LMRD 815, Monday, December 21, 2020
The Lower Mississippi River Dispatch
"Voice of the Mississippi River"
"May the serene low-angle light of the Winter Solstice and the spectacular Jupiter-Saturn Conjunction bring beauty and grace to your life!" (Blessing from the Mighty Quapaws)
Mara Hartmann (l) and Nicole Bradshaw (r) experienced our favorite stretch of river, the Muddy Waters Wilderness, during an adventure this fall, and Mara was inspired to write about it, as unfolded below.... Thanks Mara for sharing!
ROLLIN’ ON THE RIVER:
MUDDY WATER WILDERNESS
“The Mississippi, the Ganges, and the Nile,... the Rocky Mountains, the Himmaleh, and Mountains of the Moon, have a kind of personal importance in the annals of the world.”—Henry David Thoreau
I’ve visited Mississippi River islands before. The first time was in my 20s when I was a TV journalist at WABG in Greenville. A fellow reporter and I got wind on the scanner that something was going down out in the river. He grabbed a video camera and off we went to Lake Ferguson, where we paid a guy with a boat $20 to follow the black smoke we saw coming from one of the islands. Turned out, the MS Bureau of Narcotics and local law dogs had uncovered a rather large pot-growing operation on the island’s interior, to which they’d set fire. (An odd choice for this particular crop’s destruction, I thought).
The second time, I was co-host of MPB’s Mississippi Outdoors. A hunting club invited us to go deer hunting with dogs on their private island. A large bonfire the night before and some great cooking & company preceded our successful hunt the next morning. But the digs were not so comfy---bunks in a mostly male-only inhabited cabin.
Then, a couple of years ago, Patrick and I went to Tara Wildlife for the day. Quapaw Canoe Company had an 18-person canoe there, and we joined a group paddling to a nearby island for a couple of hours of swimming and exploration.
So when a dear friend asked if I’d join her for a multi-day canoe/camping trip with Quapaw, I jumped at the chance. John Ruskey himself, Quapaw’s founder whom many call the John Muir of the lower Mississippi (and who I now call ‘friend’), would be our guide. Our trip would cover 20-plus miles downstream in part of what’s known as the “Muddy Water Wilderness”—a journey through some of the most remote and wild islands and forests, camping under stars I haven’t seen since sleeping on top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
Fellow Mississippians, this is your birthright. This is your land and if you haven’t yet discovered it, you should see what’s in your own backyard before you take off for a destination far from home. You might discover it’s every bit as beautiful, remote and inspiring as anywhere you’ve been—maybe even more so. I did.
As the sun set on Day 1 of our trip, the sky began to come alive. First, it was the planets. John explained that I was looking at Jupiter and Saturn. I recognized Mercury and always Venus, the evening star. As the moon was still on the rise, the sky began to darken and the stars to twinkle. Ursa Major and the Milky Way were clearly visible. We were awash in starlight. Oh, how much we miss at home to the light pollution of the city!
When I awoke in the early hours and stepped out of the tent, the nearly full moon was almost straight overhead and it and the stars lit up the sand and dunes, and it was pure magic. The wind blew through the cottonwoods and I heard the hoot of an owl. The next morning over coffee (with a shot of Maker’s Mark to warm the inside), we sat before the fire and enjoyed a special breakfast, “Tower Island Crunch”: toasted oats and a variety of fruits and nuts cooked over the open flame in a recipe created by Mark River, one of Quapaw’s guides. (I hear he has a great podcast, but have not looked it up just yet.) Well-fed, we set out to explore the island more fully. We canoed to one sandy end, piled high with driftwood, and took off through the forest of willows to uncover more of the island’s secrets. On the way back, we stopped at a sandbar John had found, observed a pool of minnows and went for a Very. Cold. Swim!! Dinner that night, courtesy of John, was catfish with a very tasty corn chowder!
At 4 a.m., I smelled fire. I poked my head out of the tent to make sure nothing was wrong. It was only an early campfire built by John, and I went back to sleep for another half hour or so before lumbering out of my tent and clambering toward the coffee. Only Osa was still at camp, and she was so glad to see me she followed me back to the tent, entered, gave her sandy self a good shake, then rolled like a happy pup all over Nicole’s sleeping bag! (Don’t dogs love to roll in stink??
