When I was asked if I was interested in going out on the Mississippi River to see the river firsthand, I said absolutely. When I was told I had to meet in Helena at 4:30AM to make the trip, I didn’t hesitate. When they said, “by the way, you will be in a canoe” I immediately thought of quiet stillness of a non-motorized vessel, slipping stealthily through the trees. Okay, so maybe I thought that traveling on the largest river in the nation, dodging towboats and whirlpools in a canoe was a bit edgy, but my curiosity and excitement easily won.
It turned out that any apprehension I had of being in a small canoe on the open river was unfounded. We were to be in a 14 person wooden monster and accompanied by two smaller, but not any less impressive, wooden craft. We gathered our gear and made ready to get to the river. In a few short minutes we transitioned from sleepy city to full awake forest. After getting situated at the boat ramp, we sat forth on the gentle currents of the St Francis River at dawn.
Accompanied by the swirls of fish, calls of birds and a few stares from fishermen who weren’t sure what they saw, we made our way downstream the two miles to the mouth of the St. Francis. Where it emptied into the Mississippi, we skirted over a flooded point that only a few weeks before I had driven my truck on. The great expanse of the massive river stood before us and its mighty current began to be felt gently on our craft. “7 mph” was the call from the front of the boat. “My GPS says we’re doing 7 mph.” Our paddles were motionless and staring straight ahead gave the illusion we were sitting still. When we passed a channel marker the full power of the river was evident. The 12 foot tall buoy was heeled over in the current, its cable so tight that it had to have been dragging the 1 ton concrete anchor on the bottom. We had seen two already torn loose by the river and drifting in the backwater.
Paddling lazily south we skirted the top of Buck Island and made landing on an immense sandbar. About 300 yards away, the sand was liberally spotted with nesting Least Terns. While our hosts made breakfast, my wife and I headed cautiously out to the colony, where these endangered species were swirling and dipping in mating ritual and totally ignoring us. We cautiously picked our way along the outskirts until I found what I was looking for- the small divot in the sand and a precious egg. It was this little egg that made the biggest impact to me. An endangered species, the Least Tern has suffered from loss of nesting habitat. Its choice of sandy beachfront property along the gulf is always under pressure and its use of sandbars along our inland rivers has been mitigated by regular releases of water from dams. On the Mississippi the tern colony was at the mercy of Mother Nature not to cause a rise in the river and wash the fragile nests away. But even this precarious niche was threatened by man, for if the river dropped too low the locals could ride this same sand with four wheelers.
We ate, cleaned up and proceeded back onto the river. Our guide pointed us to the opposite shore, and we paddled across the mile wide river. After sampling the east side of the river we headed back across the Mississippi, dodging a tow boat as we slipped into Helena harbor. Our adventure was over for today, but the enduring memories of the experience will go on for a lifetime.
Author: John Morrow
John Morrow began work at Mississippi River State Park as the first superintendent for the park in February 2009. He has worked for Arkansas State Parks since 2000, first as interpreter at Lake Chicot (2000-2003), then as interpreter at Petit Jean State Park (2003-2005), then as the first Chief Interpreter at Historic Washington (2005-2009). His specialties are in interpretation and the application of interpretation to planning and managing a park. He has graduated from the Park Superintendent Training Program, is a Certified Heritage Interpreter, Certified Interpretive Trainer as well as a First Responder and SAR Tech II. He likes spending time with his family and antiquing with his wife, Nikki. They have a daughter Riley and son Carson.