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Lower Mississippi

River Dispatch

Vol 10 No 5c, Tuesday, May 13, 2014

"Leather Britches" Ernest Herndon joins the Rivergator Crew in Natchez (photo by Angelyn Herndon)

‘River Gators’ chart lower Mississippi mile by mile

Posted: Sunday, April 27, 2014 8:00 am by Ernest Herndon for the McComb Enterprise Journal

First in a series of articles on a Mississippi River canoe trip from Natchez to St. Francisville, La.

“Paddles up!” John Ruskey ordered his canoe crew. “Hoo-WOOO!”

Their shouts of farewell echoed off Natchez-under-the-Hill, then were swallowed up by the sound of rushing water as our 30-foot canoe swiftly approached the Mississippi River bridge, where brown current gnashed the pilings.

It was late morning on Wednesday, April 16, and we were headed to St. Francisville, La., 100 miles and several days downstream.

Now, I know from experience that no matter what I say, write or do, many people will insist that it’s crazy to canoe the Mississippi River. It’s useless for me to argue that Native Americans paddled it for millennia. Or that Ruskey, owner of Quapaw Canoe Co. in Clarksdale, has led trips down it for 16 years. Or that I have made a few trips on it over the years and written about them in the Enterprise-Journal.

Admittedly, the Mississippi River can be intimidating, especially when it’s approaching flood stage, as it was now. But it’s canoeable if you know what you’re doing, and these guys definitely did.

Ruskey, 50, in the stern, has led hundreds of trips down the river. He has also rafted most of the Mississippi and paddled the Missouri in a dugout canoe.

In the bow were two of his “river gators,” Mark “River” Peoples, 45, and Brax Barden, 39, along with former employee Chris “Wolfie” Staudinger, 25, of Metairie, La. Peoples is a former New York Giants defensive back and strong as all get-out. Barden is a retired Navy chief who races dragsters and canoes for fun. Wolfie writes for Canoe & Kayak and other magazines and is a natural on the river.

Also with us was free-lance writer of Stephanie Artz of Lake Village, Ark., a yoga and dance instructor who had been on a previous float with Ruskey and company.

Following us was a 23-foot Wenonah canoe piloted by outfitter Adam Elliott of Natchez carrying photographer Josh Hall and his writer wife Christie Matherne Hall, both of Country Roads magazine. Elliott, who just opened a Natchez branch of Quapaw Canoe Co., has paddled the entire Mississippi.

Ruskey had invited us writers along to document his “River Gator” project, a mile-by-mile description of the river from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico especially geared for paddlers ( Ruskey is halfway through the four-year task.

“The river is safe for paddling,” he declared. “And the River Gator is a new resource available for anyone who’s ever thought about the river, how to do it, when to do it, where to go.”

We slid past the bridge into calmer waters. At 30 feet long, 41/2 feet wide and weighing over 400 pounds, the handmade cypress wood-strip canoe, based on Voyageur design, handled the turbulence easily. Elliott in his lighter, sleeker Wenonah also had no difficulty.

Sure, the river is dangerous. Sure, it can kill you. But it’s a type of wilderness, and people venture into wildernesses everywhere.

Ruskey compares it to the Appalachian Trail since it transects the country from north to south.

“Every year we see more and more paddlers coming down the river long-distance, like the Appalachian Trail, and you see more local people using it,” he said.

Ruskey started Quapaw Canoe Co. with one Grumman canoe. Now he has five big wooden canoes and numerous smaller vessels, five full-time and 12 part-time employees, and offices in Clarksdale and Helena, Ark., as well as Elliott’s new Natchez outpost.

Ruskey has taken as many as 90 people on day trips and as many as 30 on multi-day outings. Customers range from school children to foreign tourists. The only requirement is a willingness to paddle.

We passed the Port of Natchez on our left, along with another public boat ramp. All the sandbars were underwater at this stage, but we found an island with some high ground and stopped for lunch.

The crew set up a table with a selection right out of a delicatessen. As an outfitter, Ruskey doesn’t stint on food or equipment. He uses top-of-the-line bent-shaft wooden paddles, cast-iron and enamel cookware, whitewater-guide life vests, high-quality tents, neoprene boots and, when necessary, wetsuits.

After lunch we dozed, chatted and walked around the island in the cool spring air. I stood on a bank and watched a pair of geese floating and clucking.

We were on river time: no more rushing.

