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Lower Mississippi River Dispatch No 400

"America's Great, Misbehaving River
- and its Walled-In Wild"

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Rivergator Update: We have been resupplying this week. Returning to river tomorrow at Helena, AR. Want to come say hullo, and shake hands with the Rivergator crew? Or — paddle with us for one day? See below for details on both!

Meet & Greet

Tomorrow, in Helena, AR (Good Friday, April 14th)

11am at Quapaw Canoe Company 107 Perry St

— or —

12noon at the Helena Harbor Boat Ramp

(downtown harbor, over the levee from the King Biscuit Stage)

You never know who you'll encounter in the Helena Harbor!

Big Canoes on Buck Island (John Ruskey)

Also: Tomorrow: Open Seats for Daytrip! We have a few open seats in the big canoe if you want to join the expedition for a one-day adventure from Helena Harbor to Old Town Bend. See below for details:

Tomorrow: Day-trip Good Friday, April 14th. Fundraiser for the Rivergator Expedition. Today's adventure is in partnership with Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. You can paddle with the intrepid explorers making the big expedition from St. Louis to the Gulf! No previous experience necessary, but must wear life jackets and be willing to paddle. Meet at 11am on Good Friday at the Quapaw canoe base in Helena. (Quapaw Canoe Company - Helena, 107 Perry St, Helena, AR, 72342). Park your vehicle there and join trip. See below for what to pack and what we provide. Trip runs from Helena Harbor to Old Town Bend (near Elaine), with stops at islands along the way for picnicking and exploring. We will have you back to your vehicle between 4 and 5pm. $150/each includes everything for the day, guiding, outfitting, lunch and shuttle. You can pay by check at location, or we can bill you via PayPal. Contact for confirmation.

321 miles of the Mississippi River along Arkansas' eastern border, and Helena sits in the center of it all! (Watercolor by John Ruskey)


Expedition Film-Maker Chris Battaglia (Magique) has created a new website for the expedition. Check it out at:

Wild Confluence (John Ruskey)

"America's Great, Misbehaving River - and its Walled-In Wild"

Now it’s turn for a new voice to share his unique perspective and fresh stories from the expedition. Keep reading below for the journals of our expedition chronicler, Boyce Upholt. Boyce's participation in this section of river is sponsored in part by Visit Clarksdale. Watercolor paintings by expedition artist, John Ruskey. You can see all of Boyce's journals, and a lot more, on his website called Between the Levees. Link below.

The Coahoma County portion of the Rivergator made possible with the partnership of Visit Clarksdale!

Boyce Upholt: Between the Levees

"America's Great, Misbehaving River - and its Walled-In Wild"

Voyageur Keeping Journal (John Ruskey)

The Journal

Day 20: To build a campsite on the river

April 8, 2017

Have the paddler in the bow jump our first and guide your vessel into shore. Tie off while you unload; once the weight is lightened, pull the vessel clear (the towboat wakes have been known to steal a canoe).

Collect firewood: the driftwood chewed clean` by the beavers works best. Start a fire: arrange the logs so that they lie parallel to the vector of the wind. Boil a pot of river water, so that come morning after one more boil it will be clean enough to drink. (Coffee is as important here as in the workaday world).

Select a site for your tent, upwind from campfire smoke. If weather is coming, take shelter in the trees. If you roll on your side, remember the old Navajo trick: dig a small, hip-sized divot atop at the center of where you will pitch your tent.

Cook well, eat better, enjoy the fire and the coming of the night. If weather is approaching, be sure that your gear is secure. Enjoy your hard-earned sleep.


I own a 170-liter bag that’s made of heavy-duty vinyl and keeps its contents dry even if submerged. I’ve learned to pack so that the items I want most lie on top.

Dry footwear, then -- a happy luxury after a 12-hour day in soggy neoprene boot., The towel with which I’ll clean the mud from my toes. My duffel bag, which should never be far, in case the weather shifts and demands a change of clothes. My tent and tarp and poles; the rainfly is separate, below those, contained in a sleeping-bag stuff sack (the nights when it’s not needed are the nights when I am blessed). Sleeping pad. Travel pillow. And stuffed loose at the bottom, my sleeping bag.


