Close Window

Lower Mississippi River Dispatch

Vol 9 No 3, Monday March 4, 2013

Big Island Update:

The circle has been completed!

Feb 28th, 2013: After 10 days of cold & windy weather, several storm camps, lots of hard paddling, and spectacular experiences of woods & wildlife, we came back to the Rosedale Harbor where we started this expedition on Feb 18th.

We believe this was the first documented circumnavigation of Big Island in the history of its existence -- at least since the Quapaw people left the area.

Also, this was probably the first time Arkansas public school students participated as team members of a Mississippi River expedition.

We collected water quality samples throughout the journey, as well as kept track of animals, birds and counted pallid sturgeon for the US Fish & Wildlife and MSU. Go to for complete accounting.

For daily photos go to Lower Mississippi River Paddlers (a public Facebook Page):

For a story from the Helena Daily World:

“I was paddling

around Big Island

on a cold & windy day

When I saw the

Rosedale Harbor

I could only say:

“Will the Circle

be unbroken?

By and by, Lord

By and by...

Muddy River

Woody Forests

Endless Sky, Lord

Endless Sky”

Sample journal from the “Big Muddy Adventures” Schoolhouse:

Expedition Update 10

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Big Island Daily Data 10

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


High Temp 52

Low Temp 24

Feels Like Temp: 21

Wind 5-15 mph SSW

Precipitation 0” partly cloudy day, sun, crystal clear night



Distance: 10 miles

Time: 4 hours

GPS Camp Site: N 33.919098 W 91.061627

Water Quality:

White River. Inside Bayou 10 yards from mouth of river,

Water Temperature: 9 C (thermometer broken) approximate

Turbidity: 14”

pH 6.5

DO 8 ppm

GPS of test:


see Expedition Journal, count to be added later today

Expedition Journal 10: Virtual or Real, the Learning is Experiential at its Best

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

by Mr. Clark, aka Big Muddy Mike

It is a crystal clear, just past full moon lit night, our first this week. We broke Explorer’s Camp this morning and headed downstream on the final four miles of the White River towards its confluence with the Mighty Mississippi River. En route, John pointed towards an opening in the high bank, leading into the White River National Refuge. It was a beautiful bayou with running water moving through an amazing “canyon” of old growth Cypress trees, some of which are easily five to six hundred years old. Their diameter being over six feet. The “knees”, or root systems of these great grand daddy trees extended into the water, creating a mosaic of intertwined wooden beauty.

We stopped and climbed up the steep bank using the knees as a ladder. The forest revealed more old growth trees, oaks of gigantic proportions, and it dawned on me that we were in one of the few places in America where trees of such age exist. For three centuries, settlers, steamboats and the lumber industry have been busy like beavers, finding, cutting and selling this enormously valuable wood stock. But here in the Refuge, these awesome trees are protected from man’s saws.

As part of the learning adventure for our KIPP student explorers, I asked Tristan if he wanted to be the stern paddler of our heavily laden 22 foot canoe. He is a newcomer to paddling, and yet he jumped at the chance. I was impressed. With a few simple instructions on steering, he took command. Our initial path downstream became a zig zagging tour of the channel. The teacher in me wanted to give more instructions, but this is one activity that simply requires experiential learning. Too much instruction, advice makes for confusion, over correction and in the end frustration. Tristan got the hang of it by the time we turned the corner at the confluence. I became aware of what a breakthrough of self-confidence can do for the learning curve. And what a great reminder of what good teaching should be.

Our journey, another great circle, following great rivers, connected together to form a Big Island, has one day remaining. We have collected water, tested it and even drank from it, the ultimate test of quality. John and I love our coffee which is brewed in “river rat” style, no filter, dark roasted, robust ground beans, brewed over a campfire in the wee hours of the morning, as we write our rough hewn, unedited expedition journals and updates. We have used water from the river and are happy to report that our intestinal systems are still working well, that is if you discount the effects of Wolfie’s fire brand chili which has produced enough gas to fuel a tow boat. We are living proof of what the great writer T.S. Eliot said (paraphrased), “The oceans are all around us, but the River is within us.”

