The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

River Photo Gallery


I remain astounded by the beauty of pelicans, which before this trip I knew as simply an unwieldy-looking, fish-eating seaside bird.


I had been told it would be like this — wild and quiet and verdant — but still I was surprised. I thought I knew the local geography. But when you’re accustomed to tawdry highway gas stations and strip malls, it’s hard to imagine that this kind of quiet, undisciplined greenery persists.


Spend enough time on the river and you’re going to learn what a storm looks like. In the distance, in the big sky above the river, it’s just a shifting grey mass. Rain streaks down in ghostly tendrils. But from inside the storm it’s different. The water is scalloped by rain drops, and wind drives down in angles. The world closes in, grey and white and cloudy. Then, suddenly, it opens up.


John says that to find the water, it’s less about vision than a kind of feeling: you have to open yourself up. You make most of the decisions before you can absorb or calculate it all.


As the turtles dive, it strikes me that while we’ve seen plenty of animals we’ve seen no one else in the batture all day. 


The river can be home. And not just for the life we see – which this week has included alligator and alligator gar, box turtles and cypress and Spanish moss – but for us paddlers, and anyone who loves its flow.


Today I stopped counting miles, or worrying about when we'd hit the shore. Eventually, we just set the paddles down and drifted. I lay back on the bow of the canoe, backwards – with my feet on the seat and my head dangling over the water. It struck me that this river is at once very fast and very slow, though I'm not sure there's anything meaningful in that observation.


That is what Thoreau loved about a wetland. “Hope and the future,” he wrote in Walking, “are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.”


So many places exist like this, overlooked but beautiful. Even at the edges of the walled-in wild — as I call the lands inside the levees, along the Mississippi River — there are places of refuge for those who have chosen to live outside the mainstream.


Floating on these slower waters, with the trees hanging closer, you can see each leaf, fluttering down on the wind, you can hear the hum and buzz of all the life inside the Big Woods.


The willows budded overnight at our Birds Point camp; and today, finally, the water has warmed enough for me to take a swim. Clean and fresh—and awaiting campfire rabbit stew. Onward into springtime, with many miles to go.


Walker Percy wrote elegiacally of the river boats, whose sound, he said, “hangs inside your heart like a star.” But today riverboats tow on. This new breed of industrial brutes still possesses grandeur and magnificence; they are, after all, massive things. 


Sometimes these blue holes grow to the size of an Olympic swim pool, and are filled with delightful dancing blueish/greenish water.  Other times they become diminished with murky green-black water and mud slip bottoms inhabited by turtles and minnows and who knows what else.


Hidden behind the levees, the batture and its backwaters have been forgotten. That has given these woods an appealing loneliness — but we can’t forget to protect these places, too.


The river, too, is not something that can be owned. It is its own beast, wet and windy, and no matter our plans and our policies, it’s going to do what it likes.


Nature includes life and death; it cycles up and down.


Life along the river depends on the slow-moving, seasonal backwaters that thread through these riverside forests, now more than ever before. 


This is a messy sort of wild. The batture is the leftovers: the little bit that was left unconquered after we pushed out our levee wall as far as it could go.


I could feel at times the water, flowing beneath my feet, beneath the hull, could feel the slight resistance as the water split around the paddle: ah, yes: the river and the day came clear.


On the horizon, we see vast complexes that look like the city of Oz, but merrily decked with a fringe of water and trees. But the weather is calm, and so we move forward. We take the days as they come.


Out here—with my bed unfurled above the sand and below the stars, and listening to the wash of the water—to say I miss home would be wrong. Most of the time I feel that I’m home already.


Almost every night we heard the gurgling howls of coyotes, the splash of deer jumping, the slap of beaver tails against the water. The paradise I needed.


Out here—with my bed unfurled above the sand and below the stars, and listening to the wash of the water—to say I miss home would be wrong. Most of the time I feel that I’m home already. (DUPLICATE)


Birds sit watchful in the treetops; colonies of fire ants have linked their legs to form a fabric that floats on the water and shimmers as they move their legs. The natural world thrives in this water.


Certainly it is more beautiful from afar than from within: from the river it is a stack of yellow lights, arranged in an array, reflecting out across the water. The reflections, I noticed, were cut by the riffles of the fast-moving water: and there, I realized, in the fast-moving river, was evidence of that otherwise forgotten past—and also the present, and also the future of this valley.


Our sense of time and history is often crippled by our short time on earth. Geologists, though, must think in the time of rocks, in “deep time,” a scale that spans the billions of years since a spinning cloud of molecules spit out this thing called Earth. The oldest river in North America has existed for just one-and-a-half percent of the planet's history. Humanity? We’re pretty much nothing.


