The river was always there. It had made Memphis. Now we left that city in a dying sun, entering the main current. The power of the river surprised, pushing us downstream to rush underneath a bridge I had traveled hundreds of times, gazing upon the roiling brown mass I now paddled. We negotiated the first boils and whirlpools, appearing and disappearing according to whims unknown to us.
Fall’s golden glow cast long shadows on a sandbar ahead. The two of us were already looking for a campsite. We left the quick current for still and shallow waters toward the elevated sand, topped with driftwood left from high waters. Our kayaks scratched to a stop. I quickly jumped out of the boat, surmounted the hill and surveyed the surroundings. Out there, a tugboat pushing loaded barges sent a beam of penetrating light downriver. Down below, my paddling partner was already unloading, carrying his gear 40 feet up the sandbar where I stood. Without a word, he dropped his stuff and raised his hands, giving me a big high five, already knowing after a mere 4 miles that this trip was going to be one heck of an adventure.
Mark Carroll, real photographer and friend, of Nashville, and I, a native Memphian now gratefully residing in Johnson City, had picked late autumn to make this run down the Mississippi River from Memphis to Vicksburg for the following reasons: cooler temperatures, fewer bugs and the calmest river waters. The low river would also expose massive sandbars that rose to commanding heights and made ideal campsites.
I ignited a driftwood campfire, countering the sun’s descent. Near us, stunted cottonwoods broke the rolling tan sands that extended for miles. These gigantic sandbars were the first indicators of what an enormous watercourse is the Mississippi River. Consider the area that it drains: Starting in the west it is fed by streams coursing off the Rocky Mountains from Montana to New Mexico. Now add the entire Midwest to northern Minnesota and the Mississippi’s official headwater at Lake Itasca. Then look east, its drainages range from New York to the Southern Appalachian Mountains, to deep in Dixie.
All told, the Mississippi drains all or parts of 31 states and two Canadian provinces — 1.5 million square miles, including the creek running behind my Johnson City condo. This aggregate river flow averages 600,000 cubic feet per second in New Orleans, moving 436,000 tons of soil per day. Only two rivers on the planet have larger drainage basins — the Amazon and the Congo.
The river has shaped and continues to shape the United States. It’s in our national lexicon — “east of the Mississippi” and “west of the Mississippi.” But few know Old Man River up close. That was the driving force in this adventure. Perusing maps beforehand only raised my curiosity. Whiskey Island, Forest Home Towhead, Rescue Landing, Jackson Cutoff — where did these names come from? And then there were stories I’d heard growing up in Memphis: whirlpools that can suck a boat under, catfish as big as a Volkswagen, and water so muddy you couldn’t see your finger in front of your face. Fall in and you’re a dead man. Somewhere between these maps and childhood myths, somewhere between Memphis and Vicksburg, we determined to know the Mississippi River.
Overnight, the river silently moved, seeking the Gulf of Mexico as it always has. Heavy dew had soaked our tents. We couldn’t wait to see what was around the bend, haphazardly packing 10 days worth of supplies into our overloaded kayaks. Since we had figured an average of 30 miles per day, our four-mile first day had put us behind. We therefore determined to average 33 miles per day from here out, hoping the current would help us along, making these distances more doable.
Mark soon spotted a rusted boat hull, half-buried in gravel and stopped to photograph it. I drifted downriver on the windless morn, surprised at my progress. One legend of the river was already being quashed — its muddiness. We could see upwards of 2 feet deep in the shallows. Granted, this was fall and the dry season.
Another thing: the river wasn’t as it was in Huck Finn’s day. The Army Corps of Engineers had seen to that. After the Great Flood of 1927, when the Mississippi had stretched over 70 miles beyond its banks, the Corps — to control overflows — had cut off river bends and added wing dams — rock walls extending from the banks into the river to concentrate and accelerate the channel flow, speeding the water. This straightened out and shortened the Mississippi by 150 miles — compare the current river channel to state boundaries that followed the old river.
The Corps had also been building levees since the late 1800s in an attempt to tame the river and prevent its annual flooding, which had created the richest alluvial lands on the planet. They had also laid revetment — concrete “sheets” connected with rebar, and riprap — piles of rock — along the banks to prevent river sloughing. Still, some shoreline was natural. Mud and/or sand bluffs revealed a soil stratum, which crumbled at times, sometimes taking trees down with them. Above the modified riverbanks, ranks of colorful willow, cottonwood and sycamore rose thick and continuously, a leafy screen beyond which we could not see. But we could see the river, and for miles distant at that, regularly stretching to the horizon, leaving an oceanic feel at times, especially with miles of sandy shores inside the bends.
Whose River Is It, Anyway?
