The great thing about being a river guide is the opportunity to be a part of both recreational trips and exploratory expeditions. Expeditions that take you on a journey to find the information (or inspiration) that’s essential for the creation of art or the findings of science.
Paw Paw trees are temperate fruit trees that grow in thick deciduous forests along rivers in Eastern North America. The fruit, like the persimmon tree, doesn’t mature until around the first frost, when they fall to the earth and sweeten. It usually grows in thick hardwood forest on bluffs by the river. They need the shade of the big trees to thrive. They are rumored to have been staple for the Native Americans and are a fruit a largely forgotten in today’s society.
We meet in the Cave: Driftwood Johnny, Andy, and myself. For some reason the night before I had started to pack my dry bag anticipating I would be going on the River. I see a strange fruit on the table sliced and ready to eat. Andy introduced himself and asked, “Wanna try?”
“Sure.” Not wanting to be rude to our guest.
Driftwood chimes in, “You ready to go on a expedition?”
I reply, “Already packed.”
Driftwood states: “born ready!”
I continue, “that taste good, a cross between a mango and a papaya.”
Andy agrees and we discuss the logistics of our trip and the goal to find the Paw Paw tree. Driftwood staring at the map, “these are the places where you could find them.” We discuss our strategy and prepare for our journey.
We drive through Stovall Plantation headed for the “Muddy Waters Wilderness” with our spirits high anticipating success through a sound game plan. I meditate making sure I’ve covered every base. With the River dropping daily I know we will be hiking through thick, damp, brush for long periods of time. I make sure I have all the essentials that are needed for an successful expedition.
I ask,” What’s your deal with the PawPaw tree?”
He replies,” I”m writing a book on the tree, but I have to find it to get the funding.”
He continues,” I figured the Mississippi River was my best chance.”
I agree and was determined to be a part of the discovery!
We pull over the levee and I’m already envisioning success. It’s a technique I learned in playing football. You play the game in your head before you play the game. Ellis Johnson, our shuttle driver chimes in, “Quit smiling River, we haven’t even seen the water yet!”
We make it to Quapaw landing and launch our canoe. Andy looks confused, “This is not the River?!”
I answer,”No, but that is,” as I point around the bend.
Andy replies,” Wow, I’m glad John suggested I bring you.”
I laugh, ” Me too!”
We stay left bank descending as Andy marvels at the beautiful homes along the River at Burke’s hunting camp. The towboats are zipping up and down the channel, as I wait for a opportune time to cross. Andy lets me know that he’s not used to paddling waters this big so I make sure he’s hydrated and start making my move towards my favorite camp spot at the bottom of Island 64. The plan was to set up camp early so we could explore the middle of the island before dark. The river is glistening as if it had just rained. The water is cool and smooth, but the heat from the sun is bearing down on us. I show Andy the island in the distance, but he can’t judge the distant.
“Wow River, this is nothing like paddling the rivers and lakes of central Florida!”
“Don’t worry, this is what we do, I’ll get us there.”
We glide past the top of the island headed straight for the bottom end. It’s a sandy bluff at the base of the island with willow trees shooting vertically resembling palm trees of the Caribbean, space evenly within a flat landscape creating endless tent sights between the trees. We raise our tents and secure our boat an head towards the middle of the island.
The setting starts to change as the willows create tight spaces and the ground feels saturated with a combination of sand and silt with new growth sprouting between every crack. It’s a dried up pond. The smell of dead fish fills the air. There are three large fish who probably ruled the marsh disintegrated into the bed looking as if already fossilized. Andy takes pictures as we move into thicker brush. I look at the canopy and notice a huge great horned owl perched in a large cottonwood tree.
I think to myself, “Why is she here?”
We struggle through the brush and find a large clearing of driftwood stacked in asymmetrical arrangements all over the forest floor. I take a step and my peripheral perception seemed as if the pile moved. It didn’t. It was covered with thousands of crickets and centipedes as well as hundreds of frogs. I take another step an noticed a huge cottonmouth perfectly camouflaged within a hollowed log.
“Andy snake left”, I calmly state.
“There’s two more”, I add.
“There’s a four foot northern water snake on that log”, I noticed.
“River, let’s get out of here, there’s no PawPaws in here”, Andy replies.
I add, “That’s a great idea. Now I know why the owls are here!”
We hike back to camp with every stick on the ground resembling what we just witnessed in the brush.
“How did you see all of those snakes River?”
“I know their environment. You have to look past their camouflage.”
We start a fire and discuss our plan for the next day. The plan is to explore Mellwood Lake, Desoto Lake, Knowlton, and Island 69. I express the importance of getting an early start. ” We want to be on the water around seven .”
We get a early start as the sun announces It’s presence. We pull into Mellwood chute thankful for the relief from the sun as the canopy gives us needed shade. Clear water is flowing out of the lake, as various bass species feed in the clear discharge. At the beginning of the waterway we decide to explore the forest at the entrance, left bank descending. Andy takes off. As I secure the boat I hear, “River! River!”
I secure the boat, run up the embankment, through thick vegetation, not knowing what to expect from Andy’s screams… more snakes, or…
…and there he is. Surrounded by a forest of PawPaw trees.
“River, we did it!”
We spend hours shaking trees looking for ripe fruit. Andy chimes in,” we don’t have to go the next 20 miles , I’m content.” I take the hint and reschedule our shuttle to pick us up in Desoto Lake. Andy calls his wife to share the news, while I guide us to the ramp.
We meet our shuttle driver Ellis Johnson and hear that James ” SuperChikan”
Johnson is giving a private show for the new Mayor of Clarksdale, the honorary Bill Luckett.
Feeling the reward of the expedition I shout, “Let’s crash it! He needs to be a River Citizen!”
We end our journey watching SuperChikan sitting with Bill Luckett. He introduced the Delta Commission which is a group of assistants of various legislators working on the Farm Bill. He mentions the Farm Bill and I jump out of my seat, “Let’s get ‘er done!”, as the Mayor nods his head in agreement.
I say my goodbyes and make my usual early exit and take the long way home along the Sunflower River. I feel content knowing that the mindset is changing about the River for the better and we are building our team daily by signing River Citizens www.1Mississippi.orgfrom all over the country, and getting them on the river through the Rivergatorwww.rivergator.org.
I see the lights from Quapaw Canoe Company in the distance and smile celebrating another journey completed.
Get to know your river.
Check out Andy’s Kickstarter for a Paw Paw video and more details about his project. He successfully funded his project as of September 3!