The “Virtual Zoo” project that our students at home have engaged in has been a main focus of this expedition, and our exploration and creature count of Big Island and the White River National Refuge has been difficult. Not difficult in the sense that we are unable to find critters. Rather, just the opposite. There are so many birds that we have been only able to approximate their numbers. Mammals have been a bit easier to count, but it is the late winter here, and the stormy weather has kept them hunkered down just as we have had to. Still, today we observed a flock of turkeys, a herd of white tail deer, dozens of wood ducks, hundreds of mallards and other duck species, a marsh hawk, red tailed hawk, a flock of turkey vultures and we heard a pair of great horned owls serenading each other from opposite sides of the river. Thousands of song birds, of varying varieties have been singing their happy songs in the reappearance of sunshine, and the egrets and great blue herons remain a constant companion on the banks as they fish, then fly as we approach. Our favorite sighting was a river otter, swimming and diving in an eddy pool just below the Confluence where we turned into a back channel of the Mississippi, which was at one time the Old White River, now disconnected as so many chutes and oxbows are by the timeless change that Old Man River has wrought.

It is cold tonight, the coldest of the trip. Water in our dish pan is freezing solid. We are all spending our last minutes awake watching TV, that is, staring at the sky and the heavenly bodies which have been the source of curiosity for thousands of years. Each of us is taking turns identifying constellations and star groups. But this won’t last long. We are tired from ten days on expedition and hard core paddling. Tomorrow, we will explore the bottom of Big Island and follow the instructions of our virtual exploring students who have sent us “field guides” to follow and find their virtual zoo critters.

Mark River Blog:

Day 6-Pride vs. Passion

We portage the gear from the campsite to the Arkansas River. We had just come off a one-day base camp. We had accomplished our goal of 43 miles up the Arkansas River to one of the first trading post of the New World, Arkansas Post. We spent our day visiting museums and learning the history, our history, of the area. The Quapaw indians and their peaceful lifestyle made this establishment one of the largest and most profitable post along the river.

After portaging the gear and canoes to the shore. We repack the canoes headed towards the White River were we will have to go through two locks and dams in order to make start our downstream paddle towards the Mississippi River. We choose our teammates for the day and start to distribute the gear.

Driftwood Johnny asked," River, would you like the stern of the two man or the 4 man canoe?"

Knowing my teammates and our strength and weaknesses, I knew the best decision was to take the 4 man canoe loaded with most of the heaviest gear would be best for the team. My partner would be Oscar, a KIPP-Delta student joining us for the second half of the expedition.

With the pride of the of an ex-world class athlete, I respond, " I will take the 4 man!"

We start the day downstream headed for our first lock to connect to the White River. Oscar, a 6 ft. 250 lb. high schooler, is on his first expedition of this type and not the experienced paddler I'm used to. The canoe feels like the "Junebug", a 450 lb. cypress canoe that we use on our trips throughout the year. I'm fifteen minutes into the paddle and I feel like my paddle strokes are weak as if I'm headed upstream on the Mississippi River.

Doubt starts to creep into my mind, a sin for an athlete.

I look for someone to blame. I can't because I chose this canoe.

I'm the last canoe, usually the first, as we pull up to a resting spot a mile from the first lock.

Driftwood Johnny ask, " How does it feel?"

I replied in a hastily way, " Like I'm paddling through mud."

He responds hastily, " That's the way it is my brother."

Not liking his response, I check my pride. He reminded me of my old football coach, Mike Foster, who never would allow excuses and always pushed me to get better every practice, every repetition. It was all I needed.

We continued through the first lock. My attitude had been adjusted and my passion for paddling and the river sets end . I come out the lock hot. I'm gonna set a brisk pace to push the team so we can get to a good camp by dark. The second lock is three miles away and I'm determined to get there first. The canal is still and the wind is at our face, but I'm paddling hard setting a good example for my partner. He feels my passion and starts to dig deep. I can hear the two man canoe coming fast, but we push harder.

A sign reads, " Danger, Dam 4000ft."

We're almost there and Driftwood and Wolfie in the smaller lighter canoe flies by us.

I smile knowing I've overcome the adversity at hand and enjoying the natural high that you get from facing the challenges the river puts before you. It reassures me that my mental and physical well being is in check for the season to come and life's challenges ahead.

All this in a six mile canal connecting the White River and the Arkansas River.

Get to know your river!

-Mark River

Mark River is a guide and teacher with Quapaw Canoe Company and is also the 1 Mississippi Southern Region Intern representing the Lower Mississippi River Foundation.

