A Canoe-Level View of the Mississippi’s Lowest Water Ever

You may have heard the Mississippi River is drying up. Parts of the river this week 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 water has exposed old shipwrecks, Civil War relics and a weak link in the global supply chain

The Mississippi is a principal artery of American industry, moving some 500 million tons of freight every year, including a sizeable portion of the world’s food supply. That commerce 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 dispatch from the Lower Mississippi, renaissance river guide John Ruskey remarked on the thousands of towboats nosed into sandbars waiting their turn to traverse narrowed channels. Still, he noted, “there is plenty of water for canoes.”

In a collection of words and photographs taken during the last month of extreme low water, Ruskey reminded us there’s no better way to see a river than from the seat of a canoe. For more than 30 years he’s 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, opening 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, too, is 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 Rivergator guide is the go-to resource for Mississippi river runners.

Ruskey has seen the Mighty Miss in all her moods, and with due respect to satellite imagery, important climate science and inflation prognosticators, we could think of no one who’s perspective on the river we’d rather hear.

A Quapaw trip 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: It’s the closest perspective you can get, unless you’re swimming in the water. You’re 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 is interacting with the rest of creation.

It’s a bit like being a bird. We see birds often taking a rest 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—watching an egret or a blue heron or a tern leaning on a piece of driftwood to take a break and maybe snatch some quick bites.

I’ve gotten a sensation on the Missouri River, floating through the pretty heavily farmed upper Midwest and spending days or maybe weeks paddling down a river without seeing anything but forest on the islands and the riverbanks. After a while you get this weird sensation that you are paddling through the deep woods, like maybe you’re in the Amazon or something, when the reality is if you had a drone that went up a couple of hundred feet you would see that there are farmlands on the other side of that levee, 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 the River Reality. The feeling is pretty similar to the experience people have had for thousands of years, paddling canoes on rivers across the world.

“Strange colors are seeping out of depressions in the muddy banks, and sandbars, perhaps heavy metals, reminders of pre-1972 Clean Water Act industrial scale pollution which are normally covered over in higher waters,” Ruskey wrote. A painter, he said this seep reminds him of cadmium yellow, the richest of yellows made from a toxic element which drove some artists to go mad. John Ruskey photo

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

We’re seeing more deer coming out of the woods and going down to the river’s edge. The monarch butterflies are migrating through and we’ve been seeing a lot of them on the on the shores. This is a purely qualitative statement, but I think the migrating wildlife that we’re seeing is a sign that they’re 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 it’s a little higher. But this is the lowest I’ve ever seen it. It’s an indication that the wetlands that are connected to the river, or that used to be connected to it, are still being cut off.

The floodwaters flow in and they’re absorbed into these wetlands, into the mud itself and the marshes. In the Northwoods it’s marshy places full of cattails and lilies; down here it’s cypress swamps and bayous and oxbow lakes in the old channels of the Mississippi. It used to be that those places would drain back into the Mississippi as it dropped, and acted like a buffer against the extreme highs and lows. On the lower Mississippi alone, 25 million acres of land in the floodplain is now mostly contained behind levees.

In more recent decades we’re experiencing 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 1800s.

There’s a push to move the levees back and allow 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’s one of the reasons the flooding was so catastrophic that year.

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

Fascinating landscapes have been carved into the sandbars, stretching off into and over the limits of vision (and the imagination), and over the curve of the earth, into distant wetlands, and previously water-filled back channels. John Ruskey photo

I get the sense the Mighty Miss is giving up its secrets. 
The river in Helena, Arkansas, is literally 60 feet lower than it was in 2011. So we’re seeing what is normally the bottom of the river, and it’s a wonderful chance to visualize what the water does when it’s flowing over sand or mud, and what it does when it hits trees or piles of driftwood or engineer-made objects like wing dams and rock revetments. We can see the effects in the sand and the mud. It’s like a landscape that that Tolkien would imagine—very strange but highly textured, highly accentuated landscape, entirely out of sand and wood with a lot of variety.

It almost looks like you’re looking across Canyonlands in miniature. It has the same kind of contours, cut out places where seeps and back channels that flow across sandbars and then places where it looks like braided rivers below a glacier.

We find rocks and fossils that get carried down from anywhere upstream, and sometimes we know where they come from and most times 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 signpost or something that tells where it came from, and shipwrecks are appearing. Notably at Helena, the old railroad ferry landing is now visible in its entirety on both sides of the river.

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

What have you discovered that surprised you?
I’ve noticed this before about low water. The river actually looks bigger when it’s lower than it does when it’s high. It’s one of those strange river perspective things. When it’s high, the forests on both sides of the river are connected by a contiguous body of water. Somehow that looks like a smaller river than when it’s low, and there are these long sweeping lines of sandbar and gravel bars and mud bars reaching down from either 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 around and centuries old. John Ruskey photo

Before Western civilization descended on the valley and started cutting the forests, these were the biggest trees in North America outside of the West Coast. It was our Amazon. They used to say a squirrel could cross the country without touching the ground—until it got to the Mississippi River and had to swim.

The river commands a flood plain that in some places is over a hundred miles wide, and historically the ancient channels covered that entire floodplain. So it used to devour pieces of forest and stands of cypress and giant oaks and sweet gums and all the other tree species that grow in the valley. And a lot of those were dropped and buried in mud and protected by the anaerobic environment. And later, the river changes channel and regurgitates giant logs once hidden. We’re seeing examples of those big trees, indications of that ancient forest that used to grow here. A lot of them are cypress, but we also see sweet gum and oak and black walnut.

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

Could you pull a chunk of that preserved driftwood out of the river and turn it into a canoe or a coffee table?
We’ve done that with some of the logs we had over the decades. One of them is now a very finely carved dugout canoe that we call Queen Beaver, and she’s 17 and a half feet long. I discovered the log about 20 years ago on the banks of the river. It was sweet gum, and we floated that log right down to the landing and trailered it out just like we do one of our big canoes.

The river will provide. Speaking of which, did that big catfish really just jump into the canoe?
That was a bighead carp that jumped in the canoe. And the boys that 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 Crosse, she said she’d never heard boys squeal like that.

We always give the kids a choice. We can set the fish free or take it to camp and fillet it for supper. They wanted the fish to be returned to the water.

This fish jumped into the canoe, and was returned to Big Muddy. John Ruskey photo
Other fish have been trapped in dried out back channels. John Ruskey photo

You also posted a photo of some alligator gar and smaller fish that were trapped in a backchannel when it dried out. Do you worry about the long-term impact on wildlife populations that are being stressed by this low water?
On a microscopic level it’s no big deal. Those fish will become food for the microbiota and have already sustained the egrets and herons. We saw them weeks beforehand as that pool was draining, and they had a feast. They were going nutty. In macroscale, it’s very worrisome. Monarch butterflies are already having a tough enough time, and other migrating species like the white pelicans and the snow geese and the Arctic terns are already stressed enough just finding food and a safe place to land at nighttime. When is that one straw going to be too much, and break the camel’s back?

Top photo: Elissa Nadworny/NPR for a profile of Ruskey by Melissa Block.



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