After lunch we paddled along the back side of the island past willows and sycamores. Re-entering the main channel, we encountered a towboat pushing a line of empty barges upstream.

More than any other danger on the river, towboats cast terror into the hearts of people. The wakes thrown up by their big screws, or propellers, can be enormous, especially when they’re battling strong current, like now. But their waves usually turn into rounded swells, which a canoe rides over easily.

Some people think the safest strategy for floating the Mississippi

River is to hug the shore, but that’s not feasible for very far. The channel moves from side to side in bends, with eddy currents running upstream along the banks.

Plus, when the water is lower there are all sorts of jetties and other structures that will force you out into the current. And the main channel has more speed, which paddlers want.

The trick is to know the river, know your canoe, stay at a safe distance from towboats — or go with an expert like Ruskey or Elliott.

Enjoying the view from the loess bluffs above the mouth of Clark Creek near Fort Adams (photo by Braxton Barden)

Leather Britches: Paddlers explore islands, deal with towboat wakes

Posted: Sunday, May 4, 2014 8:00 am by Ernest Herndon for the McComb Enterprise Journal

Second in a series of articles on a Mississippi River canoe trip from Natchez to St. Francisville, La.

As we paddled down the Mississippi, we paused here and there to check out the sights, such as a monstrous cypress log which our guide, John Ruskey, clambered onto, and a creek flowing into the woods through fields of yellow rocket wildflowers where we all explored.

Exploring is a big part of the fun in canoeing the Mississippi River.

Ruskey pointed out features of interest like the Ellis Cliffs and St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge.

The river turned flat calm. Ruskey estimated that 75 percent of the time the Mississippi River is benign. Other times it can be extreme, so it pays to be prepared.

Two days before I joined the group, violent storms swept across the river south of Vicksburg, catching Ruskey and his crew a mile from their intended campsite. The wind swung the 30-foot canoe sideways and pushed it well off course before the paddlers regained control. A man with them in a sea kayak sprained his thumb and had to bail out of his boat.

Everyone got to shore in a cold, driving rain. They got a fire going and were soon warm and cozy.

Ruskey said the biggest practical threat on the river is sunburn. He recalled a German client who suffered heat exhaustion when he ignored Ruskey’s advice to rest in the shade on a broiling summer day.

We pulled over at a small cove on an island to make camp. In lower water there would be a mile-wide sandbar here, but now it lay under cold brown water.

There was plenty of dry ground, however. Dewberry vines blanketed the sandy soil among groves of trees. Wild hog wallows, trails and tracks were everywhere. Geese honked at us for disturbing their sanctuary.

The crew quickly built a fire and set up the camp kitchen, a huge metal box that opened out into a cupboard. Chris “Wolfie” Staudinger cooked up a pot of rice and a veggie stir-fry that made me think of Thai cuisine, all cooked in cast-iron pots on the fire.

Afterward, several of us walked across the island to watch the sunset from a sandy point. The sky changed from orange to rose-pink as a disgruntled flock of geese floated in midriver waiting for us to leave.

We eventually obliged them and returned to sit around the fire drinking ginger tea. Wolfie made it by slicing up a whole ginger root into an enamel kettle and boiling it for a while. For the rest of the trip he left the root in there, replenishing it with hot water as needed. It was especially good with honey.

We swapped outdoor stories as a beaver slapped the water offshore, expressing its own displeasure at our presence. It seems wildlife also believe in property rights.

Mockingbirds awakened me from a cottonwood tree beside my tent. A fire was already kindled. Beside it stood kettles of coffee, ginger tea and hot water.

Ruskey played and sang Delta blues on a guitar while the crew cooked up a giant omelet in a cast-iron Dutch oven.

After breakfast, Ruskey and Elliott held a ceremony to mark the beginning of their partnership at Quapaw-Natchez Outpost, which Elliott runs. Mark “River” Peoples beat a hand-drum and Wolfie burned a clump of white sage in a cleansing ritual that Ruskey, who was born and raised in Colorado, learned from Native Americans out west.

The drumbeat drew the attention of two guys from the far side of the island. We greeted them and learned they were New Orleans sea kayakers paddling from Natchez to Baton Rouge. They had heard of Ruskey, of course. Virtually anyone who paddles the Mississippi River has.

Back on the river, we heard radio traffic between towboat captains who spotted the canoes and kayaks. Ruskey and Elliott both carried radios, and Elliott contacted the captains about our positions.

