Rivergator Appendix VIII
St. Louis to Caruthersville
by Stephanie Artz
Stephanie Artz is a yogi, artist and writer living near the largest oxbow lake in the Mississippi Valley, Lake Chicot. Her husband Mark Howell is the director of Winterville Mounds, which is 2nd to Cahokia in size.
This is my third paddle on the Mississippi with John Ruskey and Clarksdale based Quapaw Canoe Company, as part of a five year project documenting an on-line paddlers’ guide for the Mississippi River, www.rivergator.org; I have been on Rivergator explorations from Greenville, MS to Vicksburg, MS., November 18-22 2013, Vicksburg, MS to Baton Rouge, LA., April 12-20 2014, and this is my account from St. Louis to Caruthersville, MO. May 26-June 5 2014.
The Rivergator is a guide to the Mississippi River. It is meant for experienced paddlers, in any human powered craft to use for navigation and camping purposes including detailed information on water level changes, how and why to choose camp sites, (a very important decision on the river) tow boat information, historical accounts, paddling conditions, environmental changes… as John summed it up, it’s mainly a guide against bad advice.
John Ruskey knows the Mississippi River, he has floated or paddled it for 30 years on everything, including a log. He’ll tell you that it is faster, wider, wilder, more dynamic, more exposed, more alive, add as many superlatives as you like, than other rivers. He loves it, passionately, and wants it to be accessible to the paddling public.
Large, mythic, majestic, and maligned most have heard that the river will swallow you down, spin you around and spit you out, or not. John is committed to what in his experience is the safest boat, a handmade voyager style canoe, 33 foot long, five feet wide in the middle and tapered to symmetrical bow and stern, all boards on a curve, cypress and redwood just like the vessels that for hundreds maybe thousands of years American natives and later European explorers plied. My take is that he may think motors, certainly combined with alcohol are not the safest way to navigate the river, especially without any paddles. As high school students many of us have read Mark Twain’s Tales of the Mississippi describing freedom seeking Jim and the young huckster Huck on a raft adventure down the Mississippi. The idea has inspired others, including John, and the issues there, he said one night, came from steering a 12 by 24 foot rectangular craft. All said, the river is dangerous, like the ocean, and demands respect, and in large canoes with seasoned paddlers the river has rewarded this humble paddler with the ultimate freedom seeking river adventure.
I am a woman, passed 40 a few years back, a New Yorker for twenty-three years where I was a professional dancer for twenty of them. I spent my childhood up in New Hampshire. For a trip with Quapaw the only requirement is a willingness to paddle. I have nearly always liked what is real in the offerings of life and have sought out the unpretentious. On the river we ate healthy food, I relearned wilderness camping, we watched river vistas, and I enjoyed conversation and company with people who are exceptional at what they do. The crew, who call themselves Quapaws, named for the Native American group known as the downstream people, are cheerful masters on the river. They are fun, skillful cooks and exceptional paddlers that exceed a purist’s aesthetic. For whole, singular experiences, you will love the Mississippi River and especially the Quapaws. It’s the best way, and with a guide, I think, the only way to paddle.
We began on the Missouri River and in less than a mile we paddled into the faster flowing Mississippi seeing a color line in the water obvious from the perspective of a canoe. From the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi River we began noticing and counting over 100 American Bald Eagles, including juveniles without the iconic white head and tail feathers. By the time we got to the end of the middle Mississippi at the Ohio River confluence, half way through the trip to Caruthersville, MO, we decided to stop counting. On Duck Island north of St. Louis an eagle family of four nested on an east facing cottonwood perch giving us our first look at them. This thrilling comeback for a bird which in my lifetime went from nearly extinct to evidently thriving is evidence of a healthy water system. Documentation and preservation of the batture, which means the land including everything wet or dry between the levees on the Mississippi, is a priority for Rivergator.org, John and the Quapaw Canoe Company. More eyes on the river mean more chance for the batture to be healthy and wild. Without paddlers, who tend to be good witnesses, conditions in the batture could more easily deteriorate. For instance on May 30, a late Friday afternoon, as we entered the lower Mississippi, about fifteen miles below the confluence of the Ohio River a crop duster dumped the last of the load over the banks of the river. He was heading home I imagine, at the end of the day, perhaps he felt invisible and alone. But he advertised to us his ignorant or simply irresponsible work habits and brought shame to the larger Mississippi Delta farm industry. Hopefully it could become more difficult, as paddlers make the more remote parts of the Mississippi visible, to do these kinds of things unnoticed.
Leaving the eagles on Duck Island we zoomed over the Chain of Rocks, a large shoal that in lower water creates rapids where the Mississippi River comes through St. Louis. The sound of rushing water was a thrill though the actual descent, which was fun, barely speeded up our sturdy canoe. Our accompanying kayaker, Layne Logue, closer to the water got a bigger thrill. We camped on Mosenthein Island which is viewable from neighborhoods in north St. Louis. It lies seven miles south of ancient Cahokia, a Native American city east of the Mississippi occupied from around 1050-1200AD by the mysterious and precocious Cahokians, great innovators in government, pottery, buildings and culture they also maintained extensive trading routes covering the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, the Eastern Seaboard and the foothills of the Rockies. A fascinating book on the topic is Timothy Pauketat’s Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi, which describes Cahokia’s recent history, former significance to the entire Mississippian ancient world. This large portion of American culture then was centered along the course of the mighty river, rather than as now defined along the Mason-Dixon Line.
Mark Peoples, called River, our bow paddler and a former defensive back for the New York Giants hailed from north St. Louis. He told me that, fishing from shore, he thought if only he could take a boat to Mosenthein. Surely, the fishing is better. He and his friends all sat there and wanted a boat. His take on the river was for me a spontaneous tutorial on athleticism, paddling and culture along the Mississippi. That night after dinner I set my tent up optimistically but poorly and got drenched in a windy thunder storm soon after dark. After taking cover in the only other woman, Gail Guido’s tent, when it stopped raining I took my sleeping bag down by the campfire coals to sleep in the sand. This is the kind of thing I end up doing at times on these trips but also in general so I try to learn and keep up. The rain did stop completely, strangely I knew it would, the stars came out and I enjoyed sleeping in the sand. Sand, in fact, is surprisingly comfortable. Before dawn John got the fire ready for cowboy coffee, a particularly strong blend with grounds that make it a good way to wake up and I had a front row seat to the changing and growing river-with-sky sunrise.