[Editor’s Note: This is Stephanie Artz’s account of her recent canoe trip on the Mississippi River from Greenville to Vicksburg. Artz is a Lake Village resident. Photos courtesy of John Ruskey and Stephanie Artz.]
When I graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1990, I took a job in publishing in New York City, as assistant to a literary agent and lived there for 23 years. From there I transitioned to life as a professional dancer, reclaiming dance that I had left behind as a teen-aged ballerina. I now find myself with my husband in the rural Arkansas Delta, living with waters in the air and ground I could not have then imagined.
On November 18, I went on the biggest water in North America, paddling in a canoe for four days and a hundred miles, from Greenville to Vicksburg, Mississippi. We were led by John Ruskey, a Colorado native who has paddled anything that floats — including a log — down the mighty Mississippi River.
Ruskey and his crew, which on my trip included a former defensive back for the New York Giants, a canoe racer, and a poet from Metarie, Louisiana, want to restore the wild experience of the Mississippi and save the river from land interests within the batture, the land between the Mississippi River and the levees.
Since 1982, Ruskey has been photographing, documenting and enabling paddlers to safely navigate the shifting sandbars and flowing waters of the Mississippi River. The river is huge in every way. It is deep, wide, wild, hypnotic, sometimes unchartered, unwitnessed and written off as monstrous. It’s just the kind of place adventurous Delta people might be drawn.
A typical day on the trip has a slow start with ample time to watch the sunrise, warm up by the campfire and take a dip or splash in the river itself.
On the second morning of my trip, I crossed a little stream to sit on a wide part of the sandbar alone, plopping down next to a wildlife path leading to the river’s edge. With the sun warming the back of my neck, whistling birds chorused from the woods and a distant tow boat advanced up the bend. A full moon hung in the sky as people behind me in the distance stood around a fire wearing winter hats. I could hear their voices rising and falling. I heard someone whistling, must be John, so I headed back.
Around 9, I guess, we took packed dry bags to the canoes. John, or someone in the crew, beat a rhythm on a hand drum over our two beautiful handmade canoes, crafted from redwood and cypress by Ruskey himself. We put on life jackets, neoprene gloves and boots and pushed out.
On my trip was Chris, a young film maker and graduate of Boston College, shooting footage from the canoes and at our stops. He interviewed two biologists who came on board in Mayersville and described the fossil life we found on sandbars. My contribution was a slate “gorgette” which I found on a lunch stop sandbar. It was dated to 1200 BC and fashioned by the first civilization in North America (Poverty Point).
I was, day after day, ensconced in an intoxicating mix of wet, sonic, bobbing motion, from a viewpoint unavailable to those who have seen it from high on a bridge or over its ubiquitous levees.
The river and its banks on the wild section I was traveling offer unmolested refuge for wildlife and birds using the waterway for nesting, hunting and migration. We saw white pelicans, deer, bald eagles, osprey, double crested cormorants and noisy, high flying geese. In November, the mosquitoes weren’t one of those in this category, and, luckily, neither were snakes or other reptiles. My experience was of big sky, early dramatic sunsets, and cold nights snuggled in my tent listening to coyotes teaching their pups things I did not want to go out and see.
The best part was the crew. Ruskey and and his band of paddlers were strong, happy, soulful guides who followed the lead of the river and wind, leading us around its winding bends deciding where to camp, watching water movements and eddies, barge traffic, and our direction around channel buoys. Ruskey also had a radio with which he could communicate with tow boat captains.
The crew paddled all day, cooked on driftwood fires with excellent, often times organic, food and made friendly conversation the whole time. Ruskey went to sleep in a canoe, on the sand or in a tent around 8:00 every night and woke up early to walk, photograph, and check the weather or whatever else he wanted before making coffee over the renewed campfire.
After years as an improvisational dancer, I know the feeling of fluid physicality performed in time, and of waiting and listening for the next right decision. So, this trip was an intimidating but sturdily doable adventure for me; one I just followed as best I could, not asking too many questions and staying close to my own experiences.
The opportunity to learn on this river was deeply rewarding, providing a real and gentle peace that comes from viscerally experiencing a geological feature such as an ocean, mountain range, or section of redwood forest. I found these brave people — John, his crew, and my fellow travelers — to be the most interesting people I have met in this area.