Mississippi River Dispatch 2011 Flood Update No 3 from Driftwood Johnnie

Or Surfing a 300 Mile Crest from Memphis to Vicksburg

Leland Neck -- the only remaining sand in 300 miles of river! After 2 days and paddling 200 miles in the canoe we have a chance to walk on dry land and regain our land feet. Photo by Delta Bohemian John Ruskey

Leland Neck — the only remaining sand in 300 miles of river! After 2 days and paddling 200 miles in the canoe we have a chance to walk on dry land and regain our land feet. Photo by Delta Bohemian John Ruskey



Read Hodding Carter’s amazing article about this journey.

CLICK HERE to link to Hodding’s Article on OUTSIDE.

Delve into a historical time along the Mississippi River with a personal narrative and photography by the river man himself, Driftwood Johnnie, also known as John Ruskey. Take a deep breath and jump in with Ruskey as he escorts two special guests, writer Hodding Carter and photographer Christopher LeMarca, on a once-in-a-lifetime journey. The two stowaways hitched a ride with the man who knows the river like no other for their unique tale which is featured in Outside Magazine in their August issue which hit the newsstands on July 15th!



The following is a kaleidoscope of fragmented images & paragraphs like the reflections & refractions you see in a pool of water where a stone has been tossed and the waves start criss-crossing each other.  Sorry for the disjointed thoughts & visions & repetitions of sentence & syntax, but I guess this is in the spirit of the flooding river herself!

Last week a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity opened up as the mid-South was cresting — the winds rotated out of the South to become an unlikely calm, cool breeze steady from the North, five days with a beautiful wind that felt like February or March.

Legendary Greenville native & writer Hodding Carter called with vague ideas about wanting to see the flood and report on it for Outside Magazine; it seemed like the river was calling out my name.  This was an unparalleled opportunity for documentation and signification.  As any river rat knows, when the tongue in the rapids becomes apparent, paddle hard and keep your eye downstream!

Hodding and I quickly concocted a slightly nutty plan to ride the crest from Memphis to Vicksburg, the entire length of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, some 300 miles of the wildest & most remote paddling on the Lower Mississippi.  In reality we missed the crest in Memphis, but were able to catch up with it 200 miles downstream at Greenville and ride it into Vicksburg taking a long-cut through the woods via the old channel through Forest Home Chute & Paw-Paw Bend.

This phenomena of catching the wave as it passes happened not because we are monster paddlers and worked so hard that we were able to climb the backside of the wave and power stroke over the top, but because of the influence of the massive water flow coming down the White River and the Arkansas River.  Well, we did paddle hard every day from sunup to sundown!

The oceanic currents pouring out of the Arkansas River had created a titanic secondary supportive pulse-wave that we were able to catch up to and ride as it slowly swelled up into all of the forests, fields, backwaters, back channels and bayous between the levees of the Lower Mississippi River, some places 30 miles from bank to bank, from levee to levee, and ever so slowly respond in long-sine-wave reflection bouncing off of every tree trunk and flooded beaver hole, which in the old tradition of the rhythms of the Mississippi poured out into vast wetlands, peaked, and then slowly drained backwards into the mother river from whence the waters had come.

The entire Lower Mississippi Valley breathed deep and inhaled water in places it has not inhaled in a long time, held its breath a long while letting all the aquifers and dried out wetlands rejoice in the outpouring, and then exhaled in an even longer slow exhalation that is still happening as the water trickles back into the main channel rejuvenated & refreshed.

The river had crested in Memphis and fallen 2-3 feet when we started, but we eventually caught up with the crest halfway through the trip after passing the mouth of the Arkansas River, and arrived in Vicksburg as it was swelling to fullness.

Tugboat traffic had been limited by the Coast Guard to one tow at a time and only then at minimum speed and Governor Barbour had prohibited all other boat traffic from the Mississippi and all its tributaries so we had the biggest river in North America to ourselves for the best part of a week, as we paddled down the length of the Mississippi Delta making around 100 miles a day.

The river was so fast it was dizzying at times.  We went 10 miles in 40 minutes as we swirled around Catfish Point. We flew by all of the familiar islands and back channels and forests in such a continuous cataclysm of swiftly sliding water & boils & eddies & whirlpools that it became for me almost a stream of consciousness dream and every night at camp I felt light headed by all of the places I was used to seeing at normal river speed all jammed in together in a fast speed reel.

I was trying to convey this feeling to my wife Sarah. Imagine a highway drive that you know real well, like the road from Clarksdale to Port Gibson, which you normally drive at 65 miles per hour.  And then imagine what confusion & fear & also exhilaration you would feel driving it at 260 miles an hour, four times the normal speed.  It was like watching a favorite movie at triple speed — all day long.

Literally, I felt unbalanced and dreamy, and it took me a while each day at camp to come back to earth and perform even the simplest of tasks like pulling out cookware and preparing supper.  I had to sit down and force myself to think step by step what the task at hand was and how to perform it in the most basic of mind instructions and intentional motions.  I wondered if Hodding or Chris noticed. I also wonder what state of mind I would have reached had they not been there!

