A canoe-level view of Mississippi’s lowest water ever

You may have heard that the Mississippi River is drying up. Parts of the river this week have hit the lowest levels in recorded history. A wedge of salt water has pushed more than 60 miles upstream from the Gulf of Mexico, threatening drinking water supplies in some communities. The receding waters have revealed ancient shipwrecks, civil war relics and a weak link in the global supply chain

The Mississippi is a major artery of American industry, moving about 500 million tons of cargo each year, including a significant portion of the world’s food supply. That trade has slowed significantly as barge operators have had to lighten their loads. The health of the economy, it turns out, has a lot to do with the health of the river.

In a recent broadcast from the Lower Mississippi, Renaissance river guide John Ruskey remarked about the thousands of tugboats nosed into sandbars waiting their turn to cross narrow channels. Still, he noted, “there’s plenty of water for canoes.”

In a collection of words and pictures taken during the last month of extremely low tide, Ruskey reminded us that there is no better way to see a river than from the seat of a canoe. For more than 30 years, he has lived on and around the lower Mississippi, a stretch of river he first saw as a teenager five months after leaving Wisconsin on a homemade raft.

He came to stay a few years later and opened his Quapaw Canoe Company in Clarksdale, Mississippi, just a stone’s throw from the Delta crossroads where Robert Johnson is said to have traded his soul for mastery of the blues. Ruskey is also a bluesman of some note as well as an artist, educator and river guide. His Lower Mississippi River Foundation introduces young people to the wild beauty of the Mississippi and his online River gator guide is the go-to resource for Mississippi River runners.

Ruskey has seen the mighty miss in all her moods, and with respect to satellite imagery, that’s important climate science and inflation forecasters, we couldn’t think of anyone whose perspective on the river we’d rather hear.

A Quapaw Tour on the Lower Mississippi. John Ruskey photo

Adventure Journal: What is it about a canoe-level view that makes a person see the river differently?
John Ruskey: That’s the closest perspective you can get unless you’re swimming in the water. You are actually touching the water every time you take a paddle stroke and it creates this total sensory extravaganza. It’s like the difference between driving a car through Yellowstone and parking your car and joining the 2 percent of visitors who walk more than a mile down the trail. The difference is that you are not in a bubble. You are actually a living organism that interacts with the rest of creation.

It’s a bit like being a bird. We often see birds resting on a piece of driftwood floating down the river. And personally, I think that’s probably how mankind was originally inspired to build a canoe – seeing a heron or a blue heron or a tern lean against a piece of driftwood to take a break and maybe grab some quick bites .

I’ve gotten a feel for the Missouri River, floating through the fairly heavily farmed upper Midwest and spending days or maybe weeks paddling down a river seeing nothing but forest on the islands and riverbanks. After a while, you get this weird feeling that you’re paddling through the deep forests like you’re in the Amazon or something, when the reality is that if you had a drone that went up a few hundred feet, you’d see that there are farmlands on the other side of the dyke, and towns. But on the river you don’t realize it. Even here on the lower Mississippi, in one of the densest agricultural regions in the world, we have this experience we call River Reality. The feeling is quite similar to the experience people have had for thousands of years paddling canoes on rivers around the world.

“Strange colors seeping out of depressions in the muddy banks and sandbars, perhaps heavy metals, are reminiscent of pre-1972 industrial-scale pollution that is usually covered up in higher waters,” Ruskey wrote. A painter, he said this reed reminds him of cadmium yellow, the richest of yellows made from a toxic element that drives some artists crazy. John Ruskey photo

This year we are seeing more ducks and geese and double-breasted cormorants earlier in the season. And I think it’s because they don’t find water anywhere else. Even though it’s low tide on the Mississippi and some headlines would have you think the Mississippi River has dried up, we still have more water than anywhere else. And the wildlife is looking for it.

We see several deer coming out of the forest and going down to the river’s edge. The monarch butterflies migrate through and we have seen many of them on the shores. This is a purely qualitative statement, but I think the migratory wildlife we ​​see is a sign that they are having difficulty finding refreshment elsewhere.

Should we be worried?
The river is always fluctuating between highs and lows, sometimes a little lower than normal, sometimes a little higher. But that’s the lowest I’ve ever seen it. This is an indication that the wetlands that are connected to the river, or were previously connected to it, are still being cut off.

The flood water flows in and it is absorbed into these wetlands, into the mud and bogs themselves. In the Northwoods, there are swampy places full of cattails and lilies; down here it’s cypress swamps and bay and oxbow lakes in the old channels of the Mississippi. It used to be that these places would run back into the Mississippi when it fell, acting as a buffer against the extreme ups and downs. On the lower Mississippi alone, 25 million acres of floodplain land are now mostly contained behind levees.

