The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
373 – 371 LBD Fairchild (Skull) Island
Like all Mississippi River islands Fairchild grows and diminishes with the water level. At high water it is a one-and-a-half mile long willow topped island with scrubby bottoms that are impenetrable in places with swamp privet and vines. At medium its back channel dries out (around 25NG) and a beautiful sandbar forms starting from the bottom end descending in height upwards (meaning the best sugary sand is found along the main channel bottom end). A shallow muddy/sandy bar extends outwards and upwards from the top of the island also at medium water, and growing in length and width until the entire inside of the bend from 375 down to 371 is one giant sandbar along which the main channel of the river flows, and exposed sandy places can be found anywhere around its perimeter. The rippled profusion of muddy pools amongst the mud bars and sand bars makes this an important bird habitat favored by all waders and waterfowl including white pelican, roseate spoonbill, gulls and sometimes anhinga. Bald eagles and other opportunists will make a visit also when the water suddenly drops and fish get trapped in the standing pools.
We started calling Fairchild “Skull Island” in the Spring of 2014 when an unusual freak storm slammed us as we were rounding Ashland Bend and navigating towards this ideally situated island for a campsite. Tattered shreds of fog hung around the woods and then disappeared in the wind. Later we discovered a deer skull at our camp and ot became our adornment. The word anhinga comes from the Brazilian Tupi language and means devil bird or snake bird. This all seems to confirm the appropriateness of the new name “Skull Island,” but of course time will tell what sticks and what doesn’t.
Coming past the bottom of Lower Waterproof, the paddler gets his first view of the towering bluffs at Natchez 12 miles downstream. They don’t look like much. In fact it’s to tell what exactly you’re looking at. It could be an island. Or a forest. It could be another line of trees down the next bend of the river. But as you approach landmarks become distinguishable. Buildings take shape. Church spires become apparent. You can make out the vague shape of Natchez Under the Hill Saloon. You see the other buildings down silver street. You see the casino. But you can’t see the steamboat wheel. You watch a towboat scoot down the river and its barges disappear over the horizon, all you can see is the pilothouse, and then the pilothouse disappears also.
What is going on? Is this the end of the earth? Is this the place that sailors feared where the earth comes to an end and all the water pours over the edge? If there is an end to the river it looks like you could have reached it here because that person you saw walking down the boat ramp below Natchez Under the Hill (through your binoculars) just disappeared from view.
No this is not the end of the world. It’s something equally spectacular though. And mystical. This stretch of river is so long and so straight that you are looking over the curvature of the earth. We tend to think of the earth as a flat surface. Our maps are flat. Our lines are linear. Even google earth, which attempts to portray the earth in 3-D simulation does it on a flat screen which has its own inherit limitations. So to experience the curvature of the earth in such vivid expression is an amazing experience. And this is just one more example of what a day on the big river can do to your understanding of the natural environment. But no amount of logical explanation will equal the feeling of being on a river so big and so wide and flowing this long canyon of foliage and bluffs, it’s difficult to come to understanding of it as a river because of the great width. The mind has difficulty accepting the width, for one thing because you can’t see the other side. If someone was standing on the shore opposite you would not see them in most places. It feels like your camp is as far from the next island or the next sandbar downstream as the far side of the moon. This feeling is accentuated in winter time by the presence of cold water. It is further heightened in storms. I’ve never felt so lonely and subject to the largesse and whims of nature as I have on the Lower Miss, even with the endless parade of passing tows, who are seem as intangible as a passing satellite sliding across the night sky.
The towering Natchez Bluffs become the target for the southward flow of river — and your multi hour paddle required to reach the safety of their shores at Natchez-Under-the-Hill. You might pull out here to enjoy the decadences of the town, but the river of course keeps rolling along, churning deeper and more violently as the Natchez Bluffs force her to turn away from her southern progress and head west under the Natchez Bridge and on downstream back into the Louisiana Delta. Natchez is Mississippi Loess Bluff #4 the first being Vicksburg, followed by the Big Black, and the Petite Gulf. Natchez is also the home and named after that great nation that once inhabited these same bluffs, the people of the Great Sun.
The Great Sun – The Natchez People
Watching the sun rise over the Natchez bluffs you can imagine the great culture that once thrived here and dominated the river upstream and downstream. They were so strong that they survived all European intrusions well into the 1700s. They almost put an end to the DeSoto Expedition. They repulsed the French with the “Natchez Revolt” of 1729, but eventually succumbed to subsequent battles with colonists and associated tribes, and latter scattered to the four winds. Their spirit lives on in the Natchez bluffs and the powerful river below. You can get a glimpse of their vitality at the Grand Village of the Natchez State Historic Site, found on the banks of St. Catherine Creek several miles upstream of the Mississippi. (See below entry for the St. Catherine Creek. You can paddle up to the Natchez Village, but only in Flood waters). The Grand Village is a must-see for any paddlers stopping in Natchez.
The Natchez are noted for being the only Mississippian culture with complex chiefdom characteristics to have survived long into the period after the European colonization of America began. Others had generally declined a century or two before European encounter. The Natchez are also noted for having had an unusual social system of nobility classes and exogamous marriage practices. It was a strongly matrilineal society with descent reckoned along female lines. The paramount chief named the Great Sun was always the son of the Female Sun, whose daughter would be the mother of the next Great Sun. This ensured that the chiefdom stayed under the control of the single Sun lineage. Ethnologists have not reached consensus on how the Natchez social system originally functioned, and the topic is somewhat controversial.
The Natchez chiefs were called Suns, and the paramount chief was called the Great Sun (Natchez: uwahšiL li?kip). When the French arrived, the Natchez were ruled by the Great Sun and his brother, “Tattooed Serpent.” The Great Sun had supreme authority over civil affairs, and the Tattooed Serpent oversaw political issues of war and peace, and diplomacy with other nations. Both lived at the Grand Village of the Natchez. Lesser chiefs, mostly from the Sun royal family, presided at other Natchez villages. (From Wikipedia)
Adam Elliott, Natchez Outpost of the Quapaw Canoe Company
Paddlers wanting assistance in this stretch of river can be benefitted by presence of big river guide Adam Elliott. Adam is based in Natchez at the Quapaw Canoe Company Natchez Outpost, and provides expert services for anyone paddling through this entire region, including guiding and outfitting, meals and shuttle. Call Adam 601-807-5382 or send an email firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to www.island63.com and click on the Natchez section for more info. Adam can meet you just about anywhere between Vicksburg and Baton Rouge, and either answer the questions you might have, or provide you paddler’s service with a smile — and lots of good stories thrown in. Looking something like a modern day Don Quixote, his river stories alone are worth any fee you might have to pay for his services.