The End of the Road

Today, on something of a whim -- I was already on the Gulf, and other plans fell through -- I decided to drive to the end of the highway, as far down the Mississippi River as the pavement allows.

On the Highway 47 bridge over the Gulf Outlet Canal, I had an unexpected view of just how besieged New Orleans is by water; it's rare to see downtown from such an elevation, and from the top of the bridge you catch a quick glimpse of the different threads of water and tenuous bits of land.

In Caernarvon -- where in 1927 the levee was dynamited, flooding out rural farmers and hunters to save New Orleans -- I stopped to see the freshwater diversion. This project of mine has turned me into something of an engineering nerd, it seems. But whenever I go out of the way to see some bit of river engineering, the structure itself is underwhelming. This one, built in 1991 to provide freshwater into an increasingly brackish estuary, has inadvertently proven the land-building capacity of diverting the Mississippi River, helping convince officials to move forward on projects like the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion. Still, its few pump heads are all but invisible amid the steel skeletons of the surrounding refineries. More interesting was the company: there was a couple there, tossing off-brand Bugles to the gators lounging in the canal. We counted ten, including a 12-footer, though I was told that at least as many were likely out of sight along the banks, and that next week, and through the summer as the heat increases, there would be more and more. (For the record: gators aren't too into off-brand Bugles, but I'm told they do love marshmallows. The couple had just run out.)

At Pointe à la Hache, I missed the ferry by just a few minutes, which meant I had to wait an hour for my next chance to cross the river. So I took shelter in the remains of a beautiful old courthouse (which a quick Google search reveals was burned, in stereotypical Louisiana fashion, to destroy evidence for a pending trial). When the ferry returned, I was so apparently clueless that the man who took my fare (one dollar!) remarked that it must be my first time. Indeed, my friend, indeed.

This morning, I left a nice beachside town in Mississippi that nevertheless must be classified as second tier. (Sorry, Long Beach.) Still, it was a place where I could get a craft beer, or a cold-brewed coffee. Somehow I figured that any town at the end of a highway would be like that, turned at least a little bit into a resort. Oh, what a fool I am. Venice is a cluster of prefab fishing camps surrounded by industry. There is at least a bar and grill, blaring pop country music, where conquering sports fishermen can celebrate their catch.

As I drove down, I contemplated the strangeness of this landscape. It's just a green strip, and you can't see the water for the levees, but somehow the bigness of the sky makes it clear that there is water all around. Indeed, down here I am "between the levees" in a different manner than I was while camping on the expedition: there is the river levee on the one side, and a sea levee on the other; the bit of land that exists, meanwhile, is always sinking downward under its own weight. As far as I know, there is no other landscape like it on earth: no other strange, narrow leveed delta, a tenuous bit of river-built earth surrounded by walls to keep off the sea. But it's here for now. Might as well celebrate with a syrupy margarita in a sytrofoam cup before turning around to drive on home.

Day 46: A storm, a flood, an end

You might have read that it's been quite windy down here lately, quite stormy. You might have read that the river is getting high. It's closed to traffic in St. Louis; the levees are busting in the outer reaches of the valley. The flood crests are racing south, and New Orleans just hit flood stage.

And we are pulling out.

Last night, amid the thunderstorms, a tree came down and smashed a tent. It's the second time it's happened this trip. The first time, the tent was empty. This time not so: Lena was unhurt, but trapped, but a few different inches in position and the story might have been different. Add to that two close calls, where falling limbs missed tents by inches: four times is enough. The river will be there, whenever the time to finish comes.

We camped last night on a bit of lawn at the edge of the Bonnet Carre Spillway, an emergency stop as the storms came in. It's a place of life and death: the first and most important line of defense in the fight to keep New Orleans from flooding, a protector of thousands of lives. (It will likely be open again, to divert the high water, in just a few weeks.) But 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.

If this journal has been documenting our time between the levees, I have begun thinking about life beyond the levees, too. As we've made our way down Louisiana -- as the batture gets thinner -- the life beyond the levees gets harder to ignore. From the water, you can see the power lines and steeples of the old small towns that still survive amid the clustered industry. At night, from camp, you can hear the radios and revving engines and shouted comments of people back on the banks.

My time on the river, over for now, has shown me all the richness that exists between the levees. But it has taught me to appreciate this life beyond the levees, too. There are the luxuries: lattes with almond milk, and beer on tap, and free-flowing electricity -- these days I'll include that a luxury, too. And then there are the essentials, too, the presence of loved ones, and the nightly security of a strong roof over your head. All this is worth ending this trip early. I wouldn't want to lose this all, and I like to think there are people beyond the levee who wouldn't want to lose me. 

