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Lower Mississippi River Dispatch

Vol 9 No 9d, Tuesday Sept 24, 2013

River, let's get to the River!

Rivergator Chronicles:

St. Francis to Montezuma Landing

with Ole Miss Interdisciplinary class:

Ecological & Cultural History of the Lower Mississippi

by Mark River

Over the years Quapaw Canoe Company has formed valuable relationships with various educational institutions across the country. Whether it's KIPP-Delta students of Helena, Arkansas or the Griot Arts program in Clarksdale, Miss, we understand the importance of introducing and sharing the Mississippi River with generations to come and developing River stewards to continue to help sustain and protect our great river.

One of our favorite groups to share the River with is Dr. Cliff Ochs and his biology students from the University of Mississippi. This year Cliff has added a dynamic twist to the usual biology program. This year the students will look at the river from a number of different aspects in a program called the “Ecological and Cultural History of the Lower Mississippi.”

We start the day at the Quapaw headquarters in Clarksdale. Everyone shows excitement as we pack dry bags and discuss what Rivergator route to take. Cliff and his students have been on various trips so we gather around the map in " the Cave", which is Driftwood Johnny's den, and discuss logistics. We decide upon the beautiful stretch of river from the confluence of the St. Francis and Mississippi River to what we call the "Muddy Waters Wilderness."

We drive to Helena, Arkansas, where we will meet our shuttle. We stop by Quapaw Canoe company located on the levee parallel to the entrance of Helena Harbor. While the students take the tour of the facility, the crew double check supplies and secure our shuttle for the next day. The students take advantage of their last chance to use the restroom and waterproof gear.

Cliff says," River, let's get to the River."

I reply," Great idea. I like the way that sounds."

We start our way down the levee as students discuss its construction and how important the wetlands and floodplains are to the mammals,reptiles, amphibians and the benthic community of organisms. I start to realize they were very concerned with the health of the River and this trip was find signs of the River's health through animal diversity.

We leave the manmade levee, and turn on the natural levee, Crowley's Ridge. The cathedral-like canopy darkens as mammoth cottonwoods and basket oaks block the sun from the west causing the temperate deciduous forest to cool. Does cross the road in front of us being chased by Bucks starting an early rut. The east side of the road consist of old cypress forest with knees anchoring, while acting as lungs for the trees. Turkeys scramble across the road disappearing in the bluff.

Arriving at the confluence, we come together as a team to carry the canoe to the water. Trucks with trailers line the beach as fisherman take advantage of the great weather and hitting their favorite honey holes. We have lunch on the beach before we launch watching the tow boats pass and discussing our philosophies of coexisting with the barges.

One student asks, " How do you guys deal with the barges?"

I respond, " We give them the right of way!"

We load our canoes and head downstream towards the top of Prairie Point Towhead(see which locals call “Buck Island.” After high water, this sandbar exposes a giant fossil bed full of geodes, criniods, seashells, corals, and bones of ancient animals. We reach a small inlet immediately pass a wing dam dike and take a hour to explore. It pays off as two students find petrified bones that looked like mammoth or bison.

I asked, " Where did you find these?"

They both reply," They where just sitting on top!"

I smile and think, "We were here first."

Heading south towards the bottom of the island, we start to look for a good camping spots. Even though there are plenty of beautiful sandbars, we always go for flat sand, with plenty of firewood, and protection from wind . Thousands of white pelicans comb the shallow sandbars corralling and eating fish, not panicking as we paddled by. Cameras are out and everyone is amazed by the size of the creatures. Great blue herons and egrets are side by side cleaning the shallow pools of stranded fish. We continue on not wanting to disturb nature taking its course. Finally, we find a small cove and set camp. The cove is about four feet deep, perfect for swimming and wading. The girls immediately change into their swimsuits.

One yells, " I'm sleeping out tonight without my tent! "

They all agreed and headed for the water.