Camped on Buck Island, we will be in Helena, Ark., tomorrow, at which point we begin a five-day layover, since we’re so close to home. Shower, laundry, mattress: all these glories await. And their proximity has me contemplating this life out of a suitcase (or, in my case, a drybag).

To get where we’re going takes -- in the most literal sense -- work. We are applying force over distance, stroke after stroke after stroke.

But out there in the other work, the real world, I guess -- though if you stay out here long enough you begin to wonder which world is more real -- to get where you’re going takes something else. Hassle, mostly, I think. There are lines to wait in, gas tanks to fill; tickets for scanning, identification for scrutiny. By the time you get to your hotel room, all you want to do is heave your bag in a corner and lay back on the bed.

I’ve had those weeks before, where day after day it’s one more bland and plastic hotel room, one more flight, one more hour of squinting into the high beams of the traffic driving against me. When I have those weeks, I’m always ready to be home.

And don’t get me wrong: I’m excited to be back to the warmth and comfort of four walls and electric sockets and loved ones and the animals who adore me. But out here -- with my bed unfurled above the sand and below the stars, and listening to the wash of the water -- to say I miss home would be wrong. Most of the time I feel that I’m home already.

Cat Island, Venus, Towboat, Terns (John Ruskey)

Day 18: Many rivers to cross

April 6, 2017

We’re “socked in” for another day on Deans Island, with more heavy winds forecast for the afternoon (though with the sun and calm this morning, the coming weather remains hard to believe). I’ve spent some of our down time, paging through a printed edition of the Rivergator. It’s been a reminder that I don’t often enough restate that this document is the heart and purpose of this trip. The expedition is intended to celebrate its completion, and spread the word of its existence. I've been lucky enough to come along in pursuit of my own, separate (but intertwined) project.

Through the first two weeks of the paddle, at the behest of “Big Muddy” Mike Clark, we’d often have readings from the “Book of Twain” -- Life on the Mississippi, of course -- around the campfire, or while we idled on the water. To extend that metaphor, we might call Rivergator the Book of Ruskey. It is quite a book -- both in its volume, for the complete edition runs nine sections thick, each a separate booklet, which stack a foot or more in height together; and in the eye that John Ruskey has for the river he loves.

John, the founder of the Quapaw Canoe Company, has been compiling this book for almost a decade, hoping to provide a guide for other paddlers who want to know this river. It details landings and campsites, legends and stories, and keen-eyed descriptions of, say, the beauty of the Chickasaw Bluffs (along with suggestions to help you time your arrival to maximize your enjoyment of such sights).

As I read Rivergator, what I find most tempting is the description of backchannels: the other choices, the paths not today, or at least not this time. The Lower Mississippi River winds in great bends -- sometimes looping for twenty river miles to make up just one mile further south -- but over time, both man and nature have shortened some of these bends. The river’s old paths remain open in many places to paddlers, free of tow traffic, more thickly laden with wildlife. (A few months ago, I paddled such a backchannel near Rosedale, Miss.; you’ll find that story in next month’s issue of Delta Magazine.) As a completist, I find John’s descriptions of these channels at once entrancing and also enraging -- the latter because I know I’ll never get to see them all.

There are many memoirs, from books to articles, about expeditions down the Mississippi. None of them can be complete: Twain’s river, after all, is different than John’s; and the river traveled by La Salle and Marquette was different still; and the river paddled by Indian hunters and warriors and priests for thousands of years earlier was another place again. That’s just the truth in such an endlessly shifting place.

I should note, too, that it’s not simply the backchannels that intrigue me, too, but the other tributary rivers that together form the Lower Mississippi River Valley. Tomorrow, when we set off again, we’ll pass the mouth of the Wolf River, and of the Loosahatchie, both of which John describes, both of which offer avenues of wildness threading through the urban might of Memphis, one of the biggest cities of the South. When I read the Rivergator, it makes me want to be there: tucked into the river’s engineered canyon, surrounded by the hardwood trees, accompanied by the coyotes and the otters.

Which is a valuable reminder that the wildness is endless. The historian Bill Cronon talks about how wildness is fractal: it exists even in the heart of the city, in the pigeon’s roost, and in the weed that thrives. Wildness, that is, has not been destroyed, nor has it been replaced: from wilderness to civilization is not some evolutionary progression, with one landscape inevitably replacing another. Both exist, in tension and cooperation, and both always will -- though depending on your time and location, one might be winning out.