Thousands of humans have lost their homes in this flood but that number pales in comparison to the millions of animals that have been swept away from the islands and floodplain forests, fields, sandbars; it will require many seasons of calmer waters for these animals to recover and return.

As a result of this forced exodus we saw few animals but a lot of birds.  Our journey coincided with the annual spring songbird migration and the forests were full of their bright cheerful melodies and brilliant plumage.  Animal encounters included: a swimming deer below Catfish Bar, a dead deer in Tom Lee Park, a few snakes, notably one fierce water snake guarding the entrance to the Yazoo River from Brecourt Lake, a black squirrel making a long leap from one tree to another, and an armadillo, a raccoon and a small boar who had taken refuge on what remained of Leland Neck.

The valley had been swept clean of all land dwellers, man & beast alike, and only those of the water and the air remained and were able to survive (and some were to thrive) in the new waterscape created in the flood.  We first encountered least terns below Greenville who screamed and seemed to follow us as we paddled through long swift flowing passages, and were amidst their annual migration and Mississippi mating, the males diving & snatching small fish out of the river and flying back to land on pieces of driftwood to strut and try to win the favor of the females.

Any log or stick was occupied by the terns, and this made us lonely paddlers happy that something else was alive in this deluge.  All of the islands and familiar places were changed in shape, landmark trees gone or radically altered by the high water, at times it was only through intense memory recall and long-distance association of the sequence of river bends and bridges was I able to deduce our location.

The mouth of the Arkansas River brought in a noticeable increase in water volume & quality, and the distance across the face of the river between the walls of green woods on either side increased noticeably, if there was any doubt before those doubts were shattered, we were now on the face of the big river, the biggest river in this quadrant of mother earth.

The river seemed joyful & youthful, and moved as a whole with a cohesion not seen in low water. We had to enter each turn considering the mile wide channel as a whole, because there were definite tongues of flow where it made obvious sense to stick to and avoid the slow places and eddying places, which kissed the fast flowing water in violent smacks of leaping water and indecipherable whitewater commotions.

I made a connection not before understood, but which makes obvious & perfect sense: when allowed to spread out the main channel was calm & serene, when the levees encroached upon the channel and there were few forests on either side to spread out into it became very fast and unruly and exploded into fields of violently exploding boils and resulting chaotic maelstroms of eddies & whirlpools.

This explains why the river is so high at Natchez with the bluffs on one side and the Vidalia waterfront levee directly across the river on the other.  If there is any obvious solution to localized flooding the lesson is to let the river spread out at least five miles wide, and ideally fifteen miles wide.

In summary, the trip left me dizzy — like watching your favorite movie in fast forward every day all day for four days.  It will take me weeks, probably months to process all that I have seen & experienced in this short but intense burst of motion, colors, smells and feelings of fear and joy over four days and three hundred miles of river, with the final 20 miles through the flooded woods separating the big river from the Yazoo River.

That’s maybe something like the shock I am now feeling after speed paddling the length of the Mississippi Delta and seeing all of the places I am accustomed to seeing cut in half by the high water and connected together in a spinning reel of continuous fast-forward motion.

Weird visions abound as a result of the flood: a big boat thrown ashore at the Helena waterfront and a barge downstream near the power plant, blown-out windows and outside paneling at a docking facility, a big hatch of pesky black flies swarming during the day over the levee finding their way into town, the mud line every day gets wider, the air stinkier, and lots of driftwood, trash, and dead things can be seen everywhere, a deer carcass in tilled field, a fish hung up on the branch of a drooping willow, and even though the water is dropping the flood is not over.

The refreshing state of environmental purity during the crest has been replaced with dead leaves & branches covered in slime, brown lines everywhere showing high water mark and stench of mud.  And yet, it is still “high water.”  It’s still above flood stage in Helena.  The Riverpark road is still underwater and the landing inaccessible.  There is still water over roads and over bridges (so much for the saying “water under the bridge”).

Reading the regional (Memphis & Little Rock) papers you would think the great flood 2011 is history, but how quickly we forget that “We All Live Downstream,” and what’s happening in Memphis affects everything in Louisiana, just as what is now happening in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky is going to soon have consequences in Memphis.

As the flood slides southward this week a fresh round of storms has ushered in a new rise in the NOAA forecasts, a fresh pulse seems to be gathering momentum in all the branches of the great river throughout mid-America, as of this morning they’re saying its going to crest anew in Memphis at 34 feet on June 6th.

The good news is that this next crest predicted today is just going to barely reach “FS” — flood stage — which means barely bank full in most places (as compared to the 10-20 feet above flood stage we experienced throughout May).  The bad news is no one knows what’s coming behind this second wave — excepting of course Old Woman River, and she don’t say nuthin’…

Several teams of paddlers who had plans to get out on the river in May & June have been forced to postpone their adventures.  Important note to anyone considering riding the river: at present there is nowhere to camp, and it looks like this may not change for several weeks.  The sandy islands will not become visible until the river drops well below flood stage in most places.

