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Lower Mississippi River Dispatch
No 268, Saturday, Dec 6th, 2014
Voyageurs Paddlng towards Teatable Bluff, Trail of Tears SP, Middle Mississippi River, RBD 67.5
(photo by Layne Logue)

The Mississippi River made the front cover of the International Journal of Wilderness -- including the most up-to date story you’ll ever find about our beloved river by endangered species biologist river rat Paul Hartfield -- AND in the same issue -- a story about the Rivergator Water Trail Project! Please click the below and enjoy the journey down the big river:

Rivergator Story with Photos:

Paul Hartfield Story with Maps and Photos:

Dec 2014 Front Cover:

The Wild Miles: A One-Thousand Mile Journey

Into the Gut of America

Looking at a map of North America you will inevitably be drawn to the bottom center of the continent where a meandering blue line broader than any other of the blue lines gracefully loops southward and empties into the Gulf of Mexico. It reaches out with long fingers and tentacles of other skinny blue lines that branch out eastwards and westwards from the Rockies to the Appalachians encompassing the second largest catchment basin in the world. Along the way this line carves elegant river bends and giant oxbow lakes. One of the loops goes twenty miles to make one mile. This enchanting blue line marks the Lower Mississippi River, the largest river on the continent. Its big muddy waters and wide floodplain create a paradise for paddlers, birders, and anyone else seeking the solace of the wilderness. Expansive swaths of green are seen parallel to the loopy blue line and indicate the extensive and healthy bottomland hardwood forests still surviving between the levees.

The origins of these waters are found upstream in America’s Heartland, St. Louis (Fig. 1), where the Upper Mississippi River joins with the Missouri River to form the Middle Mississippi River. The Middle Mississippi separates the Pawnee Hills from the Ozarks and then meets the green waters of the Ohio River at the southern tip of Illinois to form the Lower Mississippi. You can trace this mysterious curvy blue line deep into the gut of America, the Deep South, down to the Gulf Coast. This valley was once an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico, then a glacial floodplain, and later a thriving forested landscape of millions of acres. Even after it was settled, its trees chopped down, its back channels cut off and main channel vigorously maintained; even still the river rules the landscape with unimaginable power, annually rising and falling fifty vertical feet with water flow fluctuations of millions of cubic feet per second, which prepares the stage for an unlikely setting in wilderness travel.

The wonderful thing about the Lower Mississippi River is that it’s still wild! You will see some industry and agriculture between Cairo and Baton Rouge, but for the most part your experience will be big water, big forests, big sandbars, big bluffs and big skies. Does this sound like other wild places? Yes -- but it’s nothing but the muddy big river, the biggest river in North America, and the longest stretch of free-flowing waters in the lower 48 states.

There are 105 “Wild Miles” on the Middle Mississippi River between St. Louis and Cairo, Illinois, and 515 “Wild Miles” on the Lower Mississippi River between Cairo and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which means that 71% of the scenery viewed from canoes or kayaks paddling down that stretch of river looks & feels “wild” ( “Wild Miles” are the places along the river where nature predominates and little is seen of mankind save passing tows (and other river traffic) and maybe a tiny hunting camp or a single fisherman buzzing by in a johnboat. These are places where the landscape is filled with giant islands bounded by endless mud banks and sandbars, where the river is overseen by big skies and where the sun sets uninterrupted by buildings or wires. These are places where the big river predominates with wild beauty, each high water results in shifting sand dunes and re-made sandbars (Fig. 2). These are places where only deer and coyote tracks are seen along the sandbars and enormous flocks of shy birds like the white pelican and double breasted cormorant are comfortable enough to make landing for the night, and once endangered species like the interior least tern and pallid sturgeon have regained a foothold in an altered but predominantly natural ecosystem. These are places where it's dark and quiet at night, where the stars fill the skies like brightly shining jewels poured out on a dark purple velvet blanket, almost as thick & vibrant as the night skies of the Great Plains or the Rocky Mountains.

America has an opportunity to find the "wilderness within" by recognizing and preserving the Wild Miles in the center of the country. And it just so happens that the gigantic floodplain of the Mississippi River creates these Wild Miles. These places have been preserved mostly by neglect, by the power of the river, by its catastrophic rises and falls, and the danger of building anything within its floodplain. Moreover, in light of recent flood cycles and the declining population of the lower floodplain, this area is receiving attention as one of the best places to restore native bottomland hardwood forests, and re-open back channels with notches in the old dikes. Restored forest creates habitat for wildlife, improved water quality, a buffer to flooding, and is an important means of reducing the Gulf of Mexico's "dead zone," caused by nutrient runoff into the river.

