my Memphis Flyer cover shot of John Ruskey

This is the Dec. seven, 2000, difficulty of the Memphis Flyer. I wrote the protect function (and took images) about Mississippi River tutorial John Ruskey. I was juggling a paddle, a tape recorder and a Canon AE1 for the duration of the half-working day float.

Short article text:
Memphis Flyer – Concern # 616

“River Rat: John Ruskey brings journey tourism to the Mississippi River”
text and images by Gary Bridgman

Even while I could see the line of immense standing waves from a length — looking like the vertebrae of some impossibly big skeleton rising from the Mississippi River’s bed — I was nonetheless practically shocked when our aluminum canoe veered out of the trough and up the encounter of the to start with wave.

1 moment we have been riding the Mississippi’s sleek latest previous a tugboat laboring upstream driving numerous acres of iron ore piled atop its barges. The next, we willingly position our canoe across the tug’s five,600-horsepower wake into the frothy, eight-foot substantial, chocolate milk waves.

Blue sky …
muddy water …
blue sky …
muddy water …

people are the only distinct visuals I can just take in as we smack into the troughs and careen around the crests. I half hope to see Anthony Sherrod, the tutorial at the front of the canoe, stand up with a harpoon, ready to gig a whale. As an alternative, the Clarksdale Substantial College sophomore clamps his fingers to the gunwales and allows fly with an entirely correct roller-coaster scream.

I was distracted from this adrenaline circus by a dialogue using area numerous hundred yards driving us. John Ruskey, steering in the back of the canoe, experienced turned up the volume on the VHF walkie-talkie strapped to his lifestyle jacket in purchase to hear some chatter concerning the tug pilots we experienced just passed.

“Did you know the lifestyle expectancy of a tugboat pilot is about fifty five?” 1 captain says.

“Naw, I failed to,” replies the other, in the kicked-bucket drawl typical to the trade. The two sound oblivious to the plight of 3 guys in a canoe, bobbing in their wake like cast-off bait.

“Yeah, the incidence of heart attacks is about ten moments the countrywide ordinary! Just just take a glimpse about … you do not see anybody around fifty five out in this article.”

“Yeah, I need to have to do some exercising, as well.”

John Ruskey, 37, has been supplying excursions on the Mississippi River for two yrs, operating Quapaw Canoe Company from his property in Clarksdale. His most well-known guided expeditions protect the isolated stretches of the river concerning Mhoon Landing (recall Splash Casino?) and Rosedale, Mississippi.

The Mississippi Delta has normally experienced its share of eccentrics, but you have got to hand it to a man who will clearly show up on the Oxford Sq. on a Friday night time carrying each a coonskin cap and a straight encounter. Canoe outfitters tend to be individualists, but most guides do not just take you down significant waterways in a selfmade cypress canoe. He’ll swim in any water not included in ice, and he’s much less very likely to have on shoes in the wintertime than even Prince Mongo. Unconventional, confident, but he has a knack for sharing his adventurous lifestyle with others.

While Ruskey’s shoppers have arrive from Europe, Asia, and South America, his most pleasantly surprised paddlers are commonly from the Mid-South. “They are amazed by the size of the sandbars — which are like ocean shorelines — and the expanse of the wilderness,” Ruskey says. “There are some beautiful spots along the Mississippi to drag the canoe ashore and take a look at, or to get the job done on an ‘island tan.’ “The greatest contiguous expanse of bottomland hardwood forest in America is at Big Island,” Ruskey continues, “reverse Rosedale at the mouth of the Arkansas River. I have created a lot of camps on the sand down there … very good hiking.”

Great stories, as well.

All the things concerning the Rockies and the Appalachians that is not nailed down appears to be to get the job done its way into the Mississippi River, and Ruskey himself is no exception. It was not the odor of camp espresso and bacon or the diesel-tinged adrenaline rush of barge-wake surfing that lured Ruskey to the Mississippi River from his indigenous Denver. It was the quieter passages from a guide penned a hundred twenty five yrs back, like the 1 describing the river just ahead of sunrise:

The to start with issue to see, looking absent around the water, was a variety of dull line — that was the woods on t’other side you could not make practically nothing else out then a pale area in the sky then additional paleness spreading about then the river softened up absent off, and warn’t black any additional, but grey you could see small darkish places drifting along at any time so much absent — buying and selling scows, and this kind of points and lengthy black streaks — rafts sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking or jumbled up voices, it was so nonetheless, and appears arrive so much …

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn hooked him on the concept of floating the river when he was nonetheless in substantial school. “I failed to know nearly anything about the Mississippi. All’s I knew is that Huck and Jim floated it,” he says. “They crafted a raft, and I required to develop a raft, as well. We made the decision we have been not likely to college.”

