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Lower Mississippi River Dispatch

Vol 9 No 12a, Wednesday Dec 4, 2013 Base Mapdropbox.jpg

Mark River Rivergator Journal:

Caruthersville to Memphis

Wildlife Assessment

We drive through the Chickasaw National Wildlife Refuge just south of the mouth of the Obion River headed towards the access ramp. As we unstrap and reload the boat, a commercial fisherman returns from the Mississippi River with a hard day’s catch. The boats are overflowing with various species of fish. Buffalo, grass carp, and the four species of catfish -- flatheads, channel, bullheads, and blue -- all sprawled over the boat and hanging out of the makeshift live well. We marvel at the catch when the fisherman picked up his prize catch which was a four foot long catfish.

I think to myself, "this River is so giving."

The Mississippi River is one of the most productive fisheries in the world. It has sustained many cultures of the past and is still producing today.

The fisherman says," The reason you don't see many commercial fishermen anymore is because our society frowns upon hard work."

We say our goodbyes and launch our boats and find a great campsite just around the bend at Tamm. We wake with the sun and I explore the beaches and landscape for evidence of wildlife. I see tracks of raccoons, coyotes, bobcats, deer, turkey, beaver and otters. I even found more beaver scat to add to my budding collection. During the night I heard various owls dueling and matching calls from the tree-line and across the River.

We head downstream towards Sunrise Tow when we see two immature bald eagles soaring high above the tree-line.

Driftwood comments, "They're showing us the way."

In the late 1960's, bald eagles where nearly extinct due agricultural practices involving the chemical DDT. The chemical runoff infiltrated our waterways, contaminated the benthic community of aquatic creatures, invaded the fish that feed off these microorganisms, and sneaked into the mature breeding populations of the bald eagles. The result was eggs laid with soft shells and the hatchlings dying prematurely. This occurrence was the deciding factor in banning DDT and creation of the Clean Water Act of 1972.

By the end of this Rivergator Expedition we had seen nine bald eagles. This is evidence of a healthy Mississippi River and its fish population.

We head towards the first Chickasaw Bluff as huge flocks of geese fly over. All species of ducks make their annual commute. Great blue herons, egrets, and cormorants take flight around every bend. Large flocks of white pelicans corral fish in the shallows while others fly high in the air in their mating configuration. Red-tailed hawks and Mississippi Kites soar in the air. Marsh hawks swoop between trees searching for unsuspecting prey. We even see an osprey, a first for me, on the Mississippi River.

One of my biggest surprises was the abundance of exotic butterflies and the large population of grasshoppers on the islands and in the grasslands. This must be great for all the migrating birds and waterfowl.

Our third day was raining and cold all day. Only a few eruptions in the water by Asian carp, but they seemed to sluggish and slow, due to the weather, to do their usual acrobatics.

We ended the trip with a wonderful campsite at the bottom end of Brandywine, twelve miles from Memphis. The night was beautiful as we see the "M" in the Memphis bridge in the horizon. The lights from the city pulsated like a heartbeat. The view is one of my favorites.

We wake the next morning in great spirits , but sad that it's our last day together on the water. I stare out at the River taking mental photographs for later processing when I see three heads bobbing up and down in the eddy created by a wing dike. It's a family of otters. They curiously check us out from a distant as photographers try to catch them in picture. It was a welcoming sighting for our last day and from the look of things, the Mississippi River is as resilient as ever and forever blessing us with abundant life and memories. Let's continue to protect and preserve this great River for generations to come. Go to and plan your trip, and start your relationship with our national treasure today.

-Mark River

Why Paddle The Mississippi? — Part 2:

International Appeal

The River Gator crew celebrates the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail in three parts:

From: Canoe & Kayak Magazine Online

By Wolf E. Staudinger

On the second River Gator celebratory excursion, John Ruskey and crew were two bends south of Memphis when he looked toward shore and said, “Huh. That looks like a raft.” A white plastic chair and some buckets sat between bare uprights, and it looked from a distance like the remnants of a party. We landed and saw it was indeed a raft: rows of driftwood longs lashed neatly together around landscaping fabric and plastic bottles. Ruskey thought it might have been “the German.” There was gossip in the Memphis river-rat community that a mysterious German had been camped beneath the I-40 bridge, steadily working on a raft made only of beaver sticks, discarded bottles, wire, and other gifts of the river. One morning a few weeks back, he and his raft were gone, and no one saw him again.

As strange as the circumstances were, even more remarkable is the fact that 1.3 million people live on the banks of the Mississippi River in Memphis and few of them would dare to stick a toe in. Yet this raftsman flew all the way around the world to make his break on their river.