Down the river, you learn the cost of such a fine life. To get what we have, we've drained the swamps; we've built vast power plants and refineries, farms and neighborhoods; we've clear-cut forests and killed off species. There must be better ways, and I hope to help find them. But until I'm willing to risk it all, and live with the howling winds between the levees, I'll have to recognize that I owe something, too. Here's to finding the way to pay that debt.

Day 43: The last island

Long day -- and if the weather permits two more long days, we'll be in New Orleans Wednesday night. (A quite different New Orleans experience than I'm accustomed to, of course.) 

We're camped on the river's last island (at least before the river splits apart near its mouth): Bayou Goula Island, its called. Tight quarters, but it will only get tighter. The river is trimmed in by levees on both sides now, with almost no batture. 

Thats a reminder that our geography is changing, one among a few, though they are subtle still. The big one are our new companions: ocean-going freighters, tall and wide and slicing through the water, now share the channel, since we are past Baton Rouge.  

Which reveals an obvious fact, though one I rarely consider: we are headed to an ocean. The water doesn't stop in 200 miles; it flows on into the Gulf Stream. It swirls around to the many countries named on the freighters' hulls -- Singapore, Panama, Malta. That fact makes the river seem both bigger and smaller at once. 

Day 42: Extermination

You learn, too, to sit in your tent still and silent, and shine your light in every corner, and kill the mosquitoes one by one.  

And when you contemplate that moment from the view of the mosquito -- when you wonder what it must be like to have your life snuffed out so quickly -- you know you have become too close to the wild.  

Day 40: The stern-paddling hobo blues

Besides 30 or 45 minutes back in Missouri, I’ve mostly avoided sitting in the stern. I see it as the hot seat: the stern paddler has to guide the canoe home. This is an expedition, and we’ve got miles to cover; might as well leave that to the pros.

Then again, if I want to understand this river, stern paddling seems like a task to tackle, too. So, dear reader, today was as good as any. Just after launching from Tunica Bar this morning, I climbed towards the boat’s rear.

It was a windy day, which I found a virtue. Up in the boat, wind means you have nothing to attend to but your own suffering: you are stuck in your seat, and your task is to paddle, until the wind breaks or a landing gives you relief though.

From the stern, though, there seem to be a thousand signs to watch for: where is the wind headed, and is gusting? Where is the fastest line of water? Just where does that tugboat want to go? To find the answers, you have to read the smallest signals: a riffle on the water, maybe, or the angle of a barge’s long side. 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. The stern, it turns out, is a good place to lose yourself, even amid the wind.

And so we paddled: south first, dead into the wind, and then the relief of Morgan’s Bend, where paddling east, the woods below us blocked the gusts.

And then.

As we turned to the south again, the winds hit. Perhaps I was doing it right, my job in the stern, because in that moment my mind went nearly blank. There was nothing but John’s command, to head for the riprap, and me shouting out, “We’re making the crossing” -- I had to shout to be heardf -- and then just paddling, keep on paddling, get to where we need to go. There is a vague memory of the waves crashing in from the left and the right at once, and the boat rocking back and forth, and the water coming over the bow. There is a vague memory of my one desire: let it not be on my watch that the boat goes down, or that we turn ourselves into the water.

Reader, we made it, though we had to bail gallons of water from the boat.

*

Now, though, we faced a decision. Clearly the winds were a bit stronger than the forecast had advertised, and, over the next two days, they’ll only be getting getting worse. We were looking at two days locked down, but our ice was melting, and two days would also mean many pounds of spoiled meat.

So it was time -- for a moment -- to leave the walled-in wild. We hoofed through the woods, and the dewberry brambles, and walked through the mud. (I had put on my boots to avoid the stickers, so I had to remove them when we waded a cow-stinking slough.) We un-trespassed -- climbing a fence whose sign faced away from us, so we saw only its slate grey back. We walked down a highway, sweaty with river-stink, in search of gas-station ice.

I couldn’t help but wonder what the town folk thought of us: this band of grimy hobos with drybags slung across our backs. Though, to be honest, I didn’t think much of this town. From the top of the levee, I could see both worlds: the wild swamps beyond the levee, and the run-down shacks in town. There was a railroad, and a few scrubby gardens. We cut down the woods for this?

