Rivergator Appendix VII
Lower Mississippi River Dispatch
No 253, Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Raucous River Bottoms
The 2014 Ruskey Family Reunion was held in my father’s homeland behind Vancouver Island: the Inside Passage, the Fraser River Valley. My father built clinkers as a kid, and explored the muddy flats and estuaries of the mighty Fraser River. One of his uncles constructed a log raft from piles of driftwood and explored the Peace River in the early 1900s. This summer, in July, the Fraser was running fast and muddy. But instead of the rich browns common to the Lower Mississippi, it was running the color of cement, the color of glacial-ground granite, the color of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
On the way up north I had the joyous opportunity to wander some of the rocky floodplain bottoms below a couple of big glaciers of British Columbia and Alaska. I was accompanied by my daughter Emma-Lou and nephew Gavin. The funny thing is that I could see the geologic history of the Mississippi in these mountain ice field valleys. Icefields a thousand feet thick oozed out like thick buttermilk pancake batter from high mountain plateaus as they were engorged with the copious snowfall typical of the coastal ranges. Glaciers emerged from the edges of the icefields and descended through steep canyons collapsing thousands of feet in elevation to finally level out in broad flat valleys below, often at sea level or just above it. It was in these flat valleys full of glacier melt that the imprint reminiscent of the ancient Mississippi could be seen. Every time I meandered along these raucous river bottoms I got a bad case of Mississippi vertigo. The valleys here are full of wild cement-colored whitewater bouncing out of U-shaped valleys into completely flat bottomlands stretched out like a gravelly ironing board between the steep cliff-faced mountains. Maybe it was just homesickness, but the shapes of these braided bottoms and the myriad curves of the tumbling glacial melt reminded me of the same patterns and shapes seen in the alluvial bottomlands of my beloved muddy river (as when the Mississippi is seen from the air, or on geomorphologic maps, like those drawn by Saucier). You can see it in the flat valleys at the terminus of the Stikine River, the Chilkat, the Salmon, and the Bear River, and in the rivers emerging from the Columbia Icefields of Jasper.
Many millennia ago, perhaps ten to fifteen thousand years, the Middle and Lower Mississippi Valleys were formed by the melting of the Continental Ice Cap. There were no canyons here, because there are no mountain ranges. And yet everything else is the same: icefields, melting ice, big volume meltwater, fantastic braided pathways scourging over the earth, deep imprints left in the floodplain as the ice caps and then later the muddy waters receded. The maker is always revealed. The maker is seen in the rocky deposits, in the striations, in the loess bluffs, in the sedimentary deposits. In all places the hand of god is everywhere evident. Or as Jesus says in The Gospel of Thomas: “Recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you . For there is nothing hidden which will not become manifest… and nothing covered will remain without being uncovered…”
But you don’t have to go to any exotic locales to find the creator; you can find this goodness wherever you are, simply by stepping out of the cookie-cutter patterns of mankind and into the organic landforms of nature. The Middle/Lower Mississippi offers a chance to find this turbulent and beautiful wilderness within, here within the busy bosom of a busy nation. All you need to do is get over the levee and the whole world changes. The transformational power of the river’s soulful landscape turns your personal expedition into a journey into the wilderness of your heart, and you find new pathways to places never explored, or grown-over from neglect. When we work with our youth, as we do with the Mighty Quapaws, the Spring Initiative kids, the GRIOT kids, and the Helena Canoe Club, we seek to find and open up the overgrown trails, the trails that lead to the heart. Along the way our youth share in the excitement of self-discovery, self-knowledge, exploration of beauty, and peaceful existence with nature.
“Driftwood Johnnie” John Ruskey is the Chief Visionary Officer of Quapaw Canoe Company, and director of the Lower Mississippi River Foundation.