Baby Mississippi Map Turtle (John Ruskey)

Day 17: Whose river?

April 5, 2017

It's been a windy week: I woke at 2:30 on Monday morning to the roof of my tents sagging downward in 40 mile-an-hour winds. When the skies calmed, we paddled to Caruthersville. And when sunshine finally came that afternoon, and we ventured out again, we battled the rapids -- which sucked us at one point beneath an overhanging branch, requiring me to duck and paddle at once -- until we were forced to make emergency landing. We could go no further in this wind.

So we camped beneath the Caruthersville Bridge -- an interstate highway roaring over our heads. In other circumstances this might have struck me as dingy, even dangerous, but not that night. I was tired enough that the rush of traffic above us was little more than white noise for our sleep. And I've now spent long enough on this river to know that its banks -- in practice at least -- belong to anyone and everyone. They can be owned, yes, but the public has a right to use them; that right has been upheld time and again by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Though -- as we found under the bridge -- that right is rarely needed. The riverbanks are invisible to the world, forgotten. No one will find you here.

That's why this river has always been a refuge. It resists any attempt to conquer the land, and turn it to farms. And so in the plantation era, runaway slaves would flock here -- sometimes living in villages they built, accessible only by wading through water, and selling the fish and game they caught, and the wood they collected. Through the earliest twentieth-century, moonshiners operated on its islands, just beyond the easy reach of the law.

When we floated through St. Louis, we saw the evidence of the modern inheritors of this refuge: a tent, hidden away beneath a public landing, visible only to passing watercraft. Perhaps its owner took refuge there because he or she could not find a home anywhere else, but I know of plenty of people who live on that margin through conscious choice.

That navigable rivers are public property is credited, by some legal thinkers, to ancient animist beliefs: in the early cultures where common law was born, flowing water was holy; rivers could not be owned. So the public right to rivers is a strange remnant of ancient faith. (Of course, if we followed the values of many cultures -- including some tribes who used to live along these rivers -- we could declare that the land, too, could not be owned.)

And this month, we're seeing such ancient faiths assert themselves: just before the expedition launched, three world rivers were granted the same legal rights as humans. These rivers are no longer objects to be managed. They are beings to be kept alive.

Which brings me back to the wind: it is blowing, still, and so -- after a long, 63-mile paddle yesterday -- we are grounded, probably for two nights, on Deans Island, maybe 20 miles short of Memphis. The trees are creaking above me, as the wind gusts to 50 miles an hour. There will be no paddling today. It's silly to think it, since the barges are still out there, pushing their commerce past, but it feels like the river asserting itself, reminding of its own nature, letting us know it's alive.

April 5, 2017

I'm doing once-a-week updates for Canoe & Kayak magazine, which offer a nice overall narrative of the trip. Go to Canoe & Kayak Online.

Fish Skeleton (John Ruskey)

The Last of the Buffalo Fishermen

April 3, 2017

My latest story for The Local Palate magazine, on the dying art of Mississippi River fishing, is now online. Check it out!

Day 14: Accretion

April 2, 2017

The island we camped on two nights ago has no name. On the 2007 U.S. Army Corps of Engineer maps -- the latest edition of the gold standard, for canoe and tow pilots alike -- it does not appear at all. This, to me, is the power of the river: always renewing, always creating.

A glance at satellite imagery makes clear why there is an island where there is: the Corps built a dyke, and the dyke stopped the sand. The Mississippi is a muddy river, which means it is filled with dirt, but when the river slows, or the dirt is stopped, it drops out, and builds land. Then plants arrive, setting their roots, holding this new soil together, willows most of all. (Willows, I’ve noted, are resilient: we’ve seen them growing up even through the riprap, the stones thrown down at the river’s edge to keep the bank from eroding away. No wonder no trees are allowed to grow along the levee.) Moss and shrubs grow up from the hardened mud. Beaver and deer find their new home. An island is born. Eventually, some flood will rip it away, or attach it to the mainland: an island will die, in other words. (Oxbow lakes, too, have a live-and-then-die life cycle.)