It isn’t fair, of course. For all our wilderness rigor, we’d be nowhere without our bags of chips and blocks of ice. Besides, inside the gas station was a pleasant cafe, decked out in cypress wood, with deep-fried boudin balls for sale -- an easy path to my heart. (The Spillway Cafe, named for the floodway that begins just above town of Morganza: I hope to go back there one day.)

Still, as I sit in here in storm camp -- home for two days, most likely, while the wind has its way again -- I’ve got to say we’ve found somewhere pleasant, somewhere I’d recommend. I took my bath in the cooling river, and drank a beer I bought at the gas station, and the pork roast, saved from spoiling, will be served up soon.


 

Day 39: Long days

“[Floating] must have been one of the first ecstasies. The analogy of riding a spirited horse is fairly satisfactory; it is mastery over something resistant--a buoyancy that is not natural and inert like that of a log, but desired and vital and to one’s credit. Once the boat has fully entered the consciousness it becomes an intimate extension of self; one feels as competently amphibious as a duck, whose feet are paddles. And once we feel accustomed and secure in the boat, the day and river began to come clear to us.”

--Wendell Berry, "The Rise"

Floating a first ecstasy? I consider Wendell Berry something of a seer, but as of a few days ago, I was skeptical of this idea. We floated 46 miles on Sunday, and every one of them felt like a new and continuously cruel form of labor. It seemed we were never moving. It seemed the only way to relieve myself was to scream.

Distance, out here, is no measure of difficulty. Our progress depends on the speed of the river, which depends on the amount water flowing down. It depends on the wind's speed and direction. The effort perceived depends, even, on whether my feet feel frigid on an overcast morning because I failed to put on socks.

On Sunday, I sat in the bow of the boat, where I took on the responsibility of counting my strokes, so that I could switch from port to starboard, and keep myself -- and the rest of the boat -- from working too hard on one side. It was a relief today, then, to just sit and paddle and never count at all. It was a relief to have the sun shining. It was a relief to be out early, and to feel the big bends slip along our sides. It was a relief to pay attention not to the numbers, but to the world.

We paddled 62 miles today, and it felt like nothing at all. 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.

*

The more prosaic update: we've crossed the border now, and both sides of the river are Louisiana: our final state. As if in greeting, we saw an alligator on the banks; and then, further downriver, beneath the Tunica Hills, a rare patch of cypress trees, draped in Spanish Moss. All the romantic enchantments of a Southern river, plus a golden sunset over the Loess bluffs, plus willow-smoked catfish and small splash of whiskey. A fine enough end to a long day.

Day 36: There is no need to personify a river

"There is no need to personify a river: it is much too literally alive in its own way, and like air and earth themselves is a creature more powerful, more basic, than any living thing the earth has born. It is one of those few, huge, casual and aloof creatures by the mercy of whose existence our own existence was made possible.”

--James Agee, Now Let Us Praise These Famous Men 

Just arrived in Natchez for 24 hours on the town. Next stop, Japanese food for lunch; subsequently, shower. 

Day 34: Snack break on Davis Island

I’m going to guess that, all things considered, the Davis Island we saw yesterday is not so different than what William Selkrig found here in 1777. A British loyalist, he then received a royal land grant, but quickly learned how precarious our dreams of land use can be. Seized by Americans, Selkrig found his farm was empty when he returned: local Indians -- the land's first inhabitants -- had claimed his property as their own. Later, the new American government refused to honor Selkrig’s British grant, so he left the region for elsewhere.

We stopped at Davis Island at my request; I wanted to at least stand in a place that had defeated so many land owner’s dreams.

The island is named for Joseph Davis -- older brother to Jefferson Davis, U.S. Senator, and later president of the Confederate States, who also had a home on the island. Davis, who acquired land here in 1818, had unusual views for the time. He trained his slaves to read and write -- and many other skills; he built them a hospital; when they were accused on infractions, he had them tried by a jury of peers. (Don’t mistake this for a more moral position: still Davis viewed other human beings as things to own. He just believed he’d get more work, and better value, if he treated them halfway well.)

During the Civil War, the island was used as a freedman’s colony; afterwards, Benjamin Montgomery, one of the most talented of Davis’s former bits of property, bought up the plantation and tried to run it as a cooperative, black-owned farm. Again and again, these utopian visions were defeated by the same villain: lazy neighbors who failed to build a solid levee on the next farm up the road. When the floods came, that failure meant the water poured onto the land.

