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Life on the Old Man

Quapaw Canoe Company gives folks a taste of the Mississippi River.


Written by Eugene Stockstill

Photographed by Joe Worthem


Samuel Langhorne Clemens described the Mississippi River as a “lawless stream” who will “tear down, dance over, and laugh at” all human attempts to tame him. To that end, Quapaw Canoe Company does not endeavor to overcome the beast but rather nurture and laud him. Quapaw is headquartered in Clarksdale with outposts in Vicksburg and Memphis.


For a few dollars (full details on the company’s extensive website, island63.com), you can journey anywhere from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico with expert guides for a day or longer. The Quapaw were a native people who once lived in the region of the Arkansas River.


“When I’m on the river,” Quapaw’s mastermind John Ruskey told NPR in a 2017 interview, “I’m at peace, content, doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”


Ruskey, a rustic, gray-bearded gent, opened Quapaw in 1998, and since then, the company has introduced complete strangers to each other and to the prodigious waterway, taught children the wonders of life on the river and done its best to care for one of this country’s most powerful and majestic resources.


“There are a lot of hazards out there,” civil engineer and Quapaw Vicksburg owner Layne Logue said. “We recommend that no one paddle it unless you have experience or are with someone with experience. The Mississippi River is unforgiving.”


The scariest thing that ever happened to Ruskey? He and his best friend from school days at Choate smashed into a concrete pillar and wound up in a freezing river. Ten miles and several hours later, they washed ashore on Cat Island, hypothermic and near death.


“We should have died,” Ruskey said. “I spent my first night in what became my new home as a muddy and shivering river-rat refugee.”


But the Old Man can get a hold on you.


“You get that river water and mud between your toes,” Logue said, “and it changes you.”


For those longing for adventure, all Quapaw asks for is a commitment to listen, learn and grow. In return, it makes several promises. “Our mission is to share the wild and woolly wonders of the Lower Mississippi River,” Ruskey said. “The camping on the river is spectacular … Our favorite stretch of river is the Muddy Waters Wilderness. This is the wildest stretch of river along the Lower Mississippi.”

But for those who’d like a taste of adventure without leaving the comfort of the living room, here is what one sojourner wrote about his experiences:


“‘The river provideth all things,’ Ruskey drawls in the mock-reverential tones of a redneck messiah. Ruskey is our ever-competent guide and spiritual leader. When he talks, which is seldom, and always in a very soft voice, we listen. He’s brought us here to this fine-powdered beach … and now we’re enjoying the musky coolness rising off the water while passing around a bottle of Jameson’s Whiskey.”


The ongoing inspiration for Ruskey should come as little surprise.


“I am forever inspired by the wild swirling patterns of the river, the sky above, the cloud patterns, the storm systems, the flora and fauna, the shaking of cottonwood leaves in the wind, sunrise through dewdrops and dewy spiderwebs clinging to river grasses,” he said. “And there is nothing like witnessing the movement of the Milky Way through a winter forest.”


Among other things, Quapaw offers:


-The Mighty Quapaws, an after-school program for Clarksdale students.


-Side excursions to Buck Island off the Helena, Arkansas, shore. (There is also a kayak race in Helena every year.)


-Camping and fireside cooking for those who travel longer than a few hours.


-Abundant opportunities to collect fossils and artifacts, including 10,000-year-old arrowheads deposited from the Arkansas River.


-Through a nonprofit organization, ongoing efforts to keep the Mississippi River clean and well-protected.


-Via a separate website (rivergator.org), a mile-by-mile, feature-by-feature description of the 1,155-mile stretch of river from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico, “the longest free-flowing water trail in the continental United States,” Ruskey said. The site includes more than a million words on river history, as well as tips for self-guided journeys.

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