The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
Rivergator Appendix XXIV:
by John Ruskey
The Rivergator: Literary Analysis
The many available publications regarding the Lower Mississippi eddy into two categories, 1) personal travelogues and 2) scientific/historic/commercial works, neither of which satisfy the navigation & guiding needs of the modern American adventurer. Hence the need for the writing of the Rivergator.
The Naming of the Rivergator
The title Rivergator is derived from the national best-sellerThe Navigator, first published in 1801 by Zadok Cramer, with 12 subsequent printings. The Navigator described the Mississippi Valley for pioneer settlers streaming out of the Eastern United States in the first great wave of continental migrations that eventually led to the settling of the Wild West. Thomas Jefferson and other leaders were fearful that the French or the English would get there first. With the Lewis & Clark explorations and the introduction of the steamboat to the Mississippi River in 1812, Americans followed the big rivers up and down through the heart of the country, and The Navigator was their guide. In this spirit I have adopted the name Rivergator with the hope that Americans will rediscover their “wilderness within,” the paddler’s paradise created by the Lower Mississippi River. And that the Rivergator will be adopted by successive generations of canoeists and kayakers, and re-written as the river changes. Zadok Cramer also invented the numbering system for Lower Mississippi River Islands, a system still in use today.
Ernest Herndon’s Canoeing Louisiana and Canoeing Mississippi are the best sources for paddlers using tributaries rivers like the Yazoo, Big Black, Red, Ouachita and Atchafalaya Rivers. In fact he raised the bar so high with these guidebooks that no one will probably ever cross it. However the Mississippi is only lightly touched upon. Because of the extreme nature of the big river, its unique challenges and its hazardous obstacles, Ernest purposely focused on all rivers but the Mississippi, and avoided describing the big river in any detailed fashion. Canoeing Louisiana and Canoeing Mississippi provide a simple outline to the Lower Mississippi River, but were not written as comprehensive guidebooks for paddler’s use on the big river.
Online Guidebooks and Blogs
Besides the Rivergator, there are no internet guides for paddling the Lower Mississippi, but many adventurers have kept personal blogs which are sometimes helpful in gleaning information. Several of these blogs were useful in writing the Rivergator, such as those kept by Linnea Godderstad and Dave Blomquist in 2013, and Lucas and Nathalie (and their intrepid puppy-dog Tischer) from the “Paddle in Hand” Expedition.
After paddling the entire length of the Mississippi in 2014 Amy Lauterbach wrote a very useful synopsis in the BackpackingLight.com Forum describing how to paddle the Mississippi with a lot of original research about successful expeditions, what they are paddling, when they go, their routes, their gear, and many other topics. This was done in a well-written thoughtful manner, and besides the Rivergator might be the best information currently available. Amy’s report has been included in the Rivergator Appendix. http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/forums/thread_display.html?forum_thread_id=97345
Rivergator partner The Mississippi River Water Trail Association has started creating trails the Upper Mississippi River, from Louisiana down to Alton, which can be seen online at http://www.greatriverwatertrail.org. (Added to Rivergator Appendix).
Online guides to tributary rivers have proven valuable, such as the Missouri River Trail, www.missouririverwatertrail.org ( Water Resources Center, Missouri Department of Natural Resources). (Added to Rivergator Appendix).
While readable and sometimes blandly helpful for those who might follow their paddle strokes, the explorations of contemporary writers Eddy Harris (1988, Mississippi Solo: A River Quest), Jonathan Raban (1981, Old Glory: An American Voyage), B.C. Hall & C.T. Wood (1993, Big Muddy: Down the Mississippi through America’s Heartland), Edward Wright (1995, The Great River Caper), Ben Lucien Burman (1973, Look Down the Winding River)and Weldon Parker (1985, Magical Mississippi) are maddeningly empty of any useful information about the islands, the harbors, the landings – furthermore, they are completely devoid of instructions regarding reading the river. This is frustrating because taken together these authors amass a great potential for sharing river knowledge and experiences. Even power-boaters Jonathan Raban and Weldon Parker must have paid close attention to navigating the channels and exploring the islands (which offer the best campsites). And yet, instead of making useful observations and reporting on them they seem satisfied on entertaining the reader with yet another series of personal experiences and vignettes from the people and places along the river. Pleasurable –yes, but not in the least helpful the modern paddler on the Lower Mississippi.
The photo books Around the Bend: a Mississippi River Adventure by C.C. Lockwood (1998), and Mississippi River: A Photographic Journey (1987, Jerry Stebbins & Barbara Cameron ) are written in the same travelogue format, fun to read and full of beautiful photography, but missing any useful tips for reading the river or navigation details that are of extreme importance to paddlers.
On the other hand, much useful information can still be gleaned from the 1883 publication Life on the Mississippi, and to a lesser extent, 1885 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain, the great dean of Mississippi literature, raised the bar so high, no other writer since has been able to hurdle it. While the context of Huckleberry Finn is the model for many a young man’s river dreams (including mine! It brought me originally to the Mississippi Valley from the Rocky Mountains via Choate Rosemary Hall High School, Connecticut in 1983), some of which have been published (Down the Mississippi by Clyde Robert Bulla, 1954, is an example) no writer has been able to follow the quality of his lead in the wonderful and unparalleled Life on the Mississippi.