Ruskey and his fellow college-evader, Sean Rowe, did develop a raft, in Wisconsin in late 1982. They floated as much as the TVA energy traces that cross the river south of Presidents Island. By then, it was February 1983 and the temperature was below freezing. Rowe and Ruskey have been as well engrossed in a sport of chess to observe that they have been about to collide with a concrete and metal tower.

“That was exactly where the journey finished,” says Ruskey. “It is really a surprise we were not run around by a tug or rendered hypothermic. We experienced to remain in the water numerous several hours, mid-channel.” The pair then hitchhiked to New Orleans and got careers [as porters] on the Mississippi Queen.

Ruskey went back West and settled down lengthy more than enough to receive a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and arithmetic at St.

John’s Faculty in Santa Fe. Rowe inevitably grew to become a reporter for the Miami Herald.

It would be an additional ten yrs ahead of Ruskey would arrive back to the area, in component to be around the Delta blues lifestyle, which he helped to maintain as the curator of Clarksdale’s Delta Blues Museum and as director of the Delta Blues Education Software. He commenced canoeing by yourself to release the pressures of his job at the museum, then he began to make his dwelling using other people along. By the time he completed handbuilding the Ladybug, his 26-foot cypress canoe, Ruskey experienced finished the changeover from chronicling heritage to actually dwelling in it.

Inquire ruskey’s pal Estella Houston when he got interested in the river, and she’ll inform you it began ahead of he could study a guide. “His mom instructed me that when John was about 3, he would want to go engage in in the duck pond across the road. They experienced to hold him fenced in the yard so he could not get in the pond,” she recounts, “but they would normally run water from a hose as a result of the grass for him to engage in in. He was information to be in the water. He failed to just begin this water issue it can be been there all the time … water and no shoes!”

The Mississippi River is a lot greater “issue” than water from a hose, but people who would dismiss it as a large, dull barge canal, additional trouble than it can be well worth for recreation, stand to reduce that discussion with Ruskey.

“In Western rivers you are not able to get absent from outfitters, and the sandbars are all crowded with rafters and paddlers,” Ruskey says. “The Mississippi is just the reverse: You do not fulfill anybody, even while it can be the largest river in North America.

You see a lot of tugboats, but you do not see a lot of leisure boats.” When he does fulfill fellow paddlers on the river, the encounters normally turn out to be component of Ruskey’s overall body of stories. “Mark Twain talked about the weird coincidences that occur on the Mississippi,” he says, “and I have certainly experienced my share of them: odd probability conferences with kayakers and canoeists who are floating the size of the river or regularly working into the same floaters under unbelievable instances. 1 time a couple of men in a tandem canoe executing the river screwed up and got caught in some snags in the chaotic mess of whirlpools at Modoc Crevasse. I was in my solo kayak and just happened to be at that same huge bend on the same working day, at that same time. I saw them get back into the latest and get impaled on a snag — a dangerous placement on any river, on the Mississippi even additional fatal.

“I have been in wilderness parts in the Rocky Mountains that seem a lot additional protected and predictable than the Mississippi River. Access is hard on this river. If you occur to capsize or have an unexpected emergency condition exactly where you have to stroll out, it can be a hard prospect on the river. You’re likely to do a lengthy hike and it might just take times to reach civilization.”

Ruskey compares his outings to mountain climbing. “The dedication you have to make to the atmosphere you are coming into and the logistics concerned in acquiring on the river, even if it can be just a working day float, are comparable to acquiring on a large mountain.

You are fairly exposed, there is small option for straightforward outs till you reach your destination, and it can be just large in all proportions. You’re not likely to drop ten feet on the large mountain you might be likely to drop hundreds of feet. On the river, if you drown, it can be not likely to be on a shallow bar but in hundreds of feet of water, and your overall body may possibly not wash up for hundreds of miles downstream.”

Inspite of the numerous river place-ins in close proximity to Memphis, Ruskey warns in opposition to assumptions that his outings are quick and straightforward.

