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Lower Mississippi River Dispatch

Vol 9 No 1, January 2013

Colorado Waters

In the stillness of deep winter my daughter Emma Lou and I recently travelled back to my birthplace & homeland the Front Range of Colorado for a pilgrimage of sorts, to model the crucifixion, and to visit with my three sisters, who live there like the three muses of the Rocky Mountains (a fourth muse-sister resides on Puget Sound). My wife Sarah had to stay at home to attend to the duties of the Clarksdale Library which like all good libraries have open hours during the holidays for good service to the community. God bless the the teachers and librarians of this world!

While the Lower Mississippi Valley was basking in balmy (and stormy) mid-70s the Rocky Mountains were being raked by a severe arctic sweeping southward with scirocco winds busting water pipes and making the air sparkle with rainbow beauty as ice crystals seemingly are conjured out of the atmosphere and settle over everything with a fine sparkling angel dust. Its been the coldest week of the winter, down to -14F in Laramie Wyoming where we visited my youngest sister Mary, her dogs, horses and family.

It was amazing to feel the temperature gradient across the Great Plains, a range of eighty five or ninety degrees, the jet stream convoluting & contorting in fluid explosions of wild winds southeastward out of the Columbia River Valley over and across the Continental Divide and then rolling around out of the Southern Great Plains the Texas & Oklahoma Panhandle to return northward over the Great Lakes and down the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic Ocean.

We had flown over the Great Plains in our journey to get here. As we departed Memphis our medium sized commuter jet rolled one way and then the other affording sweeping views of the big floodplain and its heavenly maker. The Mississippi River swelled underneath us in giant shining arcs which shined resplendently out of the broad forests and flowed over the rounded face of the earth and out of view beyond the horizon. Out of the airplane window we could see where recent rains had filled the back channel lakes and bayous, and all of the twisting turning bayous through White River Wildlife National Refuge and the floodplain of the Arkansas River. Our jet route followed the Arkansas through Oklahoma, Kansas and right up to the base of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. What a journey! From this visual tour I could easily imagine the migrations of weather patterns and storm systems following the same rules of hydrodynamics as the big river down the great valley.

Jet planes and airports seem other-worldly compared to our work and explorations through the muddy landscapes of the Lower Mississippi. And yet there are amazing connections to make, both in the imagination and in body. We were picked up in Denver by my oldest sister Lori, and drive to Loveland Colorado Wyoming where we are staying with her dogs, horses and her cowboy husband. He is also a sculptor and needs a model for a crucifixion piece he is working on. Its easy for me, I just model the pose. Christ gave his life for man. I give a few hours of my life (and a few hairs) for this sculpture. My mind wanders during the process.

Christ gave his life for man. Every day lives are given for the benefit of mankind. Untold thousands or millions give their lives for what? For us. Why? For mere sustenance? (Which lasts only but a day). Are we learning anything? Are we advancing the development of our kind? Are we becoming wiser? Is our spirit enhanced? Are we doing better? For the good of the people? For the good of the planet? These questions run through my head as I hold the Christ on the Cross pose. Seen from afar this position could be a man caught in the most awful position of pain and suffering possible. And yet it also resembles a man arms outstretched in ecstasy -- or a man expressing glory -- or a man in flight. My mind takes to flight and explores the geography of this Colorado landscape.

In February 2013 Big Muddy Mike and I will be departing on our 11th annual Learning Adventure. This year we will make a complete circumnavigation of Big Island. Big Island sits at the mouth of the Arkansas River, which has travelled almost 1500 miles to reach the mother Mississippi. The Arkansas is the 2nd longest tributary in the Mississippi-Missouri river system, and the 45th longest river in the world. It drains 170,000 square miles and its mean discharge is only 41,000 cfs (cubic feet per second). Its birthspring is the Collegiate Range of the Central Colorado Rockies, the highest peaks in the highest valley in the Lower forty eight.

