Adventures: The Lower Mississippi

Ben Gately Williams
by Nic Brown - February/March 2013

A canoe trip down the Lower Mississippi reveals the history and mystery of America’s iconic waterway

>See photos from the story 

Below me, the most storied river in North America swirls with silt so thick and dark it looks like some churning superhighway of mud. I’m standing on the bow of a wooden canoe looking down into it, and if you’d told me a few weeks ago I’d be here, getting ready to jump, I’d have told you you were crazy, because this is the middle of the Mississippi River and it is frigid. The water here is two-thirds of a mile wide and close to fifty feet deep. But at this point I’m on my second day of paddling through the Delta with the legendary river guide John Ruskey, and in that time, almost every preconception I’ve had about this river has changed. So I jump into the air and dive.

When I rise to the surface, gasping from the chill, someone says, “You’ve been baptized!” And even though there was nothing religious about my plunge, I think, Amen, yes indeed I have been. 

This all started two days earlier in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the so-called Birthplace and World Capital of the Blues. Just a few blocks from the very crossroads where Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil, I parked in front of the headquarters for Ruskey’s Quapaw Canoe Company. Established in 1998, Quapaw is the sole purveyor of year-round, custom-guided canoe excursions down the Lower Mississippi, and I’d come to its doors with the hope of experiencing the one thing even more central to the identity of the Mississippi Delta than blues music—the Mississippi River itself. 

Pumping upwards of 3.3 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico every second, the Mississippi is the world’s fourth largest river system. Yet in the South, there are precious few chances for anyone to actually see it. Memphis and New Orleans offer the greatest access, but they also do much to increase the impression that the Mississippi is nothing more than a fetid industrial canal. “It is stinky and it is polluted there,” Ruskey says of the river in those two major ports. “But what we’re showing is that there’s a whole other section of the river that you can’t see until you get out on it.” 

Ruskey, who is forty-nine, is a wizened river guru straight out of central casting. On the Mississippi one hundred to two hundred days a year, he has a face creased from sun and wind. He wears a dark beard and a salt-and-pepper mess of long tangled hair tied up into a ponytail and tucked under a worn felt hat. Curious, quiet, and thoughtful, he peppers his musical drawl with “right on” and, when he does open up, it’s usually to deliver mini-lectures on such topics as the invasive nature of the water hyacinth or the Latin etymology of the honey locust, knowledge he dispenses effortlessly. 

Ruskey’s life on the Mississippi began in 1982, when, after reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school, he and a friend thought, “That’s a good idea.” It can be argued that just about anyone who reads Huck Finn thinks the same thing, but most of us stop right there. Not Ruskey and his friend. They made a raft out of oil drums and scrap lumber and put in one August day just above La Crosse, Wisconsin. Five months later they arrived in Mississippi and watched their raft break apart after a run-in with a pylon. “It looked like a potato chip that had been crushed,” Ruskey says of the raft’s rapid dissolution. “And so my first night in Mississippi was spent as a refugee on an island.” 

These days Ruskey isn’t so green as to try floating around on a tangle of barrels and lumber, but he concedes that the Mississippi poses risks regardless of your craft. “It’s a rapscallion of a river,” he says. “Just when you think you know everything about it, it does something different.” 

With a foundation of experience and the right equipment, Ruskey and his mighty Quapaws plan their wilderness excursions as if they’re mountaineers setting out for an Alpine crossing. My baptismal dive, for example, was no carefree plunge. Quapaw requires passengers to wear wet suits when the water is 60 degrees or cooler and only recommends diving where the channel is free and deep. Ruskey says that most problems on the Mississippi stem from inexperience and lack of proper preparation, risks that don’t stand a chance out there with him and his Quapaws.