KIPP Student Explorers Expedition Journal 1: Adventure Time

Sunday, February 24, 2013

by Tristan Honeycutt and Oscar Donaby

Tristan Honeycutt:

Wow! The first day on the river was very intense. it all started when we woke up and packed up camp. i didn’t sleep very well that night and i had the biggest cramp in my back. i got up to eat breakfast which was very good and started my day off. as we moved the canoes and equipment to the water i knew then that it was going to be a hard day ahead of me.

i had the chance to take pictures while we were on the river and i took a few of oscar to make him mad, lol. i was in the canoe with the mighty mike and he seems like a very jolly old man. as we paddled we had to use all of our strength to get to camp and it was a very hard challenge but at the end of the day it was worth it. i took quite a few pictures along the way and they were awesome, but at the end of this entry i’ll tell you what happened to them.

we were paddling for a while, and, by the way mike did a head stand in the canoe and john managed to catch it on camera. as we were on our way we decided to have a lunch break so we pulled off to the side at a beautiful camp to eat lunch and there we met a lovely couple from michigan. they had a very great dog named toby who only had three legs. he was a very happy dog even in the condition he was in. that couple was also nice enough to give the old men of the trip some coffee. when we were done with lunch we made our way back o the river. then came the dam. i had the chance to pul the chain to open up the gates of the dam and i got scared by the horn a little bit. we made our way through, along the river and we had to go through another dam. the sun was going down slowly and we had to get to camp asap. when we made it to camp oscar was scared of the spiders that were around and started crying. i wasn’t worried at all. we set up camp and started to make dinner and i was the top chef. i cut up and sliced many ingredients for the soup that we were going to eat that night. after dinner we had to collect fire wood for the next day and when we finished i went to my tent and slept like a little baby and that was a good night of sleep. this morning i had to pee so bad and my tent didn’t want to open for me but when it did i ran to the nearest tree and i was relieved. we ate breakfast and when we finished we had to upload the pics that i had taken. when we did oscar “the beast” had deleted most of my pics. but john still has a lot to make up from the ones he deleted. this is just the start of my journey around big island.

Oscar Donaby:

Lol to start off, the statement that Tristan put on here saying I was scared and started crying because of the spiders was a 200% lie. But like Tristan my first night, I didn’t get much sleep. I woke up like 10 time within 3 hours, my tent zipper kept getting hung up when i tried to get out to go to the bathroom, and I woke up at one point to a wet tent because it was a heavy dew that came in around ten at night. The next morning I woke up at 5:30 AM, ready to be on the river, only to find out that I wouldn’t be on the river for another four hours. Finally, every one woke up. we had breakfast, which made me want to go back to sleep, but it was then time to go. After about two hours on the river, paddling, and my arm started hurting so bad it felt like it was going to fall off. Finally we stop for lunch at another park and we came across this couple who had this dog name Toby that they had rescued from a shelter. John and Mike instantly started talking about Toby the turtle and I tell you the look on these guys faces were priceless. But back to the river we went, and not an hour past when once again my arms started hurting. We came to a dam called Lock 2 were we had to wait what felt like an hour just to get through. Three miles later we came to Lock 1 where we had to wait even longer to get though. Now we’re past the dam and its five miles to camp. my arms were on fire plus my legs started to cramp. With both my ams and legs hurting, five miles felt more like 20. But finally we made it to camp, full of spiders which was kinda of interesting to me to see so many spiders in one spot. we then set up our camp and made dinner. It wasn’t something i would eat a lot but it was good. I guess it is good to try new things.

Expedition Journal 7 Part 1:

The Crossing

Sunday, February 24, 2013

by Chris “Wolfie” Staudinger

When you look at the map, the Arkansas and the White seem inches away. They seem braided and connected by little lakes and bayous. You would think they shared waters and share likenesses to one another. But the crossing on Sunday did not bring us to a different branch of the same river. It was more like crossing into a new region altogether.

For me, the defining features of the Arkansas, especially below the dam, were its redness and its curves. The redness comes from the things it carries and the places it’s picked them up - Little Rock, Tulsa, the plains of Kansas, and the Colorado Rockies. Its quick, wild curves come from its abandonment beneath the Arkansas Post dam. We paddled up an untamed river - left to meander in wild, unintelligible loops. You can paddle for two miles east and two miles west and only be separated by a hundred yards from where you started. There is no Corps of Engineers to build rock piles and divert water in specific paths. Instead, the Arkansas cuts its own banks in big, savage bites that pull the ground from beneath the trees and leave them to dangle above the water. The whole jagged bank is a graveyard of trees and gnarled root balls that have come into the path of the slipping and sliding of the Arkansas river.

Such was the fate of much of the Arkansas Post settlement - one of the first European settlements west of the Mississippi River. Quapaw Indians and Frenchmen commingled at this relative high ground on the Arkansas River in the 17th and 18th century. Most of it - the Indian Mounds, the French fort, the houses, the ground they walked - is now covered by the waters that we paddled on Sunday as we crossed over to the White.

