Written by Mark River
Photos © photographer/naturalist Keith Benoist
Based in Clarksdale Mississippi, in the Yazoo Mississippi Delta, Mark River is chief guide and youth leader for the Quapaw Canoe Company, a valued partner of No Water No Life. Mark is also Southern Coordinator for the 1 Mississippi River Citizen Program which connects those who care about rivers with those who make decisions about them. Mark’s blogs are featured at Lower Mississippi River Dispatch. Based in Natchez, Keith Benoist photographs Lower Mississippi River wildlife and wild places.
They are many iconic natural wonders in this world that have been explored, documented and conquered by representatives of many walks of life. Wild places however are now disappearing rapidly – some by depletion and exploitation of resources; some by expansion of industry; and some by becoming tourist attractions and thus losing their energy and muse. Many of these natural wonders are waterways now dammed for energy, rerouted for navigation or misused for profit.
After the Missouri and Ohio Rivers join the Mississippi River, the river reclaims its more natural existence, full of wetlands, estuary, and floodplains ecosystems — essential environments for the flourishing of the natural world of organisms. The Lower Mississippi River ecosystem is wild and intact. With the nearest dam some 500 miles upstream from Quapaw Canoe’s base in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and few highly-populated cities directly on the river, the meandering Lower Mississippi is the wildest wilderness in the continental United States, right in the middle of North America. Forever changing, with hundreds of Caribbean-like islands and beaches, this river corridor is one of the last unused, unappreciated and unexplored places in the country. You can paddle over a hundred miles in places and not see a bridge.
“Painted Bunting Calling”
A plethora of species live and thrive in the watershed. Annual floods create and change landscapes, so there is always something new to see and explore. These wild places are attracting paddlers worldwide who want the feel the energy of this incredible river’s natural metaphysical powers.
“Life in the Fast Lane”
Water was the most efficient way of travel for Native Americans and explorers alike. These waters served as trade routes, with wellness and wealth buried in the massive forested areas lining its shores. Civilizations based themselves along these natural highways. Rivers then weren’t seen as dangerous and spooky, but rather as wonders created by a higher being. Yet, somewhere along the way, the river gained a reputation as a villain. It was considered unpredictable; forever changing; and slowing wealth and prosperity by doing what it does naturally – flood.
Flooding is the river’s replenishment and rejuvenation. Providing a self-made power-washing and a dilution strategy, floods are the healthiest cycle of a river’s lifeline.
Quapaw Voyageur-style Canoes on Is. 64, by John Ruskey
Here at Quapaw Canoe Company, we employ the tradition of French Voyaguer-style, birchbark canoes; but we tweak the design to handle the currents, swirls, whirlpools and outright power of the Mississippi River. Trading birch-bark for cypress (the wood preferred by the natives of the Delta), we have developed the most graceful canoes on the Lower Mississippi. These canoes can carry tons of gear, giving us the opportunity to embark on multi-week expeditions without resupplying. They are not only the most beautiful and elegant canoes on the river – they are the most reliable.
The Lower Mississippi RiverAlready has crested this spring here in the Yazoo Mississippi Delta (reaching 49 feet on the Helena Gage). All islands are buried underwater. Regardless, we have enjoyed day-trip paddles through flooded forests between the river and the levee; performing clean-ups in this flooded landscape; and other activities that promote engagement with our great river.
“Breaming with Pride”
Many large fish have now congregated at the lip of the river waiting for the perfect water temperatures in the shallows before starting their annual spawn. Beavers have ravaged havoc on the treetops, taking advantage of fresh real-estate.
The deer are mixed in with the cows grazing on the levee, as if we can’t see them. The eagles are spending a lot of time in the nests, as plenty of hunting grounds in the flooding forests are providing an abundance of food.
The old oxbow lakes are replenished and restocked by this year’s flooding. Various species of water snakes and frogs rest in the canopy above us as we float by with amazement, seeming to have formed a truce during the high water. When the water rises, they have no choice but to exit their dens early in the season. So, cold and lethargic in the trees, they try to absorb as much sunlight as possible — perfect for pictures and admiration.
“Push Ma Wa Tah”
Herring gulls and coots float down the main channel. Wood ducks pair off in the flooded, forested backwater. Migrating birds sing in the trees, gathering materials for their nest-building.
The male least interior terns have shown up early to practice their fishing techniques. While the river drops, they will fret and toil until the sand and females appear; then they will win a female, and the island bars of the river will become nurseries for their young. None of these amazing cycles of nature occur without the rise and fall of the Mighty Mississippi.
We Mighty Quapaws join the rest of creation in celebration….
As we wait for the river to reveal new landscapes, sandbars, channels, wetlands and blue holes and to uncover shipwrecks, artifacts and fossils, we celebrate the rise and fall of this river and its bountiful benefits to nature and humanity.