John Ruskey builds voyageur style stripper canoes for use on the wild waters of the Lower Mississippi River, and is one of the most experienced builders of dugout canoes in the country. In 1998/99 John apprenticed to master canoe builder Ralph Frese in the construction of his first cypress strip voyageur canoe, The Ladybug 27! cypress strip voyageur canoe. In 2007 Chinook elder & master canoe builder George Lagergren (94y/o) asked John to renovate 2 of his traditional Chinook dugouts which are now ceremonially housed in tribal headquarters, Wilapa Bay Washington. In the past 20 years he has built dozens of big canoes, both dugouts and strippers, each a unique and functional work of art that now spend their lives working the Mississippi River.
John is a musician, painter and writer, and lives in Clarksdale and Gulfport, Mississippi, with his soulmate, Heather Crosse, and daughter Emma-Lou. He was the fist curator of the Delta Blues Museum (1992-98) and is co-founder of the Delta Blues Education Fund. In 1998 he founded the Mighty Quapaws Apprenticeship Program for the youth of the Mississippi Delta, most of whom come from severely distressed neighborhoods. In 2011 he founded the Lower Mississippi River Foundation for access, education, and the betterment of public outdoor recreation on the Middle & Lower Mississippi Rivers. He is owner and founder of the Quapaw Canoe Company, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2018, and provides guiding & outfitting to the raw wild power & beauty of the Mississippi River, its range extends from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico. He is on the steering committee of the Mississippi River Network, which oversees the 1Mississippi River Citizen Program.
John is the author of the Wild Miles (www.wildmiles.org) and the Rivergator: Paddler’s Guide to the Lower Mississippi River (www.rivergator.org). His passion for nature finds expression in music, painting, writing and canoe building. The canoe is a unique art form that brings together the purist principals of form, materials & function into one integral & elegant vessel. He has floated and written about many of the major rivers of North America, including the Mississippi, the Colorado, the Rio Grande, the Arkansas, the Platte, the Columbia, the Missouri, and most recently the Atchafalaya. In the Fall of 2002 he paddled the length of the Big Muddy (Missouri) from Three Forks Montana to St. Louis, Missouri, in a custom built dugout canoe. His guiding philosophy comes from Thoreau!s statement: #in wildness is the preservation of the world,” words that are becoming increasingly important as global overpopulation and global thirst for fresh water and energy sources are threatening the forests & islands of the Lower Mississippi Valley.
In 2019 John was awarded the Noel Polk Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters: #Through his writing, his music, his watercolors, his environmental efforts, his work with young Mississippians, and his knowledge of Mississippi!s great river.” In 2022 John was awarded the St. John’s College Award of Merit for distinguished and meritorious service to the United States, to the Mississippi River, for “outstanding achievement in the arts and exploration.”
Interview — John Ruskey John Ruskey “Driftwood Johnnie”
1) How did you get interested in canoeing and river guiding?
I’ve always loved water. My first time on the Mississippi was a 5-month expedition 1982-83 on a 12×24 raft. Canoeing came naturally in the evolution of things, it’s the most essential way of getting on the water, the quietest, the most efficient, the most elegant, and the closest you can get to the spirit of the water, the river, the lifeblood of our nation.
But I didn’t actually find my first canoe until coming to Mississippi. It was a two part thing, a push-me, pull me of sorts. Pulling me was the Mighty Mississippi River itself. The river had been long neglected, side-lined, put-down and disrespected. It was lonely and misunderstood. And there was no one on the entire Lower Mississippi, almost a thousand miles of river, who could escort people on her waters and bring them safely back. Many visitors to the South wanted to see the river, to experience it, to touch its currents and learn its ways. Many residents grew up alongside the levee and had never ventured over it to the wilderness on the other side. There was no one to guide them, to show them the way.
Pushing me was the best indoor “job” I ever had, curator of the Delta Blues Museum. It was a bittersweet moment.