Ruskey is familiar with this international amazement (and fearlessness) of the Mississippi. In 2009, he built two new 34-foot stripper canoes to guide a German Public Media crew on a canoe-maran-style raft from St. Louis to New Orleans. In fact, the very vessel that took us from Memphis to Helena, Ark., was built on an island north of the border in Lake Superior. And through the chop of last week’s windy days, John stood at the tiller of the 32-foot, voyageur-style York boat named Annie, built for Canadian adventurer Brett Rogers’ documentary series called Old Man River Project.

International folk tend to see the Mississippi River the way that Twain saw it, as a “remarkable river.” He writes in the first chapter in Life on the Mississippi: “Considering the Missouri, its main branch, it is the longest river in the world—four thousand three hundred miles.” He goes on to say, “The area of its drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey.”

As the smokestacks and harbor tows of Memphis disappeared behind the trees, Ruskey was asked why so many Americans had such a fear of the river. He said, “It’s misunderstood and misrepresented … You know, the Industrial Canal of America.”

Mark Kalch, an Aussie writer and adventurer who plans to go source to sea on each continent’s longest river system, wrote about a similar perspective that outsiders have of the Amazon. “(The Amazon basin) stands for an impenetrable, remote green jungle, uncontacted tribes and limitless variations of animal life. Though the mysteries of the jungle remain, the river’s reality does not quite match the posters. Boats of all persuasions ply this watery highway, everything from pirogues and putt-putting wooden skiffs to large passenger ferries and ocean-going tankers.”

As Annie rounded Buck Island, north of Helena, an osprey raced over the tree line. Several months earlier, a flock of thousands of white pelicans rested on the upper edge of the island as John led a group of Tanzanians down the river. The ecstatic group erupted into a song about Mount Kilimanjaro in five-part harmony. Ruskey compared the river and the mountain, saying “They’re both the biggest on the continents.” And, far from industrial afterthoughts, he compares them to temples, “The wild places on the earth inspire music, poetry. They inspire painting… reverence.”

Ruskey hopes the River Gator can lead more Americans back to their wildest big river, the way a family of Argentinians not long ago let their children play in the pools of water on Buck Island. Ruskey says they wondered why there wasn’t anyone else on the island; “It was a beautiful fall afternoon, a Sunday, cool enough to keep the mosquitoes at bay, warm enough for children to swim in blue holes and bury themselves in the sand.

“Why don’t Americans love their river with the same appreciation?”

Click HERE to read the first installment in Why Paddle the Mississippi — Part 1: The Bluffs

Why Paddle the Mississippi? — Part 1:

The Bluffs

Mapping the Lower

Mississippi Water Trail

By Wolf E. Staudinger

When people in the South say someone “showed out” the night before, there was probably dancing involved—more than likely, hard dancing.

Showing out is exactly what the Mississippi River did for us last week. On the first of three extended paddling trips to celebrate the newly opened sections of the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail, the big river strutted her stuff, got a little messy, and at the end, she landed on her feet and made it all look elegant. She showed out so hard, with her giant catfish, lawless islands, brutal wind, and water covered in early morning steam, that Tom Charlier, a veteran environmental journalist in Memphis, told outfitter and river trail mastermind John Ruskey, “I’ve been on a lot of trips on the river, but this has been the best by far.”

Ruskey has been writing the online guide, which he calls The River Gator, for the last two years. In a 34-foot, cypress-strip canoe, Ruskey, along with his crew, a couple of journalists, a profligate, and a priest, paddled 81 miles of the northernmost part of the trail, which stretches from Caruthersville, Mo., to Mud Island in Memphis. The weeklong trip started out big, with a commercial fisherman holding up a catfish the size of a shark. Then there was cold wind and raindrops in the stew. And then there were bluffs.

Ruskey calls this stretch of river “The Chickasaw Bluffs” for the three cliffs of red loess mud that begin rising out of the water 50 miles upriver of Memphis. He describes the bluffs in The River Gator:

“For an unsuspecting paddler it’s something like driving across the Great Plains and seeing for the first time the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains rising heavenward. For a floodplain resident who has never witnessed the bluffs in their raw state, you might experience vertigo. You will be filled with a strange feeling of not knowing where the heck you are, so foreign is the landscape. The bluffs keep growing and growing until you reach their base where they fill most of the southern sky in a roiling collision of colorful earth-tones, mostly yellows, oranges and reds...

… Adding to the thrill of this exotic atmosphere is a thick kudzu jungle that covers much of the cliff-side wherever it has been able to gain a perch, but also where it has consumed whole trees, filled shallow valleys, and created a green kingdom that could have come right out of the Tolkien’s Middle Earth.”

