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Quapaws - River Rat


I'm going discuss some of our sayings at Quapaw and talk about time from the perspective of the river.

Similar to the men and women who inhabit or work any major natural earth environment, those connected the Mississippi River develop a certain attitude or sensibility, and a code of ethics particular to that environment, sometimes peculiar to it.

For instance, we say at Quapaw that "you may as well leave your watches at home," that "when on the river there is no time but river time."

Now you can certainly bring your watches with you, and I wear one so I can properly time a five minute egg. But what we're saying with this "no time but river time" is that when you get on the river it is the river that makes or breaks the vote, and decides all questions, even when contrary to your time pieces or time schedules. I have been stalled at camp with a group of fifteen students from Colorado while a line of severe thunderstorms battered the mid-south for three days. The Coloradans had never seen so much rain, and never heard it hit so hard. Y'all are from here. You have heard torrential rain fall. This was torrential rainfall. They don't receive torrential rainfall in Colorado unless you happen to be standing under a waterfall. We received as much rain in three days as most of Colorado gets in a year.

No person has been able to tame it, nor make it work according to their time piece, even though the army corps have been attempting to do just that for two centuries with debatable effect. "The river is like a mule," Faulkner said in not only one, but in at least two of his novels, "it will wait patiently for ten years for that one chance to kick you in the ass." The river listens to no one save the good lord, and even that is circumspect.

Another one of our Quapaw sayings is "the river giveth and the river taketh, but the river never giveth baketh." The one time that the river did giveth backeth to me, it later tooketh backeth again. This was an expensive VHF submersible marine radio that I dropped one morning in fifteen feet of water and miraculously recovered. It was sitting in six inches of mud in water so deep I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. When I returned to the surface triumphant with radio in hand it was still operating on the channel I had left it on. But then, last week, I dropped the same damn radio overboard. This time it was directly under the Helena Bridge during a float with a family from West Texas. This time I had to concede defeat. I did not attempt to retrieve my radio. The river is almost a hundred feet deep below the Helena Bridge.

Some other Quapaw sayings:
  • In cooking, "the more grease the better"
  • Favorite recipe: "raft potatoes"
  • Favorite side dish: "willow smoked steaks"
  • Other favorite side dish: "shrimp in garlic and butter"
  • Favorite German recipe: "Rabbit Stew"
  • Favorite condiment: "Franks hot sauce" When Franks is not available, cayenne powder will suffice.
  • Favorite beverage: "cowboy coffee"
With cowboy coffee you're going to choke on the saying "its good to the last drop." With cowboy coffee, "it's good to the second-to-last-drop." The last drop you'll want to avoid, unless of course you're practicing the Heimlich maneuver.

Food gets primary attention. This is not by mistake. There are very few luxuries when you're paddling the river, but we can carry good food, cast-iron Dutch ovens, and we're never shy about garlic. And grease. Usually the grease takes the form of olive oil, but other times I'll fry up several pounds of bacon and flip the eggs easy-over sizzling in several inches of the leftover fat. After several hours of paddling in a head wind you'll feel the advantage to all that grease.

Another saying is that "a hungry paddler is an unhappy paddler. And an unhappy paddler is not a good paddler. In fact a hungry paddler is just one step away from mutiny." We try to avoid mutiny at all cost.

Work ethic: if you want to become a mississippi river guide, there are five job pre-requisites:
  1. Dress Code: three piece suit: life jacket, knife, survival kit.
  2. You must swim the width of the river at a place and time of your choosing.
  3. You must read LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI
  4. To be certified for any stretch of water you must be able to navigate that section by night.
  5. Current CPR
On the river, a bandana is known as a "do-all" because it doubles as hair tie, water filter, tourniquet, pot holder, bandage, table cloth, napkin, ice pack or snot rag. I once had a client who sewed several bandanas together and made a skirt.

"Surfing" on the Mississippi is positioning your canoe and riding the eight-foot high standing waves erupting behind the out thrust of a three-screw tugboat.

Another Quapaw saying is: "its not about getting there, but being there." This is adopted new-age lingo. But on the river its a reality.

If you come for a float, I have only one request of my clients. "That you only paddle when you feel like it." I'll let you know when you really need to paddle, which sometimes might be all day long. And believe me, it is great motivation when you are staring at the nose of six acres of barges and hearing the foamy roar of their prow.

If you don't paddle when I ask you to, you will be supplied with a special paddle called "the attitude adjuster."

This isn't just a power trip, y'all, it's a matter of survival. The long-standing rule adhered to by all water craft is that you do what the captain asks while on board the boat, because he has your life in his hands. Of course if the boat capsizes and there are any consequences, it is the captain who bears all responsibility.

There is no age requirement. Earlier in March I had a one day float with a seventy-four year old woman from Cleveland. I will take anyone who will fit in a life jacket. My only requirement is willingness to paddle.

But for the most part, we let the river do the work, because after all, we are river rats. A river rat likes going downstream. A river rat likes going with the flow. Rarely will you find a river rat fighting the current. To do so is not only hazardous to your health, but it's also work, and a good river rat avoids work whenever and however possible.