Rivers are all about change, in other words. There is some change that I wish hadn’t happened: now that the water is warming, for example, the silver carp are beginning to leap from the water. We’ve seen invasive mustard garlic scattered across the islands where we camp. As a few members of the expedition have pointed out, though, there is one invasive species far worse than any other. Human beings, of course.

We are camped now at the bottom of Little Cypress Bend, but I see no cypress trees; I doubt there has been a cypress here since the days of the steamboats, when the forests were cut down all along the river to keep the engines churning. We have cramped the river in this narrow floodplain, and in places we are trying to narrow it further still. We have built our dams and dykes. But the river keeps doing its work, keeps on building its islands, and will do so even once we’re gone.

(For those who want more quotidian information: we are camped now at mile marker 861, on Joe Eckles Towhead, with a storm raining down on us now. Yesterday we resupplied in New Madrid, Mo. -- and were wowed by the town’s generosity -- and tomorrow, if the weather cooperates, we should expand our crew when we arrive in Caruthersville, Mo.)

Caruthersville-Dyersburg Bridge (John Ruskey)

Day 11: Home sweet batture home

March 30, 2017

In 1798, it must have seemed like an enterprising plan: on a patch of land just across from where the Ohio River joins the Mississippi, Abram Bird cleared the woods and set up a warehouse. He planned to sell supplies to the flatboatmen drifting to New Orleans.

But this water doesn’t cooperate with just any dream. This land was too muddy, too swampy, too flood-prone. (Later, rail travelers would carry guns through the area so they could shoot the snakes for sport.) Two hundred years later, it looks much the same. As we drifted ashore last night -- after 80 miles of paddling in two days -- we found a narrow strip of mud, backed by a slough of brown water. Beyond that, a stand of dead willows. Killed by some flood, of course, with driftwood scattered ankle-deep across the muck.

It’s an appropriate welcome, I think, to the Lower Mississippi, which officially begins here, at this coming-together of the waters. Everything about the evening felt like coming home to the swamps: the weather grew steamy, the mosquitoes arrived; we even at catfish for supper. We are holed up here on Birds Point -- on a second, much sandier, and much more pleasant campsite, I should add -- for two nights, waiting out the southern winds.

The great levees of the Lower Mississippi begin just a few miles upstream, and stretch nearly unbroken until past New Orleans. It's one of the most massive engineering projects ever undertaken by humankind. (Depending on your point of view, you might also call it one of the bravest -- or one of the most foolhardy -- too; we have pit ourselves in a neverending battle with nature, which in the end we are sure to lose.)

After we made camp, I hiked through the batture to find the levee. I consider Birds Point an important site, for behind it lies the first planned floodway we’ll pass as we travel down the Lower Mississippi -- a kind of release valve for the river, created after the disaster of 1927, once we learned that sometimes the river needs room to run. It’s been used only twice, in 1937 and 2011, both times over the strong objection of local farmers, who have their crops and even their homes inside the floodway. For over 50 years, there has been a battle over a small gap at the bottom of the floodway, 60 miles downstream. Should it be plugged, so that the land can be farmed? Should it be open, so that wildlife can thrive? Though little remarked upon, the debate rests on essential questions: what is our relationship to land, and to nature? Should we take dominion, and be productive, or find a way to coexist? (On his last day in office, President Obama gave his answer: he submitted an executive order, halting any work on closing the gap. Surely our new president will have his own say.)

I’ve hiked in the batture many times, but I almost always arrive from the levee side: climb up that slope of green, and then slip down the other side, into the woods. So it was strange yesterday to do that walk in reverse. I followed a game trail through the last stand of forest, and then walked up the levee to see the endless expanse of farms on the other side. Many people might consider this the middle of nowhere; but after 10 days in the wilderness, you start to see a farm for what it is: the starting point of all civilization. After 10 days of sweat and no showers, I stepped back into a different world. Which one is the real world? I'm not sure. But I know that there atop the levee it felt like an entirely different day, brighter, sunnier, with purple flowers -- weeds, I should note -- blooming in the fallow fields, and new saplings blowing in the breeze.