Nowadays, the river mostly belongs to the barges — traffic never stops on Old Man River. Oddly, we could sometimes smell food being cooked on the tugs as they passed. The Corps maintains a 9-foot deep channel, marked with red and green buoys, lighted markers and river mileage signs for commercial navigation. The levees effectively cut off civilization from the river and vice-versa. Seemingly to prove the point, a deer scampered into a bank of willows. Red winged blackbirds sang at the top their lungs, praising this perfect November day. Beaver sign was everywhere — bark stripped sticks and telltale paw and tail prints waddling up and down the sandbars.
Mark caught up with me, paddling with fresh arms, tracing the current, racing about 50 to 60 feet off the shore. The bankside eddies moved upstream as rapidly as the main channel. The whirlpools were no myth, no legend — appearing and disappearing before our eyes as we stroked to avoid them. The river wasn’t completely devoid of civilization. Ahead, a large structure overhung the river — a grain elevator. These metal storage and dispensing facilities were transfer points between foodstuffs and the barges that moved them.
Agriculture was big business in the greater Mississippi Valley. Over 60 percent of American grain exports went down this river. Gravel, sand, and assorted liquids also pushed up and down the river by pilots and crews in their own subculture, living on the tugs for weeks on end. My brother had worked on a tug.
Memphis stood on Chickasaw Bluff. Below, the Delta stretched away from both riverbanks. The next major bluffs, the Walnut Hills, were at Vicksburg, our destination. That’s why other so-called river communities never were on the river. They had to stay behind the perceived protection of the levees.
Our paddling speed, 4-6 miles per hour, seemed insignificant compared to the enormity of Big Muddy. I wondered about the current speed during spring high water. In oceanic zones, tides were easy to predict. Smaller kayaking rivers were easy to navigate. But the Mississippi had its own rules. How and where the current went depended upon not only the slope of the river toward sea level and the volume of water flowing at any given moment, but also bends of the river and a varied river bottom.
Other factors — wind, sediment, riverbank condition at a particular locale — all schemed to create the boils and whirlpools we continually watched for and avoided. The boils — pushes of water rising to the surface and then dispersing like aquatic mushroom clouds — turned our kayaks with unseen hands. The whirlpools did the opposite — circling into the depths below, taking anything they could. I had paddled plenty of water in my day, but the currents of Old Man River were strangest of all.
Despite the unpredictable waters, the lower Mississippi River, officially defined as Cairo, Illinois, to the Gulf of Mexico portion, is perhaps the most untapped natural resource in the United States. The large watery vein traveled the heart of our country, yet few looked at it from a recreational perspective. That was evident by the less than 20 boats — including recreational motorboats — we saw the entire trip.
River miles fell away as we theorized about watercraft, flows and what happened to the old river channel. A barge was coming upriver and another downriver. Uh, oh. We quickly sought the river’s edge, giving the tugs wide berth and demonstrating our willingness to get out of the way, as we were likely being detected on their radars — yet our plan was to stay in the current and stay vigilant. This time — to compound things — the current bounced off a bend and with a Rebel Yell we shot speedy, irregular waves, made higher by the big boat’s passage.
The two of us reached the tail of a miles-long sandbar. I led the way into the shallows. Suddenly, numerous 5-10 pound fish simultaneously jumped out of the water. I freaked! Mark guffawed. I turned around just in time to see one jump completely across his boat, shocking him. These exotic Asian carp have spread throughout the Mississippi River basin, creating surprises for boaters and also displacing native fish species.
Another high bar made a great camping perch. Ironically, the taller hotels and casinos of Tunica, the gaming heart of North Mississippi, rose in the distance. Originally, Mississippi allowed riverboat gambling only, but that pretense had been given up. On our side of the river, debris fields of driftwood scattered across the sandy plain. Our campfire light was mocked by the dazzling brilliance of the casinos. I wondered what Huck Finn would think of this.
Not soon enough, we paddled southbound in nature’s morning light. Upriver-bound barges were simply specks on the horizon, taking form while fighting the current. Other times, barges were stationary against the shore, leaving us confused as to their progress until we neared.
Another perceived reality dispelled: I had imagined snags galore, and whole trees floating downstream, but there wasn’t much in the way of debris to avoid. This was reserved for springtime. We pushed south for Helena, Ark. The warm, windless afternoon passed slowly. We were in the doldrums. Our long day put us at Prairie Point Towhead. I slowly climbed the sandbar, sore muscles throbbing.
The miles didn’t lie — no matter the current you can’t take the 34 miles out of paddling 34 miles. This day, the river had seemed quite calm, floating diligently and silently. However, from our campsite perch, we gazed upon roiling stew, moving like an out-of-control orchestra, each musician simultaneously playing their own tune before a helpless conductor. We couldn’t help but wonder what challenges Old Man River had in store for us.