In recent decades we have experienced extreme lows and extreme highs. 2011 was the extreme high, the highest water since 1927. And this year we’re seeing the opposite, the lowest water ever recorded in places like New Madrid, Missouri, where they’ve been keeping records since the 19th century.

There is a push to move the levees back and give the river more room to do what the river wants to do. We learned that lesson in 1927 because the levees used to be right on the banks of the river. There was no room for the river to swell, and that is one of the reasons floods were so catastrophic that year.

When they rebuilt the levee, it took ten years to do so, and they moved the levee back to what they thought was far enough for the worst-case scenario. But what we are learning now is that the river still needs more space.

Fascinating landscapes have been carved into the sandbars, stretching into and beyond the limits of sight (and imagination) and over the curve of the earth, into distant wetlands and formerly waterlogged back channels. John Ruskey photo

I understand that the mighty miss is giving up her secrets.
The river in Helena, Arkansas is literally 60 feet lower than it was in 2011. So we see what is normally the bottom of the river and it’s a wonderful chance to visualize what the water does when it flows over sand or mud, and what it does when it hits trees or driftwood piles or engineered objects like wing dams and rock revetments. We can see the effects in the sand and mud. It’s like a landscape Tolkien would imagine – very strange, but very textured, highly accented landscape, all out of sand and wood with a lot of variety.

It almost looks like you’re looking over Canyonlands in miniature. It has the same kind of contours, carved out places where seepage and back channels flow over sandbars, and then places where it looks like braided rivers under a glacier.

We find rocks and fossils that are carried down from any place upstream and sometimes we know where they come from and most of the time we don’t. We see agates that only come from the Yellowstone River Valley and they get washed up down here. Sometimes we find a guide or something that tells where it came from and shipwrecks appear. At Helena in particular, the old railway ferry landing is now visible in its entirety on both sides of the river.

Remnants of the Helena-Lula rail ferry emerge from a long slumber beneath the lower Mississippi River near Flower Point. John Ruskey photo.

What have you discovered that surprised you?
I’ve noticed it before about low water. The river actually looks bigger when it’s lower than it does when it’s high. It’s one of the strange things about river perspective. When it is high, the forests on both sides of the river are connected by a continuous body of water. Somehow it looks like a smaller river than when it’s low, and there are these long sweeping lines of sandbars and gravel bars and mud bars reaching down from either the bank or the river in jagged lines full of interesting relief and shadows and light and substrate.

At Basket Bar, the river gave back this cypress trunk, 10 feet round and centuries old. John Ruskey photo

Before western civilization came down into the valley and started cutting down the forests, these were the largest trees in North America outside of the west coast. It was our Amazon. They used to say that a squirrel could cross the country without touching the ground – until it got to the Mississippi River and had to swim.

The river dominates a floodplain that is in some places over a hundred kilometers wide, and historically the old channels covered the entire floodplain. So it used to devour patches of forest and groves of cypress and giant oak and sweet gum and all the other trees that grow in the valley. And many of them were lost and buried in mud and protected by the anaerobic environment. And later the river changes its channel and regurgitates giant logs that were once hidden. We see examples of the large trees, signs of the ancient forest that used to grow here. Many of them are cypress, but we also see sweet gum and oak and black walnut.

Ruskey and his Quapaws carved Queen Beaver from an old sweet gum log he found in the river. John Ruskey photo

Could you pull some of the salvaged driftwood out of the river and turn it into a canoe or coffee table?
We have done this with some of the logs we had over the decades. One of them is now a very finely carved canoe, which we call the Queen Beaver, and she is seventeen and a half feet long. I discovered the log about 20 years ago on the bank of the river. It was sweet gum, and we floated that log right down to the landing and pulled it out, just like we do one of our big canoes.

The river will give. Speaking of which, did the big catfish really jump right into the canoe?
It was a bighead carp that jumped into the canoe. And the boys we had in the canoe—it’s kind of like a youth program for kids to get them outdoors—they almost jumped out of the canoe. My guide, Heather Cross, she said she’d never heard boys squeal like that.

We always give the children a choice. We can set the fish free or take it to camp and fillet it for dinner. They wanted the fish back in the water.

This fish jumped into the canoe and was returned to Big Muddy. John Ruskey photo

Other fish have been caught in dried out back channels. John Ruskey photo

You also posted a picture of some alligator nets and smaller fish caught in a back channel when it dried out. Are you concerned about the long-term impact on wildlife populations being stressed by this low water?
On a microscopic level, it’s not a problem. These fish will become food for the microbiota and have already sustained egrets and herons. We saw them weeks in advance when the pool was emptying and they were having a party. They were going crazy. On a macro scale, it is very worrying. Monarch butterflies already have it hard enough, and other migratory species like the white pelicans and snow geese and arctic terns are already stressed enough just finding food and a safe place to land at night. When does one straw become too much and break the camel’s back?

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