Some towboat captains consider paddlers a nuisance and automatically assume they don’t know what they’re doing. That’s not the case with the Quapaw bunch.

Swells from prop wakes crossed the swift current, churning the water into chaos. I would have been nervous here in a two-man canoe, but the 30-foot Grasshopper rode easily over the waves.

Ruskey said he has never capsized the big boat, though he has flipped in a two-man canoe a dozen times. And his epic Mississippi River raft trip many years ago ended at Memphis when the raft crashed into a pylon, spilling Ruskey and his buddy into the torrent. Far from being deterred, Ruskey settled in Clarksdale and opened Quapaw Canoe Co.

“It struck something so deep within me I can’t seem to divert my attention from it,” Ruskey said of the Mississippi. “It’s made me happier than any other landscape.”

He went on to become an internationally recognized authority on Mississippi River paddling and has been featured in National Geographic, Outside and Readers Digest magazines, among many others. He’s formed a nonprofit organization, the Lower Mississippi River Foundation, to promote and preserve the river, and hosts a student apprenticeship program known as the Mighty Quapaws. He has taught workshops on building dugout canoes as far away as Washington State. He’s written articles, blogs, and a book about his Missouri River trip. And now he’s hard at work on the River Gator website, charting the Mississippi from St. Louis to the Gulf.

It seemed odd that Ruskey was putting so much effort into a project that he makes freely accessible to the public.

“It’s in the spirit of the river,” he explained. “It’s our river. It doesn’t belong to anyone.”

Elliott and his passengers Josh and Christie Hall left us at Waterproof, La., since they had an appointment to keep. Our 30-foot wooden canoe, the Grasshopper, drifted on.

To our east, bald eagles circled. Ruskey and his crew were adept at spotting any form of wildlife — beaver, hog, osprey, deer — or unusual feature of the terrain or forest.

We passed the mouth of the Homochitto River, but a towboat between us and it kept us from venturing up it. After lunch we rounded Jackson Point. This felt like home territory for me now.

We stopped at a high grassy knoll to camp. Ruskey set up his “river office” — solar-powered laptop computer, maps, camera. He wasn’t just sightseeing but carefully recording every feature of the river for his River Gator project.

Brax Barden brought back the intact skeleton of an 8-point buck, probably wounded during hunting season and never found.

While supper cooked, I sat on the bank over the river basking in the cool afternoon air, the sounds of birdsong and rushing water, the scents of woodsmoke and wildflowers, the pale sunlight shining through thin gray cloud. Logs drifted by, fish stirred the water, and towboats glided past in the distance.

I heard a splash as Ruskey jumped in the river. He swims in it daily, and has swum across the whole thing more than once. He even takes his 6-year-old daughter, Emma Lou, on these trips, and she, too, loves to swim in the river.

We ate spaghetti and meatballs and chatted by the fire. I fell asleep to the splash of the river where the current met the eddy line 150 yards offshore.

Friday was going to be a big day for me personally because we would be floating past areas that I have covered for this newspaper for 35-plus years. Usually I drive to those areas from the east. Now I would be canoeing past them on the west side.

"Leather Britches" fills the air with ditties and jigs on his Turkish banjolin (photo by Braxton Barden)

Canoe passes Buffalo, Lake Mary, Angola prison

Posted: Sunday, May 11, 2014 8:00 am by Ernest Herndon for the McComb Enterprise Journal

Last in a series of articles on a Mississippi River canoe trip from Natchez to St. Francisville, La.

We launched early into cool, fragrant morning air and slid around the back side of Shreve Island, where I have run trotlines with friends. We canoed past a channel to the hydroelectric plant in Louisiana, staying well away from the strong current pouring into it.

More channels led west to the Red and Atchafalaya rivers. Control structures divert one-third of the Mississippi down the Atchafalaya, said our guide, John Ruskey of Quapaw Canoe Co.

During the flood of 2011, I got to travel the Mississippi River here by boat with game wardens and fly over it in a private plane.

Now we crossed the river and coasted through flooded forest at the mouth of Buffalo River, a popular local fishing spot. The bluffs of Fort Adams rose directly beyond it.

We passed the mouth of Clark Creek, which flows from rugged Clark Creek State Park, known for its waterfalls. Farther on, we landed and hiked up knife-edged ridges with steep ravines and dramatic river overlooks.

The bluffs contained different plant species than those found at the lower riverside, such as mullein, pawpaw, oak, hickory and a toothache tree, also known as Hercules club, whose wedge-shaped knobs contain pain-deadening qualities.

