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Lower Mississippi

River Dispatch

Vol 8 No 5c - May 14, 2012

What Color is the Mississippi River?

A seemingly simple question -- and one that is astonishingly difficult to answer (like all things concerning the dynamic Mississippi).

River color has been debated by artists and writers since time immemorial. It was probably the source of discussions by the first people who populated its shores, and probably woven into campfire songs and creation stories. A quick review of literature and paintings sheds illumination on this mysterious subject.

Its muddiness is of course most often associated with the most basic earth tone --brown. But which brown? TS Elliott found it to be a “strange brown god” in his Dry Salvages, and did not offer any further elaboration. William Faulkner saw darker brown tones in the river “rippling placidly towards the sea, brown and rich as chocolate between the levees who inner faces were wrinkled as though in frozen and aghast amazement… (Old Man).

As long as man has been painting he has been studying rivers and their various expressions. Visual artists look for nuances in the landscape and try to recreate it on their canvas. Here is a recent online conversation between painters about the color of the Mississippi River:

Painter 1: “I understand the river will change color as it moves down the USA, picking up various sediments, loosing the sediment as the river loses power and then getting muddier again as it gains power. Probably not an easy question to answer, but Warm Grey is a great start.... Our local river, the Fraser is a muddy river, but I seem to remember that it has a different muddy color than the Mississippi...”

Painter 2: “Americana has a craft paint called Mississippi Mud. It looks like dog that has been out in the sun too long...”

Painter 3: “It also gets a nice rainbow effect whenever an oil slick forms…”

Painter 4: “...needless to say it depends on weather, cloud cover, etc. I'd go for a ‘mud’ colored light to mid-brown and do washes of a greenish light grey followed by a fairly dark blue wash (the river at New Orleans is very deep)... Dog Poo brown is a good description. I remember long ago and far away, when I was a young'un, working out of Venice, LA, that was how the Captain of the first boat I worked on described it. Except he said something other than poo.”

As physicists and painters both know, the color of the face of the river changes with the scenery, because the river surface is like a mirror, and will oftentimes reflect whatever is above or around it, taught in physics as the angle of reflection equals the angle of refraction.

Poets like Langston Hughes saw this quality of reflection from a train window crossing the St. Louis bridge when he wrote “I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln/ went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy/ bosom turn all golden in the sunset.” Perhaps in response to her mentor in the above, Nikki Giovanni envisioned the bosom of the river turn “red in Memphis” in her rendition of the poem Tennessee (live reading, Jan 2012, Clarksdale, Miss.), maybe as a reflection of the bluff city’s bitter racial history.

Archeologists link river tones with local geology, “yellow chert is described as occurring in the upland areas of northern Mississippi and on modern Mississippi River gravel bars…” (Jane Rafferty: Time’s River).

Watch for changes of water color as your journey progresses. Sometimes it is only a subtle change, sometimes dramatic. The Mississippi varies from muddy orange/yellow/green in high waters to a clearer orange/green in lower water levels. The colors of the various tributaries is of course partly result of the geology of the landscapes they drain. When the Ohio is flooding the color is darker browns & greens. When the Upper Mississippi is flooding you will see an even darker hue. When the Missouri is flooding there are more warmer muddy tones, more muddy-orange and muddy-browns, and also more fine suspended silicate. When the Arkansas is high it pours into the Mississippi with the muddy-yellows and oranges of southern plains. When it is low it is clear-green. Whenever you see greenish tinted river water it is probably richer in the blue-green algae which propagate in calmed waters.

Any confluence renders an interesting contrast which can be seen on the face of the water where the two rivers meet. With a little preparation paddlers can approach one of the many confluences on the Lower Miss and enjoy the constellation of patterns which erupt at these meeting places, spirals and boils and eddies of varying water colors, the colors often stay to the side of the river they came from and swirl alongside the other river for a long ways downstream until one color finally predominates. The collision of colors can be seen at the mouth of the Wolf, the St. Francis, the White, the Arkansas and the Big Black (and other rivers when they are flooding). For some reason the winning color is always the muddy color. And not just because of volume. This muddy truism comes from the original Big Muddy. If you hear someone call the Mississippi “the big muddy,” this is only because its color derives from the Missouri. The true Big Muddy is the Missouri River. Its nickname is due to its rich silt laden waters which carry the sediments of the western and midwestern deserts, prairies and mountains.

The power of mud is first expressed above St. Louis where the normally smaller Missouri joins the Upper Mississippi and together they flow downstream through St. Louis to Cairo as the Middle Mississippi. Even though the Missouri is the smaller volume river, its muddy water colors overwhelm the darker & clearer tannin-rich colors of the bigger volume Upper Mississippi, and together they finally combine as a muddy brown river, in essence an expression of the colors of the Missouri. 180 miles further downstream the Ohio flows in from the East to join the muddy Mississippi. The Ohio normally carries twice the volume of the Mississippi. And yet its greenish waters become muddied by the Mississippi. It requires several dozen miles of side-by-side flow to completely "stir it up..." and complete the mix. The Greenish waters hug the Kentucky shoreline and the muddy brown waters hug the Missouri shoreline. But eventually they collide and revolve around each other and get stirred up into one homogenous mix. And which color predominates? Muddy brown of course!

