There aren’t enough superlatives to capture the scale, spirit, or story of the Mississippi River — it’s the biggest river, by far, in the United States, discharging some 600,000 cubic feet of water per second into the Gulf of Mexico. Its river valley encompasses nearly half of the continental United States, making it the third-largest drainage basin on the planet, nearly tying it with the Amazon and exceeded only by the Congo. It’s the country’s busiest inland waterway — every bend has been engineered to facilitate safe navigation by tows pushing as many as 42 barges at a time. None of that even touches on the role it plays ecologically and culturally — the river’s meanders “built” the land we live on and the river has a hold on our imaginations, even if we’ve never laid eyes on it. The Mississippi River is rightly intimidating – but it’s also, somewhat miraculously, rich in natural beauty, with stretches of dynamic wilderness that have flourished between the levee and the shore.
“First-time visitors expect mud, pollution, and industry — and the biggest surprise is that it’s wild and beautiful,” says John Ruskey, founder of the Quapaw Canoe Company in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and the Lower River’s greatest living navigator. “There are giant sandbars, and a sky that sort of feels like Montana, because it’s so big and open, with bright stars at night."
Ruskey started taking his own daughter, Emma, out on the river at the age of 2. “As a parent, I was less worried letting my 2-year-old loose on a sandbar [in the Mississippi] than I was letting her loose in our living room. Our living rooms are stocked with potential hazards, like wires, and things that can fall, things that you shouldn't put in your mouth. But out on a sandbar, she could walk and walk, until she got to the water’s edge, and there was nothing that could harm her. It was the place where you could relax as a parent.”
Before You Go:
+ Contact the Quapaw Canoe Company. Quapaw’s mission is to connect people with the river, especially young people growing up along the Mississippi, the river’s future stewards. They also lead expeditions for groups from all over the world.
Muddy Waters Wilderness Expedition, “the wildest of the wild Lower Mississippi.”
Start in Clarksdale, where the Delta Blues is still a thriving tradition, and paddle in hand-crafted Voyageur canoes to Greenville, Mississippi, roughly 100 miles downriver. Along the way, camp on giant forested sandbars, swim in wild coves, enjoy meals and storytelling campfire style, and learn from Quapaw’s knowledgeable guides. In this stretch, both the White River, which drains the Ozarks, and the Arkansas River, the biggest tributary, join the Lower Mississippi. “It’s a vital habitat,” says Ruskey. “It’s where you have the highest concentration of black bears, and some of the biggest cypress in the Deep South.”