they have free music. It is the place to be in St. Louis.
Rivergator Chronicles: Madison County, Ill
People always ask me, "Where you from?" I say "St. Louis", but realistically, I come from both sides of the Mississippi River. Born in a hospital in East St. Louis, my family settle in a historical Madison County, Illinois consisting of little river towns like Venice, Madison, and my town, Brooklyn. These towns thrive on fishing the Mississippi River and semi pro baseball, which each town had a team. My grandparents lived across the River close to the Chain of Rocks where I spent my time when mom and dad worked. I was merely eight years old when we moved to North County, MO. So when people ask me that question, I just want to say, "I'm from the River."
Growing up along the Mississippi River was a blessing. In these towns, it seemed that if you where not at work or school, we were fishing and exploring along the River. I remember digging for night crawlers in mosquito infested floodplains right before we made it to the channel to fish. Hobo's and river rats up and down the gravel roads looking for bait, tackle, and most times, monetary supplements to help with their refreshments. My father would dress us in coveralls during the heat of the summer to protect us from the insects. If the fishing was good, we weren't leaving soon.
The section of the River we fished extended from the south entrance of Chain of Rocks Canal to the Mckinley Bridge. In recent years industries have claimed these spots, but locals say they are still spots you can get to. I remember catching lots of catfish, buffalo, and white bass. When it flooded we would walk through the muddy floodplain and grab fish stranded in deep depressions. There were times when fishermen would go to popular localities and lay the fish along truck beds for sale. A lot of times families on hard times always had a freezer full of fish. Up north, there is a very dense populations of yellow perch. They were a prize fish during their annual run, but with the infrastructure of the upper Mississippi River, they are few and far between these days. My dad would bait my line with three hooks and there were times when we would catch them three at a time for an hour straight. We also would go north of Mosenthein Island, noth of the Chain of Rocks and snag spoonbill catfish on their way to the Missouri-Mississippi River confluence, in route to ancient spawning grounds in the tributaries of the Missouri River. Spoonbill catfish are filter feeders so snagging and netting is the only way to catch these succulent fish. Many times when the fishing was slow, my dad would simply say, "Go play." Those were the moments when the natural world became my playground. The moments I develop my athletic ability. I would grab a stick, transform it to a motorcross handlebar and scale muddy banks, hurdle driftwood, and practice sprinting in the sand and mud.
One evening the fish were biting into the night and dad wasn't leaving. Suddenly, a large object kept reappearing in the current and my father started wondering what it could be. It wasn't abnormal to see pigs, cows, and other animals in the River. Then there was a splash. We knew then, it was a beaver. My dad wanted the beaver for his tail. It could be use as a sharpening tool. In order to stay in good graces with the Creator, we knew we had to eat it if we caught it. Dad signals for me to go to the car and get his pistol, which he kept in the tackle box for family safety. We were taught never go in the wild without a weapon. I retrieve the pistol, tearing up for the poor beaver, and gave it to my father. One shot and the beaver disappears into the eddy. He then pulls out a huge treble hook and snags the animal, pulling it to shore. The weekend comes around when neighbors are having fish fry's and barbecues. My dad smokes the beaver in hickory and passes it out to the neighborhood as roast beef. Everyone enjoyed it until I told my 2nd grade class about it and it went viral. We got dirty looks for months.
The elementary school I attended was named after Elijah Parish Lovejoy, a minister, journalist,and abolitionist. He was born in Maine, but move to Alton where he own a warehouse and printing press. During the Civil War, speaking against slavery, he was murdered by a pro-slavery mob in Alton . His printing press was thrown into the Mississippi River. If you are ever in Madison County, don't be surprised if you meet someone named Elijah. Like most river towns, Madison County has its seedy places, but if you are ever close, stop in and have St. Louis style chinese food. It's the best in the nation!