Meanwhile the Platte River flows through Denver on its way to the Missouri, which forms the Middle Mississippi at St. Louis which becomes the Lower Mississippi at Cairo, and flows around Big Island several thousand miles downstream of Colorado. And so this winter we will be paddling "Colorado" waters on a Lower Mississippi River expedition (highly diluted of course).

The headwaters of these two rivers have tributaries that start within one mile of each other, then travel thousands of miles away from each other and then return to mix again in a single confluence around one big Island. Arkansas Mountain and South Park, Colorado, are on opposite sides of the same mountain ridge, Arkansas Mountain near the town of Leadville and South Park cradles the town of Fairplay. Conceivably the rain drops from a single summer thunderstorm or winter snow storm could have formed over this ridge half of it dumping half down one side over Arkansas Mountain and half down the other, over South Park. In this way the waters produced from a same storm would separate and flow thousands of miles away from each other and then be rejoined, like two twins separated at birth to be rejoined in old age. As the Colorado waters near each other, the one diluted within the Arkansas the other within the Mississippi, they flow parallel to each other for dozens of miles along either side of the largest island on the Lower Mississippi River, Big Island. And this is the island we intend to paddle around. Another interesting connection: the Pawnee word for the Arkansas River is Kicka and for thew Platte is Kickatus. Both rivers are within the ancient homeland of the powerful Comanche Nation. Big Island was the last great stronghold of the Quapaw, the “downstream people” who ruled the mouth of the Arkansas River and hosted many European explorations (such as Joliette & Marquette) with grace and dignity -- and were later forced westward up the Arkansas.

These kinds of mind connections might seem a little far-fetched, but they hold true, and open the giant landscapes of the earth in the even larger landscapes of the imagination, which are as far-ranging and seemingly infinite as the universe itself. These connections are also very useful teaching tools (teachers and principals if you would like to join is as a participating school write us at the below address). Furthermore these kinds of cross country connections are important to keep in mind when planting crops, planning waste management, and taking care of our wetlands. As we have learned over the decades removing rivers from their natural floodplains often results in disaster.

My sister Jenny is a Denver school teacher who sometimes brings her kids to Mississippi to paddle the waters born in their home state. Her schools have participated in many learning adventures. The result is a great advance of knowledge and personal experience for her students. Connections are made. Life becomes more harmonious and less chaotic. There is too much dissonance in modern life. River bring peace and harmony to our lives. The circles of life are brought together and flow together as a whole.

During the circumnavigation our basic idea is to empower the students to follow an interest area that correlates to our expedition purpose and route. Students then either create individual research and publish projects, or work in groups or classes to do the same. There are so many possibilities and it is great to see students take ownership of their work, it's real world issues and real world connections that they are involved in.

Circumnavigation of Big Island

A Learning Adventure February 18-28, 2013

Presented by the Lower Mississippi River Foundation

On Monday, February 18, 2013 “Big Muddy” Mike Clark & “Driftwood Johnnie” John Ruskey will embark on a 10-day circumnavigation of Big Island by canoe as a learning adventure for the benefit of sponsoring schools and classrooms throughout the region.

Starting at Rosedale Mississippi the explorers will paddle downstream the Mighty Mississippi to the Arkansas River Confluence, and make base camp #1 for several days of natural science research and documentation. The Arkansas is the biggest and wildest confluence on the entire Lower Mississippi, full of bear, wild boar, birds and strange muddy landscapes. During the Great Flood of 2011 the Arkansas began carving a new outlet to the Mississippi in a violent explosion of water coursing behind Cat Island. This new outlet and the cutting process will be explored in detail.

The explorers will next paddle up the great Arkansas River 43 miles, around several dozen giant river meanders in the fashion of Lewis & Clark (or their contemporaries Hunter-Dunbar, who explored central Arkansas up the Ouachita River) . This portion will involve very difficult upstream paddling, poling and cordelling (the French word for pulling a boat with a long rope). At Base Camp #2 the adventure duo will continue research and documentation in the dark heart of the deepest woods of Big Island. Finding sign of the reclusive Louisiana Black Bear will be one of the tasks at hand, as well as conducting a bird and amphibian count. The team will be collecting data about pallid sturgeon for the US Fish & Wildlife and assisting Audubon Arkansas with their annual bird count. The next challenge will be to locate a suitable back channel oxbow or wetlands to cross over and reach the White River. A route will have to be scouted through the briars, snake-infested woods and alligator swamps. The explorers will then manually portage all of their gear and canoes from the Arkansas River to the White River, a process that might require one long dirty day.