The tow boat traffic continues into the night as waves crash into the sandbars stranding various fish species on the bluffs of sand. A 30 pound smallmouth buffalo gets beached and I paddle out to land it. Perfect size for eating, so I plan to give it to Ellis Coleman as a present. I look up at the ladies in the group with long faces and realize they wanted me to set it free. So I look at its cute little lips and eyes and think to myself,

" today is your lucky day, gave her kiss and set her free."

The students continue to wade in the water while Cliff Ochs prepares a vegetarian stew with meat on the side for us carnivores. We enjoy our meal during a beautiful sunset, while gathering around fire talking and watching the stars fill the sky like clusters. We even sang happy birthday to Kendall, a young lady spending her twenty-first birthday on the Mississippi River.

Kendall boasts," I don't know anyone else on Facebook who spent their twenty first birthday on the Mississippi River, thanks guys!"

Another student shouts," Ole Miss won today!"

I smile knowing it's football season.

The next morning I lead the students on a morning hike into the interior of the island. The late july rise has the hardwood forest floor bare with little flora not having enough sunlight and a shorter growing season. I explain how these islands become a series of braided channels in high water and how grass carp and other vegetarians pick the island floor clean. The students are amazed at the water line in the trees. They study plants, insects, animal tracts and scat. They look for larva in the sandy blue holes to determine health of the River. They marvel at the eagles, hawks, pelicans hovering over this rich diverse ecosystem.

We load our canoes an head for Montezuma Island which will be our last stop before we take out. We paddle under the Helena Bridge and we discuss everything we experienced and come to a conclusion that the Mississippi River is in good health, but there is more we can due as river citizens to help maintain it's health. I explained how the floodplains and wetlands can hold ten thousand more species of plants and animals than the main channel and important it is to stop wetland and floodplain destruction. I discuss the New Madrid situation and how important it is to write and oppose this project.

We reach our landing and I discuss the importance of becoming a river citizens and our duties to protect and preserve this national treasure. The Mississippi River is the life-line of our country, so let's treat as such. Become a river citizen and consult the Rivergator and plan your excursion today.

Mark River

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. After attending Missouri Central State University, and becoming defensive back with the New York Giants, Mark left a career in professional football for the river. Mark is a writer for the Lower Mississippi River Dispatch and shares his intimate & nature-filled musings about river life on Big Island ( He is the 1 Mississippi Southern Region intern ( 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.

[Coincidentally, one of Dr. Och’s students Neal McMillin wrote a piece which appeared in this week’s Ole Miss paper the Daily Mississippian.]

Life on the Ole Mississippi

Daily Mississippian

Sept 24, 2013

Neal McMillin

As I sped by seven tow trucks early last gameday morning, I felt as giddy as a caffeinated first-grader wearing a zebra mask at the zoo. Chicken biscuit in hand, I was ready for a field trip.I had dumped the spiral notebooks from my backpack onto the floor, replacing them with a hammock, sunscreen, red swimsuit, Ole Miss water bottle, Chacos, toilet paper, a floppy-brimmed hat and the secret ingredients for a PB&J.

Dr. Cliff Ochs was taking our class on the Mississippi River to canoe down the Father of Waters. With Clarksdale-based Quapaw Canoe Company as our guides, we were to paddle 25 miles down the river past Helena, Ark., in a French voyageur-style cypress canoe. Time to escape to nature.

Caring for the environment while living from air conditioner to air conditioner seems often to be either a vague duty or a complete hassle. Forgetting nature during the daily grind is easy. We need a reminder of nature’s beauty. We need canoe trips. For one, Instagram sunsets cannot compare to the color palette on the river at dusk. Also, we need reminders of the great outdoor’s vitality to remain personally invested in the environment.

Nature can inspire in a moment. If you were to ask me why the river needs sustainable care, I’d quip, “For the pelicans.” From upstream, I could hear the rushing wings as the hunting birds swirled across the river. Like flying border collies, they corralled a great school of carp and proceeded to feast on the Asian delicacies. When we passed the flock in our canoe, the stuffed birds proudly watched us float on by. Like Walter Anderson, the reclusive Mississippi Gulf Coast watercolorist, I was amazed by the pelicans. They dispatched the invasive species of carp, the kudzu of the Mississippi River, with a fierce style worthy of the NBA’s new best mascot. From a biology perspective, I was thrilled, for healthy predators prove a healthy ecosystem.