Rivergator Chronicles: The Meramac River and Hopper's Marina
Growing up in the St. Louis North Suburbs, we always would hear wild stories about the Meramac River. Many schools visited the beautiful parks along this swift deceptive waterway. Like the railroad tracks in the Delta, the Meramac River was the definitive divide between north and south counties. During the spring, wild party boats from towns like Festus, Fenton, Kimmswick, and Barnhart littered the boat ramps. Before the crackdown on excessive partying, this was the place to be for lawlessness. The River's channels become fierce during high water, with the water rushing between high bluffs before slowing before the confluence with the Mississippi River. Every year sadly, there are accounts of novice swimmers being swept away wading in waters with a deceptively strong current. During the VP Fair in St. Louis, most of the boaters avoid the busy downtown access and use the Meramac access.
Entering the Mississippi River and headed downstream, you come across one the oldest marina's on the River. Hopper's Marina has been launching and supplying boaters for 80 years. This is the only marina located on the main channel along the Middle Mississippi River. The Hopper's are very nice people and don't deserve the infamous label the have received through the years. It's a great place for canoes and kayaks to take break on the sandy bluffs before the marina. You can resupply on water and other beverages. The closest town in historical Kimmswick. Hopper's an old man now, but still has stories and a deep passion for the River.
Earlier this year on our spring www.rivergator.org expedition I had the pleasure to meet the Hopper's and when I approach him recently he remembered me. He seemed more relax than when we first met. He was in a heated battle with the Coor of Engineers about the location of two wing dikes downstream from his marina. They slowed the water down shallowing his marina channel. The dikes where place there to save the beautiful homestead on the bluffs downstream, but has put stress on his business. Apparently, things are better. He had a successful summer and had a smile on his face to show it. He laughed at our decision to canoe in frigid conditions, but you can tell his love and respect for the Mississippi River. We talked river miles and said our goodbyes. See you next year. Mark River
The sun is shining today even though the wind is still brisk and cold. The eagles fly over as if an ordinary day, while we cruise around Foster Island enjoying the views of the bluff neighborhoods like Herculaneum. In the distance you can see a large eagles nest, giving the optical elusion of being right amongst a heron rookery. The trees are wind blown , so all the leaves blanket the landscape and the bluffs seem to blend with the trees.
We stop at Calico Island for lunch and exploring. I find another persimmon tree with fruit at its base, so I get my fill and move on. We come upon Osbourne Island with a unique designed revetment and wing dikes. The dikes are notched for fish migrating to their natural spawning grounds. Fish like sturgeon, spoonbill catfish, and buffalo are sensitive when time to spawn having to travel long distances to reproduce.
We paddle along and see a large structure in the distant. We land to find an old barge(LBD) that has been silted in to the sandbar. Maybe landlocked during the 2011 flood, it was halfway buried with coyote tracts of all kinds scattered through the wreck. The sun starts to dim so we see a eagle sitting high in the trees on Salt Lake Island. We pick a campsite, while we marvel at the heron rookery in the distance that was 100 nests strong. The only time to spot these rookeries is in the winter after the trees have fallen.
We camp at the bottom of the towhead across from Fort Chartres chute, with a beautiful view of the River and the bluffs. We enjoy a meal of roasted pork chops and fried potatoes , while numerous coyote packs serenade each other in the distance.
I take a walk in the morning down the Fort Chartres chute and look to the sky to see over 50 herons leaving the rookery headed towards the River. When they spotted me , they "parted like the Red Sea." one of my most spectacular wildlife encounters ever. Mark River
Rivergator Chronicles: Jones Towhead
The morning starts with a short paddle to Chester, Illinois. The day is misty and wet as we stop and resupply. River lovers are parked along the bluffs watching towboats and adventures past the home of Popeye the Sailor. The trees on the Chester bluffs are still holding leaves, contrasting beautifully with the surrounding colors of fall. A surveying boat pulls up to the ramp. Hired by the Coor of Engineers to find troubled spots along the towbaat channel. We strike up conversation and give them a poster of the water trail from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico.