Now begins the downstream portion of the adventure. The explorers will paddle approximately twenty miles of the White River, a very remote and wild river which is here surrounded by the White River National Wildlife Refuge. Base Camp #3 will be established for the exploration of some of the most remote bayous around which are found the giant Bald Cypress, a favorite haunt for bears, raccoons, prothonotary warblers and bald eagles. The mouth of the White is now fenced at the Mississippi by its newest lock and dam, through which the adventurers will have to negotiate by being flushed through a 1200 foot lock chamber controlled by 120-ton steel gates. The last segment of the journey is a 25 mile run down the Mighty Mississippi, along the way the explorers will visit a steamboat wreck (the Victor) which was exposed in the 2011 Flood, in the Old Channel of the White behind Montgomery Island.

Big Island is a truly spectacular natural phenomena, a landscape cut by, flooded by and defined by three biggest and most important rivers of deep south, the Mississippi, the Arkansas and the White. This will be the first documented circumnavigation of Big Island in the history of its existence.

For more information about the circumnavigation please contact Mike Clark or John Ruskey, 2013

Quapaw Canoe Co.

Winter 2013 Schedule

February, 2013

Saturday, Feb 16th, 12 noon

Friends of the Sunflower River

General Annual Membership Meeting

12 noon on the Deck of the Sunflower Walk

(3rd & Sunflower in downtown Clarksdale, Mississippi, next to Quapaw Canoe Company)

Feb 18-28, 2013

Circumnavigation of Big Island

10-day circumnavigation of Big Island by canoe as a learning adventure for the benefit of sponsoring schools and classrooms throughout the region. Big Island is a truly spectacular natural phenomena, a landscape cut by, flooded by and defined by three biggest and most important rivers of deep south, the Mississippi, the Arkansas and the White. This will be the first documented canoe circumnavigation of Big Island in the history of its existence. With “Big Muddy” Mike of Big Muddy Adventures for the students and teachers of St. Ann's of Normandy (St. Louis).

March, 2013


The Helena Outpost of Quapaw Canoe Company will be moving into a new permanent location set into the river levee at 107 Perry with dugout canoe carving, artwork, maps, river rocks & fossils, fantastic driftwood, and an impressive incredible collection of canoes, kayaks and stand-up-paddleboards (SUPs) all awaiting your use on the Mississippi River to now public-use Buck Island and the mouth of the St. Francis River.

April, 2013

Saturday, April 6th

Naturefest at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science paddling on the Pearl River with the Mighty Quapaws!

May, 2013

High Water Tour #1

Greenville Bends

5-day circumnavigation of the legendary Greenville Bends, storied loops of the Lower Mississippi River, moonshiner haven, river pirates and ancient native homeland, rich forests and vibrant wildlife.

High Water Tour #2

Arkansas City to Vicksburg

126 miles. One week exploration of the Lower Mississippi River from Choctaw Island to the mouth of the Yazoo River at Vicksburg.

June, 2013

High Water Tour #3

Chickasaw Bluffs

Caruthersville to Memphis

113 miles. One week exploration of the Big River from Caruthersville, Missouri to Memphis, Tennessee with visits to all four of the legendary Chickasaw Bluffs and paddling past the mouths of most of the important tributary rivers of Western Tennessee, the Obion, the Hatchie, the Loosahatchie and the Wolf.

High Water Tour #4

Upper Mississippi Delta

Memphis to Helena

73 miles. 4-day exploration of the all of the many habitats found aloung the Lower Mississippi River leaving from from Memphis, Tennessee and dropping into the wild Mississipi Delta, past all of the casinos and big islands, and the mouth of the St. Francis River.

This Spring

Get to know YOUR river!