The lower Mississippi River Valley was historically a vast expanse of bottomland and adjacent upland hardwood forests with scattered openings primarily created by fire, beaver, or large flood events by the Mississippi River and its tributaries. These openings were generally comprised of herbaceous moist-soil areas that created excellent waterfowl and other wetland wildlife habitat or giant switchcane that was almost impenetrable and an extremely important habitat component for a variety of wildlife species. Once covering 22 million acres in the Mississippi River Alluvial Plain, bottomland hardwood forests have decreased in extent to only 4.9 million acres. Extensive clearing for agriculture (i.e. soybeans, corn, or cotton) and urbanization are two of the primary reasons giant bald cypress and oak trees of pre-settlement times no longer exist. However, giant bald cypress and oak trees characteristic of yesteryear can still be seen on some of these sections of the Lower Mississippi River.

Rivergator Project

The Rivergator is a 4-year project to describe the Lower Mississippi River for modern day human-powered explorers, namely canoeists, kayakers, stand-up-paddleboards, and rafters. A very detailed written guide called the Rivergator: Paddler’s Guide to the Lower Mississippi is being developed for publication. The title Rivergator is derived from a national best-selling book called The Navigator. The Navigator was published in 1801 by Zadok Kramer, with twelve subsequent printings. The Navigator described the Mississippi Valley for pioneer settlers streaming out of the eastern United States in the first great wave of continental migrations that eventually led to the settling of the western U.S. Thomas Jefferson and other leaders were fearful that the French or the English would get there first. With the Lewis & Clark explorations and the introduction of the steamboat to the Mississippi River in 1812, Americans followed the big rivers up and down through the heart of the country, and The Navigator was their guide. In this spirit, I have adopted the name Rivergator with the hope that Americans will rediscover their “wilderness within,” the paddler’s paradise along the Lower Mississippi River and that the Rivergator will be adopted by successive generations of canoeists and kayakers and re-written as the river changes. Zadoc Cramer also invented the numbering system for Lower Mississippi River islands, a system that survives to this day.

The Rivergator is written by paddlers for paddlers (Fig. 3). It will open the river for local experienced canoeists who have always wanted to paddle the Mississippi River but didn’t know how or when or where to start, such as, canoe and kayak clubs, outdoor leadership schools, friends and families, and church groups and youth groups. It could be used by the Girl Scouts for a week-long summer expedition down the Middle Mississippi below St. Louis, or a group of Boy Scouts working on their canoe badge in the Memphis area. You could read the Rivergator during the winter months from your home and by spring snowmelt you could be making your first paddle strokes on a life-changing adventure down the Mississippi River. Rivergator will help you get there if you’re a long-distance canoeist who started at Lake Itasca, or a kayaker who is coming south after paddling the length of the Missouri River from Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains. You could be a stand-up paddle boarder who put in at the Great River Confluence of the Allegheny and Mongahela Rivers to follow the Ohio down to the Mississippi. On the Lower Mississippi all of the rules of the river change as the waters get bigger, more unruly, more difficult to predict, and tougher to paddle. No more calm waters contained behind the locks and dams. Hullo big towboats pushing huge fleets of barges!

Regardless of what you paddle, the Rivergator will you help you find the essential landings and the obscure back channels that you would otherwise miss. It will help you safely paddle around towboats, and choose the best line of travel to follow around the head-turning bends and intimidating dikes, wing dams, and other rock structures. It will identify which islands to camp on and which to avoid, and where the best picnic spots are found and where blue holes form. It will lead you to places of prolific wildlife and surprising beauty (Fig. 4). It will help explain some of the mysterious motions of the biggest river in North America. It’s written for canoeists and kayakers, but is readable enough to be enjoyed by any arm-chair adventurers. The river is the key to understanding the history, geography, and culture of the Mid-South. It’s the original American highway, migration route, freight route, newspaper route, and trade route. But it’s also a church, a sanctuary, a playground, a classroom. The river is the rock star, the Rivergator is merely a guide to help you interpret and enjoy the songs of the river!

So what is it like actually paddling on the Lower Mississippi River (Fig. 5)? What is the experience from water level, over the gunwhales of your canoe or over the deck of your kayak? By the end of 2014, we have completed 926 miles of the 1155 miles total of the Rivergator, covering the wildest of the wild river from St. Louis down through Ozark bluffs, down the Pawnee Hills, through the Missouri Bootheel, along the Chickasaw Bluffs into Memphis, through the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta to Vicksburg, and down the Loess Bluffs/Louisiana Delta to Baton Rouge. In 2015 we will add in the coastal reaches down the wild Atchafalaya, the river of trees, and the industrious “chemical corridor,” the only Lower Mississippi River section with no “wild miles”.

