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.