Editor’s Note: This is the conclusion of Johnny Molloy’s 300-mile sea kayaking adventure from Memphis to Vicksburg, along with friend Mark Carroll. At this point they are in Helena, Ark.
We paddled into Helena, Ark., drifting up a slough to a decrepit weed-bordered ramp. I questioned our whereabouts but climbed a sharp hill to check. Surprise! Neatly dressed downtown Helena sprawled below the river levee I had ascended. This was home to a renowned blues festival. The levee wall offered a huge mural depicting Delta blues singers.
We filled our water jugs from a park spigot and moved downriver, passing bank fishermen and one of two bridges between Memphis and Vicksburg. Numerous elevators poured indeterminate matter into partly filled, tilted barges. A southeasterly wind blew warm, slowing us on this November day. Below Friars Point, Miss., the channel narrowed, then curved, creating boils, whirlpools and waves, but it did speed us up. We ended up near Robson Towhead, a cottonwood topped island. The wind continued through the night, keeping a few nagging mosquitoes at bay, its only redeeming quality.
Mark and I started the morning paddle in the dark, to beat an ever-rising blow, paddling close to shore until full light. Sinister clouds hung overhead as we pounded south against skittering whitecaps turning over the shallows. We paddled relentlessly and without conversation, seeking the confluence of the White River with the mighty Mississippi. Rain fell in the distance, while other skies were clear, still others were simply gray.
“One last curve before we meet the White River,” I thought, as a driving rain met us. The sandbar rose lofty. We pulled up, debarked, then scaled the windswept prominence overlooking the mouth of the White River and length of the Mississippi. Mark found a sheltered campsite behind some spindly willows. Making camp in the rain wasn’t any more fun than it had ever been, but the tempest did let up long enough to appreciate the view before driving us to our tents for the remainder of the afternoon and night.
We broke a wet camp. Overhead, a parade of Canada geese and cormorants flew in their customary migratory “V.” Over 60 percent of all North American birds — 326 species — use the Mississippi River flyway on their annual journeys. Even the butterflies were heading south.
Morning clouds lingered for miles downriver as we absently paddled into Victoria Bend. After joining the outside, hoping to maximize the current, I got what I asked for. Waves rose higher. The current hastened. Atop an already big wave, I saw huge ones extending far downstream. To paddle them was to swim. I began to aim for the slower inside bend, waving Mark inside, too. Problem was, now I had to travel perpendicular to the engorged waves to change direction. The current pushed stronger as I frenetically stroked, wildly speeding over each successive wave, trying to stay upright before finally catching an eddy, which about tipped me over. I looked up to see hundreds of white pelicans placidly gathered on the nearby sandbar, contrasting my disturbing experience.
“The haystacks we bypassed might’ve done us in,” I thought while munching a sandwich later at lunch. I absently glanced down, noticing the scum line at our stopping point. Soybeans were sprouting, corn and grain were there too — spillover from barges being loaded, I reckoned.
Downstream, the Arkansas River, which started in Colorado as a major whitewater-paddling venue, flowed in debris-filled and muddy, forming a miles long line of dirt brown water before melding with the relatively clearer Mississippi. We finally made the tail of Cypress Bend, our sandy roost the same level as those of the tugboat pilots, to whom we waved while drying our gear and setting up camp.
Mark complained about a rash but I refused to look at it. A crescent moon rose that night while Mark scratched. Coyotes howled in the distance — their prints covered nearly every sandbar. Mark would see one in the daylight, rambling the fringe between sand and forest.
What a Difference a Day Makes
We embarked under darkness once again, attempting to beat a forthcoming storm. The weather radio predicted southerly winds 20 to 30 miles an hour with gusts to 40. A brief westerly turn gave us a break before we changed direction, into the full blast of wind. Dawn revealed pewter skies, which threatened our push toward Greenville, Miss. A perched bald eagle caught a blow and effortlessly drifted off a snag into the yon, its ease of travel ridiculing our repetitive, futile strokes. Sandstorms blew across the enormous bars and into our eyes. We had to curtail one stop due to the pelting particles .