The canal that joins the Arkansas and the White is like a very long, morphing hallway. It went very quickly from a pretty lagoon landscape, with a flock of egrets perched on the branches of a cypress tree, to a very rigid, very monotonous rectangle of water. All hints of a river’s movements were pried apart into an uncomfortably straight line. Wind tumbled down this tunnel into our faces as we paddled slowly along the rocks that keep the water tight and in line. We longed for bends in the river that keep us wondering what is behind their trees.

Then we came to the gatekeeper of the White: the lockmaster at the Norel Lock and Dam number 1. The locks are essentially tiny corks at the bottoms of huge water towers. They hover like cement castles above the water. The lockmaster’s building looks like a fort with its tiny slits of windows. The cement rises for twenty yards above the water, and in our canoes, next to the big rust scratches made by barges’ scraping against the chute, we felt small.

When we rang the bell, and the horn sounded, the Mr. Lockmaster came and looked down at us from over his cement wall. Remember when Dorothy and her friends tried to get into Oz, but the man in the porthole wouldn’t let them? Mr. Lockmaster was a lot like that. He had his Corps of Engineers uniform and hat. He said no. He talked about rules. About commercial traffic. About reservoirs filled already for approaching barges. He said it would be many hours. At that rate, we would not be able to get to our camp that evening, and with storms approaching, that prospect didn’t sit well.

But we are not men of rules. We are men of river. And we found that beneath Mr. Lockmaster’s armor and behind his cement, he really was a man. And when we talked to him like one, he understood we were okay, and he opened his gates.

Beyond the second lock, at the end of that wind tunnel of a water hallway, we knew we would find free-flowing water. Free. Flowing. Water. In my mind, though, the White River would look a lot like the Arkansas we had left behind. I thought they were so close that they must share characteristics.

But what I found beyond the lock was a very different river. The redness that so defined the Arkansas was nowhere. Instead, the banks and the bottoms of trees are covered in a charcoal brown mud - Mississippi River mud. The water is high and slips through the channel with urgency. The willow forests are thicker, and many of them are submerged in underwater forests.

We turned into one of these willow bays Sunday evening, just as night was falling, and found a campsite between two hills. A full moon beamed behind the watery forest. This was a very different world from the previous week and very different from the river I was expecting as I waited behind the lock gates. With only five miles separating our camp from the Arkansas River, the difference is amazing. It is the difference and the distance between the Ozarks and the Rockies. Between Kansas and Missouri. I suppose that that watery hallway between the two rivers was well founded in its length.

Turtle Tales 5: Toby Changes Color

As told to John Ruskey

Hi! My name is Toby the Turtle. I am a Mississippi Mud Turtle. I followed Mike down the Mississippi River to see where it would go. We got to the Arkansas River. I met some other turtles at the mouth of the Arkansas River. The turtles there said, “Hey you! Don’t go any further. If you continue downstream you will be eaten by monsters.”

“What kind of monsters?” I asked.

“Scary monsters with big teeth,” they said.

“Yikes!” I said, “I’m not going any further downstream!” I think they meant alligators. But I didn’t know. And I didn’t want to find out. I told Mike to stop. Don’t go any further. Mike said, “Okay Toby, I’m not going any further down. Besides I kind of like it here at the Arkansas River. There is a big island here.”

“Guess what Toby? They call it Big Island!”

At the Arkansas River Mike met his friend John. They decided to paddle around the Big Island. Big Island is like St. Louis. Big Island is surrounded by rivers. On the east side is the Mississippi River. On the west side is the Arkansas River. On the north side is the White River. There is no south side because the island comes to a point, like a triangle.

The two friends started paddling their canoes up the Arkansas River. A guy named Mark joined Mike and John. And another guy named Chris. I decided to follow them upstream on the Arkansas and stay away from the monsters with big teeth.

The Arkansas is redder than the Mississippi. The mud is red, the sand is red. When I was sliding over the mud I turned red. I met another turtle who was sunning himself on a log. He saw me and said, “hey there Red-Eared Turtle!”

I told him I am not a red-eared turtle, I am a Mississippi Mud Turtle.

The other turtle said, “you are red aren’t you?”

“No,” I said, “I am black.”

“No you’re not!” he said. “Here, look at yourself in the reflection of the water.”

I looked at my reflection and yelled “Yikes!” I almost jumped out of my shell! I was all red from sliding over the red mud of the Arkansas River! I wondered if that turtle was right. Am I now a Red-Eared Turtle? It felt funny to be called something I am not. I swam away.