I lit out for the water’s edge, hoping to catch the sunrise, but the cloud cover was dense. It was beautiful, albeit muted, and yet another way to experience the majesty of the river. I kept on toward the end of the island, noting the many deer, raccoon, coyote and bird tracks. I’d heard more owls during the night and later learned that John heard the howl of coyotes. I met up with Nicole and we admired the bit of sunrise that poked through the clouds then headed back toward camp to break down, eat breakfast and begin the journey home. A mist hung low over the water, creating a surreal effect and making me wish for just one more day.
After breaking down camp and loading the canoe, we set off in a new direction. We crossed the width of the Mississippi and turned into a cut-through that would lead to DeSoto Lake—a huge oxbow lake so named for the spot that’s believed to be where Hernando DeSoto discovered the great river. This was the most beautiful and secluded waterway we’d yet seen, and as soon as we turned onto it, with its canopy of overhead trees, a beaver plunged off a ledge with a loud splash. A great blue heron took flight and we “chased” it down the inlet as it repeatedly landed farther ahead, taking flight again whenever we got too close. Egrets, more beaver and splashes from unknown creatures—turtles? Fish? Otter?—could be seen and heard as we made our way. We stopped midway and climbed the banks to explore the forest. John pointed out some wild oyster mushrooms growing on a log. We collected them in a bag and foraged for more, knowing we had a fine addition to dinner when we made it home.
As we exited the cut-through, we entered a watery forest, DeSoto Lake, and hugged the cypress and other trees as we paddled toward our final destination. Kingfishers, prothonotary warblers, red-headed and pileated woodpeckers and other birds could be seen or heard, and once, invasive flying Asian carp flew out of the water, startling us not for the first time on this trip! John plunged into the water, but we stayed snug in the canoe. Soon after crossing the three-mile lake, we arrived at our landing on the river and set off for Clarksdale.
One of the most serendipitous parts of the journey came early on when John and I realized we shared a friend in the late Jeff Piselli. My mentor as an interning reporter at WDAM and as a cub reporter/anchor at WABG, Jeff was a great friend who loved the Mississippi River and planned to canoe its length one day. Unfortunately, his trip was cut short and before he could pick it up again, he passed away in 2003. I learned that John helped him plan his trip and was a pallbearer at his funeral, which I had been unable to make. Our last stop was at his gravesite on the way back to Quapaw. It was an emotional moment for me, and a fitting end to an amazing journey.
RIP Jeff Piselli, 1954-2003
More photos from Trip:
Río Abajo Río: Carving Out the River Within
Watch BEAM Session #4
Río Abajo Río: Carving Out the River Within
Now on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/487024537?ref=em-share
May the River be With You by Mark River:
Podcast #8 Climate Change
Climate Change is affecting the flooding, ecology and commerce along the Mississippi River. Learn how it is changing everything from the migration of monarchs, (butterflies!) the hatching season of mayflies to the growth of invasive plants and the patterns of snow geese -- while also disrupting the flow of barges and their cargo along the waterway.
The Mississippi River Connects Us All
Mississippi River from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico (2300 miles long!) Printed on 80# watercolor paper.
11 x 19" poster -- $20 each
24 x 35" poster-- $25 each
The River (and the Atmosphere) Connect Us All:
Paddles Up to listeners "over the pond!"
Shout out to listener Tony Long, founder of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) European Policy Office in Brussels, who said he is "listening to May the River Be With You podcasts while I stay locked down at home."
Another listener in Wales by the name of Phil, commented "you Chaps got it right!"
"I’m in the very far corner on the fence line, a few large sallow have leaned earthwards taking the fence down with them and so today I was sorting out the mess prior to tomorrow taking the chainsaw to them- they’re pink inside when cut- and listening to these podcasts. Just what I need - I’m fed up with a dissection of the US election, hearing about the virus and our dysfunctional UK governance and this is perfect - I’m going to revamp my podcasts as a result. The BBC and others try to talk about climate change and they don’t succeed, maybe it’s too big or complex, but you chaps get it just right."
(Phil, writing from the remotest outpost of northern Wales on the Llyn Peninsula)
The Lower Mississippi River Dispatch "Voice of the Lower Mississippi River" is published by the Quapaw Canoe Company. Photos and writing by John Ruskey, Mark River and others. Please write email@example.com for re-publishing. Feel free to share with friends or family, but also credit appropriately. Go to www.island63.com and click on "Quapaw Dispatch" for viewing back issues of the LMRD.
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