The work that’s done to turn riverside land to a plantation could be justly called geoengineering: you build up a wall; drain the landscape of water; alter the soil; introduce a whole new ecosystem. Geoengineering is almost always compromised by one challenge: if one group fails to cooperate, the whole thing isn’t going to work. (Later that afternoon, I read a New York Times article that mentioned potential "irreconcilable geopolitical frictions" that might beset any attempt to fight climate change.)

On Earth Day, on Davis Island, this was a worthy insight: saving an ecosystem -- or a whole planet -- requires more than connecting people with the land. It requires connecting people with each other: collaboration, cooperation, working hand in hand.

Under the current regime, Davis Island appears to be doing just fine. The current private owners run it as a hunting camp and timber operation, one of the busiest we’ve seen. Still, it’s nice to see its woods in bloom. I granted myself a bit of that bloom: as we stood on the riverbank -- protected forever by a public easement -- I helped myself to a snack of the dewberries growing there.

Day 33: Drifting

I've read before that on any expedition one eventually, inevitably reaches the point of despair. Though I forgot that concept when we launched, perhaps because I thought of this as much more of an -- I don't know, let's say a jaunt -- than anything like Shackleton's journey to the South Pole.

And let me not be woeful: I'm quite far from despair. But I have felt at times this week a sort of impatience -- a why-aren't-we-there-yet, why-isn't-this-campsite-perfect, does-no-one-have-their-paddles-in-the-water whinyness that I at least know to keep inside. These are the kinds of complaints I almost never make out there in the workaday world. Often it doesn't even occur to me to make such complaints; but maybe what I'm finding is that they're down there after all, and now they are closer to the surface.

But today I let that go. Today I stopped counting miles, or worrying about when we'd hit the shore. Outside the landing near Tallulah, Louisiana, 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.

*

Now we are camped at Delta Point, just across from the mouth of the Yazoo River. This, then, is the tail end of the Delta, and there is evidence here of its many pasts: there is a casino, just across the water, gussied up to look like a steamship -- a sort of boat that we so often forgot is emblematic of an era of cotton and slaves. There is the top tip of an obelisk, just barely visible on the bluff, our tiny view of the military park. There is the highway bridge, and the railway bridge, and a radio tower: modernity arrived. I thought for a moment that there was nothing visible, though, that represents the long past -- before cotton and slavery and war and cell phones -- the great Native societies that were centered in this valley, and long ago forgotten. (Perhaps I should note: I'm working on a magazine story about ancient cultures in the Delta, and so it's slightly less odd that my mind would turn to such things.)

IMG_0930.JPG

Later, after nightfall -- before I dove into my humid tent, the only way to avoid the descending mosquitoes -- I found the lights of the casino's parking lot, strangely, one of the most beautiful elements in the tableau. Certainly its 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.

 

Day 28: Lessons

We’ve had three nights back on the river, after five nights off. Camped just downstream from Greenville, Miss., we’re in my home turf. Given life in the Delta, it seems suitably ironic that my cell phone signal, which has been great throughout the trip, has hardly worked these days. Thus the infrequent updates.

But it works for the landscape we’re traveling. While it has no official designation, John calls this stretch the “Muddy Waters Wilderness.” One bridge in two hundred miles, little industry, just a scattered few summer homes. Two hundred years ago the trees were different species, and might have been hung with Spanish moss, but otherwise this looks and feels the same.

Given that we are close to home, we’ve lately had more daytrippers, more single-night campers, more deliveries to and from shore. Which breaks up the wildness, but is also important, because the more people who experience this river, the safer and healthier she will be. (Though now that the weekend is over, we’re actually down to our smallest crew: Chris, Andy, and myself, the three through paddlers, plus John guiding the way.)

At some point yesterday, somewhere near the chute into Lake Whittington, we passed the geographic halfway point of the trip. Which probably means it’s too early for me to be reflecting on what I’ve learned. Nevertheless, the few-days break at home prompted reflective thoughts.

So how am I different? What have I learned. Most of all -- probably not surprisingly -- I see more wildness. Wildness in the strange crooks of the tree branches, even in an orchard where the trunks themselves are in orderly rows. Wildness in my backyard, with its bayou -- an ancient channel of the Mississippi. As I sat there last week in the sunshine, I listened, and I could hear layer over layer of birdsong, each song slightly different; I could see the different shapes of the leaves of each trees.

Before this trip these were just birds, just trees -- now (though I don’t yet know their names) they are each apparent as different species, with different stories, something new to identify and know.