The islands upstream of Memphis are even lower in elevation than those downstream.  Levees are under 24-hour patrol and are not an option as campsites.  In Mississippi, the river & all tributaries are under a shut-down order from the governor for recreational boats.

Meanwhile, towboat traffic has restarted and if this week is any indication, they are going to be working extra hard to catch up for lost time, which means a lot of big waves, turbulence and tows in unexpected places.  Yesterday as I drove back over the Helena Bridge the channel was thick with tows, one particular tow with 24 petroleum barges was being pushed by 3 towboats churning the choppy brown water into a messy froth of waves & foam, which crescendoed into a long line of ten-foot-tall rolling waves alternately crashing & then reforming all the way under the bridge and downstream.  That said, I have to admit I have been paddling the river, and last week experienced the river in such a wild convergence of volume, speed, creativity & other mysterious dimensions that it will require some time to process…


Eye-witness readers respond:
Thanks from these dispatches from the edge of the flood. I remember the 1973 flood crest in New Orleans. We walked the three blocks from my house to the levee and saw the water way up- lapping somewhere near the top 1/3 of the levee. Well above the top of the concrete apron that went down to the toe of the levee on the batture side. When the river was high in Baton Rouge, it made the clay swell on the other side of the levee. LSU’s Tiger Stadium is less than a mile from the river sitting on top of that clay,  and it  began to move around on its moorings and large chunks of stairwell cracked off and fell to the ground. Also in the old Alex Box baseball stadium even closer to the levee, when the river was up, and the groundwater was high from hydrostatic pressure from the ‘tall’ water within the levees, the grounds crew could not get the baseball playing field to drain. At times it produced water from below!! An artesian outfield.  A mighty river both  inside and outside the levees.

I’m in New Orleans where I have been for two weeks and probably will be for most of the summer… Folks are pretty concerned down here, but the opening of the Morganza Spillway has flattened out the flood and the River has crested in NO.  I was in Baton Rouge in 1973, so I remember well the last big opening of Morganza.  I also remember that the 100,000 acre Atchafalaya River Delta was formed that year and will surely be augmented this year as will the many fresh water diversions below NO.  It is a shame that more water can’t get down the Bayou Lafourche into the Gulf that way because this is a really good opportunity to restore coast in that area.  Even though the flood is a problem for people, it is of great benefit to the natural system as you have pointed out and no place could need the nourishment more than the Louisiana coast.

Thanks for the report.  It’s amazing how the natural system works.  They are still pushing back the crest for Morgan City due to the absorption rates of the floodway.  Wildlife loss has been minimal as in contrast to the Missouri floodway where deer mortality was extremely high due to the levee breaching with explosives.  I’ve heard of one bear that was killed by a train.  The train trestle was partially destroyed by the Bonne Carre Spillway yesterday and all 300 bays are still running wide open.  This flood will hurt Lake Ponchartrain on the short term, but help it and the marshes of the Mississippi Sound on the long term.  It’s a shame we will miss most of the opportunity to take advantage of this MS River flood to enhance marsh building and coastal restoration, but certainly the Atchafalaya Delta and the Wax Lake outlet will benefit from the sediments.

Photos & eye-witness reports from the Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper Paul Orr:

Mississippi River Flood of 2011 – Bonnet Carré Spillway


Mississippi River Flood of 2011 – Atchafalaya River, Basin and Backwater Areas

Downstream of New Orleans our friend Kristian Gustavson is teaming up with the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, the University of New Orleans and the World Wildlife Federation to perform a hydro-survey on the Mississippi River. This is part of a larger study to help find ways to actually use the power of the River as a solution to restore Coastal Louisiana.  http://www.belowthesurface.org

Canoe Canopy Tour
What is Quapaw up to during the High Water of 2011?  Besides the above expedition we have been offering specialized canoe canopy tours through flooded forests, paddling in places normally reserved for the birds!  Please contact me, 662-902-7841, if you have any interest in a Canoe Canopy Tour.

The Delta Bohemian thanks Driftwood Johnnie, aka John Ruskey, for his regular contributions. Please support John and his Quapaw Canoe Company. Take a trip with John; you’ll be glad you did.

Here is but a sampling of John’s extraordinary photographs and his revealing commentary for each and every image.

Bless you, John, for documenting your story of this Mississsippi River Flood of 2011.

Driftwood Johnnie himself (aka John Ruskey) taking a dip in his beloved Mississippi River. Photo by The Delta Bohemian

Driftwood Johnnie himself (aka John Ruskey) taking a dip in his beloved Mississippi River. Photo by The Delta Bohemian

John Ruskey signature of Quapaw Canoe Company


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  1. John Seals says:

    Great story and great photos too!

  2. dayle mcarthur tenhet says:


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