“You may possibly as effectively go away your watches at property. I warn all shoppers that even though on the river there is no time but river time and that each and every float is various. It would be a hard river to have a set itinerary on, and when we do, it can be issue to river amount and storms.”

Some of Ruskey’s outings even contain paddling the large canoe upstream for quick stretches, which is not normally as hard as it appears.

“At times you can catch eddies and you do not have to do much get the job done at all. A lot of spots you have to do some genuine hard paddling sometimes you have to pole off the base of the river. At times the latest is just as well strong and you have to get out with a rope and stroll up the bank and pull the canoe up as a result of that area, and sometimes you have to portage.”

In fact, muscling a canoe upstream can be academic. “You do not seriously get to know the river till you have spent some time paddling upstream,” Ruskey points out. “That’s when you comprehend how the currents get the job done. You also get to know the bank. When you float with the river, you can be hundreds of yards absent from the bank and you have no concept what is there, what the lifestyle is, what the birds are.”

While John Ruskey travels the Mississippi River in the outdated way, he doesn’t automatically regret not being capable to see what the river appeared like in Mark Twain’s time. Even currently, the river is a impressive pressure with or devoid of the inconveniences introduced on by the Industrial Revolution.

“The river just rules this landscape so completely,” Ruskey mentioned. “Back again in the times ahead of revetments, total forests would be swallowed by the river in 1 gulp. Right now, the Corps of Engineers can make it do this and that in small ways, but inevitably the river is likely to do what it needs to do and go exactly where it needs to go.

“It is really like making an attempt to tame the wind.”

Understand additional about John Ruskey and Quapaw Canoe Company at

sidebar: A Floatable Feast
Quapaw Canoe Company proprietor John Ruskey puts nearly as much emphasis on cooking as he does on navigation when exploring the lower Mississippi. “As much as food items goes, I do not like hungry paddlers. A hungry paddler is not a very good paddler.

An not happy paddler is a dangerous issue to have on a windy working day, and hunger is just 1 step absent from mutiny.”

Ruskey observed a coconut in the river on 1 of his excursions, and he cooked it with some rooster stew. On an additional situation, he collaborated on a sandbar cookout with a German chef even though a author from the German equal of Food & Wine took notes and photographs.

“1 of my preferred points to do is prepare dinner steaks around a willow fireplace,” Ruskey says. “Willow smoke has a beautiful odor, no subject how you minimize it. To make a grill, we minimize the eco-friendly branches and lay them crosshatch-design around coals. It can make a beautiful way to grill the steak with roast potatoes, corn, onions, and garlic. The onions, potatoes, and garlic you have to bury, while. You shift the fireplace, bury them in the sand, then shift the fireplace back around them.”

Other typical Quapaw menu products consist of rabbit gumbo, Spanish garlic rooster, shish kabob, and even fajitas.

Right away outings connect with for a hearty breakfast of Ruskey’s signature “raft potatoes,” eggs, pancakes, bacon, sausage, espresso, and orange juice. “What ever it is,” Ruskey says, “we normally make a lot of it.”

Quapaw Raft Potatoes
corn oil
four medium potatoes, about diced
half an onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
four eggs
1/2 cup sliced pepper jack and/or cheddar cheese
• Coals of a campfire are most popular to cooking at property, but when cooking at property set the burner to a substantial heat. Go over base of skillet with 1/eight-inch corn oil. Sauté potatoes with onions and garlic till potatoes are comfortable and onions and garlic are caramelized. Crack eggs around potatoes and combine comprehensively stir occasionally till eggs are cooked. Insert cheese to major of combination, protect skillet and wait till cheese melts. The raft potatoes are ready to try to eat when cheese is melted. The most popular garnish is cayenne pepper or Frank’s First Purple Warm Cayenne Pepper Sauce.

Ruskey and his substantial school buddy, Sean Rowe, concocted this rib-sticking dish in 1982 even though floating down the size of the Mississippi on a selfmade log raft. The raft sank when they collided with a TVA tower south of Presidents Island, but the recipe has survived.—GB

Past-Ideal Storm
John Ruskey’s very own account of some Delta sound and fury, signifying humility.