The academic conclusion was really just a peripheral concern. The pelicans were beautiful. Am I making an excessive to-do about some avian creatures? Perhaps. Yet now I have a personal memory of the river. It is not about caring for the environment, whatever that cliche means. It is about protecting pelicans, both in honor of my memory and for the other paddlers to come.

Beyond the responsibility reminder, we need to “get out there” for our own benefit. Journeying by paddle power is a lesson on time and stress. Before we had so much as dipped a paddle in the water, we had a catastrophe. The Tahoe’s tires were spinning on the sand. In Oxford, the delay would have been maddeningly exasperating. Yet we were on river time. The gas pedals on a canoe are between your shoulder blades.

Rather than wearing ourselves out to hurry, we embraced a take-life-as-it-comes philosophy. The college pace conditions us to believe in the idea of lost time, but river time teaches that time is not lost but lived. When your watch is the sun, the tick-tock anxiety leaves.

On the river, preparation anxiety does not control. You cannot beat yourself up like we do in Oxford for, say, not studying enough. On the river you make do with what experience and supplies you have, no guilt allowed. On a portage, you realize the value of the pack light maxim within six steps. The Boy Scout motto “be prepared” does not mean to be over-prepared and over-burdened. Instead, be prepared to go without. Though in my room I thought I needed three pairs of shoes, my bare feet were the far better choice for the Mississippi mud.

After the river trip, I am convinced that I need to clean out some clutter from the school frenzy by regaining some margin. Be radical; go phoneless for an afternoon this week. Take breaks. After jumping into the river for a cool-off, my refreshed spirit could paddle that much faster. To my surprise, we covered the 25 miles quickly. With my classmates rowing as a team and the river’s five mph current, our canoe traveled much faster than the average car on Jackson Avenue during the lunch hour.

Often college-stress lies to us, suggesting that we are on our own. Never forget that your friends and family can row the river with you. The destination is closer than you think and prettier than a picture. I hope you see some pelicans on the way.

Neal McMillin is a senior southern studies major from Madison.


Lower Mississippi River

Water Trail

What are The Rivergator Celebratory Trips?

In November 2013 we’ll be running a series of multi-day expeditions to celebrate the opening of the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail from Caruthersville Missouri through Memphis to Vicksburg, Mississippi. By voyageur style canoe. No previous experience necessary, but must enjoy wilderness style camping and must be willing to paddle! We are reserving 4 seats on every segment for writers, photographers and any journalists who will help us share the story about the beautiful and dynamic Mississippi River and the Rivergator Water Trail describing it! Please contact John Ruskey, to reserve your seat, and for more information. November 4-8: Caruthersville to Memphis; November 12-15

Memphis to Helena; and November 18-22: Greenville to Vicksburg.

Rivergator 2013

celebratory trips:

November 4-8

Caruthersville to Memphis

November 12-15

Memphis to Helena

November 18-22

Greenville to Vicksburg

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:

What are The Rivergator Celebratory Trips?

In November 2013 we’ll be running a series of multi-day expeditions to celebrate the opening of the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail from Caruthersville Missouri through Memphis to Vicksburg, Mississippi. By voyageur style canoe. No previous experience necessary, but must enjoy wilderness style camping and must be willing to paddle! We are reserving 4 seats on every segment for writers, photographers and any journalists who will help us share the story about the beautiful and dynamic Mississippi River and the Rivergator Water Trail describing it! Please contact John Ruskey, to reserve your seat, and for more information. November 4-8: Caruthersville to Memphis; November 12-15

Memphis to Helena; and November 18-22: Greenville to


Lower Mississippi River Dispatch

brought to you courtesy of the:

Lower Mississippi River Foundation

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