Day 25: A rite of oneness with a certain terrain

“Travel by canoe is not a necessity, and will nevermore be the most efficient way to get from ne region to another . . . A canoe trip has become simply a rite of oneness with certain terrain, a diversion of the field, an act performed not because it is necessary but because there is value in the act itself…”

--John McPhee, The Survival of the Bark Canoe

Five days on land: expedition recommences by morning. I'm ready.

Day 20: To build a campsite on the river

Have the paddler in the bow jump our first and guide your vessel into shore. Tie off while you unload; once the weight is lightened, pull the vessel clear (the towboat wakes have been known to steal a canoe).

Collect firewood: the driftwood chewed clean by the beavers works best. Start a fire: arrange the logs so that they lie parallel to the vector of the wind. Boil a pot of river water, so that come morning after one more boil it will be clean enough to drink. (Coffee is as important here as in the workaday world).

Select a site for your tent, upwind from campfire smoke. If weather is coming, take shelter in the trees. If you roll on your side, remember the old Navajo trick: dig a small, hip-sized divot atop at the center of where you will pitch your tent.

Cook well, eat better, enjoy the fire and the coming of the night. If weather is approaching, be sure that your gear is secure. Enjoy your hard-earned sleep.

*

I own a 170-liter bag that’s made of heavy-duty vinyl and keeps its contents dry even if submerged. I’ve learned to pack so that the items I want most lie on top.

Dry footwear, then -- a happy luxury after a 12-hour day in soggy neoprene boot., The towel with which I’ll clean the mud from my toes. My duffel bag, which should never be far, in case the weather shifts and demands a change of clothes. My tent and tarp and poles; the rainfly is separate, below those, contained in a sleeping-bag stuff sack (the nights when it’s not needed are the nights when I am blessed). Sleeping pad. Travel pillow. And stuffed loose at the bottom, my sleeping bag.

*

Camped on Buck Island, we will be in Helena, Ark., tomorrow, at which point we begin a five-day layover, since we’re so close to home. Shower, laundry, mattress: all these glories await. And their proximity has me contemplating this life out of a suitcase (or, in my case, a drybag).

To get where we’re going takes -- in the most literal sense -- work. We are applying force over distance, stroke after stroke after stroke.

But out there in the other work, the real world, I guess -- though if you stay out here long enough you begin to wonder which world is more real -- to get where you’re going takes something else. Hassle, mostly, I think. There are lines to wait in, gas tanks to fill; tickets for scanning, identification for scrutiny. By the time you get to your hotel room, all you want to do is heave your bag in a corner and lay back on the bed

I’ve had those weeks before, where day after day it’s one more bland and plastic hotel room, one more flight, one more hour of squinting into the high beams of the traffic driving against me. When I have those weeks, I’m always ready to be home.

And don’t get me wrong: I’m excited to be back to the warmth and comfort of four walls and electric sockets and loved ones and the animals who adore me. But 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.

Day 18: Many rivers to cross

We’re “socked in” for another day on Deans Island, with more heavy winds forecast for the afternoon (though with the sun and calm this morning, the coming weather remains hard to believe). I’ve spent some of our down time, paging through a printed edition of the Rivergator. It’s been a reminder that I don’t often enough restate that this document is the heart and purpose of this trip. The expedition is intended to celebrate its completion, and spread the word of its existence. I've been lucky enough to come along in pursuit of my own, separate (but intertwined) project.

Through the first two weeks of the paddle, at the behest of “Big Muddy” Mike Clark, we’d often have readings from the “Book of Twain” -- Life on the Mississippi, of course -- around the campfire, or while we idled on the water. To extend that metaphor, we might call Rivergator the Book of Ruskey. It is quite a book -- both in its volume, for the complete edition runs nine sections thick, each a separate booklet, which stack a foot or more in height together; and in the eye that John Ruskey has for the river he loves.

John, the founder of the Quapaw Canoe Company, has been compiling this book for almost a decade, hoping to provide a guide for other paddlers who want to know this river. It details landings and campsites, legends and stories, and keen-eyed descriptions of, say, the beauty of the Chickasaw Bluffs (along with suggestions to help you time your arrival to maximize your enjoyment of such sights).