On the lower Mississippi I have arrive to comprehend the God of the Aged Testament: vengeful, wrathful, and full of contradiction. William Faulkner bemoaned the reducing of the Delta forests for the reason that it was the wilderness that taught a man humility. I was in particular humbled by the river after, having enjoyable on the edge of a twister on a solo float. It was the spring of ’98, I think, or it’s possible ’97, and I was returning downstream from a circumnavigation of Island 63 [around Clarksdale]. The willow forests have been groaning under the bodyweight of the wind and the leaves have been demonstrating their undersides. I was in the lee of Island 63 on the way upstream, so it was actually fairly pleasurable — all of the wind and commotion, the leaves torn from the trees, the rush of the air as a result of the willows and mad clattering of the cottonwoods. I was kayaking upstream under the shelter of the island, but all of that changed on the return journey.

Seriously, in hindsight, I should really have returned downstream the way I might arrive in the back channel there was small stream.

Having said that, being a very good river rat I required to let the most important channel carry me downstream. It is really some thing like the reward you get in the downhill just after climbing the mountain.

I minimize as a result of a move at the major end of 63 which is only obtainable for the duration of substantial water and entered the fray. With the fury of a storm that was nonetheless in the creating, the channel was a mess — all frothy and wind-whipped, foam being sprayed off of each and every wave and whisked in wind-beaten traces eastward. You could see sand storms upstream on the bar of Island 62, which indicated gale-pressure winds, and eyesight was down to a couple of miles. The chop was not ordinary — waves rolling in parallel traces from 1 way — but chaotic, water beating and crashing from all instructions, waves climaxing on waves, waves hitting the revetment and bouncing back to be superimposed on by other waves, haystacks leaping upward.

Each individual stroke of the kayak blade was like paddling upstream in a Rocky Mountain rapid, each and every stroke necessary just to remain in the latest and to remain upright. It is really some thing like going for walks a tightrope, exactly where your kayak blade gets your stability pole.

Downstream a tugboat captain was having challenges of his very own. The onslaught of the storm front experienced pressured his starboard edge on to the revetment and rocks higher than me along Island 63.
Afterwards I learned that they misplaced two barges.

In the meantime, the sky to the west was darkening from grays and blues into a thick ambiance that appeared to press down on my shoulders. At 1 position the clouds close to the horizon grew to become eaten in a vertical blackness — you could see the forests of Island 62, but higher than that practically nothing but striated blackness. Then lightning flashes illuminated the blackness and my adrenaline began to rush when I saw the forest on the Mississippi side get bent around by an unseen hand. The wind intensified into a loud roar and the trees commenced thrashing back and forth like wheat in a Kansas field — and there I was midstream with no protect, so I beat tail for the shore, which was the good thing is downwind.

But what to do after I got there? There was a lightness coming into the sky — a greenish-blue mild — and hail commenced to spatter the water. There have been a few trees in the water at the shore, and large rolling waves have been crashing as a result of them. I managed to get out of the kayak devoid of flipping, pulled it ashore, hail pelting my pores and skin. I was frightened the wind would blow my kayak absent it was roaring so loudly and hard, so I removed my knife belt and strapped the kayak with the belt to some reduced-lying osage orange in a reduced area on the bank. I crawled back down to the water’s edge for the reason that I was frightened to stand with the wind roaring so hard. Then I immersed myself in the river like a terrified possum.

Getting in the water solved the trouble of the hail, even while I was riding the waves as they arrived crashing into shore — the river actually felt heat just after the wind. 1 of the trees I was floating amongst pitched around. It was not a violent collapse. The sycamore trunk just ruptured, exposing the gleaming bony whiteness of the wooden within. It created no sound as it fell I suppose for the reason that the wind was so loud.

So now a twisted mass of sycamore branches, twigs, and leaves was riding the rollers with me and I was wanting to know why I hadn’t stayed at property. By and by, a lightness commenced to creep under the billowing clouds to the west, and then a serene fell.

The moment all over again, I set off downstream along Island 63, emotion incredibly scrubbed and much sobered. I might normally hoped some working day to witness a twister, but in the encounter of 1 I felt little. I certainly would by no means impose these varieties of weather conditions conditions on fellow paddlers. In truth I have stayed at camp for numerous times with shoppers awaiting the passage of serious weather conditions, but at the same time, powerful storms and their impact on the river are interesting to observe. End

Posted by Gary Bridgman on 2006-eleven-05 22:26:forty eight

Tagged: , john ruskey , mississippi river , canoe , delta , mississippi , journey , memphis flyer , towboat , barge , mississippi delta , clarksdale , Island 63 , tourism , journey tourism , eco tourism , Pi Kappa Phi , College of Memphis , Quapaw , Quapaw Canoe , river rat , BB