The temperature is dropping so paddling is the best way to beat the cold and wet. We paddle past Rockwood Island headed for Liberty Bar and Jones Towhead. Even though it rained all day, the trees and bluffs were full of bald eagles. They produced thirteen sightings and made me deal with the elements better watching how nonchalantly the eagles handled the weather. During low water the top of the island is a big sandbar with a substantial distant to the trees. If you continue to the bottom, there is a back channel that allows entry to the same sandbars. There's a old revetment dike, made of wood, that you can float over and enter. A small island, but lots of wildlife.A good place to camp to get away from the north wind. A large beaver the size of a small bear cub greeted us. A lone buck scampered up the cut bank. He was bedded down waiting out the hunting season. The back channel also has some type of wreck expose in the cut bank left bank descending along the back channel. Some very old woodworking structures. -Mark River
Rivergator Chronicles: Jones Towhead to Cottonwood Island
We paddle around Mclean Point to along stretch consisting of a series of a series of islands LBD. La cours, and Hat islands bring you to Gills Point. Gills point opens into a Fountain Bluffs igneous out crop of boulders. During low water be careful of the slightly submerged boulders and a extensive set of weirs. Once cleared of the bunge corporation docks, you will see Tower Rock in the distance. Grand Tower Park is LBD with a beautiful manicured beach, with camping and extended stay set up for RV’S, water is accessible. Grand Tower is a special section of the River. With its unique rock formations, with Tower Rock being the monumental feature of the town. Even the sandbars have a combination of luscious beaches and gravel bars. Many of the gravel bars have outcrops compositions not seen anywhere else along the River. Just past Grand Tower and Tower Rock lies Cottonwood Island RBD with high bluffs sandbars. Grand bars that will have you exploring and studying all day . The bottom end of the island has a tall cut bank perfect protection from a northwest wind. -Mark River
Rivergator Chronicles: Cottonwood Island to Burnham Island
A very long, strait section of the Mississippi River. All the islands are LBD while i bluffs and the San Francisco Railroad border to the right. Big Muddy, Crawford, and Hanging Dog Islands are beautiful islands with clean beaches, plenty of drift wood, and deciduous forest full of wildlife. A great section of the River to view the majestic bald eagle. The high bluffs are ideal for this preditory bird. Trail of Tears State Park has a lookout tower over looking this beautiful stretch. Passing Vancill Towhead, Dusky Bar, and Devils Island will bring you into Cape Girardeau. Beware of heavy towboat traffic coming into Cape Girardeau. The channel is very Slender and the infastructure of weirs and wing dikes cause very confusing water. From there, two small bends around Marquette Islands and Rock Island bring you into Thebes. A quiet town with hunting and fishing being a way of life. Very interesting outcrop is exposed during low water with igneous boulders. One special boulder has ancient indian writing. Camping along this stretch is challenging with most spots being accessible by locals. Continued to paddle Burnham Island where you can enjoy quiet camping with the animal and stars. -Mark River
Rivergator Chronicles: Beaver Island
We awake in the morning after enjoying our first night above freezing. The sun is shining , but the wind is prevalent as we paddle through long bends and endless towboat traffic. It's a very uneventful day as a lone eagle relaxes in the tall trees along Turkey Island. Their demeanor correlates with our moral as the water is confused and choppy from the combination of wind and towboat traffic. Eventually making our way towards Baustark Towhead , headed for St. Genevieve Bend..