The Himalayas has its sherpas, the Sahara its nomads, the arctic its eskimos. And so the Mississippi River has developed its own culture that is particular to its banks, many of whom make a living on its waters. This is the so-called "river-rat." There have been carpet-baggers, hocksters, shysters, professional gamblers, keelboatsmen, flatboatmen, and paddle wheel men, but only the river-rat has endured the test of time. Gamblers are making a come back, although most gamblers probably adhere to no affiliation nor adoration of the mighty mississippi save the legality of gambling space.

A good river rat does a little as possible, and then only begrudgingly. If he can get it without paying for it, so much the better. He'd rather "drink muddy waters and live in a hollow log." He gets what he can get, and then gets the hell out, and the river is his perfect environment because it alone exhibits generosity without judgement.

His kind inhabits the place on the other side of the levee, the so-called "batture," the richest white-tailed-deer habitat in North America. The place that's too muddy, too mosquito infested, and too smelly when the water recedes for the better part of civilization. Or perhaps it's the worser part. Its like living on top of the San Andreas Fault. Its so damned changeable it can be un-nerving, unsettling, downright inhospitable. An island here today might be a field of water tomorrow. A landmark tree will disappear. Forests are gulped soundlessly. Your favorite sandbar might become a mud bar after high water.

And everything is just so big, and cut of gargantuan proportion. Forests stretch from horizon to horizon. The sky is unobstructed, and the water is a big as the sky. Its like being out to sea, but there's a thin line of forest in between the water and the heavens - like an island you never reach as you float along downstream. Being on the river is like being on a big mountain as opposed to a boulder. You're not going to fall ten feet when you trip on the big mountain, you're going to fall thousands of feet. On the river, if you drown, its not going to be on a shallow bar, but in hundreds of feet of water, and your body might not wash up for hundreds of miles downstream. "Floaters" is what the coast guard calls them.

Other river rats are of the romantic sort Camus was referring to when he said "we might be crawling in the ditches, but our eyes are on heaven." The river has always afforded freedom of thought and expression as well as movement. Remember, It was the Ohio that Seth crossed with babe in hand in Toni Morrison's Beloved.

Jim and Huck planned to float down to the confluence at Cairo and then turn upstream the Ohio to a free state, but missed the confluence point in the fog. T.S. Eliot was born in St. Louis, and must have been thinking of the Mississippi when he wrote:
I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
is a strong brown god - sullen, untamed and intractable
Langston Hughes directly refers to the Mississippi in his "Negro speaks of Rivers":
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
Went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
Bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
John James Audubon traveled the river in 1820 and was struck by the range and diversity of winged creatures, many of whom he shot and documented in his paintings and sketches. That's right, he shot the birds first, then painted them. Have you ever tried to get a red winged blackbird to stand still while you got it properly colored? It was in the Mississippi Valley that he witnessed what he misnamed the "Black Goose." This was the cormorant, but he had no name for it in his vocabulary.

Those who work it and live on it will defend it with critics to the length of a fist fight or duel, and in the next alone moment curse it for the personal misery it can inflict. Its path is the path of a snake. Its power of productivity & fertility is matched only by its destructive potential. It alone is equaninmous in its ambitions and magniminous in its distribution of wealth. It will steal from Arkansas as easily as it will endow Mississisppi or Louisiana, or vice-versa. Aaron Henry visited this aquatic quality in his post-mortem biography The Fire Ever Burning.

"My year in Webb also taught me about life under another kind of tension. It was 1927, the year that the Mississippi River flooded. All up and down the Delta, that old river came swirling and snorting out of its bed and washed away almost everything people had, except their sins. There was talk of thousands of people getting killed and drowned, and they said that the river left the white folks as poor as the colored. We lived across the railroad tracks from the real high water and had to use a boat to get downtown to shop. I watched people working on the levees, piling up sandbags to keep water from coming into the town. The flood itself was not too hard on the people of Webb. The worst part was the stories we heard. We heard rumors that people in towns up and down the river might come and dynamite our levees in order to relieve pressure on theirs. There were armed guards on the levee, and there was even talk of murdering anybody from a neighboring town who might come to Webb for that reason.

I realize, thinking back, that that old Mississippi River has never had one ounce of racial prejudice. It will drown or wash away a white man just as quick as a Negro and never think twice about it. When it comes bursting over those levees, it doesn't stop and ask where the colored section is, it just takes it all. There's a particular equality about the river, an equality that comes in something so great and powerful and so potentially good that no man can change it. The Mississippi gave both whites and blacks their water and food, and it accepted our waste - the giving and the taking were all on equal basis. It was like the sun and rain and death and God, the things that even the biggest cotton planter in the Delta could not control. But the example did not wear off on him. If there was ever any real authority in Mississippi, it was the river, and the white people seem to have been born with a resentment of its authority. A mystical person might say that the inherent rebelliousness of the white Delta people comes from a heritage of having to deal with the river on the river's terms - no questions asked."

