Mark "River" Peoples Had a Dream
By POOR WILLIAM and GUEST BOHEMIAN MARK RIVER PEOPLES
“Be true to yourself, have faith in the Creator and humanity, and you will find your way.” — Mark River
The Delta Bohemian and Quapaw Canoe Company have many things in common, including an appreciation for individuality, nature, outdoor expressions of joie de vivre, and the river—Mississippi and Mark.
Quapaw’s Driftwood Johnnie Ruskey, his able captains Mark “River” Peoples and Braxton Barden, along with the Mighty Quapaw apprentices, share their love for God’s creation, water, and the uncluttered life. They live and proselytize, by example, what it means to respect nature and to nurture in others a fondness for flora, fauna, and the miracle of regeneration evidenced when natural resources are maintained and utilized properly.
John, Mark and Braxton all bring myriad giftings in their service to others and all the rivers they navigate. John’s writings, photos and paintings capture the heart of America as it is, once was and hopefully will be again. Braxton’s photographs of nature are as fine as one will find in the Delta, and Mark River’s ability to depict in words what few others are fortunate enough to experience on our underused, recreational waterways plays siren to many would-be adventurers.
Please enjoy the fascinating Mark River’s Dream about what led him from a career in the NFL to a new life with Quapaw Canoe Company! I love me some River! pw
Mark River’s Dream
It was 2011, the floodwaters are receding St. Louis. I returned to my home, a block from the Mississippi River, from my usual night shift and follow my usual routine by lighting the grill before going into the house to grab a fillet of salmon I had prepared and marinated the night before. I grab a refreshment and continue on to my porch and gaze across the street as a broad of turkeys graze in the hillside. A normal sight in this neighborhood, snuggled between the Chain of Rocks and downtown St. Louis.
It’s been more sightings during the Flood. Animals were pushed into the neighborhoods by the rising water and most of them took refuge in the old quarry next to Bob Casilly’s Cementland, which is one block from my home. It was a great time for river lovers like myself. I would sit on my porch in the late night before work and see wildlife walk the streets. Coyotes, deer, bobcats, and one night, a cougar; trying to hunt in the cover of darkness before the humans awake at sunrise.
It’s nine in the morning and, as usual, I could hear Bob Casilly’s bulldozer start. I quickly remember to check my salmon, when a vehicle with a trailer attached pulls in front of my home. The guy in the drivers seat yells, ” I love the smell of your BBQ everyday at my house around the corner.” I say, “thanks”, and rush to my grill. There were two kids on the trailer yelling, “I’m black and I’m proud!” I give them symbol of unity and retrieve my salmon.
I eat my salmon, thinking about the friendly encounter, then prepare for my daily visit to the Mississippi River. I grab my fishing pole, trash bags, and walked down to the river. The riverfront is still very saturated with hundreds of puddles and small ponds full of frog eggs and bait fish. The locals have already harvested all the large fish from the ponds and the shore birds and scavengers are finishing the job. There’s roadkill everywhere, along the busy highway, parallel to the river. Herons and egrets stand side-by-side feasting. Belted kingfishers fly acrobatically from puddle to puddle. The sounds of nature fill the air. I smile and take a deep breath of air, it seems smiles are hard to come by these days.
It’s an unusual day at the river. The river is just under the cut-banks and moving at a high speed. Most of the fishermen are standing by a small lake fishing hard. Apparently, a local fisherman caught a 67 pound catfish and word got around town. The diehard river fishermen are fishing the main channel battling a incredibly strong current. As usual, some fisherman leave beer cans and tangled fishing line everywhere; so I start to clean up. I consider this my section of the river and I always keep it clean. All of a sudden, my emotions overwhelm me; I figured it out, I’m not happy. I’m not happy with work and I feel like my work ethic could be better used for humanity. I think to myself, “I have to find a way of taking care of this river!”
I sit with my head in my hands starring at Cementland, but more than anything, focusing on the landlocked and empty boat sitting high on the hill surrounding the establishment. It was where Bob Casilly lived while coming up with the idea for his biggest project to date. I say to myself, “that’s how I feel, landlocked and empty.” I look to the sky angrily and say, “If I’m not part of your plan, do away with my existence, please!” I rise and head home; I shouldn’t be in public today.
That evening, instead of sleeping before work, I sat on my porch and made a decision about my life. I decided to cash in all my vacation and take a leave of absence from work. My boss was happy to grant it, because it would save on payroll and he could hire three part timers for cheaper than what they were paying me.
