The River Illusion
As you paddle long distance you get this weird feeling that you are journeying deep into some undiscovered wilderness, because you paddle for days on end and don’t see anybody save passing towboats, and fishermen, and a few hunting camps. I call this the “river illusion.” The river illusion is not uncommon amongst the muddy floodplain rivers of mid-America, like the Lower Missouri, the Lower Arkansas, and here the Lower Mississippi -- rivers with big floodplains that squelch any serious bankside ambitions. By the very power of their unpredictable flooding waters which might jump and then fall 50 vertical feet in one season industry, suburbia, and most attempts at permanent infrastructure are kept at bay, and are tempered to a minimum. The grain elevators, steel plants and power plants are confined to the few high banks, and the cities to a few high bluffs. Otherwise, you can’t build it here, and as result the wild river rules a wild landscape.
The river illusion gets stronger the more time you spend on the river. And if you make a long distance expedition you begin to feel that the heart and gut of America, the mid-South and the deep-South, is still a forested landscape like it was 200 years ago, when the land was still endowed with endless deep woods and the wild paradise they create, so deep and thick that squirrels could cross from the Ozarks to the Appalachians without touching the ground, as they were able to do when the country was young.
Half Earth: Wild Places & Long Landscapes
The Middle Mississippi river annually rises and falls around 30-40 feet, and the Lower Mississippi 40-50 feet, sometimes more. These wildly fluctuating rivers create an unusual condition on all their adjoining lands, in the batture, the land between the river and the levee. Because of their catastrophic flooding humankind has been able to gain foothold in only a few high places along the way, and most of the riverbanks are covered in long swaths of forests, forested islands, sandbars, mudbars, and other wild places. Inadvertently the river has protected a very long and very narrow strip of wilderness in its batture, that runs almost uninterrupted from the southern border of St. Louis all of the way down to Baton Rouge. Even Interstate Highways do not interrupt. Those big highways are built on elevated causeways above the batture to protect the highways from annual flooding. The animals pass unmolested and undetected below the endless roaring of interstate traffic. The great biologist E.O. Wilson identifies these kinds of wild places as essential “long landscapes.” Long Landscapes are essential to the health of the natural world because they provide long distance migration for the species that need it. The greater Mississippi Valley provides the possibility for long migration routes to everything from American eel to white pelicans, from Louisiana black bear to monarch butterflies, from freshwater shrimp to least interior tern. Pallid sturgeon are making a remarkable comeback in the Lower Miss, and recently a paddlefish that was tagged on Moon Lake, Mississippi, was found on the Missouri River above Kansas City, which is 1354 miles by the shortest water route. The American eel migrates annually from hatching grounds in the Sargasso Sea. Of course, this fluidity affords migration for not so desirable “invasive” species like silver carp and wild boar. But we should not complain: we humanoids are the ultimate invasive species, and the river’s wild magic has assisted us in the same fluid fashion!
The Mississippi is the longest and narrowest wilderness in America. It is the only wilderness that is found on the doorstep of major cities (Memphis, New Orleans, St. Louis). Within minutes of putting in your canoe you can be surrounded by woods and water as provocative as any in the world. To enter it is as easy as sitting on the bank and watching the river flow. Roll up your pants and swish your feet in her waters. If you want to get deeper, get in a canoe and paddle for a day. Envelope yourself in a landscape that feels as far away as a desert wilderness or the highest mountains. E.O. Wilson proposes that we set aside half the earth to save the earth. In other words the earth’s creatures depend on space to maintain its diversity and health. While this would be impossible to do in the Mississippi Valley, we can help the tattered long landscape already intact by protecting as much of the wild lands we can, especially the lowlands that already get inundated by periodic flood waters. The Long landscape of the Mississippi could possibly someday connect to the longleaf pine belt to the south with the great north woods. The North woods could connect to the Canadian/Alaskan taiga, which is one of the major pieces in “Half the Earth.”
I first noticed the depth of the wilderness feeling one winter’s night in 2002 while paddling down the Lower Missouri towards St. Louis: “As we paddled through the bend above Glasgow, the trees sweeping cold dark branches through the sky I was suddenly struck by our grand illusion. Our companions the trees, the sandbars, the ducks and geese, the wild turkeys, the unbroken sky and wild expanses of water: we are all contained within a long serpentine womb of wilderness. But it is only as wide as its floodplain. Man and his machines eking out a wretched existence just out of our vision. We hear his engines and gunfire, smell his foul exhaust and paddle in his sewer. But his presence is as far away as the far side of the moon. We feel alone. We feel like the river is ours, and yet we are part of the river, something much bigger than ourselves, and something much greater than our comprehension. The rivers of the Midwest and the Mid-South making meandering pieces of paradise within the destruction of mankind. If the river is an illusion, then I gladly choose this dream, and will keep dreaming as long as I can…”
Rivergator: The Middle-Lower Mississippi River Trail
Looking at a map of North America you will inevitably be drawn to the bottom center of the continent where a meandering blue line broader than any other of the blue lines gracefully loops southward and empties into the Gulf of Mexico. It reaches out with long fingers and tentacles of other skinny blue lines which branch out eastwards and westwards from the Rockies to the Alleghenies encompassing the second largest catchment basin in the world. Along the way this line carves elegant river bends and giant oxbow lakes. One of the loops goes twenty miles to make one mile. This enchanting blue line marks the Lower Mississippi River, the largest river on the continent. Its big muddy waters and wide floodplain create a paradise for paddlers, birders, and anyone else seeking the solace of the wilderness. Expansive swaths of green are seen parallel to the loopy blue line and indicate the extensive and healthy bottomland hardwood forests still surviving between the levees. (Discounting the last 235 miles of the river below Baton Rouge where it leaves the wilderness and enters the intensely industrial port of New Orleans, also known as Chemical Corridor or Cancer Alley).
The origins of these waters are found upstream in America’s Heartland, St. Louis, where the Upper Miss confluences with the Missouri to form the Middle Miss. The Middle Miss separates the Pawnee Hills from the Ozarks and then meets the green waters of the Ohio at the southern tip of Illinois to form the Lower Miss. It is now the biggest volume water in this quadrant of the earth. You can trace this mysterious curvy blue line deep into the gut of America, the Deep South, down to the Gulf Coast. This valley was once an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico, then a glacial floodplain, and later a thriving jungle of 22 million acres. Even after it was settled, its forests cut, its back channels cut off and main channel vigorously maintained; even still the river rules the landscape with unimaginable power, annually rising and falling fifty vertical feet with fluctuations of millions of cubic feet per second, which prepares the stage for an unlikely setting in wilderness travel.