Vicksburg to Natchez
In early summer of 2003 a not-so-young but starry-eyed couple descended from the pavilion at Grand Gulf State Military Park and walked to the water’s edge accompanied by the maids of honor and best man and in fact most of the wedding party, some with champagne bottles in their hands, everyone feeling tipsy and enthralled with the blues music booming off the bluff and the spirit of the party. The road to the river had been closed by the spring highwater, but the groom carried the bride over flooded places and they continued down the Grand Gulf road to the river where the getaway vehicle awaited them. This was my wife and I, and the getaway canoe was the first I ever owned, the Water Pony , an 18 foot aluminum Grumman, which had been decorated for the occasion and outfitted with overnight gear and goodies. My wife Sarah boarded the canoe and graced the bow in full wedding dress with a dozen red roses. I in the stern with tux and one red rose as my lapel. We paddled off to the resounding cheers and whoops and hollers appropriate to the occasion. Shoes were being kicked off (or not) and people waded into the water after us. When I looked back at least half of the party was waist deep in the river. It looked like a baptism was going on. (A funny aside: A fisherman came motoring up in the middle of the mayhem to make landing, and looked around disconcertedly. He was handed a bottle of champagne by one of the revelers. A month later in Clarksdale a friend of mine was telling the story about his friend in Port Gibson who came upon a wild wedding party with half the people in the muddy river and was amazed when he got handed a bottle of champagne -- small world).
Sarah and I paddled into the flooded forest just far enough to get out of sight, and then we ducked into a wooded area crowded with flooded mulberries draped with wild grape vines and used this as our changing room. We would have kept paddling dressed as we were, (I would have given anything to hear some tow pilot’s comments seeing us in but we had to get our rented clothes back to Shankerman’s in Clarksdale before we disappeared for the honeymoon. Sarah made the change quicker than I did. That’s when I knew things were going to be alright for the future. We drifted in the current for a little while savoring the quiet moment while plucking ripe mulberries off the trees. The songbirds were as excited as we were. It was a crystal clear day with baby blue skies. I could have kicked my feet up and fallen asleep. But we had places to be. As soon as the whooping and hollering quieted down, we figured we could slip back unseen and leave our wedding clothes at the end of the road for pickup from Welsey Jefferson “The Mississippi Junebug,” to return to town. But my best man (and best friend) Sean Rowe had anticipated us and was waiting at road’s end with a basket full of cheeses, fruits and meats. We exchanged handclasps and hugs and parted ways. That would be one of the last times I saw Sean. He landed in jail shortly after this, and not many years after took his own life. His ashes are spread in the river, and his memorial is hung in a cottonwood tree commanding the top end of Island No. 64.
Sarah and I paddled out and across the rampaging river, and then fought our way up the eastern edge of Middle Ground Island to a previously designated honeymoon site. Sean and most of my brothers and my step-daddy, and some friends including “Big Muddy” Mike Clark had scouted the island in the days previous to the wedding, and then continued downstream to Natchez on a 3-day Bachelor’s Party adrift the river in the Ladybug Voyageur Canoe. Big Muddy Mike took note of the location I chose and crafted up some good-hearted river rapscallionishness. Unbeknownst to Sarah and I Big Muddy and one of my first Mighty Quapaw Apprentice Ethan West snuck back to the island the night before the wedding and left us a gift of a pile of driftwood for the fire and an interesting piece of walnut driftwood root peppered with bottles of good wine. This was a pleasant surprise indeed as Sarah and I paddled up to Honeymoon Beach and laid out our Honeymoon campsite. What we didn’t realize is that trickster Big Muddy and Ethan had radioed all the towboat pilots in the area with the news and had made a devilish request: “Driftwood Johnnie John Ruskey of the Mighty Quapaws and his wife Sarah are honeymooning at Middle Ground Island mile 409.1 and we are requesting all passing tows light up their torches and spotlight their honeymoon camp... please pass this request down the line for all approaching traffic!” And so evening fell, and the mosquitoes poured out of the woods like banshees, and Sarah and I disappeared into the safety of our “night sky” tent. It was a great summer tent, a 4-man with nothing but screen, you could feel the soft summer breeze and see the stars all around. Of course, you could just as easily see in, but there was no one within two miles of this location, and we blissfully laid out and enjoyed our first night as husband and wife. No one around except towboats, as Big Muddy knew. The thing Big Muddy Mike didn’t take into account is that you should never share exact details for honeymoon night with anyone, not even your best friends. And so I pointed out one location to everyone, but we actually went to another location on the island, and moved the pile of driftwood and the rootball full of wine to that even more beautiful honeymoon spot. We kept seeing the tows blaze up that corner of the island all night long and I kept wondering what in deuces was going on? Deer season? No, couldn’t be that. A nudist camp? Nah, not that either. There are only two things night-time pilots are interested in and that is deer or topless women. It wasn’t until weeks later when Big Muddy asked how I had slept that first night with a snigger and a grin that I realized the full scope of his little prank. But I got in the last laugh when I told him how we had switched camps!
Unfortunately in these times of “this land is MY land, this land is NOT your land” the forested table top of Middle Ground, including Honeymoon Beach, has been vigorously posted NO TRESPASSING by the Middle Ground Island Hunting Camp, with the warning Violators Will be Prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, blah, blah, blah.