I stood there for a moment, and then turned back and walked down the levee, back into the walled-in wild. I was surprised by the thought that stuck with me: that farm was quite beautiful. Anyone would think so. The control of nature makes our lives possible.

As I returned to the river, the smell of mud came first -- refreshing in its own way -- and then, at the bank, a cool breeze off the water. Our catfish supper was baking in the Dutch oven, and soon enough was served with fried potatoes and fire-roasted corn on the cob. We ate in a nook of trees, watching the sunset blaze across the water. Here Abram Bird failed to control nature -- and that has made beauty, too.

Update: I said above that the willows here on Birds Point were dead, killed by a flood. But as I sat and watched the storm roll in, I saw buds on the treetops, newly sprouting since yesterday afternoon. Welcome to life, and to springtime -- and welcome to the Lower Miss!

Baby Mississippi Map Turtle (John Ruskey)

Day 9: Shelter from the storm

March 27, 2017

In 1673, Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet passed a rock in the middle of the Mississippi River. Their Native guides warned them that the rock housed a "manitou," a demon that would devour travelers.

The rock is a rare sight: a sliver of a former mountain, 400 million years old, the surrounding eroded, jutting up above the water. It's been a landmark for thousands of years, and feared for good reason. The narrow channel behind the rock has fierce rapids, which can easily overpower an unwary boat.

For us, though, Tower Rock was a beacon: our shelter from the storm. It was an early start for me, rising at 4:30 to pack my tent before the rain. Which meant that when it arrived, with a literal bang, I was in the open. I hunkered over the campfire while thunder and lightning raged. Fortunately, the lightning never came too close, and my rain gear functioned properly. We set out early amid a break in the rain, though it continued on and off all day.

So when we landed at an RV park across from Tower Rock for lunch, we decided to hunker down and dry out. Electricity, hot water, and sunshine: a fine triumvirate. The park is named Devil's Backbone, for another outcropping jutting into the river here on the Illinois side. You can see why the legends here are dark: these are sharp piles of rocks and jagged lines, caves tucked away above the water: strange and stark and spooky -- and beautiful. So unlike anything on the Lower river I know.

Day 7: Hearts (& hands)

March 26, 2017

“On the seventh day, God hovered over the water.”

It’s not the most familiar translation, but it works. And it is the interpretation that John Ruskey offered this morning, as we did the same -- hovered on the water for our morning prayer.

Today was our first re-supply, which also meant our first major exchange: in Chester, Ill., we said goodbye to Junebug, a 29-foot cedar-and-redwood canoe who lives with Big Muddy Adventures in St. Louis. Now, Grasshopper -- another 29-footer, and the girl who’s cruising the whole way -- is joined by Dennis, and his kayak, until we get to Memphis. The current crew numbers nine.

It was a day of departures, then, with two expeditioners finishing their portion of the trek; and John driving home for a few days to take care of family. So we prayed for departures, and for the departed. I thought about my father -- my first mentor and my first guide, to whom I dedicate this adventure.

The rain and clouds have continued, and I’m plagued every night by bad dreams: my tent collapsing, or water rushing through my site. But then I wake, and all is fine. Except maybe my phone: my so-called waterproof case has sand lodged inside; the battery ticks down in percentage faster than the minutes. Though there are worse things than being disconnected.

The toughest toll is on my hands, which have become chapped and cracked, the nails caked with mud. (If we paddle hard tomorrow -- through more rain, of course -- there is the tempting end goal of hot showers, even laundry, at the Trail of Tears State Park.) The paddling itself isn’t so bad, once you settle into the rhythm. I tried my hand in the back yesterday, and mostly kept us in a straight line. I was glad the barges waited until after my turn as skipper to make my appearance.

This is our wildest campsite yet: a few barges are anchored upstream, laden with coal, and surely we will hear trains pass in the night. But I pitched my tent atop coyote tracks, and the kitchen is as close to an eagle’s nest as the law will allow. Last night, as we arrived in camp, we pulled in amid a flock of several hundred pelican, who only slowly and reluctantly gave up their perch. What I'e been told is right: pelicans are the most beautiful flyers. There’s something about being on an island, even a mile from civilization that makes everything right. (For those tracking at home: after a second night on Salt Lake Island, we paddled down to Beaver Island; now we are on Rockwood Island.)

