River Quest 

The Big Island Circumnavigation Expedition explored a seldom-seen Arkansas wilderness and exposed schoolchildren to the beauty and power of nature.

Slideshow
River Quest

River Quest

By Chris Staudinger, Mark Peoples and John Ruskey

Click to View 13 slides

Several thousand white-beaked coots covered the water when we arrived at the landing at the silky cusp of nightfall. When we shoved off, they did too, with wings over the water that sounded like muffled firecrackers.

We left the two-mile harbor of Rosedale, Mississippi, like four fugitives, under a darkness occasionally broken by the sweep of towboat spotlights. Their propellers churned domes of mud up the narrow channel as they moved the fruits of the rich Delta earth onto riverbound barges. The owl hoots and insect choruses of the forest were covered by motor sounds, beeps, gurgles, and men shouting. John and Mike kept near the woods, letting the rushes and bank weeds creak and scratch the bellies of our canoes. The ripply reflection of the towboats covered the water in yellows and reds.

When we made our quick turn up the Mississippi, all went still and dark. The narrow harbor channel expanded into an openness that rivals the ocean. A panorama of nothing but water surrounds you for miles in three directions. Nightfall widened the space even further, beyond the visible. The space absorbed all of the buzz behind us into motionlessness. And you never would have known that the force of several Niagara Falls was rolling in the water beneath the canoe. We paddled up the quiet river behind frosty breaths and looked for a sandy spot to make a quick camp.

Like a rock thrown in the water, the circumnavigation of Big Island had begun, perhaps the first circumnavigation by canoe since this area was abandoned by the Quapaw people.

Big Island
Big Island is the original Crossroads. It is perhaps the most dynamic mixing place in the Lower Mississippi River Valley, an expansive, watery no-man's-land carved out by the meeting of three rivers: the White, the Arkansas, and the Mississippi. It creates one of the largest roadless areas in the Mid-South. When any two bodies of water meet, worlds collide and new worlds are born. But Big Island is the unlikely spot where three big rivers come together. Its dirt tells the story of waters that have crossed paths, intertwined, braided, jumped banks, traded mouths, and swapped channels for thousands of years. The result is a labyrinth of water, sediment, and forest, once tangly and lawless enough to harbor gamblers, moonshiners, and river pirates. It saw the passage of peoples, from Quapaws to French Voyageurs, from Blue Coats to Red Coats, from pioneers to pilgrims. Today, it's rife with bears and bugs and great-grandfather trees that make it a perfect playground for adventurers and a perfect classroom for nature-starved kids.

John Ruskey and Mike Clark know firsthand the need for experiential learning. And they know Mother Nature's potential as a powerful teacher. Ruskey, the owner of Clarksdale, Mississippi-based Quapaw Canoe Company, has run an after-school apprenticeship program for 15 years. He lets the Mississippi River teach his "Mighty Quapaws" the lessons that their underserved neighborhoods might leave off. Clark, a veteran educator, began his career in a Chicago high school in the 1980s, where he bore witness to two decades of inner-city violence. After relocating to St. Louis, he found a sparkling-fresh classroom to teach in: the Mighty Mississippi.

Ruskey and Clark teamed up in 2002 with the Big River and Circumnavigation projects to get the feet of our next generation muddier. "Leave No Child on Shore" could be their credo. Their first collaboration was a 2,500-mile odyssey down the Missouri River in a dugout canoe. Since then, they've organized yearly expeditions around a chosen geographic landscape that would be broadcast into classrooms. With solar energy and satellite internet, the environment and the classroom come together, and students can join the expedition as virtual voyageurs through photos, writings, water-quality samples, and GPS mapping from the field. The kids see their hometown river through a lens that beautifies it rather than demonizes it.

The program is growing with new support this year from the nonprofit Lower Mississippi River Foundation and its partner organizations. Two hundred fifth- and sixth-graders from KIPP Delta College Preparatory School in Helena, Arkansas, joined their colleagues from St. Ann Catholic School in St. Louis, which piloted the project. The students followed the four explorers, as well as an imaginary story-telling turtle named Toby, from camp to camp around the island. Two Mighty Quapaw apprentices from the KIPP Delta Collegiate High School, Oscar Donaby and Tristan Honeycutt, would meet us at Arkansas Post, midway through the circular journey around Big Island, and see for themselves what life on the river really looks like.

