The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
Rivergator Appendix VI
Mark River Rivergator Blogs
St. Louis born Mark “River” Peoples grew up hunting and fishing along the river with his father. These blogs come from two Rivergator Exploratory expeditions in 2014, one in high water of April and one in the low water of November.
Rivergator Chronicles: St. Louis to Cairo, Ill- The Shuttle
It’s three in the morning. Downtown Clarksdale is silent. Only the distant sound of stray dogs barking while they make their routine dumpster checks at the local restaurants. The Quapaws are packed ready for their fall expedition from St. Louis to Cairo, Ill. Quapaw pet, “Shady Cat”, slowly walks over and lays on the nearby trailer checking to see whats going on or trying to get one more bowl of milk before we part ways. The north wind puts a chill in the air as I check my cell phone for the time. Shuttle drivers Ellis”Smooth”Coleman and Reilly are running a little late, but it’s the Delta, and I’m somewhat use to that.I take the opportunity to have one more cup of ginger tea to warm my stomach knowing this would be the coldest expedition to date.
They finally arrive. Both are tall, lean, ex-basketball players born an raised in the Delta, now Mighty Quapaws and Red’s Juke Joint employees. Working together, keeping each other company, while they shuttle us to downtown St.Louis to start our journey. I set my alarm on my cellphone so I won’t miss crossing the Memphis Bridge to get my first glimpse of the Mississippi River at sunrise. It doesn’t disappoint, as I smile while Ellis shakes his head in enjoyment. You see, every time I get close to the River , I can’t help but smile, and Ellis has witnessed this behavior many times before.
We enter the Missouri Boothill. Even though a winter blast of cold has set in across the midwest, the rolling hills of southeast Missouri are bountiful and beautiful with the trees and fauna exploding with versions of red,purple,yellow, pink, and orange only seen in the natural world. Healthy hawks stand tall in the colorful, vibrant trees overlooking the highway hoping to spot an unaware rodent grazing in the grasses between the foliated limestone bluffs. Turkey vultures soar high over the rolling hills and grasslands. It’s the start of hunting season in Missouri and we spot smart, experienced deer bedded down close to the highway in the thicket waiting out the season. Due to their winter coats, they could barely be seen. Ellis can’t believe it, not ever seeing deer behave in this manner in the Delta where the highways are blanketed by crops of corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat, and milo.
We pass exits to historic river towns like Caruthersville, New Madrid, Cape Girardeau, and St.Genivieve as we get closer to highway 67 which leads to my family compound. I think about my Dad, hoping he has enough firewood to get through the winter. I predict that he’s probably feeding the chickens , ducks, and fish before heading to town to get the newspaper. The thermometer inside the truck continues to drop as we get closer an closer to our destination.
We reach the Meramac River. Growing up in St. Louis, this river symbolizes the divide between North and South counties , somewhat how the railroad tracks use to separate the cultures of the Delta. I start to reminisce about my childhood and not being accepted for who I was, until I showed my prolific athletic ability. I’ve never understood how many young men sacrifice their minds, bodies, and souls for ten to twenty years , then to be told they don’t have the experience or skill to be payed a competitive salary in the real world, while coaches continue to prosper from the success of their former athletes. Athletics teaches you discipline, fortitude, self worth , self-esteem, grit, character, work ethic, and to be an unselfish team player. If it wasn’t for participating in football, basketball, and track; I wouldn’t be the Quapaw leader, river guide, teacher, canoe builder, and river steward I am today.
We bend with the highway and I see a welcoming site-the Gateway Arch. My emotions flow cause I know it’s time. Time to focus on the mission in conditions not favorable for paddling. The temperature is barely above twenty degrees and storms are expected throughout the expedition. I feel as if I’m getting ready to play football, but this is for humanity. I have the opportunity to be apart of documenting, mapping, and exploring the islands, sandbars, and back channels of one of the most celebrated waterways of the world. To share this incredible river with humanity at www.rivergator.org is an honor and duty as a steward of this great river. A river that has sustained many cultures for centuries and was the key component in the building of our great nation. Thinking about all these factors, all I could do is smile. -Mark River
Rivergator Chronicles: St. Louis to Cairo, Ill- Elements and the Log
We pull into St. Louis. The cobblestone riverfront brings back memories of fishing with my father and late nights with high school and college friends. I meet our expedition partner, Tom, a videographer from Washington University of St. Louis. A prestigious university, who offered me an academic scholarship to play football out of high school, but I couldn’t afford the application fee. They didn’t give athletic scholarships, so you had to have the grades to earn an academic scholarship. Tom and his concerned father greeted us. To break the ice, we talked about the rivers of Missouri like the Huzzah, the Current, the Meramac, the Osage-and the White River in Arkansas, which we both grew up exploring. His plan was to document this expedition to introduce the Rivergator water trail to the masses in the surrounding area. We equipped him with a wetsuit and boots because the water temperature has dipped below sixty degrees.
It’s twenty-two degrees. The wind is gusting out of the south at twenty-five miles and hour. It’s so cold that the shuttle drivers refuse to leave the vehicle. The Port of St. Louis is busy with towboats and barges, while waves are white capping in the channel. A service boat heads directly towards us. I hope it’s not the Coast Guard knowing these are dangerous conditions are not manageable by novice paddlers.
Two men yell out,” What are you guys doing?”
I respond with confidence,” We’re headed to Cairo!”
They respond sarcastically,” Good luck?”
Assuming we knew what we were getting into, they continued on . The boat is packed and lowered into the channel, as we say goodbyes to our land crew. We paddle out to the middle of the channel. The white caps are bigger than observed from the shore. Our light weight canoe feels like we’re paddling through cement. The headwinds, temperature, white caps, towboats, and barges makes the River confused and defiant. Our plan of a twenty mile day has change drastically and doubt starts to creep into my mind. Waves and swells are crashing into the sides of the canoe, causing sprays of water, which freeze upon contact with my Filson wool overalls. I look down at my overalls, and they are frozen and feel like cardboard. My dreadlocks are frozen, as they scrape the side of my face, causing minor irritations and abrasions. My face feels like leather, as the wind and sun combine , causing a burning cocktail.
I settle down, as the sweet sounds of the seagulls sooth my mind. I realize that I would be fine. The combination of my wetsuit and wool overalls were keeping me warm and I’m doing exactly what I was born to do. We agree that we’ve had enough. Hunger has set in, burning extra fuel, do to the elements at hand. It’s fall, so the sun is setting fast, and we need to find a campsite to protect us through an arctic-like night. We pick a spot across a luxurious neighborhood on a high bluff. The home must be owned by an artist-as a sculpture of a woman with unusually long legs , dive into a pool.
The sandbar is littered with driftwood, frozen solid in the sand. We set up tents on the bluff in the forest to stop the frigid south wind. We dig firewood out of the permafrost type environment and make a needed fire. Instantly the feelings in my toes and hands come alive. I never appreciated a fire more than now. I stare at the fire and I write this poem.
The grandfather log,
so perfect in size,
a symmetrical cylinder.
Part of the tree of life.
Floating downriver from where?
Preserved and seasoned,
with its soul not settled.
So we free its soul by burning.
Benefiting from its warmth,
that frees my soul,
around the fire. Mark River