Before I step into Grasshopper, a 30-foot voyageur-style canoe, I regard the big river I am about to navigate with six other paddlers. Lyrics from a song by bluesman Big Bill Broonzy echo in my head: “Mississippi River, it’s so long, deep and wide.” I’ve canoed and camped along the Upper Mississippi many times, hiked up limestone bluffs to inspiring views, but this will be my first time paddling the lower half. Besides my camping gear, I’m packing a host of stereotypes.
Unflattering observations about this part of the river abound. In the 19th century, long before the Mississippi was lined with chemical refineries and power plants, Captain Frederick Marryat called it a “vile sewer.” Other travelers complained about the monotonous scenery: dense forests that lined the banks — dark, foreboding and repetitious — interrupted only occasionally by a bluff or a shady river town.
I don’t know what to expect. How much will I see beyond the tall levees that constrain the river today? Will there be more toxic smells than lilting songbirds? How wild could the Lower Mississippi be after decades of engineering by our nation’s river tamers, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers?
I am curious, though, especially after discovering a Clarksdale, Miss., outfitter that exists solely to guide paddlers on this disparaged section of waterway. For 30 years John Ruskey, the founder of Quapaw Canoe Co., has been exploring the Lower Mississippi in a canoe and showing it off to skeptics like me. If Ruskey is willing to spend so much time on these waters, I must be missing something. I want to know what it is.
I meet Ruskey and three other Quapaw guides at St. Francisville, La., and join them for the last couple of days of a research expedition. We — guides and three guests — take our seats after lunch. Our pile of gear is carefully balanced in the middle of Grasshopper. Our bent-shaft paddles, with blades angled about 20 degrees away from the handle, make for smooth, powerful strokes.
The Lower Mississippi is a heck of a stretch under normal circumstances, but on this spring day it is running fast and high. It zips with just under a million cubic feet of water per second — more than 25 times the amount of water that typically flows on the parts of the Upper Mississippi I know. The enormous force of that water has shaped and reshaped the region for millenniums, scouring new channels through the landscape and turning river cities into ghost towns.
As we paddle into the middle of the river near the Audubon Bridge, an upstream towboat sends waves careening from shore to shore. Grasshopper bounces across them — even the whitecaps — with ease; we barely slow down.
Feeling far removed
After a couple of hours, we stop at Fancy Point Towhead, a large island, where we set up camp for the night. With the canoe tied up next to a high bank — one that is completely concrete-free — we unload bucket-brigade style, tossing the gear up to Quapaw guides.
I scout out my spot for the night. With its stakes barely holding in fine sand, my tent feels as secure as a tanker tied to a twig.
In front of me the normally shallow side channel is flush with enough water to entice a few tow pilots to bypass the normal warnings and navigate the shortcut. Below me, a willow tree has leaned into the current; water is gurgling over and around it. Above me cottonwoods and sycamores form a protective canopy, their limbs perfect for songbirds (yes, lilting) and for airing out my clothes. My nostrils aren’t burning from any toxic chemicals but instead are soothed by the scent of burning willow branches drifting toward me from the campfire. In the distance I can see a power plant and the Audubon Bridge, but I feel far removed from the world they represent.
As everyone else is setting up their tents, Ruskey settles into a comfortable spot near Grasshopper and strums blues tunes on his Backpacker guitar. Around the campfire later, the crew prepares a batch of Raft Potatoes, a dish Ruskey has been perfecting for some 20 years. Tonight’s version includes Cheddar cheese, shredded corn tortillas, eggs, and a lot of simmering and stirring. A cup of fresh ginger tea — brewed from nothing but sliced ginger and water — goes well with dinner, especially as the air cools quickly.
After dinner, we sit around the fire and talk about the river, about the challenges from high-impact industries, about the people working to protect it, and about the successes, often small, that restore some balance to our relationship with the Mississippi. The conversation is easy, if passionate at times, but it fades as the campfire does, so we call it a night.
I sleep in fits, sometimes awakened by the sounds of animals foraging around my tent, but I still feel rested when I finally crawl out of my sleeping bag. It’s a chilly morning on the island, but a cup of smoked cowboy coffee warms me right up.
Back on the river, it doesn’t take long for us to see our first surprise of the day: five deer swimming across the main channel of the river, strong and quick as they navigate the swift current. In 30 years, Ruskey has seen deer swimming across the river only a few of times. As we marvel at them, we notice a tow approaching us from a downriver bend. It’s about this time that we should be turning in toward shore to get out of the tow’s way, but doing so might spook the deer and send them back into the path of the tow. Ruskey decides to hang in the main channel a bit longer, risking the wrath of the tow pilot — if he even sees us — rather than putting the deer in peril. We slowly circle around the deer, gently encouraging them toward shore, and, once they are nearly there, we drift safely out of the tow’s path.
Even though we are within 20 miles of Baton Rouge, in the heart of what I think of as the industrial river, we paddle through stretch after stretch where there are no houses or industries on the riverbanks, no moored barges to block our path. It’s surprisingly quiet and wild.
At a secluded cove on the edge of a swamp, where we stop for lunch, two men pull up in a small fishing boat — a bateau, as it is known in these parts — to check us out. The canoe attracts a lot of curiosity-seekers; even as we paddle, some tow pilots sneak out of the pilot house to snap a picture of us. After another stop to hike around one of the last bluffs along the Mississippi, we detour into Devil’s Swamp and paddle among ancient cypress trees draped in Spanish moss.
The home stretch takes us through the busy port of Baton Rouge. The change in scenery is abrupt, with those chemical plants and oil refineries I expected to see finally lining the river’s banks, the smells of industry growing stronger the closer we get to the city.
We pause for a few minutes in the main channel to wait for an ocean-bound tanker to leave the ExxonMobil dock, then wave to the American Queen as she steams her way past Baton Rouge before we glide under the Horace Wilkinson Bridge to a boat ramp that is our final destination.
The Lower Mississippi is far wilder than I expected. Even with the commercial traffic on the river and despite the chemical refineries and power plants, canoeing on it is a remarkable chance to get away from everyday life and to immerse in a wilderness in the heart of the United States that we too often forget exists. The plant and animal life is diverse, the swamps and bayous mystical, and the sheer size and power of the river is astonishing.
I’m still drawn to the postcard prettiness of the upper part of the river, but I won’t underestimate the beauty of the Lower Mississippi again.
As Broonzy crooned, it may indeed be long, deep and wide, but it is still best experienced from the seat of a canoe.
Dean Klinkenberg is the St. Louis-based author of “The Mississippi Valley Traveler” guide book series. He writes about topics related to the Mississippi River, including cultural issues and travel opportunities.