March 24, 2017

Just a note: I'll be posting here every few days now, whenever I have the chance for extended reflection. For more frequent updates, you should follow me on Instagram, where I'll be posting to my "story" more often.

American Pelicans (John Ruskey)

Day 5: The creation

March 24, 2017

Low, flat, wet floodplains: these have become my home, and they are beautiful, and they are due more regard than they are given.

But then here I am, too, drifting down the Middle Mississippi, and remembering just how scenic a river can be. There is a floodplain to the east, carving out a few flat miles in Illinois; but to the west there is grandeur. Hills, bluffs, cliffs. The far, ragged edge of what becomes the Ozarks, towering above the water.

We are hunkered down now for a few days on the Illinois side, on a beautiful curve of sandbar beach of Salt Lake Island, waiting out dangerous gusts -- up to 40 miles an hour today -- and an approaching hail storm. We are already behind schedule after a late start yesterday, to wait out the rain. But there is a thing called “river time,” and that’s what we are on. The sun comes up, the sun goes down, and these are the markers that matter. I already have to stretch my mind to remember what day of the week it is. I’ve moved my gear in from the beach to avoid the blowing sand, and made myself a home in the woods. (I can hear the gusts on the beach, and am glad I’m settled here.)

Walking this morning around the upstream bend of our island I thought about what unifies these landscapes, east river and west. The answer was clear, because it was carved in the mud itself, loops and whorls of different shades of tan and brown -- dependent on its saturation -- and in horizontal bands etched through the cutbank above.

It’s no original idea; I’ve written this many times before; but: the river is a place where you remember that place itself is inconstant. The silt arrives; the sandbar grows; and somewhere else the water is carving away. When the river rises, the sandbar is swallowed by the floodwater. The bluffs are forever carved by wind and water. It’s a reminder that creation -- the Creation, if you want to get spiritual -- is not singular and past, but forever happening. We can lose that knowledge in the concrete world, but not on river time.

Mississippi Map Turtle Shell (John Ruskey)

Day 2: Chasing waterfalls

March 21, 2017

Despite the urbanity of its city, the stretch of the Mississippi above St. Louis is some of the quietest and wildest you'll find -- and that's at least part our fault.

There's a landmark here called the Chain of Rocks, which I both understand too little and have too little space to explain fully. But, in essence, in order to provide St. Louis with water, we've lifted up an underwater series of rocks, which makes the river impassible in most seasons to commercial vessels, and even to larger pleasure boats. So it's just the birds and the canoes -- and the waterfall over the rocks themselves. (In the end they were anticlimactic, really: a foot or two drop that required the canes be unloaded and hundreds of pounds of gear to be portaged a few hundreds of yards; or hours of effort for a two-second thrill.

I'm sitting in my tent on a cutbank, and from the window I can see downtown St. Louis: this is the paradise we've created. The river, part industrial, part wild, is a complicated thing.

Mark River Frying Bacon on Duck Island (John Ruskey)

Day 1: There's worse things to smell like than whiskey

March 20, 2017

I'm camped at the confluence of two of the greatest waterways on the continent: the longest and the largest. It's an appropriately industrial space, given that it is essentially the nexus of two historic highways. We can hear barges passing, and trains honking, and airplanes overhead, and we can look north to one of the nation's largest refineries.

But it's also wild: a collection of logs, washed up here from who-knows-how-far up towards Minnesota, or Montana; a clean stretch of sand; the rim of water catching the starlight where it washes ashore. Even the soft glow of St. Louis to the south does not look so bad.

Today was about working out the kinks: learning not to keep glass bottles of whiskey wrapped in your clothing, where they will shatter and make everything you own smell. What to back in which bag to make life easier. How not to let so much damn sand blow into your tent. Six weeks out here is going to have to teach me a thing or two.

Boyce Upholt

For more of Boyce’s writing, photographs, stories in magazines, and other links, go to Between the Levees at

The Coahoma County portion of the Rivergator made possible with the partnership of Visit Clarksdale!

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Every LiNK in the chain is as important as the others. Real-time experiences for the betterment of personal health and environmental conservation along the Lower Mississippi River. In coordination with schools and after-school programs in Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas.

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