The river is always telling a story, if only we could learn its language. With some careful artistic discernment you can tell if the Missouri is flooding -- all the way down in Mississippi by the water color, even though you are 500 miles away or further.

(Note: the above topic is a page in the “River Gator: Paddler’s Guide to the Lower Mississippi River,” which goes live with detailed descriptions of the river, photos, maps and lots more on June 1st at… this is exciting -- the very first paddler’s guide to Lower Mississippi River!)


River Gator: the Paddler’s Guide to the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail


Inauguration of the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

June 1, 2012 goes live

June 1-8

Week-long adventure: 100+ miles of the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

This will be the official inauguration of the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail with a guided 100+ mile river journey by canoe, kayak and SUP from the mouth of the St. Francis River to Choctaw Island and a final take out at Arkansas City.

Quapaw Canoe Company will be running its big voyageur style canoes, but any paddler is welcome to join in using their own vessel for any particular section of the trail. See end of email for itinerary and details.

See related story in the May 1st Helena Daily World:

What is the River Gator?

Written for paddlers with photos, text, and maps, the River Gator describes the 1100 mile trail of free-flowing water between St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico. Made public June 1, 2012, the River Gator will be under construction for the next year until the entire trail is complete.

Who is the River Gator written for?

The River-Gator is written for canoeists, kayakers and stand-up-paddleboarders -- and anyone else plying the waters of the Lower Mississippi River in human-powered craft.

Who is the River Gator written by?

The River-Gator was written by John Ruskey who has been paddling, photographing, and documenting the islands, landings and channels of the Lower Mississippi River since 1982. A host of river experts have been reviewing and editing content including outdoor author Ernest Herndon (Canoeing Mississippi, Canoeing Louisiana), biologists Paul Hartfield (USFW), Cliff Ochs (Ole Miss), naturalist/painter Robin Whitfield (Grenada), historian Kevin Smith (Helena), canoe builder Bubba Battle (Tunica), Outdoor Ed. leader Todd Davis (Delta State U), naturalist Foster Dickard (Miss Water Trails), fish expert Tommy Shropshire (Eagle Lake), Forester James Cummins (???), environmentalist Hart Henson (Greenwood), and kayaker Jason Gorski. John Moore is designing & hosting website. Project coordinated through Ron Nassar, the Lower Mississippi River Conservation Committee. The River Gator website is made possible with a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.


I am hoping to share the secrets for safe paddling on this often mysterious and confusing waterway -- and at the same time dispel some of the myths about paddling the Big River.

Note on title:

The name "River Gator" is inspired by the best seller The Navigator first published in 1801 by Zadok Kramer. Mr. Kramer is the same guy who numbered the islands and installed the nomenclature system that we we still use today.


Initially appearing as website covering 100+ miles of the 1100 mile trail (the free-flowing water between St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico), additional 100+ mile sections will be added on until the entire trail is carefully documented for paddlers with photos, text, and maps (and eventually video & sound clips). The website address is Text, photos and maps will eventually be published hard copy as the “River Gator: the Paddler’s Guide to the Middle & Lower Mississippi River.”

From the intro:

There are 24 million paddlers in North America; very few of them know about the Lower Mississippi, and even less use it. The river is a mystery to even its closest neighbors. The River Gator will create the missing link between paddlers & the river: routes, river descriptions, good maps & paddler-friendly information. River Gator is written for the audience of America’s paddlers and illustrates the potential of the Lower Mississippi as a paddler’s destination. The Lower Miss should be as popular a destination as the Boundary Waters of Minnesota or the Allagash of Maine, and yet it remains as little known & little used as the most remote of American rivers like the Yukon. Millions of paddlers every year get on the Buffalo and other Ozark rivers in Arkansas & Missouri, and yet only a few hundreds at most get on the Lower Mississippi. Why? Because it is a big wild river and there is no guide available for paddlers. The River Gator is a comprehensive one-stop resource for all aspects of safe paddling & wilderness camping on the biggest river in North America.

For the long-distance paddler the River Gator includes information and links to provide a completely integrated visit to the mid-south (obviously centered on the big river). Good supporting land conveniences & services (such as food, libraries, wifi, post offices, accommodations, and groceries) and superb cultural enhancement (such as Mud Island Riverpark, the Tunica Riverpark, the Delta Cultural Center, the Delta Blues Museum, and the Vicksburg National Military Park) are found in all towns & cities along the route. This website will list them all in side bars or separate pages for easy access.

On June 1st go to for the rest of the story -- along with detailed full-color maps, beautiful photographs and tantalizing web design. Public site, no charge, download or print any content.