An excerpt from the Rivergator:

Vicksburg to Baton Rouge -- 207 miles of remote wild river with very few landings and lots of deep woods, ever larger and larger loopy-loops of river, and giant islands commanding the channel which split the big river into its many lacerated chutes and alternate routes. Spanish moss draped cypress palmetto bottom forests and magnolia viney draped hillsides are gothic reminders that you are descending into the sub-tropics. This is the homeland of great native societies as honored at Grand Village of the Natchez and Poverty Point Historic Site, and was the superhighway of the Quapaw, the Houma, the Tunica, the Natchez and all of the other great pre-columbian civilizations. The Atchafalaya splits off below Fort Adams to join the Red and Ouchita Rivers with one third of the daily average flow of the Mississippi, providing an alternate route for ocean-going paddlers. The river here curves through extensive Louisiana bottomland hardwood forests with striking prominences of Loess Bluffs to the east at Vicksburg, Grand Gulf, Bondurant, Natchez, Fort Adams, Angola, Port Hudson and Baton Rouge. Fantastically rich back channels abound during higher water levels following ancient braided channels in and out of chutes, parallel drainages, tributaries and oxbow lakes notably at Yucatan, Rodney, Old River/Vidalia, Glasscock, Lake Mary, Raccouri, Profitt Island and Devil’s Swamp. During low water the sandbars grow exponentially to become the size of ocean beaches and are important habitat for waders and waterfowl of all types including wood storks, anhinga and the roseate spoonbill. The interior least tern has successfully recovered and is being delisted as an endangered species because of these healthy sandbar habitats, while endangered pallid sturgeon are recovering their numbers in the back channels, many of which have been re-opened through the LMRCC notching project. Spectacular birding is found at St. Catherine Creek WMA, and the co-champion North American bald cypress can be seen at Tunica Hills. More than anywhere else along the Lower Mississippi the feeling of the ancient, endless, brooding, bottomland hardwood jungle pervades along this section of river and makes for safari-like adventures for the few who brave it in human-powered vessels. Wild boars over run many of the islands and Alligators abound in all tributaries and slow-running channels. Invasive grass carp leap over the bow of your canoe, and slap your shoulder while you slap the water with your kayak blade in terror of their surprising antics.

The Floating Sensation

When traveling on the river be sure to stop paddling at some point and enjoy the sensation of floating along in the meeting of the big rivers. If the wind is contrary you might only be able to enjoy this for one minute. But on a calm day with no tows to navigate around you can float for miles. Floating with the flow of the river will enable you to best appreciate the dimension and scope of this landscape as you silently roll over the curvature of the earth and are buoyed along by the big waters (Fig. 6). With a little imagination you can dwell upon all of the places this water has travelled from to reach here and visualize the big bends upstream and downstream that come together at this location along the “wilderness within” the southern U.S.


For detailed reading and photos concerning paddling the wilderness of the Lower Mississippi River visit For more information about the Wild Miles go to

JOHN RUSKEY is a canoe builder, river guide and author of the Rivergator; email: He founded the Wild Miles and is Executive Director of the Lower Mississippi River Foundation.

For full story with photos and maps please click the below:

Story with Photos:

Dec 2104 Issue Front Cover:! Canoe! watercolor 8x11.jpg
“I Saw Three Canoes
Come Sailing In…”

Winter Solistice Sandbar Bonfire & Free Canoe Rides on the River!

At Montzuma (Delta) Landing

Mississippi River Sandbar

Saturday, Dec 20th, 10am-5pm

Dear Friends: We Quapaws want to say “thank you” to Clarksdale, Helena, and all of the good people of Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, and elsewhere, coast to coast, and around the world -- all of you who helped make 2014 a groundbreaking year for us -- and for the future of nature tourism on our beloved Mississippi River!

(And just to think that about a year ago we were really unsure whether we would make it through the winter... or not... and now we have found a permanent home… Well, we always knew we had a home on the river… but now we have found a home in the state tax code... The river of course flows on and on, forever flowing, she “don’t say nuthin’, she must know sumthin’…”)

Saturday, Dec 20th: 10am-5pm. Quapaw Solstice Celebration and Christmas Party at Montezuma (Delta) Landing.

Free 2-Hour Canoe Rides in our big voyageur canoes on the Mississippi River (weather dependent). Bonfire. Come dressed for the weather, lots of warm layers, warm boots, gloves, mittens, scarves, dress like you’re going on a hayride. We’ll have a roaring fire and hot spiced cider, gnger tea, and cocoa. Please bring your own shish-ka-bobs, hot dogs, or marshmallows, or etc.... Bring whatever else you want to roast -- or toast! We’ll have pfds and paddles for the river. All ages welcome. Under 18 must be accompanied by parent or guardian. Subject to the weather. This will be cancelled if it's raining, sleeting or snowing! Write or call 662-627-4070 for confirmation or cancellation.

Where is Montezuma (Delta) Landing?

