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Partial to Home: The pull of the river


Birney Imes



"The Lower Mississippi River is suffering from gross misunderstanding & neglect. Most people think of it as either a drainage ditch or a super-highway for tugboat commerce. Its neither. It's a wilderness in the heart of the South." 


John Ruskey 




SHACK UP INN, CLARKSDALE -- It's 29 degrees outside and despite an unfettered wind sweeping across the fields outside, it's cozy inside this grain bin where I am spending the night. 


The interior of Grain Bin C is surprisingly spacious. There is a living room/ kitchen with barn wood wainscoting, a master bedroom, a bedroom with a single bed and an ample bathroom. 


Nearby four more similar structures appear to be occupied by overnight guests. Beyond, there is a field of unpicked cotton and, less than 100 yards away, cars speed by on Highway 49. Walk around behind the bin and you can see where Highway 61 crosses 49. The land is flat in every direction, as far as the eye can see. 


The Shack Up Inn, which began innocently enough as a single shotgun shack scavenged by a guy wanting a place to host his buddies for card games and beer drinking, has grown topsy-turvy into a sprawl of salvaged sharecropper shacks, grain bins, farm buildings and a reconstituted cotton gin and is itself a tourist attraction in this Mecca for blues pilgrims. 


Nearby, downtown Clarksdale has been revived by an influx of blues tourists, who like Elvis fans 70 miles north of here, are drawn by the opportunity to experience the landscape that gave rise to this uniquely American music. 


Despite predictions of dire cold, the Shack Up has only one vacancy, says Levi Land, the front desk clerk. As it happens, Land grew up in Columbus. After graduating from Columbus High in '03, he took off for art school in Seattle where he studied audio production. 


Two years ago, he moved to the Delta to take care of some family property that included farmland and a pecan orchard, and, as it happens, he is doing audio here at the performance venue at the Shack Up. 


"It's unbelievable the people I meet here," Land says. "People from Sweden who've been here 10 years in a row." 


My plan was to come over visit a friend in Rosedale and go kayaking on the Mississippi. The river is challenging enough; throw in the chance of hypothermia and ... at the last minute, common sense prevailed. Not that kayakers don't paddle icy waters. After all, kayaking began thousands of years ago by the Inuit, who lived in the Arctic regions. 


Then there was a chance to go Saturday with a group in a big canoe with John Ruskey of Quapaw Canoe for an all-afternoon outing on the Mississippi. For years I'd heard about Ruskey and his advocacy for the Mississippi River. 


The boys in the lobby of the inn howled when I mentioned the possibility of going out with Ruskey. "It's 10 degrees colder on the water," said Bill Talbot, one of the owners of the Shack Up Inn. 


Ruskey was drawn to Clarksdale from his native Colorado by its blues culture. First working as a tractor driver for a Mennonite farmer, Ruskey eventually signed on as curator at the Delta Blues Museum. The job grew increasingly claustrophobic for him, and he found relief by paddling his kayak on the nearby Mississippi. He bought a Grumman aluminum canoe and in 1998, started giving guided tours on the Mississippi. 


The river trips proved hugely popular, and Quapaw Canoe has become a Clarksdale attraction unto itself. Ruskey recognized the Mississippi River for what it is, an underappreciated national treasure. 


"We are all part of the river and the river flows through all of us," Ruskey says in a documentary on the Quapaw website. "The Mississippi naturally touches more people in American than any other river." 


Also found on the Quapaw website is River Gator, a million-word guide to the 1,154 miles of river between St. Louis and the Gulf. Ruskey paddled the route four times researching River Gator. 


We live in a time where meaningful encounters with nature are diminished, which makes the work Ruskey and others like him all the more important. In addition of his advocacy for the river, Quapaw offers an apprenticeship program for local school kids. The company's outreach is focused on Coahoma County and neighboring Phillips County, Arkansas, Ruskey said. 


"If a kid wants to get on the river, we'll make sure he gets there," Ruskey told me. 


Since forming Quapaw, John Ruskey has taken more than 10,000 people out on the river. (The Saturday outing was cancelled due to wind and cold.) He feels exposure to the majesty, mystery and magic of the Mississippi River can affect humans in profound and unexpected ways.  


About the experience, he writes: "You will see the third biggest river in the world as it slowly and implacably pours out of the heart of America and winds endlessly towards the Gulf of Mexico, unheedful of gravity, pursuing strange serpentine pathways through the mud and clay and sand. You will see the prettiest sunsets you have ever seen, and some of the youngest and freshest landscapes on the continent -- masterpieces composed of sand and mud and forests and left to glisten in the sun after the withdrawal of every spring high water." 


Birney Imes is the publisher of The Dispatch. Email him at [email protected]


Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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