Rolling on the River – Quapaw Canoe Trip
Rolling on the river. Credit: Layne Logue
“Canoeing came naturally in the evolution of things, it’s the most essential way of getting on the water, the quietest, the most efficient, the most elegant, and the closest you can get to the spirit of the water, the river, the lifeblood of our nation.” – John Ruskey (from interview at Quapaw Canoe Company)
The Mississippi River has been a part of my life for 31 years, flowing at the base of the towering loess bluffs that my hometown of Natchez sits atop. The river is why Natchez exists at all, along with countless other settlements along the 2,350 miles of banks through 31 states and 2 Canadian Provinces that are part of its watershed. A couple of weekends ago on an unusually pleasant late July day, I canoed down the river with fellow Natchezian Adam Elliott – proprietor of the Natchez outpost of Quapaw Canoe Company. Quapaw Canoe was founded by John Ruskey, “The Rivergator,” in 1998 in Sunflower, Mississippi, south of the delta town of Clarksdale where the flagship outpost exists. Quapaw outposts now also exist in Helena, Arkansas and Natchez.
We started our 11 mile journey at the Vicksburg, Mississippi riverfront (Catfish Row), directly in front of the Vicksburg Transportation Museum, which is housed in the former Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad Depot. This beautiful building underwent a major restoration in 2005, which my firm was a part of, and is now open to the public. We traveled first on the Yazoo Diversion Canal for about a mile before shooting out to the much wider river. The Yazoo Diversion Canal was the actual path the river flowed until a natural cuttoff occurred in 1876 that created Centennial Bend at Vicksburg. The Corps of Engineers solved this problem in 1902 and restored the flow of river traffic to Vicksburg. We reached the Mississippi from the canal, and crossed to Delta Point, a generous sandbar formed by the curve of the river and named for the old town of Delta, Louisiana. We stopped to swim (yes, we swam in the Mississippi and didn’t get eaten by a mutant alligator) and explore for a bit. From here we had an interesting view of the bridge at Vicksburg spanning the river, adjacent to a defunct railroad bridge. Just over the waterline on the riverfront sat a “steamboat” that was really just cartoonish representation with faux smokestacks on a floating base.
Although not entirely authentic, the view of these examples of transportation made me think about how sitting here in our canoe, we had come full-circle in the ways people travel the river. I wrote my master’s thesis on steamboats, and learning about the early days of river travel and how developing technology introduced people along the river to culture, art, and a different way of life was incredibly fascinating. While we didn’t fashion our canoe from a tree trunk like the Native Americans would have, we were essentially traveling this massive waterway in the way of those early Americans. Self-propelled vessels like canoes and keelboats were superseded by steamboats in the mid-1800s, when passenger travel became luxurious (for the wealthy) and the major ports along the river were fully developed. During this time, small towns like Natchez prospered by exporting cotton, and the wild frontier areas of the lower Mississippi River Valley became “civilized”( with the exception of Natchez-Under-the-Hill). The hayday of the steamboat began to decline slightly after the Civil War because of the construction of the railroads, but the South continued to use steamers as the most economical mode of transport because it was all so connected by the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Because of a building boom in America in the 1830s, railroads were built rapidly and almost replaced steamboats by the 1870s. In fact, the old rail bridge at Vicksburg was built in the 1930s and is the only bridge south of Memphis to transport river traffic to the west of the Mississippi River. The only area that retained prosperous river traffic was the Lower Mississippi Valley, but the steamboats were supplanted by tugboats and barges by the 1890s. While the era of the railroad was reaching its heyday, technology was still advancing with the invention of the automobile, which would eventually take the place of the railroad for moving goods and people. While we were canoeing for pleasure and not out of necessity, actually being out on the water I’m so often passing over made me feel truly connected to this part of my daily life.
After our swim and some watermelon, we hopped back in the canoe to paddle under the bridge and experienced just how quickly the river becomes “wild” as we entered a backwater channel at Race Track Island. Aside from the chirps of birds and the faint hum of a barge in the background, the only other sounds in this channel were the splish of our paddles in the water and a very unnerving ruckus that occurred suddenly off in the woods. Definitely Sasquatch. About midway through the channel, we came upon a sandbar barely peeking of the water at the convergence of our channel with another. The little patch of sand actually extended far out just under the water, and was just asking to be stood upon. We stopped again briefly at the end of the channel before we hit big water again, and began a long cross to our lunch sandbar. So close, yet so far away. Upon arrival, we were treated to an amazing meal consisting of a caprese salad with more watermelon by our gracious Captain. While it seemed we may be the only one enjoying this little stretch of land, the sand was covered in animal tracks: deer, racoon, bird, and turtle. After exploring and swimming, we headed back out for the last leg of our journey.
Just before we reached the take out point, we detoured through Hennessy Bayou on to “Secret Lake.” Floating through the bayou was almost otherworldly- we decided the perfect adjective to convey the atmosphere was “fecund.” Cottonwood seeds floated through the air and everything was still and quiet, save for a few water explosions by gargantuan gar we disturbed with our canoe. After reaching the lake and floating through, we came upon an alligator out for a swim, and tailed him for awhile hoping for a better photo and that he wasn’t leading us to his other, larger, alligator buddies.
After paddling out of Hennessy Bayou, we slipped past a barge headed upriver and landed at the take out point at the Letourneau boat ramp where we loaded up and headed back to Natchez.
Our day on the river could not have been more pleasant, and Adam was an excellent guide full of information and anecdotes, and least half of which were true. Our trip on the Big Muddy really made me realize what a bad rap the Mississippi River gets. People think its dirty and dangerous, and while there are certainly polluted spots and the currents should not be taken lightly, the river is actually beautiful and completely worthy of being explored and protected. For those of us who live on its banks, our entire existence as a community is because of the Mississippi, and tourists come from all over the world to see it flowing lazily by with centuries of history underneath the surface. Many of the areas along the Lower Mississippi River are still considered “wild,” meaning they are undeveloped agriculturally or industrially. One would think these unspoiled areas along the largest life-sustaining element of our nation would be protected, but very few are. John Ruskey is leading an effort to preserve and protect these miles through a mile-by mile survey here at his WildMiles.org. Education is always the first step in preservation, and taking a nice paddle and a swim is the perfect way to cultivate a deeper appreciation for the Mighty Mississippi and leave all those preconceived notions in your car.
The Tomato Place : The Tomato Place is a MUST stop in Vicksburg after a long day on the water. You can get coffee, homemade bread, a salmon po-boy, a cool hat, and of course boiled peanuts. Perhaps the most amazing offering is several freezers of pre-made smoothies off all shapes and sizes. You grab one, they throw it back in the blender, and you leave happy.