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Lower Mississippi River Dispatch

Vol 9 No 5, Wed May 1, 2013

This issue in memorium

of “Mr. Johnnie”

Johnnie Billington

1935 - 2013

Master blues musician who dedicated his life to teaching children the music of the Delta.

His inspiration led directly to the formation

of the Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program.

When I first came to Clarksdale in 1991 Mr. Johnnie took me under his wing and through several years of instruction he alternately fostered, cajoled and then finally tricked me into learning blues keyboard (I had originally asked him to learn guitar!)

My blues career died a decade later after a tenure with the Wesley Jefferson Band and a long stint with Tater the Music Maker. But Mr. Johnnie endowed me with a life-long commitment to keep important skills and traditions alive through the youngsters of the community. “If you know something of value,” Mr. Johnnie often taught, “you’d better share it. Otherwise it will die when you die…” That simple thought has sustained me through many bumps on the road of working with disadvantaged youth. Mr. Johnnie’s example led me to form the Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program for Mississippi Delta youth to learn the skills of carving canoes and then paddle them on the big river. The program is all about self-knowledge, leadership, team-skills, and learning to overcome the challenges of becoming adults in a confusing and difficult world. In Mr. Johnnie words, its all about “helping a boy become a young man, and a girl become a young woman.”

I am forever grateful to Mr. Johnnie’s unbending ethics and keen sense of leadership. Its not necessarily the kind of leadership that leads you to fame & fortune, but definitely the kind that leads you to a thoughtful and passionate life. His lessons were often difficult to accept. But ultimately they have led me and many others to become better individuals and citizens.

Although he sometimes seemed short on compassion, his never-ending mantra was “Love is what its all about…” One of his favorite songs to perform was Bobby Blue Bland’s “I’ll Take Care of You.” He often introduced the song specifically for children, addressing the youth in his band or in the audience with the admonition to love and care for your parents. He named his last homesite, located in Lambert along the meandering Possum Bayou, “The H&H Ranch,” which stands for “Health and Happiness.”

Long live Mr. Johnnie’s teachings! They surely live on through his his talented apprentices turned professional blues musicians: Arthneice Jones “the Gas Man,” Anthony “Big A” Sherrard, Lee Williams, “Big T” Terry Williams, Billy Gibson, and many, many others. They also live on in unexpected directions like the Mighty Quapaws.

In honor and respect of Mr. Johnnie, may his gift of Health and Happiness reach you wherever you are!


Lower Mississippi River

Water Trail

What is The Rivergator?

The Rivergator describes the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail. The Rivergator is a website full of stories, maps, photos and accurate information concerning the BIG RIVER!

What is Lower Mississippi River Water Trail?

The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail described by The Rivergator is the longest free-flowing water trail in the continental United States, over 1100 miles from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico (including the Middle Miss from the Missouri River confluence). There are thousands of islands, backchannels, side channels and oxbow lakes to explore. The trail connects cities, states, public lands, festivals and all of the people and businesses found along the Lower Miss.

Who is The Rivergator written for?

The Rivergator is written specifically for paddlers who want to explore the wilds of the Lower Mississippi River. Canoeists, kayakers and stand up paddle boarders will all find it to be the definitive guide to the BIG RIVER.

Who is The Rivergator written by?

The Rivergator is written by John Ruskey with consultation from a team of regional river experts including Ernest Herndon, Big Muddy Mike Clark, Paul Hartfield, Ken Jones, Joe Royer, Dale Sanders, Tim McCarley, Adam Eliot, Mike Beck and Paul Orr and others. This team varies with the section of river being described.

Why is The Rivergator important?

The Lower Mississippi River is possibly the most spectacular and yet also the most unrecognized wild river in North America. It should be one of the classic paddler destinations alongside the Boundary Waters, the Okeefenokee, or the Alagash. Big volume water, towboats and industry have scared paddlers away. Until now there was no good written description of how to navigate the powerful waters. Enter The Rivergator !

When will The Rivergator be completed?

The Rivergator is still under construction. Go to for a preview. We are on a 3-year timeline to be completed in 2015. This year we will add 3 new 100-mile sections to cover the BIG RIVER including the greater Memphis region, the Chickasaw Bluffs, and the entire length of the Mississippi Delta, everything from Caruthersville, Missouri to Vicksburg, Mississippi. In 2014 we will add the Middle Mississippi from St. Louis down to Cairo, and then continue the Lower Miss connecting back down to Memphis. In 2015 the entire Lower Miss will be completed with the addition of the river from Vicksburg to the Gulf of Mexico, including Natchez, St. Francisville, Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Venice.

How do I get involved with The Rivergator?

Any knowledgeable river rats are welcome to join in! The more eyes the better. Write me and I will include you in the circle of reviewers.

Furthermore, any interested paddlers can participate in the creation of The Rivergator by joining in on one or more of three exploratory trips coming up in the next two months:

May 23-27

Memphis to Helena

June 5-10

Caruthersville to Memphis

June 19-23

Greenville to Vicksburg

In November 2013 we will be celebrating the creation of the water trail by paddling these same sections of river. Contact for more info. Go to for an idea of what we’re creating along the Lower Mississippi River, and join us in making it come to life!

The Mark River Blog

River Gator Chronicles

River Gator Chronicles - From Montana to the Mississippi, April 15-17, 2013

We take a ride to Montezuma Landing to watch the rise of the river and breath the fresh air while the songbirds create the score to this beautiful natural setting. I put my boots on to wade through the shallows to get to high ground to get a closer look at the river. The rise is continuous, but the sound of the songbirds make the rise a celebration. It's spring and this part of the natural order.