We pick a camp destination of Beaver Island. It's located on the right bank which is usually Missouri, but the River has change its course over decades so the island is in Illinois. Located across from the Kaskaskia River and state park. The tall trees are great protection from the south wind. During low water, a gravel bar appears along with long stretches of sand as you get closer to the trees. During deer season, don't be surprised to see hunters with boats tied to the wing dikes. The Illinois season starts the third weekend in November. Gravel beds filled with lithified mud, crinoids, and rare fossils like septarian concretions and the rare carnelian. The town of Chester, Illinois is 9 miles downriver where you can resupply or go into town and take a picture with the statue of Popeye the Sailor! Chester is the home of this cartoon icon. -Mark River
Rivergator Chronicles: Beard Island
The day starts to end as we paddle pass the Meramac River and Hopper's Marina. Since passing the Meramac River we had already spotted nine bald eagles soaring high the sky, some perch high in the abandon dead trees overseeing river activity and guiding us along the way. Three different kinds of gulls and two osprey remind me of how bountiful the Mississippi River is to humanity and the wild kingdom.
My heart is warm, even though it's very cold out, being able to feel my mother's presence as we paddled by Jefferson Barracks Cemetery . Her bodies buried there , but her soul lives through me. A red tail hawk stands tall in the trees approaching Beard Island, a symbol that she's watching me. I adopted hawks when I was young because every time I would sit along the cutbanks downstream from Chain of Rocks, I would see one. Later on through college, hawks would be along Highway 70 headed towards the University of Central Missiouri. We come upon the bottom of the island and the sun is setting. There's a lone eagle in the trees. This looks like the spot.
We exit the canoe , going in different directions, exploring the possibilities for camp that evening. I walk into the woods slowly and in the distant a broad of turkeys 20 deep are foraging the forest floor, while the Tom struts for the females. They feel my presence a slowly disappear into the woods. Pilated woodpeckers carve into the stumps of dead trees. The sounds of the woods is vibrant.
We decide upon camping in the forest to block us from the frigid wind. Our view is highlighted by the homesteads on the rolling hills across the channel. Small authentic neighborhoods like Glen Park, Bushberg, and Riverside make a beautiful silhouette when the sun is setting .
The fire is warm , while the stew simmers in the pot. Coyotes comb the beach close to our canoe, while raccoons fight in the forest. Sounds of life rule the night. A large buck walks through camp snorting and displaying characteristics of the rut. We wake in the morning with everything frozen, while a lone eagle sits high in a old cottonwood. I take a sip of ginger tea and let it flow through my bloodstream and say cheers to my friend. -Mark River
Rivergator Chronicles: St. Louis to Caruthersville
Healing with the Eagles
In 1975, when I was 7 years old, my family bought a house in North County, St. Louis on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River. My grandfather, already living in St.
Louis, gave my parents the idea we would have more opportunities, and it pulled us from lower middle class to upper. St. Louis being a very conservative town, resisted minorities moving to their pristine neighborhoods of north county, and showed resistance in ways of intimidation and systematic tactics. My brother Earl used my grandfather's address to attend Riverview Gardens High School which was a powerhouse in sports in the 70's through the 90's. This made the decision a no brainer.
I remember discussing diversity with my mother, Iveara Peoples, during her very short time in this world. My mother was born in Bolivar, TN. She was an All-State track star who fell in love with a up and coming baseball player. She was very diverse woman, who survived the assassination of Martin Luther King to still love her state and her beloved, Elvis. Along with Rod Stewart and the Beatles. She always told me, “Once they get to know you, they will love you.” Still lives with me today.
My childhood started as being the only minority in my third grade class, having to wrestle and fight with my fellow students for being smarter, faster, and different. Eventually gaining acceptance for my athletic ability, rather than character and handling societies indifferences by complying with the masses for security and opportunity purposes. During those times, the powers that be were The Pipefitters, one of the most powerful unions who owned the majority of the floodplain of the confluence of
the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers to Cementland. Owning coveted property along the Chain of Rocks bluffs with tax benefits feeding a beaming athletic program ironically named after a natural national icon, the Mississippi River. As students we dealt with the pressures of separatism by driving to the levee and listening to music to hide our friendships to keep the peace. We would go on float trips to the rivers of central Missouri, the Ozarks, and the Meramac, sometimes hearing racial dialect yelled from the bluffs, but ignoring them as if numb to the situation. Back then it was forbidden to venture southward past the St. Louis Port for there was a chance you would not come back. I went on to excel at Riverview Gardens High School losing my mother at 11 years of age, but surviving the grief to go on to college and the rest is history.