It was 1997 and I knew my career at the Delta Blues Museum was coming to an end. I was feeling claustrophobic in the museum offices. I had been curator for six years. The new library director hated me. Also, he didn’t like the way I smelled. Every afternoon an overwhelming feeling would come over me. I had to get out. I had to go. I left the museum in the capable hands of Maie Smith and loaded my kayak on my ’56 Chevy Apache and drove over the levee –where it seemed my redemption awaited me: the river forever flowing, the great incredible resplendent shining river. Every afternoon I spent on the river I returned home to the cave and woke up the next morning renewed, rejuvenated, reinvigorated. Staying at the museum only made me feel worse. The choice became obvious as the days went on.
2) Where were you born and raised? I know Colorado, but tell me a little bit more about your youth and interests in this activity.
I was born & raised in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, in Bear Creek Valley in the shadow of Mount Evans. The headwaters of the South Fork of the Platte River. I’ve always been attracted to water, to all expressions of it, whether a pond, a creek, or gutter runoff following a rain storm. They called me the “weatherman” in First Grade. Teacher got upset & called my mother one day when I was standing underneath the school roof downspout and wouldn’t come inside. Thunder, lightning — a typical mountain rain storm. I first ran away from home when I was 2 years old, my destination: the “duck pond,” the pond I always saw out of my infant bedroom window, the rippling waves sparkling in the Rocky Mountain sunlight. Water has always been calling my name!
3) How long have you been a river guide, and building canoes?
10 Years. I started Quapaw Canoe Company in 1998. This is our tenth year anniversary. In 1999 I built my first voyageur-style canoe, the 26 foot long Ladybug Canoe, which we later nicknamed “The Queen of the Lower Mississippi River.” We still haven’t found any canoe more reliable and more capable of handling the extreme moods of the Mighty Mississippi.
4) What does Quapaw actually do in relation to city youth and your involvement with Clarksdale and area kids?
We have a skill-based apprenticeship program for area youth focused on carving canoes and learning the ways of the river. It’s a one-on-one program, master to student. Skills include 1) sharpening carving tools razor sharp; 2) learning to carve canoes with the axe, the adze, the scorp & the hand plane; 3) learning to steer canoes using the c-stroke, j-stroke & ruddering; 4) camping skills including building a fire, setting up a tent in a rain storm, and cooking. It’s a paid apprenticeship. We’re working with Audubon Mississippi on a partnership. Its also a reward-based apprenticeship. Apprentices receive specific rewards for skills learned, such as each Quapaw is rewarded his own canoe to name & paint & paddle when he learns to steer in all river conditions. A river knife when you learn to sharpen it razor sharp. And etc. My mentor is Johnnie Billington, “Mr. Johnnie,” who I studied with 1991-93. He not only taught me to play the blues, but he taught me how to work with children as apprentices. Its all about helping children become self-sufficient adults all the while learning to take care of mother earth. One of our paradigms is the “3-Rs:” respect of yourself, respect of others, respect of the river.
5) How did you learn to construct these particular larger watercraft?
I was guided in part by master canoe builder Ralph Frese of Chicagoland Canoe Base, who has been building big canoes since the 1960s. Ralph told me to “read everything I could get my hands on,” and so I did. There are no manuals available on dugout canoes. And so I turned to the literature, the history books, the journals of explorers & voyaguers. And the trees spoke to me. The logs we brought in to be carved into canoes always have a certain “feel” to them. Our first step in the carving is “the float test” to float the log and determine where the bulk of the wood mass is found. Then we move it to the carving shed and spend days, weeks, sometimes months studying the log, sketching it, visualizing the various possibilities. The primary job of the carver is to find the spirit of the log and create a new life for it in the shape of a canoe.
6) Can you tell me a little history of the home you now live in?
Quapaw Canoe Company is located in the “cave,” the bottom floor of a 3-story building cut into the banks of the Sunflower River in downtown Clarksdale. It close to the location of a earthen pyramid used a ceremonial temple mound by the Native Americans who originally inhabited the Mississippi Delta.