I sit back and enjoy the rays from the sun and watch large trees get caught in the eddie that has developed along where the landing usually exist. They take a ride around and around until they are release back into the channel or lodge between the large cottonwoods along the bank. I see one large tree coming directly towards two very large cottonwoods. I brace myself as the trees collide and make a powerful sound of mass and energy.

I think to myself, "they do make sounds when no one is around..."

I start to think about the four women from Montana who accompanied us on a River Gator excursion weeks prior.

The trip started with a shuttle from Clarksdale, MS to Helena Harbor, AR. On the way we drove through the historic Stovall Plantation where the great blues legend Muddy Waters was raised by his grandmother who was a sharecropper. We continued down highway 1 with levee in the distant the whole way.

Jill, a nomadic bartender who avoids the long Montana winters by flying like a songbird to Mexico asked, "Are we still in Mississippi?"

I replied," Yep, until we cross the bridge, the only bridge you will see for the rest of the trip!"

We get to the bridge and the ladies marvel at the pure size of the River. We continued on to the harbor stopping by the levee to see the new Quapaw outpost.

We launch the "Junebug" Canoe into the harbor and we are off. Our crew consists of myself as first mate and Wolfie the River Otter as captain. Our guests are Walli, avid kayaker and owner of Moose's Saloon in Kalispell, MT. Julie, a outdoor mom and full time dental hygienist. Dee, an entrepreneur and triathlete. And the boisterous Jill, who never missed the opportunity to sarcastically ham it up with the crew.

We glide through the harbor discussing the barge industry and the commodities transported daily on the River as we move underneath the bridge headed for our first campsite which will be on Island 61. The River is rising so we know there will be plenty of campsites along the beautiful treeline on Island 61. Just a year ago during low water the sandbars were so long that the trees seemed miles away. We get to Island 61 and it doesn't disappoint. The songbirds are in full throttle and the weather is beautiful.

Dee says immediately, "I'm putting on my wetsuit!"

They all frantically change into their wetsuits and go for a swim as I stay back to start a fire and prepare for dinner. I watch in the distance as the playfully swim out to a sandbar that's probably not going to be there in the morning. They walk with excitement in their voices as the myths of the River disappear before my eyes. Dee, a triathlete from Idaho, plans to train for the Kalispell Triathlon when the trip’s over, and starts her training now as she strongly swims the channel with ease.

She comes running up,"That was wonderful! I thought the Missisippi River was nasty! I'm totally blown away! I can't wait to tell my friends!"

I smile and say," Make sure you tell them all!"

We assemble for dinner. Blackened catfish with mashed potatoes and campfire sweet corn. We laugh the night away watching shooting stars and listening to the sound of the River. We are off to a great start.

We start the morning with bacon and eggs, fruit, and oatmeal before we start our paddle to the next campsite on the beautiful Island 64. We make a call and plan to meet our shuttle driver at Quapaw Landing for a resupply of goods. With the River rising we were able to take the back channel of Island63 to the landing. As we paddle around the bend a wild hog stands it's ground on the bluff curiously watching us float by. Probably protecting it's burrow full of piglets. Great blue herons screech at us as we disturb their fishing. Large gar surface for a small yups of air.

We make our stop at Quapaw Landing and continue through the chute headed for Island 64. The day is sunny, but overcast, as we head down the main channel. In the distance we see rain clouds approaching fast. Suddenly, one half of the River is experiencing a down pour as we watch it headed right for us. We brace ourselves for the drenching as we yell, scream, and celebrate the relief from the sun. It lasted all of 4 minutes as we paddle through it, but it was a great memory.

We approach Island 64 and with the River rising we take the back channel to find a campsite that would shield us from the wind. We stop for a break and Walli hollers, "Look!" There's two river otters fishing and they are surprised by our presence. They continue with curiosity by bobbing up and down checking us out while they enjoying their meal .It was a great sighting.

We agree upon a campsite in the trees full of songbirds and an angry beaver splashing it's tail throughout the night as we sit around the fire enjoying our last night on the River. It was wonderful to see the hard working ladies relax and enjoy their vacation along our great river.

We rise in the morning with a weather advisory on our minds, so we pack up and head towards Desoto Lake chute which is located on the left bank between a series of wing dams. The River is rising so the oxbow lake is filling as we float through the chute approaching the lake. We come to the lake and immediately dip into the flooded forest full of cottonwoods and willows. You can literally smell the fish as the crappie and bass wait for the water to heat up a couple more degrees so they can start their spawn. Jill and Julie, avid fisherman, wonder at the fish activity and simultaneously say, " I'm bringing my pole next year!"

We see our landing in the distance and the separation anxiety sets in. The ladies start to back paddle not wanting the trip to end. I make a deal with them and we head to the landing. We decide to eat lunch on the landing while the ladies change into wetsuits and take their last dip. Ellis, our shuttle driver, nephew of the late bluesman" Big" Jack Johnson and the brother of bluesman James "Super Chikan" Johnson coaxes the ladies out of the water with an invitation by Red Patton of "Red's Juke Joint".

Overall we spent two nights and three days on the River. According to the River Gator, we covered 40 river miles. At the end of the trip I was excited to hear the ladies say, "Thank you Walli, I'm so glad we came."

Mark River

Mark River Peoples is a river guide, canoe builder, and Mighty Quapaw Youth Leader for Quapaw Canoe Company, and is also the 1 Mississippi Southern Region Intern