As we drove from Clarksdale, Mississippi, en route to St. Louis all these old thoughts and experiences flow and wander through my head and heart as I wish for forgiveness and closure. This beautiful iconic river that I love and honor, brought back a combination of love and discomfort, as we drive along the floodplain towards the confluence where I develop my skills practicing football on its rich soil and becoming the athlete I am today. When I was young, 7 months out off the year, this land was flooded, swampy, mosquito infested floodplain that produced trophy mammals during deer season as well as prized waterfowl and fish. Now incorporated as a State
Conservation Area to share the love of our river with the masses. There use to be a golf course along this stretch also, only to be swallowed up by the 1993 flood and never replaced.The making of this park was highly protested after the 1993 flood by locals not wanting to give up their sacred hunting and fishing spots to humanity. Thankfully a proposed mega-casino project was recently killed by locals.
We arrive at the boat ramp with high spirits meeting friends and well wishers. There are fishermen, kayakers, and nature lovers enjoying the day. I immediately notice the diversity in the people and it made me smile inside. We launch the Grasshopper and head towards the Confluence. The Grasshopper glides effortlessly through the water causing fishermen to stare as we head towards Duck Island. On the top end sits an eagle's nest with a whole family intact. It made me reflect back to my childhood when we never saw eagles due to their deaths caused by DDT in the 1970's. It was welcoming site to start the day. We experienced a small rain shower as we headed towards the Chain of Rocks, but the Mississippi River is up so riding " the chain" won't be an issue today. We choose Mosenthein Island for our first camp looking at the neighborhood where my grandfather bought a house in the 1920's. I spent my evening staring across the channel thanking the Creator for this perspective, a perspective I used to wish for when I was young and had no resources to get to the island. We used to think that we
would catch more fish if we could cross the channel like the rich kids, but who knows. It must be good fishing as a eagles nest sits high in the trees.
The morning comes quick, as we weathered a storm throughout the night, and I'm excited knowing we will past by Jefferson Barracks Cemetery where my mother is buried. We take the back channel and witness a lone coyote swimming as if returning from a long evening. I see the Gateway Arch in the distant with a new bridge that was being constructed in 2012 while we circumnavigated St. Louis. Many of my childhood fishing spots are now industrial zones and private, but I still have love for this town. We clear the Port of St. Louis and head towards the Meramac River. I feel discomfort and start to stress with my childhood experiences hovering over my shoulders, when we spot a great site for lunch, which happened to be Jefferson Barracks. I'm at peace enjoying lunch with my mother and friends. I could feel a sign of relief as I'm able to smile and celebrate her life through my path. The healing continues.
An immature bald eagle crosses the bluffs as we see the Meramac River in the distance. A john boat approaches and I think, "I hope this goes well." A lone fishermen, curious about our journey, introduces himself and gives us a history lesson about this stretch of river. At the end of the discussion, he offers us an already filleted catfish. I beam with hope and throw out the stereotypes of my
childhood. This river continues to blow my mind. It seemed as if we where being escorted by the eagles the whole way and I feel like I'm on a vision quest for healing my soul. Our captain guided us logistically through storms sometimes stopping in the distant to watch them develop and dissipate before our eyes. It was the first time I could see water falling from the sky as if the Creator was dumping a bucket of water.
As the trip continued, we met generous people along the way. We met a couple of river lovers close to Cairo who offered us refreshments and showed us their favorite camp site. In Hickman, KY we met a friendly news reporter, and an entrepreneur whose business has been active in town for 90 plus years. The city of New Madrid embraced four river rats wandering around town searching for supplies. Finally, the town of Caruthersville who let us escape a vicious storm by offering us a dry place (Mike's Pizza Place) to prepare for our journey home.