The Mississippi has destroyed the dreams of planters, and inspired presidents. Lincoln was a keelboatsman in his youth, and Jimmy Carter toured the river from the Delta Queen. It was the crisis of the great flood of 1927 that catapulted Hoover to presidency, and dethroned Coolidge.

There are plans afoot for an interstate highway bridge in St. Louis, and you might be surprised to discover which president they will so honor in its name. There's no money to start building a new Mississippi River bridge, but the $1.6 billion project has a proposed name: The Ronald Wilson Reagan Memorial Bridge.

The Missouri Legislature will consider bills this session that would make Ronald Wilson Reagan Memorial Bridge the official title. Sen. John Loudon, R-Ballwin, is sponsoring the Senate version; Rep. Nathan Cooper, R-Cape Girardeau, is sponsoring a bill in the House.

Loudon said she anticipated the name would be embraced in Illinois because Reagan was born there. But Illinois lawmakers have not been included in any of Missouri's naming efforts. Illinois is the lead state in the project and would own the structure.

Illinois state Rep. Jay Hoffman and chairman of the House Transportation Committee said the bridge should be built before naming it.

"I'd hate to have a bridge that's simply a pipe dream, with no funding, named after a great president," he said.

An additional Mississippi River bridge is needed to relieve traffic congestion on the Poplar Street Bridge, according to highway planners. It's one of two bridges in the country that carries three interstates.

I don't know if any of you saw the Clarion Ledger piece about all of the canadian tourists coming to mississippi and spending their hard-earned canadian money in our hotels and casinos, but what about all of the canadian geese who come to the state? More than 40% of the nation's waterfowl and 60% of all bird species in the United States migrate along the Mississippi River. Its biota is staggering just in shear numbers of specie representation: 241 fish species. 50 mammal species. 37 mussels. 45 reptile and amphibians.

Now, maybe someone in this audience can explain it to me. This contradictory characteristic of the inhabitants of the Mississippi Delta. How is it in a land of bayous, backwaters, sloughs and slackwaters that there is such great fear of water, and so few people know how to swim? Its almost like living in the Rockies and not knowing how to ski.

Its like the inmate in Faulkner's Old Man, who has lived his life in the shadow of the levee and never seen what is that lay forever flowing on the other side. That is, until the flood burst into Delta consciousness on Good Friday 1927 at Mound's Landing.

In Mississippi, the river has determined the shape of the land, the travel of its people, and the economy of their societies. It was the "key to the confederacy" [Vicksburg] in the Civil War. Most of Mississippi drains into the river, and although few people have regular contact with it, it is their drinking water, their namesake, their hunting grounds, their wilderness. Its health is the health of the state, and the other southern states along its grand valley, particularly Louisiana and Arkansas.

Quapaw Canoe Company floats are not endurance tests nor marathon paddle sessions. We maintain a river-rat attitude for the most part, and try to let the river do the work. Of course, some paddling is necessary. I am glad to take anyone who has an interest. My main purpose with Quapaw is to provide access to the magnificent beauty and wonders of the Lower Mississippi River and its Floodplain Valley for those who might not otherwise have an opportunity to experience it.

All float trips are by canoe to enhance this purpose. A canoe is quiet and does not adversely effect the river and its ecosystem. A canoe is safer than a motorboat, primarily because you can never go faster than you can paddle. Most river fatalities involve collisions with unseen objects at high speed. Furthermore, you never run out of gas mid-channel with a 42-barge tow bearing down in a rising river full of driftwood.

Commonly asked questions about a Quapaw Float:
  1. When? anytime you're ready. Our only limiting factors are extreme weather conditions, or another float planned. If the weather is bad before a float, we might be required to make a raincheck. If conditions sour during a float, we will be required to put to shore and sit it out. This is what we call "river time."
  2. Where? any section of the river between St. Louis and the Gulf of Mexico. Some beautiful floats are...
  3. How Much? $50-150 per day, depending on the number of people and duration of float.
Lastly, what will you experience? You will see eddies, whirlpools, boils the size of Wal Mart parking lots - motions of water contrary to one another that dominate an entire landscape. You can swim in a blue hole if we're lucky enough to find one freshly ground out of a towhead, and backfilled with sparkling sand filtered water. You will learn about revetment, dikes, buoys, and wing damns. You will find pristine flood-scoured islands that are numbered consecutively from Island 1 at the confluence of the Ohio to Island 115 at Natchez. You will see contradictions and conundrums of nature, and examples of chaos as they occur. You will see the third biggest river in the world as it slowly and implacably pours out of the heart of America and winds endlessly towards the gulf of mexico, unheedful of gravity, pursuing strange serpentine pathways through the mud and clay and sand. You will see the prettiest sunsets you have ever seen, and some of the youngest and freshest landscapes on the continent - masterpieces composed of sand and mud and forests and left to glisten in the sun after the withdrawal of every spring high water.

You won't have to look hard or far to experience the existence of god and the reworking of the first few days of creation as it is constantly being exemplified in the motions & colors & patterns of the water, the land, and the sky.

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