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Paddling the Mississippi River

One of America’s great wildernesses sits, largely unnoticed, along the Blues River.

When you’re launching a canoe trip onto the Mississippi River, there is always a flurry of last-minute work to do. Put on wetsuits. Stuff gear into dry bags. Stack dry bags to maintain balance and sightlines.

Then — at least if you are traveling with paddling guide John Ruskey — there’s the smudge.

Ruskey learned this ceremony from a Cherokee healer: He lights a bundle of sage leaves and passes the smoldering edge over the canoe, the gear and the members of his crew, one by one. Each paddler spins in a circle, following the east-to-west rotation of the sun. A prayer acknowledges the four winds, whose capricious nature could fundamentally change the outcome of a trip.

"It creates a stepping stone from our land lives to our water lives," Ruskey explains.Ruskey has always lived a water life. As a teenager, he floated the Mississippi, Huck Finn-style, on a hand-built raft. Twenty years ago, when he found himself cooped up and frustrated in an office job in Clarksdale, Mississippi, he began to paddle the river for release. In 1996, a tourist asked around for someone who could take him out on a canoe, and two years later, Ruskey incorporated the Quapaw Canoe Company — the first wilderness outfitter along the lower 1,000 miles of the Mississippi.

Ruskey knows much of the river intimately, but the 200 miles along the Mississippi Delta are his true river home. He calls this the Muddy Waters Wilderness, and it is indeed both muddy and wild. The smell of mud can be inescapable, rising from the dense riverside willows which are inhabited, Ruskey believes, by more bears than humans. Only one bridge in Greenville crosses the river in the Delta. This is the largest roadless area in the mid-South.

Our mental image of the Mississippi River has been shaped by the blues. This is cultural debt Ruskey honors with the name Muddy Waters Wilderness. When Ruskey shuttles clients from his Clarksdale headquarters to the river, he passes Stovall Farms, where the famous bluesman spent his formative years. Ruskey himself first came to the Delta to learn the blues — and it’s not unusual for his clients to hear him, mid-sandbar picnic, strumming a Muddy Waters tune.

The bluesman’s picture of the river can be, well, bluesy. In Big Bill Broonzy’s "Mississippi River Blues," the river becomes an obstacle separating the singer from his lover. "When the Levee Breaks," written by Memphis Minnie and her husband, Kansas Joe McCoy (and later resurrected as a Led Zeppelin classic), recounts the tragic flooding of 1927. That year, as much of the Delta was covered with river water, African-American laborers were forced to work under horrid conditions in riverside camps, rebuilding the levee.

But the "batture," as these riverside woods are known, can also be a place of mystery and beauty. Both Mark Twain and William Faulkner used the batture as a symbol of freedom, a disappearing landscape beyond the petty meddling of humankind. (Twain’s account in Life on the Mississippi of a river sunse, is a must-read for any Delta-bound traveler.) Swampy and unfit for long-term human habitation, the batture was for African-American Deltans a kind of haven — a space to hunt and fish freely, and even to live. During the Civil War, runaway slaves took refuge in the thick woods of Big Island, which is bound on one side by the Mississippi River.

Much of the batture is now gone. The levees that dried the floodplain and created the Delta’s famous plantations have reduced the river's floodplain by nearly 90 percent, but Ruskey can still take you to there. To Big Island, or to the many clean, white sandbars that make for some of the best camping in the South.

Following his guidebooks, you can even get there on your own. But be prepared. Those blues songs are right: This river is a powerful thing. Ruskey, grinning, may careen your boat through three-foot waves, leaving you breathless and air-bound. It’s an intentional reminder of how puny we are. "That kind of sobering reality is really good for a person," Ruskey says.

And once you’ve survived that and you’re camped on the edge of Big Island — a driftwood fire before you, 25,000 acres of deer and bears and coyote behind, not a bit of human meddling in sight — you’re liable to agree. Sometimes you need the rush of civilization to be drowned out by a flowing river. Sometimes you need to step into river life.

Photos by Rory Doyle.

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