Charlier had never seen the bluffs as an unsuspecting paddler, rocked and nudged in a canoe by the gurgles of a big river. On Day Three, we landed at the foot of the second bluff and explored the bizarre landscape. In a flagrant affront to water and wind and gravity, a three-story column of mud sticks up in the air and holds a tree trunk in his cleft, like it’s twirling a baton. John Gary (the good profligate) told us about a time he had camped in the area: Two men in a johnboat had given his group a young wild hog, which they skinned and slow-cooked. Then that night, he told me, “These two love-birds we were with, they tried to set their tent up apart from everyone else—you know—but there isn’t too much space for that.” He pointed to the sliver of craggy ground that abuts the steep cliff. “In the middle of the night, we hear a big crashing sound. Boom. I come out of my tent and see the two of ‘em, naked, hauling their entire tent away from the bluff, scared shitless.”

The constant grind of eddies, sped up by high water, carve holes from the loamy walls of the bluffs, and in low water they calve under their own weight. The part where we stood juts boldly into the channel like a weir, and it takes a brutal left hook from a hard curve of the river. The river wants nothing more than to blaze a hole through the mud and quicken its path to Memphis. Gary looked up at the cliff, nodded, and said, “Get it while you can.”

On the final morning, Tom and I paddled together in a two-man Wilderness Systems Northstar toward the giant glass pyramid that flanks the Memphis skyline. He told me about his news stories, how the rice farmers in eastern Arkansas are draining aquifers at alarming rates to flood their fields. The bridges need to be braced for the threat of earthquakes. But the river, he said, is getting healthier. “As more and more people are kayaking out there and standup paddleboarding and canoeing, they’re paying more attention to it.”

And that’s the ultimate goal with The River Gator: for the beauty to stay beautiful. And it can only happen if people know it’s there.

Click HERE to read more about the River Gator effort to open the longest riverine paddling trail in the continental U.S., and stay tuned for the next installment from the next trail section

Why Paddle the Mississippi? - Intro

A look at the River Gator project

to map America's longest riverine water trail

Canoe & Kayak Magazine Online

By Wolf E. Staudinger

When he brings people to his playground on the Mississippi River, John Ruskey, at right, likes to say, “The river is the rockstar here. We’re just her roadies.” But in most American minds, she’s a messy rockstar. She has a worn, faded, and even dangerous sort of celebrity that makes nervous parents cover the eyes of their children.

For 15 years, though, Ruskey has tried to clean that image up with a variety of strategies. Primarily, he guides fantastic voyages on the real river, with her wild forests and long, white, “Caribbean” sandbars. He also paints the river. He educates kids on the river. He sings songs about the river.

Then he began writing the river. He finds himself midway through The Rivergator: The Lower Mississippi Water Trail. And on Monday, he shoved off from Caruthersville, Missouri, for a 123-mile paddle to Memphis. It’s the first of three excursions to celebrate the addition of 286 new miles onto the water trail this year. In 2015, when the trail finally stretches from St. Louis to the Head of Passes below New Orleans, it will be the longest riverine water trail in America, and, he hopes, it will help change the way we think about North America’s greatest river.

The River Gator project to build a paddler’s guide to the Lower Mississippi Water Trail is now live at New 2013 feature include full-color maps, hundreds of new photos, and in-depth descriptions of the Middle and Lower Mississippi River, as the guide now covers 413 miles of the Lower Mississippi from the Caruthersville Harbor Mile 850 to the Mouth of Yazoo River in Vicksburg Mile 437. A handy Reference Index also offers quick access to any landing, town, island, back channel, or points of interest along the way.

As the River Gator dives into the first of its three November trips to mark the expansion of the trail, which Ruskey describes as “the longest free-flowing water trail in the continental United States, over 1155 miles from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico (including the Middle Miss from the Missouri River confluence),” the outfitter put words around the path of the mighty river as only he can in his latest Lower Mississippi River Dispatch:

“Swirling south in giant meandering loops, she dives into the verdant and fantastically fertile Mississippi Delta, mind-boggling swaths of muddy landscapes … This is the land that gave birth to the Delta Blues, and was once the cotton kingdom of the world … she carves elegant S-curves through deep woods … Her forest was once America’s Amazon, millions of acres of deep woods now removed for farmland … Coming to you from the Pawnee Hills, the Alleghenies, the Kentucky Bluegrass, down through the Missouri Bootheel and along the fantastically candy-colored Tennessee Chickasaw Bluffs, flowing past the mouth of the wild Arkansas River (more bears than humans), and into the luxuriant Louisiana Delta … Here she swells to fullness and proudly ambles along through bottomlands, batture and battlefields … connecting cities, states, public lands, festivals and all of the people and businesses found along her way.”

Lower Mississippi River Dispatch

brought to you courtesy of the:

Lower Mississippi River Foundation

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