As I read Rivergator, what I find most tempting is the description of backchannels: the other choices, the paths not today, or at least not this time. The Lower Mississippi River winds in great bends -- sometimes looping for twenty river miles to make up just one mile further south -- but over time, both man and nature have shortened some of these bends. The river’s old paths remain open in many places to paddlers, free of tow traffic, more thickly laden with wildlife. (A few months ago, I paddled such a backchannel near Rosedale, Miss.; you’ll find that story in next month’s issue of Delta Magazine.) As a completist, I find John’s descriptions of these channels at once entrancing and also enraging -- the latter because I know I’ll never get to see them all.

There are many memoirs, from books to articles, 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.

I should note, too, that it’s not simply the backchannels that intrigue me, too, but the other tributary rivers that together form the Lower Mississippi River Valley. Tomorrow, when we set off again, we’ll pass the mouth of the Wolf River, and of the Loosahatchie, both of which John describes, both of which offer avenues of wildness threading through the urban might of Memphis, one of the biggest cities of the South. When I read the Rivergator, it makes me want to be there: tucked into the river’s engineered canyon, surrounded by the hardwood trees, accompanied by the coyotes and the otters.

Which is a valuable reminder that the wildness is endless. The historian Bill Cronon talks about how wildness is fractal: it exists even in the heart of the city, in the pigeon’s roost, and in the weed that thrives. Wildness, that is, has not been destroyed, nor has it been replaced: from wilderness to civilization is not some evolutionary progression, with one landscape inevitably replacing another. Both exist, in tension and cooperation, and both always will -- though depending on your time and location, one might be winning out.

Day 17: Whose river?

It's been a windy week: I woke at 2:30 on Monday morning to the roof of my tents sagging downward in 40 mile-an-hour winds. When the skies calmed, we paddled to Caruthersville. And when sunshine finally came that afternoon, and we ventured out again, we battled the rapids -- which sucked us at one point beneath an overhanging branch, requiring me to duck and paddle at once -- until we were forced to make emergency landing. We could go no further in this wind.

So we camped beneath the Caruthersville Bridge -- an interstate 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. They can be owned, yes, but the public has a right to use them; that right has been upheld time and again by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Though -- as we found under the bridge -- that right is rarely needed. The riverbanks are invisible to the world, forgotten. No one will find you here. 

That's why this river has always been a refuge. It resists any attempt to conquer the land, and turn it to farms. And so in the plantation era, runaway slaves would flock here -- sometimes living in villages they built, accessible only by wading through water, and selling the fish and game they caught, and the wood they collected. Through the earliest twentieth-century, moonshiners operated on its islands, just beyond the easy reach of the law.

When we floated through St. Louis, we saw the evidence of the modern inheritors of this refuge: a tent, hidden away beneath a public landing, visible only to passing watercraft. Perhaps its owner took refuge there because he or she could not find a home anywhere else, but I know of plenty of people who live on that margin through conscious choice.

That navigable rivers are public property is credited, by some legal thinkers, to ancient animist beliefs: in the early cultures where common law was born, flowing water was holy; rivers could not be owned. So the public right to rivers is a strange remnant of ancient faith. (Of course, if we followed the values of many cultures -- including some tribes who used to live along these rivers -- we could declare that the land, too, could not be owned.)

And this month, we're seeing such ancient faiths assert themselves: just before the expedition launched, three world rivers were granted the same legal rights as humans. These rivers are no longer objects to be managed. They are beings to be kept alive.

Which brings me back to the wind: it is blowing, still, and so -- after a long, 63-mile paddle yesterday -- we are grounded, probably for two nights, on Deans Island, maybe 20 miles short of Memphis. The trees are creaking above me, as the wind gusts to 50 miles an hour. There will be no paddling today. It's silly to think it, since the barges are still out there, pushing their commerce past, but it feels like the river asserting itself, reminding of its own nature, letting us know it's alive.

Further dispatches

I'm doing once-a-week updates for Canoe & Kayak magazine, which offer a nice overall narrative of the trip. You can read the first dispatch here.

Day 14: Accretion

The island we camped on two nights ago has no name. On the 2007 U.S. Army Corps of Engineer maps -- the latest edition of the gold standard, for canoe and tow pilots alike -- it does not appear at all. This, to me, is the power of the river: always renewing, always creating.

A glance at satellite imagery makes clear why there is an island where there is: the Corps built a dyke, and the dyke stopped the sand. The Mississippi is a muddy river, which means it is filled with dirt, but when the river slows, or the dirt is stopped, it drops out, and builds land. Then plants arrive, setting their roots, holding this new soil together, willows most of all. (Willows, I’ve noted, are resilient: we’ve seen them growing up even through the riprap, the stones thrown down at the river’s edge to keep the bank from eroding away. No wonder no trees are allowed to grow along the levee.) Moss and shrubs grow up from the hardened mud. Beaver and deer find their new home. An island is born. Eventually, some flood will rip it away, or attach it to the mainland: an island will die, in other words. (Oxbow lakes, too, have a live-and-then-die life cycle.)

