There was no brass band playing to greet John Ruskey and his five crewmates as they paddled their 30-foot wooden canoe into Caruthersville to end an 11-day voyage on the Mississippi River from St. Louis. Instead of trombones and tubas, lightning flashed, thunder boomed and rain fell – lots of rain.
“That’s part of the adventure, you have to accept what Mother Nature throws at you,” said Ruskey, shrugging off the storm. “That becomes part of the stories that come off the river with you.”
Ruskey, 50, owns Quapaw Canoe Co. in Clarksdale, Miss., the company that made the handsome cypress strip canoe, dubbed “the Grasshopper,” the travelers used. The “voyageur canoe” is similar to the big boats paddled by early explorers and pioneers.
Also, Ruskey is director of the Lower Mississippi River Foundation, which he founded in 2011. The foundation’s mission is to spread the word about the beauty of floating the stretch of the Mississippi, from its confluence with the Missouri River, north of St. Louis, to the Gulf of Mexico.
For the last two years, Ruskey has gathered information for his Rivergator, a paddler’s guide to the lower Mississippi River. The guide is available free, at RiverGator.org. The website, updated as more adventures are completed, has stories, photos, maps and information on traveling the great river by canoe.
“Most people only experience the Mississippi from a bridge, which usually goes over in an industrial area that is not attractive,” Ruskey said. “And the locals will tell you, ‘Don’t get on the river; it’s ugly.’ People just don’t think of the Mississippi as a place to go and enjoy the outdoors. But the fishermen know. It’s like a greatly held secret.”
As of June, 2014, Ruskey and his crew had traveled the Mississippi from St. Louis to Baton Rouge, a total of almost 1,000 miles. Along the way, they’ve accumulated data on camping spots, points of interest and potential obstacles, all of which will be posted online. They hope to complete their lower Mississippi water trail, through New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico, in 2015, thus adding 235 miles to their total.
“We want to share the wild aspects of the lower Mississippi River for paddlers,” Ruskey said. "Primarily this is for advanced paddlers in expedition-style canoes or sea kayaks. Those boats are made for long-distance travel and are capable in all the challenges the Mississippi presents – waves, winds, long crossings and quick crossings between towboats.”
Ruskey says their argument, that much of the lower Mississippi River is wild and scenic, was evident in the 307-mile stretch from St. Louis to Caruthersville, Missouri. “For about half the way, all you see is big trees, big bluffs, big islands thriving with wildlife and the big river that ties them all together,” he said.
“The bluffs below St. Louis are just spectacular, particularly around Herculaneum and Crystal City,” he added. “In the back chutes, behind the islands, we saw deer, coyotes, bald eagles and numerous songbirds. At Osborne Chute, below Crystal City, we saw three eagles feasting on a big fish. Sunrise on the limestone cliffs at Trail of Tears State Park was beautiful.”
Paddlers share the river with towboats and barges, but Ruskey says that is not a big problem. “The towboats are slow-moving and very predictable,” he said. “Normally, on any stretch of the river, you’ll see them coming about an hour before they actually pass you. That gives any perceptive paddler time to predict where the towboat will go and how to maneuver around them.”
Ruskey believes getting more paddlers out on the lower Mississippi will have a beneficial impact by making more people conscious of the landscape of the river’s flood plain. “Not only do paddlers clean up places where they camp, they also become impassioned users of the river,” he said. “That leads to more public land along the river and better decisions about its use.”
“As far as the occasional thunderstorm, that's just part of life on the Mississippi,” Ruskey said. “You might be slightly uncomfortable, like getting mud between your toes or a sunburn, but these are things that make you remember the experience and what wilderness is all about.”