Official Opening of the

Lower Mississippi River

Water Trail

June 1-8, 2012

Buck island to Choctaw Island


Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

Friday, June 1 – Friday, June 8, 2012

Buck island to Choctaw Island

(Helena to Arkansas City)

Description: This is a journey through some of the wildest & remote islands & forests of the Lower Mississippi. Great back channels & oxbow lakes to explore. Fossil finding & rock hunting at Buck Island, Knowlton Crevasse & Catfish Point. Great swimming throughout. Abundant wildlife, exceptional birding, world class fisheries, the greatest concentration of white tailed deer in the country, as well as the Louisiana black bear. No towns or industry. The only evidence of civilization is the tugboats on the river. We’ll pass by the mouth of DeSoto Lake, where nearby its namesake explorer Hernando DeSoto is thought to have discovered the “Rio Grande,” as he called it, the “Big River.” He and his men witnessed an armada of 200 Indian canoes on the river. Some of the canoes held 70 to 80 warriors. Opposite Smith Point (Camp II) is the mouth of the White River, through which commercial traffic can access the Arkansas River through the Arkansas Post Canal. This region saw the visit of explorers Jolliette & Marquette (1673), LaSalle (1681) and John James Audubon (1820). It was also the heart of the Quapaw Nation, the Siouan tribe who followed the rivers downstream out of the Ohio River Valley and settled within the forests of this dynamic confluence.

This section of river is a Water Trail being developed between two public-use Islands, Buck Island and Choctaw Island, with passage through or alongside St. Francis National Forest, Great River Road State Park, White River National Wildlife Refuge, and Choctaw Island Wildlife Area. The Arkansas River is the biggest Lower Mississippi River tributary, and also highest drainage, running 1475 miles from the 14,000+ peaks of the Central Colorado Rockies. The Arkansas River Confluence is a wild flood-prone archipelago of islands with superlative habitat for all wildlife.

Route: Put in at at the mouth of the St. Francis River (10 miles N. of Helena). 113 miles on the river. Take-out at Arkansas City.

Day I: Friday, June 1

Day I: Meet in Helena at 11am. Put in at Mouth of the St. Francis River, 12 noon

Float to Buck Island

Mileage: 6 miles

Camp I: Buck Island

Points of Interest: St. Francis National Forest, St. Francis River, Trotter’s Landing, Tunica Cutoff, Sinking of the Pennsylvania and death of Mark Twain’s brother.

Day II: Saturday, June 2

Day II: Buck Island to Is. 68

Camp II: Jug Harris Towhead

Mileage: 45 miles

Points of Interest: Friars Point, Montezuma, Kangaroo Point, Is. 61, Island 63, island 62, Burke’s Point, Modoc’s Pass, Island 64, Muscadine Vine Kingdom, Cessions Towhead, Island 69, Knowlton Crevasse, Hurricane Point, Mouth of DeSoto Lake, Mouth of Mellwood Lake

Day III: Sunday, June 3

Day III: Is. 68 to Mouth of the Arkansas River

Camp III: Arkansas Bar

Mileage: 40 miles

Points of Interest: Cessions Towhead, Island 69, Knowlton Crevasse, Dennis Landing, Island 70, Smith Point, Mouth of the White River, Big Island, Victoria Bend, Great River Road State Park, Arkansas Bar Wilderness

Day IV: Monday June 4

Base Camp at Mouth of the Arkansas River

Camp III: Arkansas Bar

Mileage: 0 miles

Points of Interest: Explore Arkansas Bar Wilderness including back channels and a foray up the Arkansas River to Cat Island.

Day V: Tuesday June 5

Day IV: Mouth of the Arkansas River to Choctaw Island

Camp IV: Choctaw Island

Mileage: 20 miles

Points of Interest: Napoleon Townsite, Lake Whittington, Catfish Point, Cypress Bend, Eutaw Bar, Chicot Landing, Choctaw Island Wildlife Preserve

Day VI: Wednesday June 6

Base Camp on Choctaw Island

Camp IV: Choctaw Island

Mileage: 0 miles

Points of Interest: Explore the wild & wonderful Choctaw Island Wildlife Preserve

Day VI: Thursday June 7

Base Camp on Choctaw Island

Camp IV: Choctaw Island

Mileage: 0 miles

Points of Interest: Explore the wild & wonderful Choctaw Island Wildlife Preserve

Day VI: Friday June 8

Break base camp on Choctaw Island

Mileage: 5 miles

Take-out 10am; back in Helena around 3pm

*Please Note: River itinerary is dependent on water level and prevailing weather.

Quapaw Canoe Company

Helena, Arkansas – Clarksdale, Mississippi

(662) 627-4070 (870) 228-2266


1) Voyageur Canoe

$75/day (includes guiding & outfitting)

2) Canoe Rental:

$35/day/person (includes guiding & outfitting)

3) Kayak Rental:

$45/day/person (includes guiding & outfitting)

4) SUP Rental:

$35/day/person (includes guiding & outfitting)

5) Use your own vessel

No charge

Meals & Refreshments:

Do your own or we'll do it for you, $40/person/day


Full trip: $125 each

Custom Shuttle:

Please inquire about Special Shuttle arrangements if you would like to join in after start date June 1st, or if you need to leave before end date June 8th.

The Lower Mississippi River Dispatch

is being sent to you courtesy of:

Quapaw Canoe Company

“Serving the Wild Places of the

Lower Mississippi Valley”

(all text © 2012 John Ruskey)