Rivers are all about change, in other words. There is some change that I wish hadn’t happened: now that the water is warming, for example, the silver carp are beginning to leap from the water. We’ve seen invasive mustard garlic scattered across the islands where we camp. As a few members of the expedition have pointed out, though, there is one invasive species far worse than any other. Human beings, of course.

We are camped now at the bottom of Little Cypress Bend, but I see no cypress trees; I doubt there has been a cypress here since the days of the steamboats, when the forests were cut down all along the river to keep the engines churning. We have cramped the river in this narrow floodplain, and in places we are trying to narrow it further still. We have built our dams and dykes. But the river keeps doing its work, keeps on building its islands, and will do so even once we’re gone.

(For those who want more quotidian information: we are camped now at mile marker 861, on Joe Eckles Towhead, with a storm raining down on us now. Yesterday we resupplied in New Madrid, Mo. -- and were wowed by the town’s generosity -- and tomorrow, if the weather cooperates, we should expand our crew when we arrive in Caruthersville, Mo.)

Day 11: Home sweet batture home

In 1798, it must have seemed like an enterprising plan: on a patch of land just across from where the Ohio River joins the Mississippi, Abram Bird cleared the woods and set up a warehouse. He planned to sell supplies to the flatboatmen drifting to New Orleans.

But this water doesn’t cooperate with just any dream. This land was too muddy, too swampy, too flood-prone. (Later, rail travelers would carry guns through the area so they could shoot the snakes for sport.) Two hundred years later, it looks much the same. As we drifted ashore last night -- after 80 miles of paddling in two days -- we found a narrow strip of mud, backed by a slough of brown water. Beyond that, a stand of dead willows. Killed by some flood, of course, with driftwood scattered ankle-deep across the muck.

It’s an appropriate welcome, I think, to the Lower Mississippi, which officially begins here, at this coming-together of the waters. Everything about the evening felt like coming home to the swamps: the weather grew steamy, the mosquitoes arrived; we even at catfish for supper. We are holed up here on Birds Point -- on a second, much sandier, and much more pleasant campsite, I should add -- for two nights, waiting out the southern winds.

Flood-dead willow forest at Birds Point.

Flood-dead willow forest at Birds Point.

The great levees of the Lower Mississippi begin just a few miles upstream, and stretch nearly unbroken until past New Orleans. It's one of the most massive engineering projects ever undertaken by humankind. (Depending on your point of view, you might also call it one of the bravest -- or one of the most foolhardy -- too; we have pit ourselves in a neverending battle with nature, which in the end we are sure to lose.)

After we made camp, I hiked through the batture to find the levee. I consider Birds Point an important site, for behind it lies the first planned floodway we’ll pass as we travel down the Lower Mississippi -- a kind of release valve for the river, created after the disaster of 1927, once we learned that sometimes the river needs room to run. It’s been used only twice, in 1937 and 2011, both times over the strong objection of local farmers, who have their crops and even their homes inside the floodway. For over 50 years, there has been a battle over a small gap at the bottom of the floodway, 60 miles downstream. Should it be plugged, so that the land can be farmed? Should it be open, so that wildlife can thrive? Though little remarked upon, the debate rests on essential questions: what is our relationship to land, and to nature? Should we take dominion, and be productive, or find a way to coexist? (On his last day in office, President Obama gave his answer: he submitted an executive order, halting any work on closing the gap. Surely our new president will have his own say.)

I’ve hiked in the batture many times, but I almost always arrive from the levee side: climb up that slope of green, and then slip down the other side, into the woods. So it was strange yesterday to do that walk in reverse. I followed a game trail through the last stand of forest, and then walked up the levee to see the endless expanse of farms on the other side. Many people might consider this the middle of nowhere; but after 10 days in the wilderness, you start to see a farm for what it is: the starting point of all civilization. After 10 days of sweat and no showers, I stepped back into a different world. Which one is the real world? I'm not sure. But I know that there atop the levee it felt like an entirely different day, brighter, sunnier, with purple flowers -- weeds, I should note -- blooming in the fallow fields, and new saplings blowing in the breeze.

