Monday, October 4, 2010

River Guys

I first met John Ruskey of Quapaw Canoe Company out of Clarksdale, MS when he and his buddy Mike Clark did a Lewis and Clark presentation at our local community college, Dyersburg State. The history of the Lewis and Clark expedition was, of course, their focus. They met somewhere on some river and became fast friends sharing a love of American history and preservation of our waterways. Originally from Colorado, John settled in Clarksdale some years ago and embraced the culture of Mississipi blues exploring and supporting the classics by serving on the board of directors of the Delta Blues Museum. The Mighty Quapaws is an apprentice program founded by Ruskey for at risk youth who learn to carve trees into canoes and paddle the Big Muddy.

Not too long ago, he called me up to see if I could shuttle for a couple of trips that were in my general vicinity. On the first one, I rode with he and client Mark Lewis of New Mexico to the port of Hickman Kentucky where they put in a Bell canoe with enough provisions for a return two days later at the WK Ford landing down around Boothspoint TN. I took the scenic route from Hickman back to Dyersburg and enjoyed the view around Reelfoot Lake. Bessie's Bend is somewhere up around there if I'm not mistaken. On a hot Wednesday afternoon, my brother and I went to WK Ford landing in the muddy old Quapaw ride to pick up a couple of happy riverguys. Mark swam the Mississippi somewhere above Caruthersville MO and lived to tell it! Originally from somewhere close to Hanibal, he was doing research for an upcoming book about his family and their history with the river.

My next gig was a little more complicated. Tony Heck from St. Louis and Bob Hager from Iowa do some part of the Mississipi every Labor Day weekend, accompanied by Snoop the wonder dog. Tony mailed me a key and I picked up his truck at WK Ford the day after they shoved off for San Souci landing in Osceola Arkansas. Snoop has his own life jacket and enjoys the heck out of the view from the top of the tarp on the canoe. They were a two boat team, Tony with a canoe and Bob in a kayak close by. This is how Tony described it:

"Over the recent Labor Day weekend, Snoop, Bob Hager, and myself traveled about 60 miles of the Mississippi River, from W.K.Ford Landing in western Tennessee, down to Sans Souci Landing in eastern Arkansas.
After a 5 hour drive from St. Louis, on Friday, we arrived at our put-in, ready to set up a quick camp. The area was littered heavily, and Bob and I decided that we could not stay in a trash-heap, so we picked up trash until we had cleaned up almost all of the bottles, cans, wrappers, etc., and had a clean campsite.

Blue skies, low humidity, glass-smooth water and a tail-winds greeted us, and we got an early start on Saturday morning, shoving off at 8am (somehow a 6-7am shove-off eluded us). Bob and I are generally in agreement with most things (no disrespect to Bob), and we decided to "make hay while the sun shines", and paddled about 35 miles Saturday before making camp on the only gravel-bar I've ever seen on the Mississippi River. After making landfall, and stepping into the water at the shore-line, we discovered that a spring was entering the river, under our gravel-bar. What a treat after a sun-soaked day! We set up camp and cooked dinner. I don't remember seeing the stars that night (probably due to the liquid sedatives/barley-pop's and 8pm entry into my tent!).

Sunday, we passed a few unique river features. There were three places spaced about 300 yards apart on river-left having some sort of current-deflecting rock piles. I'd not seen this type of rock dike before, and these created some rather powerful eddy-lines and medium sized whirlpools. My 17'-2", heavily loaded Tripper did a little "dance" underneath us as we crossed some hefty whirlpools. (The best brace is just having your paddle in the water, right?). We passed an old river-boat wreck, then came to Barfield Bend. The river makes a very hard right-hand turn here, and the US Army Corps of Engineers has some very long rock dikes on the inside of the bend. This particular rock dike was worrisome, as the river flowed through the dike, creating a strainer 1/2 mile wide. We had to do some "juggling" to accommodate two downstream-bound barges, as we cleared the strainer-dike. My pulse was elevated to my doctor's recommended 120 beats per minute (or a bit higher). The river goes from being 1 1/4 miles wide to only about 400 yards wide, and she was flat-out moving. On the inside of the bend, below the strainer-dike was an absolutely huge sandbar, one of the largest I've ever seen. The sandbar drops off sharply, being 3' high out of the water, with a can-buoy marking the channel only 20 yards from the edge of the sandbar. My Dad, Darryl, is a retired US Army Corps of Engineer worker, and tells me that the river was probably 20-30 foot deep at this narrow spot.

