River Guide Wants People To Paddle The Mighty Mississippi, Not Fear It

Feb 25, 2017
Originally published on February 26, 2017 5:34 pm

It's a chilly February day as we set out from the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River. We're in a 24-foot cypress canoe, paddling south, with John Ruskey guiding in the stern.

The first stretch of journey, just south of Helena, Ark., is far from wild. We paddle past lots of industry lining the riverbanks: Along the shore, we see grain being pumped from a giant grain elevator into barges on the river. We pass coal and petrochemical docks, too, supplying or offloading the barges that ply this river up to Minnesota, and down to the Gulf of Mexico.

But we're heading to the wild spaces, farther down river.

John Ruskey, who owns the Quapaw Canoe Company in Clarksdale, Miss., leads trips out on this river. The company builds canoes, but more than anything, they want folks to pay attention to the wildness around them.

Ruskey says he's fighting against people's common perception of the Mississippi.

"This image gets cemented in their minds that the Mississippi is an industrial ditch," says Ruskey.

By the end of our journey, we've paddled nine miles and we're drifting in wilderness: The banks are lined with willows starting to bud, and the deep water is an olivey brown.

To the east stretches the Mississippi Delta: the flat, rich farmland formed over time when this river flooded. John Ruskey says to understand the Delta, you have to understand this river.

"The river created this entire landscape," he says. Those 22 million acres were all mud laid by the Mississippi River. And it's not talked about much, it's not thought about much, but it's this eternal fact of life in the Delta."

We're surprised to hear this a lot as we travel through the Delta: People who live along the river never even see it. It's hidden: tucked away behind the levees.

"I think it's so locked into the history and the culture of people here to fear the river and just stay away from it," Ruskey says. "Parents tell their children, 'Stay away from the river. I don't care what you do, but do not swim in that river.' "

And it's true: the Mississippi's currents are strong. They can easily suck you away.

But with the right guide, it's a great adventure. And that's why it's so important to John Ruskey to get Mississippi schoolkids out on the water: He wants them to know this part of their landscape. He says, he sees it all the time: Once they paddle the Mississippi, they go home changed.

The "Our Land" series is produced by Elissa Nadworny.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's go out on the water now...

JOHN RUSKEY: All right.

MARTIN: ...Out on the Mississippi River.

RUSKEY: Welcome aboard the Cricket Canoe.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Hi, thank you.

MARTIN: Our colleague Melissa Block's road trip for her series Our Land became a river trip for a day. She's been exploring the question of how the place where you live shapes your identity. And she brings us this story from the lower Mississippi.

BLOCK: It's a chilly February day as we set out from the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River.

RUSKEY: Just go to where it's comfortable and don't reach with it. These are designed for a shorter, quicker stroke.

BLOCK: We're in a 24-foot cypress canoe paddling south with John Ruskey guiding in the stern.

RUSKEY: How does it feel?

BLOCK: It feels great.

Ruskey is on a mission with this river. He owns the Quapaw Canoe Company in Clarksdale, Miss. They're outfitters. They lead trips out on the river, and they build canoes.

RUSKEY: And that water's moving pretty good.

BLOCK: More than anything, they want folks to pay attention to the wildness around them. But this first stretch is far from wild. We paddle past lots of industry lining the river banks.

RUSKEY: And that's a conveyor belt going over to that giant grain elevator back over the levee.

BLOCK: The grain elevators, coal and petrochemical docks, they feed the barges that ply this river all the way up to Minnesota and down to the Gulf of Mexico. The barges are huge, dwarfing our canoe as they plow by. As we paddle past that grain elevator...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey, (unintelligible) come back.

BLOCK: The guy running it comes out and gives us a friendly holler.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I wanted to talk.

RUSKEY: (Laughter).

BLOCK: He shouts, come back. I wanted to talk. But we're heading to the wild spaces farther down river.

RUSKEY: We can see the Helena Bridge and beyond it the great unknown.

BLOCK: John Ruskey is fighting against people's common perception of the Mississippi.

RUSKEY: This image gets cemented in their minds that the Mississippi is an industrial ditch.

And backstroke, Melissa.

BLOCK: Ruskey has long gray hair pulled back in a ponytail. He stuck a feather in the band of his hat and carries a bowie knife around his waist.

RUSKEY: Strong paddle.

BLOCK: He was born and raised in the Colorado Rockies, but the Mississippi feels more like home than anywhere else.

RUSKEY: When I'm on the river, I feel at peace and connected and doing what I should be doing. And when I'm away from it, I'm always wondering what is going on on the river.

BLOCK: He loves it now. But Ruskey's first experience on the Mississippi was catastrophic. In the early '80s, he and his best friend from high school met up in Minnesota and built a 12-by-24-foot raft. Like Huck Finn and Jim, they set off to find their freedom. They were south of Memphis when they ran into big trouble.

RUSKEY: Well, we were playing a game of chess. It all - it goes back to a game of chess on the raft.

BLOCK: Distracted by the game, they didn't see they were heading straight toward a giant bridge pylon.

RUSKEY: And we slammed against this thing, and it crushed our raft and threw us into the river scrambling for our lives.

BLOCK: They floated, freezing, about 10 miles and washed up hypothermic on an island. They ended up getting rescued the next day. It would be a long time before Ruskey came back to the Mississippi.

RUSKEY: When I came back into that valley for the first time after 10 years of being away from the river, it was so wonderful. It smelt like coming back to the farm or something - the aroma of wet mud and willows.

BLOCK: By now, we've paddled nine miles, and we're drifting in wilderness, the willows starting to bud along the river banks, the water, an olivey (ph) brown. To the east stretches the Mississippi Delta, the flat, rich farmland formed over time when this river flooded. John Ruskey says to understand the Delta, you have to understand this river.

RUSKEY: Because the river created this entire landscape. Those 22 million acres were all mud laid by the Mississippi River. And it's not talked about much. It's not thought about much, but it's this eternal fact of life in the Delta.

BLOCK: You're saying it's not thought about much. People often don't see it, even though it's right here and it's huge.

RUSKEY: That's right.

BLOCK: And we're surprised to hear this a lot as we travel through the Delta. People who live along the river never even see it. It's hidden, tucked away behind the levees.

RUSKEY: I think it's so locked into the history and the culture of people here to fear the river and to stay away from it. You know, parents tell their children, stay away from the river. I don't care what you do, but do not swim in that river.

BLOCK: And it's true the Mississippi's currents are strong. They can easily suck you away. But with the right guide, it's a great adventure. And that's why it's so important to John Ruskey to get Mississippi school kids out on the water. He wants them to know this part of their landscape. He says he sees it all the time. They go home changed. He recalls one teenage girl taking her first canoe trip on the river. They stopped to rest on a sandbar.

RUSKEY: And she laid down on the sandbar and was quiet and just lay there looking up into the sky. And after a couple of minutes, I walked over. Are you OK? And she had tears in her eyes. She'd never seen the sky so big before. It was this amazing illumination that you could be in a place so open and so free.

BLOCK: And for John Ruskey, that feeling is everything. Melissa Block out on the Mississippi River near Friars Point, Miss. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.