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All photos courtesy of Kendall McDonald

  One of our favorite groups to share the River with is Dr. Cliff Ochs and his biology students from the University of Mississippi.   This year Cliff has added a dynamic twist to the usual biology program.  This year the students will look at the river from a number of different aspects in a program called the “Ecological and Cultural History of the Lower Mississippi.”

We start the day at the Quapaw headquarters in Clarksdale. Everyone shows excitement as we pack dry bags and discuss what Rivergator route to take. Cliff and his students have been on various trips so we gather around  the map in  ” the Cave”, which is Driftwood Johnny’s  den, and discuss logistics.  We decide upon the beautiful stretch of river from the confluence of the St. Francis and Mississippi River  to what we call the “Muddy Waters Wilderness.”

We drive to Helena, Arkansas, where we will meet our shuttle. We stop by Quapaw Canoe company located on the levee parallel to the entrance  of Helena Harbor.  While the students take the tour of the facility, the crew double check supplies and secure our shuttle for the next day. The students take advantage of their last chance to use the restroom and waterproof gear.

Cliff says, “River, let’s get to the River.”

I reply,” Great idea. I like the way that sounds.”

We start our way down the levee as students discuss its construction and how important the wetlands and floodplains are to the mammals,reptiles, amphibians and the benthic community of organisms. I start to realize they were very concerned with the health of the River and this trip was find signs of the River’s health through animal diversity.

We leave the manmade levee, and turn on the natural levee, Crowley’s Ridge. The cathedral-like canopy darkens as mammoth cottonwoods and basket oaks block the sun  from the west causing the temperate deciduous forest to cool.  Does cross the road in front of us being chased by Bucks starting an early rut. The east side of the road consist of old cypress forest with knees anchoring, while acting as lungs for the trees. Turkeys scramble across the road disappearing in the bluff.

Arriving at the confluence, we come together as a team to carry the canoe to the water. Trucks with trailers line the beach as fisherman take advantage of the great weather and hitting their favorite honey holes.  We have lunch on the beach before we launch  watching the tow boats pass and discussing our philosophies of coexisting with the barges.

One student asks, ” How do you guys deal with the barges?”

I respond, ” We give them the right of way!”

We load our canoes and head downstream towards the top of Prairie Point Towhead(see www.rivergator.org) which locals call “Buck Island.”  After high water, this sandbar exposes a giant fossil bed full of geodes, criniods, seashells, corals, and bones of ancient animals. We reach a small inlet immediately pass a wing dam dike and take a hour to explore. It pays off as two students find petrified bones that looked like mammoth or bison.

I asked, ” Where did you find these?”

They both reply,” They where just sitting on top!”

I smile and think, “We were here first.”

Heading south towards the bottom of the island, we start to look for a good  camping spots. Even though there are plenty of beautiful sandbars, we always go for flat sand, with plenty of firewood, and protection from wind . Thousands of white pelicans comb the shallow sandbars corralling and eating fish, not panicking as we paddled by. Cameras are out and everyone is amazed by the size of the creatures. Great blue herons and egrets are side by side cleaning the shallow pools of stranded fish. We continue on not wanting to disturb nature taking its course. Finally, we find a small cove and set camp. The cove is about four feet deep, perfect for swimming and wading. The girls immediately change into their swimsuits.

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One yells, ” I’m sleeping out tonight without my tent! ”

They all agreed and headed for the water.

The tow boat traffic continues into the night as waves crash into the sandbars stranding various fish species on the bluffs of sand. A 30 pound smallmouth buffalo gets beached and I paddle out to land it. Perfect size for eating,  so I plan to give it to Ellis Coleman as a present. I look up at the ladies in the group with long faces and realize they wanted me to set it free. So I look at its cute little lips and eyes and think to myself, “Today is your lucky day, gave her kiss and set her free.”

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The students continue to wade in the water while Cliff Ochs prepares a vegetarian stew with meat on the side for us carnivores. We enjoy our meal during a beautiful sunset, while gathering around fire talking and watching the stars fill the sky like clusters. We even sang happy birthday to Kendall, a young lady spending her twenty-first birthday on the Mississippi River.

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Kendall boasts,” I don’t know anyone else on Facebook who spent their twenty first birthday on the Mississippi River, thanks guys!”

Another student shouts,” Ole Miss won today!”

I smile knowing it’s football season.

The next morning I lead the students on a morning hike into the interior of the island. The late july rise has the hardwood forest floor bare with little flora not having enough sunlight and a shorter growing season. I explain how these islands become a series of braided channels in high water and how grass carp and other vegetarians pick the island floor clean. The students are amazed at the water line in the trees. They study plants, insects, animal tracts and scat. They look for larva in the sandy blue holes to determine health of the River. They marvel at the eagles, hawks, pelicans hovering over this rich diverse ecosystem.

