This winter, after two months of total commitment and sacrifice, the Grasshopper voyageur canoe was completed in time to host the Environmental and Adventure School (EAS) of Seattle, WA, for it’s maiden voyage.
We started the day out full of excitement with the whole fleet of Quapaw canoes packed with gear headed towards Friars Point. As we drive over the levee, fishermen gaze with wonder as each canoe descend on the site one at a time. The Ladybug, Junebug1, Junebug2, Grasshopper, and the Cricket make a red carpet entrance. The Mississippi River is rising and the crew is ecstatic about the different river we would experience along this journey.
The students and chaperones admire the size of the River, but showed no fear, as the students wade in the water, while the chaperones converse with the Quapaw river guides to build trust and insure the safety of the students. We go over safety and paddle techniques before we launch. The students make their last canoe changes, and the Quapaw’s make some finishing touches on the Grasshopper.
Consulting the River Gator www.rivergator.org, we decide a voyage from Friars Point to Rosedale Harbor. We will spend five days and four nights. Our campsites will be on Islands 62 and 64, with the last on the beautiful peninsula Smith’s Point.
We start our journey. Everyone from our shuttle drivers to envious fishermen wishes us well as one by one we disappear into the flooded forest. The birds are in full migration back to their original homelands as they stop and forage in the trees for nymphs, while others peck the forest floor for worms and other invertebrates flushed out of the ground by a rising river.
My crew in the Ladybug is a diverse group of chaperones and students representing four different generations. I’m happy knowing by the end of trip we will be one strong team. My first mate Elliot, who has been evaluating me since we got in the boat, starts asking questions and assessing boundaries and logistics. His big brother Oliver chimes in, “shut up and paddle!” saving me from the from the long list of questions. We paddle on as I answer and explain the geography of the River.
The day goes fast as usual on the River, so as we approach Island 62 the students are excited to put their paddles down for a while and enjoy the spoils of a beautiful Mississippi River island. While the students take off in each direction claiming campsites, we converse with chaperones and listen to their thoughts and concerns which had been heightened by conversation in the Memphis airport with a couple of antagonists against the River. They assured me that Quapaw’s knowledge and skill, with the River’s nostalgic qualities, has won them over. I knew then that this would be a great trip.
As we prepare dinner, blackened catfish and sweet corn cooked directly on the fire, I wonder at the camping skills and organization of the school. They were great helpers. They had crews for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and firewood duty. They were self-sufficient, polite, and well-behaved. I sit back and dream, ” Quapaw River School.” That would be awesome! We finish the night around the fire singing songs and telling stories. Elliot taps me on the hip,” What’s for breakfast?” I laugh and head towards my tent.
We rise on Island 62 with the crew moving like a herd of turtles. With activities and games on the island lasting late into the night, the students felt a little soreness from the paddle. The day is grey and windy as we load our canoes. I think to myself, “these are the type of days that challenge you on the River.” We set sail towards island 64 , which will be our campsite for the night. We paddle hard as the River meanders and the wind has its way with us. But we push on, coming together as a team. Elliot asked, ” How far to our campsite?” I answered,” one hour.” The whole crew hears me and starts digging deeper with their paddles. It’s amazing the transformation which occurs in our big voyager canoes.
We arrive at Island 64 and prepare for dinner. There’s a storm rolling in so everyone is tying down tents and preparing to ride out the storm. With the change in weather we make a decision to have a day of learning and exploring the next day, which would turn out to be a great decision. It would give all of us a day to recover from the hard paddle we just endured. The rain started just as the sun set. Storms on the mainland are unenjoyable, but in the middle of the River, they are majestic. The sky is huge and the storm’s light show seems horizontal. On land you fear it because you’re indoors and can’t see it. But when you can see the show, there’s no fear. I spend the storm in my poncho on the top of the island and wonder whether my tent will be dry when I return.
We rise to the aftermath of the storm. We hover over breakfast discussing whose tent failed while we waited for the storm clouds to dissipate, anticipating the warmth of the sun. It is our day of exploring, writing, reading, painting, and personal enjoyment. The EAS students start the day writing in their journals, while I take a walk circumnavigating the island. By noon, the island turns into the ultimate river school. Luke and Trevor, the alpha and omega, take a group exploring the flooded hardwood forest, while Oliver and “oLIVER” lead a large strategic sand fight on the beach. The young ladies on the trip Alyssa, Jenna, and Brynn, shake there heads at the boys while catching up with their reading. I gave them river names, “the Bookends.” The other ladies, Erika, Teagen, and Maria, practice their ballet and gymnastic moves on a large log half submerged in the river.
Suddenly a splash. It’s Teagen, she got a little fancy with her moves and took a plunge. The River is still cold, so she makes a quick exit. She’s fine, so we all share a laugh with her then continue on with the day. This was the breakout day for the kids. This happens when the River gets in your system, returns you to your natural self, heightens the senses, and stimulates your soul.
Tune in next week for part 2!