We got to the White River. Mike and his team paddled hard to get there. They were joined by two young men named Oscar and Tristan. I like Oscar and Tristan. They are young, like me.

The white river is a creamy color like a mixture of white, yellow and brown. The mud is is creamy brown. The sand is creamy-brown. I got all muddy from sliding over the mud of the White River.

I saw a turtle warming himself on a sandbar. When I swam over he said “Hey you box turtle!”

I said “Who are you talking to? I am a Mississippi Mud Turtle.”

He said, “no you’re not. Look at you. You’re all yellow and white and brown, just like a box turtle.” I looked in the water and saw my reflection. I did have the colors of a box turtle. It was happy to be wearing different colors. It felt like a party. But I knew I was a Mississippi Mud Turtle inside.

After another day of paddling we got back to the Mighty Mississippi River. My favorite river! Everyone was so happy. I was happy too. The Mississippi has black mud. I got black from swimming in the mud of the Mississippi River. I saw another turtle swimming around with his head above the water. I swam over to say hullo.

He looked at me and said, “Hey you Mississippi Mud Turtle!”

I was so happy to be called what I am! It felt like coming home.

That’s when I learned it doesn’t matter what kind of mud you swim in, you are always the same turtle.

But when I looked at my reflection, guess what I saw?

It was some red mud from the Arkansas River, still stuck behind my ear.

Well, I knew I wasn’t a Red-Eared Turtle. But I was happy to have this reminder of our long journey around the Big Island with Mike and John.

Mark River Blog:

Day 9- Cypress Canyon and the Confluence

We leave our White River camp and immediately cross the channel to explore an old cypress forest. We enter the slough of swift water pouring out of a inland lake through a beautiful cypress forest. The delta used to be full of cypress trees until agriculture became the life of the delta. The trees anchor the river banks looking like a maze of exposed root balls. I look around and I see cottonwoods, oaks, and sycamores laid across the forest not having the strong root system needed to handle land saturated by water. I didn't see one cypress tree fallen.

I think about the Mississippi River and all the work the Corps of Engineers do to stop the erosion of the shoreline.

Why don't they reintroduce the cypress trees?

The anchoring exposed roots of the cypress tree remind me of a mango forest or a freshwater coral. Natural filtering systems in nature.

As we leave " Cypress Canyon" we spot small waterfalls descending from small limestone deposits along the shoreline, when a commercial fishing boat approaches us.

Where are you guys doing?

I reply, " We are circumnavigating the Big Island."

I added, " It's taken us 10 days."

"Wow", you guys are serious!

We continued on knowing our next stop is the confluence. It never fails. As we approach the Mississippi River, the sun seemed to come out and the river widens in order to welcome us with a big hug. I'm beaming inside as I have missed the big beautiful sandbars and islands. My muscles seemed fresh. I feel as if we are on our first day.

We stop at a favorite camp spot between the White River and the Old White River channel for lunch. We noticed that the beavers in the area have noticeably thinned many of the cottonwoods we use for comfort and shade in the summer. A river otter curiously swam by checking us out while continuing its day of fishing.

We set out after lunch to find a good campsite on the old channel. We pass by an old hunting cabin which always catches my eye because it looks as if it's occupied, but I never see anyone. We continue on to camp. We plan to camp by an old steamboat, The Victor, that sank in the early 1900's. This will be our last night of the expedition.

We spend our night looking at constellations of stars on one of our only clear nights. Mother Nature saved the best night for last.

-Mark River

From Lower Mississippi River Paddlers (by John Ruskey):

Day 9: Oh the Joy!

After 9 days of hard paddling up the Arkansas, portaging over the dam, paddling across the canal in headwinds, and then wandering down the last dozen miles or so of the White River, we come around a final bend, and the unending lines of big trees fall away on either side (Big Island always on the right) and we re-enter the biggest river in North America, and it feels big, the water swells underneath us in characteristic boils and slurping whirlpools and great fields of lapping waves, and the sky busts open like a balloon, as our imaginations seem to open accordingly, and we are overwhelmed with waves of emotion, of joy, enlightenment and achievement, a river otter shortly thereafter joins us and follows along with playful dolphin kicks and splashes, and several flocks of ducks (scaups) and several couples of canada goose take to the skies seeming to share in the joy of the moment...

For more photos go to Lower Mississippi River Paddlers (a public Facebook Page):

Final Note:

Go to for complete accounting of this historic expedition!