We load our canoes an head for Montezuma Island which will be our last stop before we take out. We paddle under the Helena Bridge and we discuss everything we experienced and come to a conclusion that the Mississippi River is in good health, but there is more we can due as river citizens to help maintain it’s health. I explained how the floodplains and wetlands can hold ten thousand more species of plants and animals than the main channel and how important it is to stop wetland and floodplain destruction. I discuss the New Madrid situation and how important it is to write and oppose this project.

We reach our landing and I discuss the importance of becoming a river citizens and our duties to protect and preserve this national treasure.  The Mississippi River is the life-line of our country, so let’s treat as such. Become a river citizen and consult the Rivergator www.rivergator.org and plan your excursion today.

Mark River

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Neal McMillin, a senior southern studies major at Ole Miss, was out on the Island that night (and is in the fish photo above).  He wrote this account of his trip for the Daily Mississippian Newspaper.

Life on the Ole Mississippi
September 19, 2013

As I sped by seven tow trucks early last gameday morning, I felt as giddy as a caffeinated first-grader wearing a zebra mask at the zoo. Chicken biscuit in hand, I was ready for a field trip.I had dumped the spiral notebooks from my backpack onto the floor, replacing them with a hammock, sunscreen, red swimsuit, Ole Miss water bottle, Chacos, toilet paper, a floppy-brimmed hat and the secret ingredients for a PB&J.

Dr. Cliff Ochs was taking our class on the Mississippi River to canoe down the Father of Waters. With Clarksdale-based Quapaw Canoe Company as our guides, we were to paddle 25 miles down the river past Helena, Ark., in a French voyageur-style cypress canoe. Time to escape to nature.

Caring for the environment while living from air conditioner to air conditioner seems often to be either a vague duty or a complete hassle. Forgetting nature during the daily grind is easy. We need a reminder of nature’s beauty. We need canoe trips. For one, Instagram sunsets cannot compare to the color palette on the river at dusk. Also, we need reminders of the great outdoor’s vitality to remain personally invested in the environment.

Nature can inspire in a moment. If you were to ask me why the river needs sustainable care, I’d quip, “For the pelicans.” From upstream, I could hear the rushing wings as the hunting birds swirled across the river. Like flying border collies, they corralled a great school of carp and proceeded to feast on the Asian delicacies. When we passed the flock in our canoe, the stuffed birds proudly watched us float on by. Like Walter Anderson, the reclusive Mississippi Gulf Coast watercolorist, I was amazed by the pelicans. They dispatched the invasive species of carp, the kudzu of the Mississippi River, with a fierce style worthy of the NBA’s new best mascot. From a biology perspective, I was thrilled, for healthy predators prove a healthy ecosystem.

The academic conclusion was really just a peripheral concern. The pelicans were beautiful. Am I making an excessive to-do about some avian creatures? Perhaps. Yet now I have a personal memory of the river. It is not about caring for the environment, whatever that cliche means. It is about protecting pelicans, both in honor of my memory and for the other paddlers to come.

Beyond the responsibility reminder, we need to “get out there” for our own benefit. Journeying by paddle power is a lesson on time and stress. Before we had so much as dipped a paddle in the water, we had a catastrophe. The Tahoe’s tires were spinning on the sand. In Oxford, the delay would have been maddeningly exasperating. Yet we were on river time. The gas pedals on a canoe are between your shoulder blades.

Rather than wearing ourselves out to hurry, we embraced a take-life-as-it-comes philosophy. The college pace conditions us to believe in the idea of lost time, but river time teaches that time is not lost but lived. When your watch is the sun, the tick-tock anxiety leaves.

On the river, preparation anxiety does not control. You cannot beat yourself up like we do in Oxford for, say, not studying enough. On the river you make do with what experience and supplies you have, no guilt allowed. On a portage, you realize the value of the pack light maxim within six steps. The Boy Scout motto “be prepared” does not mean to be over-prepared and over-burdened. Instead, be prepared to go without. Though in my room I thought I needed three pairs of shoes, my bare feet were the far better choice for the Mississippi mud.

After the river trip, I am convinced that I need to clean out some clutter from the school frenzy by regaining some margin. Be radical; go phoneless for an afternoon this week. Take breaks. After jumping into the river for a cool-off, my refreshed spirit could paddle that much faster. To my surprise, we covered the 25 miles quickly. With my classmates rowing as a team and the river’s five mph current, our canoe traveled much faster than the average car on Jackson Avenue during the lunch hour.

Often college-stress lies to us, suggesting that we are on our own. Never forget that your friends and family can row the river with you. The destination is closer than you think and prettier than a picture. I hope you see some pelicans on the way.

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