The following day, sitting on my porch, I realize that I have to find my way to the river. I had just made a bold move and everyone in my circle was concerned. There were whispers that I had gone crazy. My family and friends started distancing themselves from me. I was alone, but not lonely; I had the River. I also felt the presence of my grandfather that day. He loved this porch, and at one moment, I thought I smelled his favorite whiskey. “White Lightning”, they called it; maybe I am going crazy. I felt comfortable knowing he was there with me.
A loud truck comes rambling down the street. I knew this truck and it was the last person I wanted to see. He was a neighbor of my father and did mechanic work for him. He pulls up yelling, “I heard you was unemployed like me!” I yelled back, “I’m not unemployed!” It’s funny how the wrong news travels so fast. He yells, “Who cares, you wanna go fishing?” I sit silent. This is the last person I should be with. Every time we go fishing he gets arrested. He refuses to get a fishing or drivers license. He rides around in a noisy truck, breaking every rule possible. He had warrants out for his arrest in every county in St. Louis because he would never go to court. He never put trash in the trash can, but for some reason beyond me, I said “yes-but I’m driving!”
We head for my favorite fishing spot, located just below the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers at the kayak access, just below Duck Island. The place was barely dry enough to get to, as we made the approach. There were thousands, yes thousands, of frogs covering the small patch of woods leading to the sandbar. Snakes of all kinds were slithering over our boots with frogs in their mouths. The crazy thing was, they paid no mind to us. It was the time of plenty for all species. It didn’t take long for us to start arguing, as he’s standing right next to the trash can and throws a beer bottle in the woods. I trek in the woods to retrieve the bottle, when I hear a voice say, “Thanks neighbor, I’m glad it’s more than just me that cares.” It ends up being my neighbor from two days before. He startled me because there were no other vehicles around. We talk for a second, but he has to go attend to some kids on the other side of the wing dike. Curiosity forces me to go check it out, but it’s too late, as I see him and a lot of kids floating away in a huge, beautiful, wooden strip canoe; eventually disappearing around the bend.
That night I didn’t sleep a wink. I tossed and turned. I prayed to the Creator. I asked him to give me an opportunity to work on the river–a chance to work for humanity, not corporations. I get out of bed and get dressed. The sun is two hours from rising, but I can’t wait. I have to find that canoe! With the sun barely peeking above the horizon, I hurry to the river. I knew something was there. I ventured over to a private area owned by Bob, and there it was. The river is still high, flowing fast, and that beautiful canoe was tied to two big cottonwoods. The ropes were taunt, as if the boat was trying to break loose. The water was too dangerous to swim, but remember, I’m crazy, and decide to straddle the rope out to the canoe. If I didn’t make it, my family would be reading about me in the newspaper tomorrow. The canoe was beautiful. I crawled into the bow where a large “Q” was branded into the wall of the floatation chamber with the name “John Ruskey.” I sat there and waited all day. Went home, ate dinner, came back; it was gone. It felt like a dream, an aberration of the river. Am I going crazy?
The next few weeks, I would ride my bike around the neighborhood looking for this guy named Big Muddy Mike. Then finally, one day, I see those two young kids moving canoes in a backyard. That’s got to be it! The weeks following, we would paddle over to Mosenthein Island and take clients. I started to get my paddle stroke down. I developed a work out plan and got an operation on my knee because I knew change was near. I finally got the nerve to ask him about who John Ruskey was. He explained the canoe business and Bob Casilly’s plans to revitalize our neighborhood with his art theme park, Cementland. There would be bikes and canoes. People would come from all over. I was in!
Unfortunately, we lost Bob to a bulldozer accident that next month and everything stopped. Fortunately, Mike asked me to go to Woodville, Mississippi, to cover a job for his friend, “Driftwood Johnnie” John Ruskey. We did the job and I got to meet John. He gratefully sent me back to St. Louis with a stack of books. I read them all and called Driftwood for an opportunity to become an apprentice. He mailed me the application and gave me a chance. I flew to Boston for help from my brother Earl and his wife Charlotte, the only people in my family that supported my decision without judgment. As I packed my bags to come to Clarksdale, I knew I wasn’t coming back. That day I realized that every weight I lifted, every sprint I ran, and all the trials and tribulations I overcame, was getting me ready to be a steward for the Mississippi River.
St. Louis born Mark “River” Peoples is a river guide and youth leader with the Quapaw Canoe Company. Mark grew up hunting and fishing along the river with his father. Mark is the Southern Region leader for 1 Mississippi and serves on the board of the Lower Mississippi River Foundation. When not on the water, Mark mentors Delta youth and educates them on the importance of the protection and preservation of our national treasure for generations to come. Mark works hard on changing the perception of our great River and its tributaries. Through river trips, cleanups, and workshops, Mark’s goal is overall systemic health of the Mississippi River.