We experienced beautiful sunrises and storms. Sunsets that lasted thirty to forty minutes. Families of eagles around every bend to the point were we stopped counting them. We heard drums from the bluffs of the Trail of Tears National Park. We mourned dead sturgeon as we camped on the gravel bar across from Lee Towhead. We enjoyed many back channels, thriving with wildlife and wood ducks. This expedition changes my feeling for the better of the complex history involving my plight and was needed in
order for me to continue my stewardship to this river. Just like the meanders of the river, life is full of change and challenges. You must embrace the challenges of the present, heal the wounds of the past, and prepare to face the future with open arms. Like the return of the eagles along the Mississippi River. I'm back. -Mark River
Rivergator Chronicles: Low-water Treasures
Millions of years ago, after the glaciers receded north, the Mississippi River Valley was covered by a shallow, warm, clear sea called Kaskaskia. It advanced from the south inland and reach the east and west boundaries of the valley. The period, between Mississippian and Devonian, was a time of thriving marine animals such as crinoids, brachiopods, coral, and bryozoans.
Crinoids seemed to be the abundant species during these periods. Over 260 species of crinoids have been found in the Burlington limestone which in places are 2000 ft thick reaching from Iowa to Alabama. Crinoids, being filter feeders, thrived in these warm waters full of dissolved calcium carbonate. Burlington limestone is unusually thick, coarse-grained, crystalline,crinoidal limestone, with thin cherty beds and cherty modules.
The flood of 1993 exposed many of these creatures in limestone beds throughout the Mississippi and Missouri River tributaries giving us a broad perspective of what life was in those periods. The fossils in these formations of limestone are entirely of marine life. Letting us know that life started in the sea.
Being a river guide on the greatest river of them all, I've built a budding collection of fossils . When the water recedes, gravel bars appear throughout the river channel exposing everything from petrified wood, mud and bones, to tabulate and rugose coral. Hematite geodes, agates, and the rare carnelian are also found in these cherty beds. With the inconsistent rise and fall of the River, these beds are resupplied frequently, making them valuable to collectors.
The summer in the Delta is in full swing as the River recedes and exposing life from the past. Gravel bars from Buck Island, Montezuma, Island 62 , Knowlton, and Island 69 are releasing treasures from the past waiting to claimed by exploratory minds and hearts. It's hard to believe that 400 million years ago these creatures where thriving and we get a chance to study their lives through petrified exoskeletons left behind. It is also clear that these limestone deposits are responsible for filtering our aquifers and springs, giving us the freshwater needed to sustain healthy, enriched lives.
With the fall coming rapidly, now is the time to plan a trip on the Mississippi River. The water is refreshing, the sandbars manicured, and the sky is full of glistening stars. The warm days are complimented by cool nights. The campfire roars, calming the souls of all, making the trip to your tent the hardest chore of the day. The Mississippi River is a haven for paddlers, fishermen, collectors, and outdoor enthusiast.
Go to www.rivergator.org and plan your expedition today!
St. Louis born Mark “River” Peoples is a river guide and youth leader with the Quapaw Canoe Company. Mark grew up hunting and fishing along the river with his father. Mark is the Southern Region leader for 1 Mississippi (www.1Mississippi.org) and also serves on the board of the Lower Mississippi River Foundation. When not on the water, Mark mentors Delta youth and educates them on the importance of the protection and preservation of our national treasure for generations to come. Mark works hard on changing the perception of our great River and its tributaries. Through river trips, cleanups, and workshops, Mark’s goal is overall systemic health of the Mississippi River.
To enjoy the three previous installments (including photos) from 2014 Rivergator Expeditions, please go to:
Blind Faith in the Last Cold Light of the Day
Muddy Guitar String 1,000 Miles Long
Bittersweet Tinges in a Watery Wilderness
The Lower Mississippi River Dispatch
is brought to you courtesy of
The Lower Mississippi River Foundation