Montezuma Landing (also known as Delta Landing) is the public access on the East bank of the Mississippi River 2 miles north of Friars Point. If you're coming by river, it's LBD at mile 654.7. By land it's equidistant between Helena and Clarksdale. Access from the levee. For map and directions, go to google maps:

Unique Hand-Crafted River Gifts

We are now offering unique hand-crafted River Gifts, written, painted, produced and packaged by John Ruskey and the Mighty Quapaws to help support the mission of the Lower Mississippi River Foundation! You won’t find these anywhere else (except maybe the Delta Cultural Center in Helena or Cat Head Music & Arts in Clarksdale).

We have Gift Certificates for our high-quality, custom-guided river trips: such as daytrips for couples, overnights for friends, long weekends for families, and full moon trips. Full color gift certificate printed according to your trip and mailed out before Christmas! Write to for details.


For online viewing and selection, please go to the Rivergator Map Shop at:


St. Louis to Caruthersville 18 x 28” poster

Rivergator: Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

$10 each (New this year: Hot off the press!)

Vicksburg to New Orleans 18 x 24” poster

Rivergator: Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

$10 each (New this year: Hot off the press!) poster.jpg

St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico 18 x 24” poster

Rivergator: Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

$10 each (Our base map for the Water Trail) Gator Painting by John Ruskey.jpg

Helena to Greenville 18 x 24” poster

Rivergator: Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

$10 each (including the mouth of the Arkansas)

Big Island Circumnavigation 18 x 24” poster

Annual Learning Adventure for KIPP Delta Schools

$10 each (Biggest Island in between the coasts!)

(All prices include 7% MS tax)

For posters: Pickup at our Clarksdale location, or we can ship. Standard handling and priority shipping US Mail add $10/order. Overseas orders add $20. Payment by check or Paypal. Email order to for completion. Thank you and Many blessings from the Mighty Quapaws!



These books are hand-bound and stapled with love and care by the Mighty Quapaws, one at a time.

(Note: All writing is available FREE OF CHARGE at, but you might want your own hand-bound copy signed by author for your winter reading enjoyment. Full of river stories, adventures, and advice, most of it useful!)


For online viewing and selection, please go to the Rivergator Map Shop at:

Caruthersville to Memphis

2013 by John Ruskey

89 pages 8.5 x 11


Memphis to Helena

2012 by John Ruskey

80 pages 8.5 x 11


Helena to Greenville

2011 by John Ruskey

95 pages 8.5 x 11


Greenville to Vicksburg

2013 by John Ruskey

93 pages 8.5 x 11


Canoe! Canoe!

2006 by Michael F. Clark and John Ruskey; Re-printed in 2014 one at a time, and spiral bound with copy of original watercolor Canoe! Canoe! painting.

8.5 x 11, 173 pages full color cover with dozens of B&W photos, maps, and river drawings from the 2004-2006 Scott Mandrell and Churchill Clark "Now We Paddle for the People" Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Re-enactment Expedition, including the Columbia, Snake, Clearwater, Yellowstone, Middle Miss and "Big Muddy" Missouri Rivers. And epic adventure in dugout canoes.

$100 each

(All prices include 7% MS tax)

For books: Pickup at our Clarksdale location, or we can ship. Standard handling and priority shipping US Mail add $15/order. Overseas orders add $25. Payment by check or Paypal. Email order to for completion. Thank you and Many blessings from the Mighty Quapaws!

Special Deal on I AM COYOTE!

Book: I AM COYOTE: Readings for the Wild

2014 Edited by Jay Schoenberger

275 pages 5 x 8


Free Shipping on Book: I AM COYOTE

(Including Rivergator Excerpt!) For free shipping, go to the website and be sure to enter the coupon word: “ruskey”

Most know the Mississippi River as the powerful, coffee-colored waterway that cuts through the center of America, or as the stomping grounds for Mark Twain’s indelible characters. But it is also a viable wilderness thriving right under our noses. In pulling together writings from Muir, Thoreau, Roosevelt, Rivergator, and many, many others, I AM COYOTE makes a strong bid for the ultimate river island campfire anthology.


March 2015: Atchafalaya River Expedition

From Three Rivers WMA to the Gulf of Mexico

via Simmesport, Krotz Springs, Flat Lake and Morgan City with side trips down mysterious side channels and bayous, and fantastic birding, amphibians, and exploration along the way!

April 2015: Rivergator Expedition:

Baton Rouge to the Gulf of Mexico

including Plaquemine, New Orleans and Venice (bring your haz mat suits and respirator)

October/November 2015:

Rivergator Completion Celebration Expedition:

St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico

1180 miles on the Middle and Lower Mississippi River! Start: Missouri River Confluence. End: salty waters of the Carribean.! Canoe! watercolor 8x11.jpg
Lower Mississippi River Dispatch
brought to you courtesy of the:
Lower Mississippi River Foundation
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