Atop the levee at Birds Point.

Atop the levee at Birds Point.

I stood there for a moment, and then turned back and walked  down the levee, back into the walled-in wild. I was surprised by the thought that stuck with me: that farm was quite beautiful. Anyone would think so. The control of nature makes our lives possible.

As I returned to the river, the smell of mud came first -- refreshing in its own way -- and then, at the bank, a cool breeze off the water. Our catfish supper was baking in the Dutch oven, and soon enough was served with fried potatoes and fire-roasted corn on the cob. We ate in a nook of trees, watching the sunset blaze across the water. Here Abram Bird failed to control nature -- and that has made beauty, too.

Update: I said above that the willows here on Birds Point were dead, killed by a flood. But as I sat and watched the storm roll in, I saw buds on the treetops, newly sprouting since yesterday afternoon. Welcome to life, and to springtime -- and welcome to the Lower Miss!

Day 9: Shelter from the storm

In 1673, Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet passed a rock in the middle of the Mississippi River. Their Native guides warned them that the rock housed a "manitou," a demon that would devour travelers.

Photographs never quite capture life on the river.

Photographs never quite capture life on the river.

The rock is a rare sight: a sliver of a former mountain, 400 million years old, the surrounding eroded, jutting up above the water. It's been a landmark for thousands of years, and feared for good reason. The narrow channel behind the rock has fierce rapids, which can easily overpower an unwary boat.

For us, though, Tower Rock was a beacon: our shelter from the storm. It was an early start for me, rising at 4:30 to pack my tent before the rain. Which meant that when it arrived, with a literal bang, I was in the open. I hunkered over the campfire while thunder and lightning raged. Fortunately, the lightning never came too close, and my rain gear functioned properly. We set out early amid a break in the rain, though it continued on and off all day.

So when we landed at an RV park across from Tower Rock for lunch, we decided to hunker down and dry out. Electricity, hot water, and sunshine: a fine triumvirate. The park is named Devil's Backbone, for another outcropping jutting into the river here on the Illinois side. You can see why the legends here are dark: these are sharp piles of rocks and jagged lines, caves tucked away above the water: strange and stark and spooky -- and beautiful. So unlike anything on the Lower river I know.

Day 7: Hearts (& hands)

“On the seventh day, God hovered over the water.”

It’s not the most familiar translation, but it works. And it is the interpretation that John Ruskey offered this morning, as we did the same -- hovered on the water for our morning prayer.

Today was our first re-supply, which also meant our first major exchange: in Chester, Ill., we said goodbye to Junebug, a 29-foot cedar-and-redwood canoe who lives with Big Muddy Adventures in St. Louis. Now, Grasshopper -- another 29-footer, and the girl who’s cruising the whole way -- is joined by Dennis, and his kayak, until we get to Memphis. The current crew numbers nine.

It was a day of departures, then, with two expeditioners finishing their portion of the trek; and John driving home for a few days to take care of family. So we prayed for departures, and for the departed. I thought about my father -- my first mentor and my first guide, to whom I dedicate this adventure.

The rain and clouds have continued, and I’m plagued every night by bad dreams: my tent collapsing, or water rushing through my site. But then I wake, and all is fine. Except maybe my phone: my so-called waterproof case has sand lodged inside; the battery ticks down in percentage faster than the minutes. Though there are worse things than being disconnected.

The toughest toll is on my hands, which have become chapped and cracked, the nails caked with mud. (If we paddle hard tomorrow -- through more rain, of course -- there is the tempting end goal of hot showers, even laundry, at the Trail of Tears State Park.) The paddling itself isn’t so bad, once you settle into the rhythm. I tried my hand in the back yesterday, and mostly kept us in a straight line. I was glad the barges waited until after my turn as skipper to make my appearance.

Raw hands.

Raw hands.

This is our wildest campsite yet: a few barges are anchored upstream, laden with coal, and surely we will hear trains pass in the night. But I pitched my tent atop coyote tracks, and the kitchen is as close to an eagle’s nest as the law will allow. Last night, as we arrived in camp, we pulled in amid a flock of several hundred pelican, who only slowly and reluctantly gave up their perch. What I'e been told is right: pelicans are the most beautiful flyers. There’s something about being on an island, even a mile from civilization that makes everything right. (For those tracking at home: after a second night on Salt Lake Island, we paddled down to Beaver Island; now we are on Rockwood Island.)

Greetings from Rockwood Island.

Greetings from Rockwood Island.