Up the Arkansas
We made sure to wait until daylight to reach the mouth of the Arkansas River. The crossing from one river into another is a visual journey not to be missed in darkness. The first thing you notice, as you enter the mouth, is the change of water colors. A swirling, dividing line forms between a turbulent line of curls, whirls, boils, and other slippery motions, like the collision of cloud systems.

Everything the Arkansas touches has a reddish tint. Its sand is fiery. Its clay is maroon. Its bluffs are like red curtains cascading from the green walls of the forest beyond. The silt in the water beneath us was carried there from the yellow plains, red hills, and rusty mountains of Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, as was the ground in the banks beneath our feet.

In 2011, Ruskey saw an entire forest fall into the water here, as the river carved itself a new path behind Cat Island to its confluence with the Mississippi. You can see signs of these fallen forests everywhere along the bluffs of the Arkansas — a tornadic destruction of limbs and roots and falling rock. But the remarkable thing about these felled trees is the fact that the steep, cut banks exist in the first place. Most rivers have been hemmed in by levees, rock piles, or blankets of concrete, but the last 43 miles of the Arkansas River is a roller coaster of wild twists and turns. The river is free to be wild, and the dangling, muddy rootballs make that plain to see.

We paddled the first 22 miles along these banks, staring up at the ornate sand castles carved by wind and water. The abundance of wildlife surprised us: a healthy population of bald eagles, snowy egrets, great blue herons, and marsh hawks. Herds of white-tailed deer thrive here; evidence of feral hogs is spread throughout Big Island. Packs of coyotes roam the island, and we saw tracks that seemed to be made by big cats, maybe the legendary red panther (cougar) that once claimed the top of the predator pyramid. This is bear country, but we only saw remnants of old bear dung. It was February, so perhaps they were still in hibernation. As we paddled through a steady, cold wind and showers of sleet and ice, big flocks of ducks congregated around every bend. Scaups erupted from every point and every marsh. It felt like an African safari.

Two juvenile bald eagles greeted us at the small inlet that would be our first base camp. We took refuge under a steep cut bank bordered with mature willows.

We took turns nursing the fire, exploring the terrain, and writing to the students. Several kids used the trip to explore sustainability, so we used the scene around us to show that humanity, even with technology, can survive more simply. Rainwater dripped from our shelter into bowls and replenished our freshwater supply. Solar panels charged the computers we typed on. Food scraps were buried in a hole that one day would foster new growth.

After lunch that afternoon, we found a human on Big Island. We hadn't planned to see many until we picked up KIPP students Oscar and Tristan in Arkansas Post. He came slowly out of the gray haze, checking his nets, and a flock of mallards flew in formation over his head.

We walked over to greet him as he idled into the bay. In a deep Arkansas drawl, he yelled, "Y'all picked a fine day for camping!" and lumbered over the piles of catfish, carp, and buffalo that covered the hull of his boat. He wore full waders and a heavy rain slicker. We shook his hardened, wet hands, and he told us about how family fishing operations are disappearing because the work is so hard.

We discussed the health and future of the river and told him about our educational initiative and the importance of passing our stewardship of the rivers down to the next generation. He boasted, "I have a 16-year-old daughter who can clean 80 pounds of fish in five minutes!"

Arkansas Post
As we moved up the Arkansas, the water flow increased as the dam near Arkansas Post released more water with the rain runoff. Logging and water infrastructure operations along the river became more prevalent with protected wildlife areas in between. One sign said, "No Bear Hunting Past This Point." Islands of water hyacinth, an invasive species, floated down the river as we approached the dam. When the water got too shallow, we cordelled over the shoals in the spirit of the French fur trappers, dragging our canoes upstream by their lead lines.

One of the special things about the places where waters mix is that people often mix there too. Arkansas Post is the human result of the confluence of these three rivers. The Quapaw nation was formed when a group of Sioux broke away to follow the Mississippi River rather than paddle upriver toward the Great Plains. Their name literally means "Downstream People," and they eventually settled at the northern tip of Big Island, recognizing how special and strategically important the place was. The French did the same and established a trading post there in 1686 known as Arkansas Post, the oldest European settlement west of the river. Later, the Spanish came and eventually an American flag and finally us, perhaps the first time this island was paddled in a complete loop since the relocation of the gentle Downstream People in the 1830s.