After traveling only a few hours, due to our extended progress the previous day, we made camp on a nice sandbar, complete with swimming beach. We had a fun afternoon of exploring the beach, swimming, chasing Snoop around, and drinking beer. Can life get much better than this? (yes, I know that theoretically, the Swedish Bikini Team might have landed on our sandbar...) After a dinner of cheese burgers and shells & cheese (thanks, Bob), we managed to stay awake for the stars. As a relocated to St. Louis city-boy, I am always amazed at how clear the skies can be, and how bright the stars shine.

I woke up about 5:30am, opened my tent door, looked upstream into the gray-glow that was going to be the sunrise, then looked downstream at one ring of a three-ring circus. Seems as though we had company during the night. Tied to a log was a badly beaten 12'-14' canoe, semi-filled with water, loaded with two ten-speed bikes, and other wheels and tubing, and a small tent was pitched on the shore. About 1/2 hour later, out from the tent came two young men, each about 20 years old or so.
They had seen our campfire just prior to midnight, and homed-in on our sandbar.

These two really knew how to deflate one's ego! The audacity! They had no campstove, cooler full of beer, or, well, much of anything. I felt like some sort of pampered, over-prepared city-slicker! Charley and Drew were from Kansas City, MO, and had never camped nor canoed before, and had gotten the beat-up canoe for $100, and with little more than water, sacks of apples and potato's, and some instant oatmeal, had embarked upon a journey to New Orleans. They did not paddle, per se, but drifted along, day and night, calling the barges compatriots and friends. "They look out for us." declared Charley. I admired their gumption, but was very dismayed at their lack of planing and oblivious nature (they had no map, only one pfd, Drew had no hat or sunscreen, and his face was blistered). Bob and I gave them some cautionary advice (such as "stay on the inside of the bend when you meet a barge"), and some provisions. These two had encountered the strainer-dike during the night, and went through it, after getting hung-up, spun around and almost dumping. They did not like the experience, but wouldn't elaborate further upon the difficulties they had. We wished them luck after we put onto the water.

Now here is the where the title of the story comes into play, "The Extra Ten". I knew we'd be at our take-out, Sans Souci, by noon, which was our original plan. Unfortunately, the text on my map was so small, that I could not read the mile-mark. Instead of the take-out being at the 792 mile mark, after taking off my glasses and pressing the map to my face, I read the mile mark as 782. There was our "extra ten". Instead of a 50 mile trip, we had done a 60 mile trip. As we neared Sans Souci, the wind kicked up, and we had to make a river-crossing in front of two downstream-bound barges. Hmmm... Time to paddle, HARD! Technically, we had plenty of room, but it sure is un-nerving when you look straight down a barge's bow. Paddle hard we did, and after crossing the barge's bow, we crossed the eddy into the boat-ramp area. Our hired shuttle-driver, a very nice lady by the name of Janie was waiting for us, and after a cold "celebration beer" we headed off for home.We have only 50 miles left before pulling into Memphis, TN, our ultimate destination. I'm looking forward to walking Beale Street next year!!

Recently, Ruskey formed a partnership in Helena AR and established an outpost there.
Helena is the only city that actually sits on the main channel of the Mississippi River in the 300 miles between Memphis and Vicksburg.

Those are river miles, of course, What took me an hour to drive a shuttle from here to there and back provided a golden opportunity for riverguys to paddle their way south and camp out on sandbars enjoying starry nights with a side of oatmeal for breakfast. And always the cowboy coffee.

I was raised to be scared to death of the mighty Mississippi and all of the eddies and whirlpools that go along with a river that begins in Minnesota as a trickle and dumps into the Gulf, loaded with toxic waste from ports here and there along the way. River traffic is vital to our economy as a country, just like back in the day when it was the only way to get from here to there. Sometimes, it's all about the experience.


Author: Poopie at Pecan Lane