The day seemed without end. We gave up after 26 miles and a few hairy spots where wind, wing dams and fast currents whipped up crazy water. I spotted a campsite behind a wind-blocking island. Despite the island, winds sliced noisily through the trees, and sifted the finest grains of sand into our tents and the gear within. The sky blackened as the weather radio issued warning after warning. But we didn’t need a radio to see which way the wind blew — or the storm that drove us into the shelters, complete with enough lightning to make my hair stand on end, as I lay on my little foam pad in the tent, a layer of pathetic insulation against the electric bolts.
Squall after squall marched through the long night. Our somber morning preceded perhaps the seven most dangerous miles of river we had to face. The winds were howling, so we tried to stay along shore, but the wing dams repeatedly forced us into the middle of the river where the waters were tough. A final bend below Greenville laid out a minefield of boils and whirlpools that we were glad to leave behind.
However, our troubles were nothing compared to the 1927 flood when citizens of Greenville had to live atop the river levee — along with livestock — for months. It was the only dry land around. The levee at nearby Mound Landing broke, and others followed suit throughout the valley, flooding thousands of square miles of the Delta. Elsewhere, the Mississippi had overflowed from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico.
Our 11-hour, 33-mile day into the wind took us to the nexus of Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. The borders weren’t marked, however. Sensing relief at a long day ended, I drifted into Louisiana shallows. Mark shouted, “Carp attack!,” just as several of the Asian exotics jumped out of the water. I deflected one with my right arm, while others landed harmlessly.
The storm front was finally passing. We sat before the campfire, joking about flying fish and watching lightning pop in the distance, then bedded early. While we were drifting off, a rogue storm cell assaulted our open sandbar, flattening my tent with a punishing gust. I lay on my back holding the plastic shelter slightly away from me to keep the rain off. After the storm moved on, Mark and I convened in the dark, making sure all was well. What a day! I repaired the tent pole, then slept like the dead.
We were ready for the easy paddle that followed, with cool temperatures, bright sun, a tailwind and friendly yet fast water under an immensity of sand, water and sky, all embroidered in Deep South fall colors. Mark and I sought the swift current, shifting from one side of the river to the other, chasing its meanderings while kite-tailed swallows danced over the river, not needing a push from the mighty Mississip’.
Our water supply was low again. The Army Corps of Engineers river map indicated a landing near Mayersville, Miss. We debarked and climbed over the levee, and dropped into the hamlet. The two of us couldn’t have stood out more — sunburned white guys in sun hats and outdoorsy clothing, smoking cigars, water containers in hand. I stopped the local constable for directions to water. He pointed to an undersized jailhouse, but before we got there a heavyset black guy, Deano, offered agua.
After filling up, we inquired about a store and he insisted on taking us there, despite its being but three blocks distant. Inside, he joked to everyone I was going to write a story about them. Mark got some junk food, then Deano drove us back to the landing where we showed him our paddling setups. He wished us luck and we were off again, tracing channels to Cottonwood Bar, making 33 miles. We even had our own cove of calm water for landing just below the peak of the sandbar, which provided the usual million-dollar views, using sands gathered from one end of the country to another. Sol was with us all day, and on the sandbars, too. I applauded its setting.
The weather broke our way again the following day, offering idyllic paddling. We cruised where the current took us, speeding through “narrows,” which were incredibly wide by any other river standard, and cruising the broad places. Staying near the shore, I watched the vegetation patterns. A row of sycamores grew closest to the river, then came willows, growing in dense impenetrable thickets. Cottonwoods towered above all, their large leaves whispering in the slightest breeze. We were used to the pace and reeled off 25 miles by noon. Before we knew it, a high bluff and civilization rose in the distance.
The afternoon grew hot and the hasty current led us to the big curve where Vicksburg stood, the riverscape now dominated by casinos. A mixture of sadness and excitement rose within. We took the canalized Yazoo River into downtown Vicksburg and the welcoming river landing after a 40-mile day, exactly 300 river miles from Memphis. The sun blared as we unloaded. My mind drifted back to the river. Big Muddy was the main artery of America, and was counted on to work much like our own veins — always there, yet barely seen. But if you took its pulse you might just go on one memorable journey.