Five years ago my wife and I moved into the “Catalpa House,” a Clarksdale boarding house. Certain aspects of the family who built the house were inspiration for Tennessee Williams when he wrote the great American play The Glass Menagerie.
7) Who are the Mighty Quapaws?
The Mighty Quapaws is the name of the apprenticeship program run by Quapaw Canoe Company for Mississippi Delta youth. Its curriculum is modeled after the curriculum established by master musician Mr. Johnnie, who has devoted his life to helping youngsters learn to play the blues.
8) Do you play any instruments and what type of music do you like to play?
I play guitar, bass, banza, piano & accordion. I like playing all kinds of music, but have a strong feel for Delta Blues, Hillbilly & Nortena (the music of Mexico’s Sierra Madre). I met Mr. Johnnie shortly after I came to Clarksdale in 1991, and studied with him for 2 years, and was a member of his band J.B. & the Midnighters. Later I played with Welsey Jefferson, “The Mississippi Junebug” and his band the Southern Soul Band. Most recently I have been playing bass with Tater Music Maker (Foster Wiley) as one of his “Tater Tots.”
9) How has the up stream flooding on the Mississippi affected the lower half of the river and its watershed? Has it affected your business or river outings?
The Lower Mississippi receives water form everything upstream, so we of course feel water changes according to what’s happening in the Midwest, Upper Midwest, the Great Plains, everything from the Alleghenies to the Rocky Mountains. The river brings us all together. But most of our water comes out of the Ohio River Valley. The Ohio usually flows with twice the water volume of the Mississippi. So when the Upper Mississippi is flooding, or St. Louis is getting flooded, we don’t normally feel it much. The floodplain valley here is so wide and full of wetlands so it quickly absorbs & distributes whatever is coming down out of the Upper Miss. For example, the 1993 flood was bad for the Midwest, but all we got was a little rise. Same for the 2008 flood. We are still 15 feet below flood stage here and the crest just passed St. Louis. Now, if the Ohio is flooding, watch out Lower Mississippi! That happened in the 1927 Flood, the greatest natural disaster in America’s history. All of the valleys were flooding upstream, all of the Ohio river tributaries, and all of the Upper Miss. tributaries, and when all of that flooding water reached us the effect was compounded and the levees fell away like wet mud.
10) Do you ever do excursions on the upper half of the river or other western river estuaries?
We run trips from the Great Arch downstream (the Middle Mississippi) in partnership with Big Muddy Adventures of St. Louis. We’ve also done some long-distance expeditions on the Missouri River and the Yellowstone River, once in 2002, and in 2004-2006 we carved canoes & guided the men involved in the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Re-enactment.
11) What is Quapaws ultimate goal, and where if any would you like to see the company go from this point on into the future?
No one knows & respects the river like a paddler. Doesn’t matter if you canoe or kayak or paddle a log. When you paddle you get a feel for the river that you can’t get in a power boat, and certainly not from the decks of the Mississippi Queen! No fossil fuels required. Your arms are the motor in a canoe. Your eyes are the radars. This is as it should be. Americans need re-connection to the wilderness. It’s in us, it’s our heritage. Simultaneously the rivers need us to take care of them. The Lower Mississippi River is suffering from gross misunderstanding & neglect. Most people think of it as either a drainage ditch or a super-highway for tugboat commerce. Its neither. It’s a wilderness in the heart of the south. It’s the 3rd biggest river in the world and it flows through our backyard. Our ultimate goal is health & happiness. Health through paddling & caring for America’s Rivers. Happiness through experience of the wilderness. The human psyche blossoms on the river. You become re-connected to basic patterns & color-combinations that govern the universe. Your spirit soars. Your imagination is opened. You become closer to god, the great creator, and you experience that magic that occurred in the first day in the creation story when the heaven & the earth were separated and a mist hovered the face of the waters. You can experience that mist, because that is where you are found when you paddle, you are as weightless as a leaf blowing in the wind, you are as heavy as the boils & the eddies.