Challenging the Mighty Mississippi
By Jim Harris Photos Courtesy Of Zoë Sundra And John Ruskey
In his youth, Oscar Donaby didn’t think about canoeing on the Mississippi River.
“When I was growing up around Helena, you stayed off the river,” he says. When he was offered a chance to ride a canoe on it, “I thought it was kind of iffy.”
But John Ruskey, who founded Quapaw Canoe Company in Clarksdale, Miss., in 1998, introduced a skeptical Donaby to the water, and he was hooked.
“It was fun,” he says. “Now it’s a part of me.”
Six years ago, the now 22-year-old Donaby joined the Mighty Quapaw apprenticeship program that Ruskey ran, and for the past five years he’s been a guide for Ruskey’s canoeing and kayaking outfit, working both sides of the river. In 2008, John Fewkes took up Ruskey’s offer to manage a new Helena-West Helena version of the Quapaw Canoe Company that gave the establishment a presence on the Arkansas riverbank, too.
“I think John Ruskey wanted to take advantage of the fact that he sits right on the river whether here or in Clarksdale,” Fewkes says. He envisioned people being able to rent a canoe, kayak or paddleboard and go right over the levee and get on the water here, right at the Helena port.”
Most of the company’s clients seek guided trips. Quapaw Canoe will work with clients to build their own excursion, but many beginners will start out in the St. Francis National Forest and float back to the Helena-West Helena Harbor, or from the harbor across the river to Friar’s Point or Quapaw Landing, Donaby said.
Fewkes said of the St. Francis route: “It’s a floating trip, but it depends where you steer the canoe. It can get fast.” This type of trip takes 3-4 hours. “It’s our No. 1 trip, our average trip,” Fewkes said.
Groups often take a large canoe on the Mississippi and eventually decamp at Buck Island, sometimes staying overnight, Fewkes said, complete with dinner and a bonfire only a short distance from Helena. Quapaw Canoe has day and overnight trips, weeklong floats and more. Fewkes notes that some regular customers will have him put them in as much as 200 miles upstream, and when they come back a year later they add even more to their next personalized trip. A paddler can experience the way the Mississippi was navigated before steamboats and tugboats.
Paddlers may take in a float on the rather sedate Sunflower River that runs inland from Clarksdale to Vicksburg. The canoeists who are really looking for a challenge, however, are encouraged to try the Three Rivers Circumnavigation, which starts at Arkansas City and involves the Arkansas, White and Mississippi rivers and brings famed river habitat area Big Island into play.
Quapaw Canoe owner Ruskey has created a website, rivergator.org, that “tells you about every inch of the [Mississippi], from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico, Fewkes said. Rivergator.org helps paddlers design trips. “We have all kinds of customized maps on the site,” Fewkes said. It’s really something. “John Ruskey is one of the few people who has written as many words on the Mississippi River as Mark Twain.”
Donaby and Fewkes both say that the Mighty Mississippi doesn’t have to be feared. “As long as you steer clear of the barges and the buoys, you’re fine,” Donaby said. “Sometimes we have to let the big barges move on, but after they’re out of the way it’s an easy trip.”
The guiding, Fewkes said, includes a history of the area, where Hernando de Soto and his men first met the Quapaws five centuries ago and where the first European settlement, Sterling, was founded—the course-changing Mississippi washed that all away.
From now to April, paddlers have to wear a wetsuit; the water’s temperature is too low to tackle the river without one. From summer through fall, though, it’s perfect. Fewkes said peak time for the business is October, where reservations need to be made well in advance. The busy season can stretch into early November.
For more information, visit Quapaw Canoe’s website, island63.com. A novice can get started canoeing for as low as $125.