The willows budded overnight at our Birds Point camp; and today, finally, the water has warmed enough for me to take a swim. Clean and fresh—and awaiting campfire rabbit stew. Onward into springtime, with many miles to go.


Downtown St. Louis sat just on the horizon, and as the sky dimmed, the city lights came up, their shadows trailing across the water. Twinkling there were thousands of people, and almost none of them knew what they were missing.


I’ve known people that have chosen to live alongside rivers, in humble freedom, simply because they find it a better home. My days in this wilderness have taught me to sympathize.


There are many memoirs about expeditions down the Mississippi. None of them can be complete: Twain’s river, after all, is different than John’s; and the river traveled by La Salle and Marquette was different still; and the river paddled by Indian hunters and warriors and priests for thousands of years earlier was another place again. That’s just the truth in such an endlessly shifting place.


Floating on these slower waters, with the trees hanging closer, you can see each leaf, fluttering down on the wind, you can hear the hum and buzz of all the life inside the Big Woods.


And so we camped beneath the bridge – the highway roaring over our heads. In other circumstances this might have struck me as dingy, even dangerous, but not that night. I was tired enough that the rush of traffic above us was little more than white noise for our sleep. And I've now spent long enough on this river to know that its banks – in practice at least – belong to anyone and everyone.


At low water, there is no flow, but the pool is deep and murky, in the summer full of turtles, in the winter full of fish.


Small frogs and turtles skip between logs, while kingfishers stealthily fly across the channel hunting for baitfish. Raccoons scramble up trees, while great blue herons and hawks occupy the trees.


After all, what really is wildness? Let’s start with the fact that it is a human-centered thing: wildness is a knowledge of — and wonder at — forces that are bigger than ourselves.


Our skeleton team has built up a rhythm that adds something to this sense of the wild. Andy builds the fire; Chris cooks dinner; in the morning, I load up the canoe. In these remote corners of the river, we’ve banded together in our routine. (DUPLICATE)


Death hangs in other ways, too; there was a cross planted beneath a tree, just behind our camp, to honor one of the many suicides committed here. There were haints creeping around our camp, John said. I'm not sure if they were protecting us, or doing something worse.


Moss and shrubs grow up from the hardened mud. Beaver and deer and turtles find their new home. An island is born.


The yellow lights, arrayed against the darkening sky, were reflected on the river. A fast-moving riffle troubled their perfect geometry, creating a reflected underworld, imprinted briefly on the river. The river, the swamp, the sunset, the light: Here was something larger and more resilient than my weary, broken flesh.


I’ve known people that have chosen to live alongside rivers, in humble freedom, simply because they find it a better home. My days in this wilderness have taught me to sympathize. (DUPLICATE)


Despite our attempts to conquer this river, a ghost of that old backswamp remains. There, beyond the levee that keeps the farms and townships dry, are miles of woods — the “Big Woods,” William Faulkner called them. The batture, it’s called, the land between the levees — a lovely French word, little used beyond the Lower Mississippi. I have my own phrase for it: I call it the “walled-in wild.” (DUPLICATE)


Our skeleton team has built up a rhythm that adds something to this sense of the wild. Andy builds the fire; Chris cooks dinner; in the morning, I load up the canoe. In these remote corners of the river, we’ve banded together in our routine.


Our cities and structures, in the long view, become mere campsites—only the river remains.


As we ferried across the river, seeking a campsite—cutting through the biggest white-cap waves we'd yet seen—a luxury steamboat, was passing upstream. "Wave for the tourists," said Adam. They were looking at us, I realized, the same way we look at the bears and geese and coyotes: a river curiosity. We are the wild ones now.


A soft glow from the lights is just visible above the trees. But camped on a sandy island beach, my tent backed by a forest of willows, looking up at a sky of bright stars, I cannot imagine a more wonderfully inaccessible place.


A canoe binds you: you're stuck in your seat, nowhere to go, nothing to do, stroke after stroke after stroke. You start to see yourself, scrubbed clean by that stuckness.


The point of the Rivergator expedition was to invite others out to this wild place. We’ve accomplished that: more than 40 people have joined us along the way, many experiencing big-river paddling for the first time in their lives.


Despite our attempts to conquer this river, a ghost of that old backswamp remains. There, beyond the levee that keeps the farms and townships dry, are miles of woods — the “Big Woods,” William Faulkner called them. The batture, it’s called, the land between the levees — a lovely French word, little used beyond the Lower Mississippi. I have my own phrase for it: I call it the “walled-in wild.”


There is wildness in the strange crooks of the trees.

DUPLICATE -- earlier version?

(I don't think this one was exhibited.)

This appears to be a partial shot of a duplicate painting.

Partial shot of duplicate painting?

(I don't think this was exhibited.)

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