We stopped on an island for lunch, then continued around a vast peninsula on the east side where the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is located. We had left the state of Mississippi and now had Louisiana on both sides. From the river there was little to indicate a prison, which was set well beyond the tree line.

Legend has it that the penitentiary was built here because the river is too treacherous for escapees to swim, but Ruskey said it’s no more dangerous here than anywhere else, and in fact is probably less so, since the river is 11/2 mile wide and makes a long, sweeping bend. But on land the prison is backed by the rugged Tunica Hills, which form a natural barrier.

Slow as the river seemed, we had been making 10 mph in the channel, 6 mph on average. Compare that with streams like the Bogue Chitto, where 2 mph is a typical canoeing pace.

In a patch of slow water, Ruskey and Christopher “Wolfie” Staudinger jumped out of the boat for a swim. The water temperature was in the upper 50s, but these guys were used to it. When they climbed out, we shared chocolate bars all around.

Below the prison, the final line of Tunica Hills stretched to the river’s edge. We stopped for a look-see.

I scampered up the steep, crumbling bank to the top 150 feet up. Here I found cedar, redbud and may apple. I followed the bluff line, pausing for spectacular views over the river.

A gorge full of water lay directly behind me. Ruskey and I followed an ancient, deep roadbed down and circled back to the river around a point from the cove where the canoe harbored.

Two towboats pushed noisily against the current a short distance away.

Ruskey scampered along the steep side of the dirt bluff. I was hesitant to take such a precarious route. Two men watched from a barge, and we exchanged waves.

Perhaps afraid to chicken out in front of an audience, I followed Ruskey’s lead along the side of the dirt bluff in my clumsy rubber boots. I’ll bet the men in the boat figured I was a reckless youngster, as opposed to someone well past the half-century mark.

I survived the scramble and rejoined the boat. The towboats plowed past, churning the cove into a jumble, but the waves had no effect on our sturdy 30-foot wooden vessel as we rode back into the current.

We paddled up a flooded ravine, which normally would have been dry. Before the trip I had asked Ruskey if the high water would affect us, and his cheerful response was typical: “This means we’ll be exploring more back channels, more oxbow lakes normally disconnected, etc. We’ll be able to make good distance with less paddling! I’m happy about it. You know part of the reason we’re doing this is to locate good campsites. Now we’ll know exactly which bars are out at flood stage.”

Back on the river, the Tunica Hills ended, replaced by a long line of willows. We saw an occasional camp and passed a couple of bayous on the east bank. Beside one stood a rustic church and what looked like a plantation house. A towboat captain had told us on the radio that this was called Little Hollywood, a set built for a movie and abandoned after the filming was over.

We didn’t stop to explore. Ruskey evidently prefers natural wonders to manmade ones.

Black clouds rolled out of the north. Thunder rumbled over the east bank. A cool wind blew from our left while sunshine warmed us from the right.

Ruskey predicted the rain would miss us, and he was right.

We landed in a grove of willow trees after a 45-mile day. In no time a fire was crackling and we had the gear unloaded. The sun going down directly across from us turned the river to molten silver. The air was cool, with few mosquitoes.

We were camped on a narrow sandy shelf backed by swamp. I played music on my banjo-mandolin, and John did a turn on the guitar. Then we ate steak and sweet potatoes followed by campfire and ginger tea.

After the long day I was tired and sore, and slept hard. On Saturday we had a mere 20 miles down to St. Francisville, where I was getting out, while the others continued to Baton Rouge.

We passed Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge to our left. I visited there in 2002 to see the national champion baldcypress tree. Otherwise the river was wide and slow, the only noise the quiet splash of our paddles.

Soon Ruskey pointed out the towers of the nuclear power plant and the new bridge at St. Francisville. As we coasted toward the old ferry landing, I could see my familiar white pickup truck where Angelyn was waiting.

“Paddles up!” Ruskey said. “Hoo-WOOO!”

Our shout of greeting echoed off the river bank.

“One more time,” Ruskey said. “Hoo-WOOO!”

The River Gators had arrived.

"Leather Britches" boards the canoe through horsetail at Tunica Hills (photo by John Ruskey)

“Leather Britches” Ernest Herndon is a talented writer, musician and all around river-rat naturalist. For more information about his many books, including the classics Canoeing Mississippi and Canoeing Louisiana, please go visit the Mississippi Writer’s Page:

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