We made our resupply camp at Arkansas Post, courtesy of John Fewkes, manager of the Quapaw Outpost in Helena. He called us in through the darkness with his ceremonial drum to the boat ramp below the dam. The KIPP Environmental Education class visited the park the next day. They dropped off 16-year-old Tristan Honeycutt and 18-year-old Oscar Donaby at the resupply camp. Their classmates said goodbye with looks that alternated between pity and jealousy.

The Crossing
We're not sure who first called Monday's paddle "the crossing," but as the day's progress gathered momentum, the two words gained a mysterious, biblical weight. "The crossing," everyone said in a lowered voice, anxious to see the different river that awaited us on the other side, anxious for downstream water. The gateway is a long navigation canal with two lock-and-dam structures that regulate water levels for towboats navigating between the Arkansas and the White. Our heads had to crane all the way back to take in the first lock. These megastructures are built for massive barges and hung above our canoes like concrete grizzly bears. Tristan's and Oscar's eyebrows lifted. "Cool."

It seems silly that such a dominating structure would be operated by a doorbell. When Ruskey asked Tristan to pull the chain to notify the lockmaster, Tristan smirked. He jolted back a bit when the train-worthy horn rang out.

A man appeared on the top of the gates, a mixture of Wilson from Home Improvement and the Gatekeeper of Oz. He told us we couldn't pass because of barge traffic at the other end of the canal. We told him about the storms. We told him we needed to find a camp. He shook his head, grinning: "Those storms ain't coming till the morning." Clark and Ruskey were persistent. Then they threw the weight of 2,000 schoolkids on the lockmaster's shoulders. He said, "I'll check with the lockmaster at Number 2." He came back, and said, "Let me get my chambers emptied. Stay to the right." We stayed to the right and found at last the milky water of the White River.

Our storm camp was tucked comfortably between two hills in an otherwise flat floodplain, only five miles from the Mississippi River. We realized that after a week's worth of paddle strokes, we were only a short walk across a levee from our first storm camp near Owen's Lake. We staked down our tents and hunkered down for more rain. The wind howled, and the trees bent low. Lightning strobed across the sky. At the fire the next morning, curious about how urban newcomers would weather such a storm in the backcountry, we asked Tristan and Oscar how they slept. "Pretty good," one said. "Fine," said the other casually. And they went back to their breakfast.

Of all the things we explored on Big Island, the most mysterious might have been the teenage brain. It seemed that their faces and actions told the stories that they otherwise kept hidden. They took photos of each other in a rusted-out VW Bug. They joked when we found a weathered school bus that once served as a hunting camp. When they came across a fallen giant in the woods, they scanned the trunk from root to canopy. When we left the storm camp, Ruskey led us into a cavern of cypress knees and roots. Oscar's and Tristan's faces glowed, like they knew they had accomplished something. They had. Their paddle strokes smoothed out, and their canoes tracked straighter. When we came to the end of the White River and the trees opened up, they were amazed by the vastness of the Mississippi.

The Mississippi Toward Home
When we tell people about our canoe trips on the Mississippi, we get looks of worry and disapproval. We are told about dangerous riptides and dirty water, maelstroms and whirlpools. And the closer the person lives to the river, the dirtier the water, the stronger the riptides, and the more disapproving their faces become. We wish people told the other kinds of stories about the Big River — the tales of adventure and discovery — because that's what we see in the Mississippi. We see it as a godlike, vine-draped wilderness beyond any imagined national park. Its sandbars and islands are full of fossils, wildlife, wild people, and stories — stories like the wreck of the steamer Victor. In 1907, it sank in the northern region of Big Island. We visited the wreck, which stuck out of the muddy river bank like a dino-skeleton. Oscar and Tristan gazed in amazement.

Through a virtual connection, thousands of kids also had the opportunity to feel the amazement of that old steamboat wreck. They realized that their rivers are not full of trash but full of wild worlds awaiting their discovery. With the circumnavigation project, schools didn't need a bus, permission slips, or insurance policies to connect kids with the environment. Their curiosity could be sparked with the touch of a smart phone. With that connection, a future generation of more responsible stewards of the environment seems like a downstream paddle.

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