Cairo To Caruthersville
Bessie’s Bend/Kentucky Bend
Your eyes will go spinning around the compass along with the needle pointing in all directions as you revolve around Bessie’s Bend first going south, then west, the north, then northeast, then west, then southwest. The only direction you don’t go is due east. But if you did go east you would have made a complete circle and perpetual motion would have been discovered, along with it the solution to America’s energy crisis with an inexhaustible source of hydropower spiraling around the bend in a complete circle. But alas, this dream scenario was not intended by the creator. The river comes close, in fact within 1 mile, of completing the loop. Paddlers can loop 20 miles, jump out and portage a little over 4,000 feet, and make the loop again. So maybe this is perpetual motion… voyageur style!
As you can imagine, all sorts of weird and funny scenes have taken place on this circular stage as paddlers expecting to reach the gulf of mexico on the south flowing Mississippi River suddenly find themselves paddling north, away from the noontime sun and their intended goal of New Orleans or Morgan City! This kind of unexpected jog can be downright disheartening for someone who still has 900 miles of paddling to go, and suddenly finds themselves going in the wrong direction. And this is not any paltry irregularity: you have to paddle in a northerly way for several hours, all of ten miles before resuming the more reassuring southerly direction.
The other choice is of course portage. Memphis paddler Dale Sanders was with a another guy who insisted on pulling out at Slough Neck Landing and portaging over to the other side of the bend, thereby avoiding the 20 mile roundabout river run. Boy were they sorry later. It required four back-and-forth trips to get their vessels and all their gear from one side to the other. 4 x 2 miles round trip = 8 miles of walking down hot dusty roads, turn-rows and bushwhacking the last 200 yards to get to the river’s edge on the other side.
I was camped not far from here one time with a film crew hosted by a well known celebrity chef. We found a beautiful camp right bank descending on a giant beach of a sandbar island (which meant that we were on the East side of the river here, since it was flowing north). It is the one island on the Mississippi River where you can enjoy a sunset over the water, due to its unusual geography. I had a funny conversation at sunset with one of the chef’s crew, the soundman. Well, I thought it was funny, but he didn’t.
The sound man, he is lucky to be alive. If he had fallen over in some of the waves we hit behind a particularly aggressive upstream tow passing the Slough Neck Landing, all the heavy electronic gear he carried around his waist would have drug him straight to the bottom of the muddy Mississippi and all he would have recorded would be the “glub, glub, glub” of the big channel cat hovering in the dark depths, and the fateful first “crack!” as that giant snapping turtle began his feast.
But that’s not how the story went. We kept the lucky man on board the canoe. But after a long day of paddling in the hot sun, and all of the rigors of being a soundman on a film crew with an energetic and charismatic leader like the chef, we were standing on the waters edge, happily enjoying the meal that I had cooked with the chef’s assistance (one of my favorite recipes: willow smoked steaks) and watching the swirly sunset colors reflect off the face of the river in giant boils as the river slowly slipped across our field of view from left to right down the long beach upon which we had made camp. Our field of view was almost 180 degrees. We could see downstream for miles, and upstream for miles. We were talking about some inconsequential thing, mosquitoes or something, and watching all that water flowing along.
But the soundman looked a little perturbed, obviously something was weighing on his mind. “The Mississippi begins in Minnesota, correct?” And he pointed upstream (to the left). “That’s right,” I replied, “the Mississippi is generally said to begin up there.” I was wondering why he was pointing south, but I guess he meant to be pointing upstream. “In the great North Woods, right?” He put a particular emphasis on the word North. “Yes, that’s correct, the North Woods, in fact Lake Itasca...” “And it ends in the Gulf, right?” Now he pointed the right, downstream, which at this particular place meant pointing north. “That’s right,” I said, “it flows into the Gulf of Mexico below New Orleans.” I started wondering if he was still recording me, getting some B-Roll or something. There seemed to be some urgency in his voice, something that needed resolving. I wondered what it could be with all of these common questions any 5th grader could answer as well as me. “And so it flows out of the Great North Woods South down to the Gulf of Mexico?” Now he laid particular emphasis on the word South. “Well yes,” I answered getting a little tired of this train of conversation which us riverguides have had to follow ad nauseum over the decades. “And it flows over 2,000 miles North to South?” Now he gesticulated to the left and then to the right, which was upstream and downstream, although he had the directions crossed up. “That’s right,” I sighed, “a little over 2,000 miles, 2,300 to be exact.” He looked down at his food, took another bite of fresh willow-charred steak, a spanish garlic salad and coal-baked potatoes on the side, and chewed slowly, thoughtfully, looking downstream, then upstream, then over at the setting sun, which had now settled into the tall cottonwoods opposite us on Kentucky Point. He looked upstream and downstream again, and then shook his head in disgust. “You tricked us, didn’t you?” he suddenly shot out. I looked at him like he was joking. But he wasn’t. My antennas were up sky high. I was all ears. What could this fellow be up to? His eyebrows eddied around in consternation. “You thought you could get away with it, but now I see what you are up to...” He shook his fork at me. Something suddenly dawned on me. I began to realize his confusion, but he beat me to the punch. “Now tell me this,” he began, this time looking at me, “how is it that we are standing here, you and me, on the biggest south-flowing river in the continent, watching sunset, over the main channel? Everyone knows the river runs south, and the sun sets in the west. But you have tricked us into camping on east shore of some lake or something, where the sun sets over the water to the west, and made us believe we were on the Mississippi” And with that, he turned and walked away as if I had deceived him with this elaborate construction. My jaw dropped in surprise at the conclusion he came to! Poor chap. No one had told him that we would paddling around the biggest loop on the river, nor that we would be camped within this northeasterly flowing quadrant. Out of all of the thousands of miles of river, there is only one particular place that this seeming contradiction could hold true. But here it was. And here we were camped in that one very exact spot where this anomaly could hold true!
I took pity on him, and followed him to the campfire to redress the wrong. I drew a picture of where we were, and the shape of the river, and explained to him how his senses were deceived not by me nor the river, but by his misunderstanding of where we were. Everyone laughed at his misconception. But that only made things worse. He withdrew and said not another word to me the whole night.