One of my favorite things about being a steward of the Mississippi River is co-existing with wildlife in their habitat.
The Least Tern is an extraordinary water bird that spends summers in the Mississippi River Valley using its immaculate sandbars and islands to conceive and rear their young. Spending the winter months in northern South America, Central America, and various islands in the Caribbean Sea, and then making an epic journey of faith north to the beautiful sandbars and islands of the Lower Mississippi River with shallow pools with large schools of small fish. The male has to win a mate by showing his fishing and protection skills. The female lays two to four eggs directly on the sand perfectly camouflaged, but one is not uncommon. She stays close to the eggs and keeps them cool by dipping her chest into the water and returning to the nest. It’s a difficult task starting a family on a sandbar on the Mississippi River. They’re eggs are often stolen by Mississippi Kites as well ground dwelling scavengers.
We put in at Quapaw Landing which is located inside Island 63 chute. The River has crested from it’s unusual July rise and as it recedes exposes the beautiful sandbars and islands. Today, we have a crew of four. Myself, Wolfie, and a mother-daughter from Ohio. The mother, a strong, stern restaurant manager and the daughter, a laid back college student looking to decide what area of study to pursue. The weather is hot and steamy, so our first line of business was to find a swimming hole to cool off in. The mother expresses her passion for photography, so I make an offer she can’t refuse.
“Want to see a blue hole?”
We find a good landing and I take the lead hoping to blaze a hazard-less path to the blue hole that was formed during the 2011 flood.
I stop. In the under brush a beautiful perfectly camouflaged water snake is taking a siesta along the blue hole. It senses my presence and gradually moves to thicker cover. We admire the natural wonder and discuss the formation of the lake. The ladies marvel at the power of the River and we get back into the canoe.
We approach the main channel and the women are floored by the size of the River channel. The water is somewhat choppy from the barge traffic so we float until we find a good path for our channel crossing. The ladies decide on a early lunch since they used a lot of energy the night before dancing with shuttle driver Ellis Johnson at Red’s Juke Joint. The bottom end of Island 62 is exposing it’s sandbars so we make the channel crossing for lunch and a swim. We set up lunch as the ladies wade waist deep in the River.
“What’s that bird we keep seeing?”
I respond, ” That’s the Least Tern.”
I explain their origin and reasons for being on these Mississippi River sandbars and to be careful were you step because the eggs blend in with the sand. The ladies exit the water to join me in the hunt for an egg. It doesn’t take long to find a nest and the ladies snap pictures as they celebrate the findings.
The daughter says,” I’m thinking about majoring in wildlife biology.”
I replied,” Where do you go to school?”
She answered, ” Ball State University.”
I smile, “My brother William graduated from there. Isn’t that a journalism school?”
Not eagerly willing to have this discussion around her mother, she changes the subject.
“I read that piece you wrote about your father. Sounds like you had a great childhood.”
Surprisingly, not used to people knowing me through my writings, we go into conversation about our fathers while we feast on organic fruit and vegetables from the Lyon farmer’s market , salmon from Mrs. Dell’s, and cheeses from the Oxbow which are local markets.
We finished our lunch and head downstream towards one of mu favorite places to camp, Island 64. There’s little wind and the sun glistens off the water creating oasis throughout the channel. The ladies opt for their bikini’s as the towboat drivers give approval by sounding their horns. Male least terns are hovering and diving for fish all around us and the ladies are trying to catch the images on film. In the distant we start to see “the twins.” These are two willow islands above the top end of Island 64. The ladies are happy, wanting to spend more time on the islands exploring and taking pictures of the natural world. We arrive at Island 64 and the ladies take off exploring. The water is still high, so our campsite is in the trees. Deer, coyote,bobcats, turtle, and raccoon tracts cover the landscape. I explain to the ladies the difference between turtle eggs that had been hatched and scavenged. They take more pictures of the least tern eggs. The evening starting to cool as storm clouds move into the area.
We start dinner early as the ladies wade in the shallow water sharing mother-daughter time. We casually listen in on the conversation, erupting in laughter every once in awhile. They discussed their well traveled and diverse family tree. A unique blend of Chinese, Russian, and Italian. Wolfie practiced the Russian language with them as I made up my own language. They discussed their road trip and how it would end in Key West where they will meet the father.
“I didn’t know the River was this beautiful”, they replied.
I answered, ” you don’t have to go all the way to Key West to find this!”
We enjoyed our meal of smoked brisket, pasta, and salad as we admired the beautiful colors that coincide with the developing storm on the horizon. We make sure everyone is tied down and go to our tents to wait out the storm.
We rise with sun and admire the storm-washed beaches. The day is already hot, but the fact that we are on an island in the Mississippi River, makes it bearable. We take our time letting our tents dry, while we walk the shores looking for new treasures that might have washed in during the storm. We come upon the giant wooden monument in honor of Sean Rowe a writer and friend of Driftwood Johnny. We pay our respects and continue on. The ladies took pictures of every natural thing possible. They followed turtle tracts to estimate where the laid the night before. The wonderful thing about island 64 is the combination of desert, grasslands, and deciduous forest on the same landscape.
We leave island 64 headed for Hurricane Point. We dip into Mellwood lake as needlenose gar feed on the fry being push out into the receding river. The ladies can’t believe the number and size of the fish they saw. As always you can see the disappointment in their eyes wishing for one more day on the River. We decide to have lunch on Island 67 which is a high bluff of sand and trees almost sitting in the middle of the channel. As we approach the island, least terns in the hundreds hover over the sandbars. I let the ladies know the importance of not disturbing the birds, but they promised to be careful. I explore through the trees as the Red Wing Blackbirds nest in the willows, while turtles make desperate runs for the water. I keep my eyes to the ground not to disturb any eggs. I see a piece of driftwood on the ground and it looked as if the sand moved. It’s a baby least tern freshly hatched camouflage against the driftwood. My heart explodes as I call the crew over for a look. We take quick pictures and move on not wanting to disturb nature as it took its course.
We leave the island knowing it would be our last stop of the trip. I felt good knowing the ladies had quality time and experienced something rarely seen in nature. We meet our shuttle and celebrate the completion of another journey. I look at the daughter, “Did you figure it out?” Knowing what I’m talking about, she replied, “Yes!” The mother smiles and I think, “the River did it again!”
– Mark River
For photos and more reading about the least tern and the wild 30 miles Quapaw Landing to Hurricane Point, go to the River Gator:
Mark River Peoples is a guide and teacher with Quapaw Canoe Company and is also the 1 Mississippi Southern Region Intern representing the Lower Mississippi River Foundation.