The first twenty chapters of Life on the Mississippi relate the adventures of the young Samuel Clemmons in his education as a cub pilot, in which he describes with brilliant detail the changing nature of the river’s face and the significance all of its various motions, the swirls, the boils, the rippling waves, and so on and forth (with his usual charming mixture of stories and anecdotes, and river scenery). At once Twain’s narration is told through the eyes of a painter, and engineer, and a poet. Life on the Mississippi remains to this day the best single introduction to “reading the river,” and it was published over a century ago! It is a prerequisite for any potential guides with my Quapaw Canoe Company. The only thing better than better than Life on the Mississippi is river experience.
With this thought in mind, the Rivergator will impart over twenty years of “reading the river,” and “reading the islands,” for modern day paddlers, eco-travelers and armchair adventurers.
The Rivergator will illustrate the changeable nature of the islands and river bends in maps and text, employing a wide variety of sources. The Pantheon of literature relating to the Lower Mississippi River is of course quite broad and extensive, almost as varied and deep as the river itself. I will leave off for now proving the ways in which The Rivergator fills a literary vacuum, and instead describe a selection of the titles I have read over the years in preparation for The Rivergator, many of which will be referenced, and all will be described in full bibliographic detail below.
Marion Bragg’s 1977 Historic Names and Places on the Lower Mississippi is my traveling bible for mile-by-mile understanding of the river’s unusual and sometimes contradictory nomenclature (one of the few books I carry during my paddling expeditions).
For map-making and graphic understanding of the morphology of the Mississippi River and its changing water/landscapes, the following were extremely helpful: Karl Bodmer’s America (paintings from the 1832-34 Prince Maxmillian expedition), America Mississippi (early 1800s, Charles Alexandre Lesueur), and Roger T. Saucier’s Geomorphology and Quaternary Geologic History of the Lower Mississippi River, 1994).
My maps are based on a combination of five sources: (1) The 1983 – 2015 Expeditions conducted by myself, Sean Rowe, Michael F. Clark, Joe Royer, Adam Elliott, John Gary, Paul and Michael Orr, and others; (2) the 1998 US Army Corps Flood Control & Navigation Maps of the Mississippi River, (3) the US Army Corps Hydrographic Surveys of 1988-1989 and 1991-1992; (4) the 7 ½ minute series and 15 minute series of the United States Geologic Survey for the regions being described and mapped, and lastly (5) satellite images available through Google Earth.
John Barry’s 1997 book Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and how it Changed America, depicts the river using the latest hydrologic & historic findings in its first six chapters, taken together in a chapter titled “The Engineers.” An earlier 1927 Flood narrative also useful and full of eye-opening documentary photographs & documents, is Pete Daniel’s Deep’n As it Come (1977). John McPhee’s essay on drainage in The Control of Nature (1989) is a stirring & eloquent narration of the controversial “Old River Control Structure” which was built in between the Atchaflaya River and the Lower Mississippi in an attempt to save New Orleans from the next 500 year flood. This Land, This Delta: An Environmental History of the Yazoo-Mississippi Floodplain (2005, by Mikko Saikku) has been extremely lucid and matter-of-fact in describing the forests and floodplain of the Mississippi Delta and how nature and the works of mankind have changed them, and continue to alter them.
For river explorations, I read and have referenced The Narratives of DeSoto Vol I & II (1904), La Salle, the Mississippi, and the Gulf: Three Primary Documents (1987), The Voyages of Marquette in the Jesuit Relations (1966: Readex Microprint), and The Travels of William Bartram (1791).
Some beautiful and telling river panoramas are expressed in John James Audubon’s 1834 Dileneation of American Scenery and Character and Agnes Anderson’s 1994 Approaching the Magic Hour (in which one chapter narrates a Mississippi River canoe journey made with her husband painter/potter Walter Anderson in 1924). Two helpful regional autobiographies are Hodding Carter’s Where Main Street Meets the Levee (1952), and Willam Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee (1950).
Even though he was on board a towboat in 1953, the observations of Photographer Charles Dee Sharp confirmed our experiences a paddlers about the presence of the Lower Miss: “Below St. Louis the geography changes; below Cairo it changes utterly. It’s a transcendent, timeless realm. There is an elemental awe about it. Everything human disappears in the riverscape. Emotions are affected, discomfited, made ambiguous. The horizon is empty, limitless. You are an irrelevant nothing in a watery wilderness. Through crazed boils and whirlpools [you] move upon the brown mass of water”
Applicable in only the most general sense to an overall contemporary understanding of the Mississippi River Basin is Mississippi Currents (1996, Andrew H. Malcolm & Roger Straus III) and The Mississippi: The Making of a Nation (2002 Stephen E. Ambrose & Douglas G. Brinkley).