Imagine going on an adventure that would take you to one of the world’s greatest, most diverse natural wonders of the world, brimming with an exotic array of plant and animal life, a remarkable ecosystem where 40 percent of America’s songbirds and 60 percent of North America’s migratory birds pass through, a place where white-tail deer and black bears still make their homes, a dynamic landscape that few people seem to know about.
Now, imagine that all you needed to do to begin that adventure is drive three hours to Clarksdale.
For the past 20 years, John Ruskey has been taking people on the great adventure known as the Lower Mississippi by his hand-built, canoes modeled after those used by the early French explorers of the river.
By the time the Columbus Rotary Club has concluded its regular business Tuesday, Ruskey had 30 minutes to share his story, one that began when he was a kid growing up in Colorado, who was so captivated by Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” he made it his life’s work and passion.
Since he and a buddy first decided to recreate the famous journey of Huck and Jim down the Mississippi after graduating high school in Colorado in 1982, Ruskey has returned to the river. In 1998 he established Quapaw Canoe Company to provide guided canoe and kayak expeditions on the Lower Mississippi River and its muddy tributaries.
In a half-hour, Ruskey took the Rotarians on a much-abbreviated trip down the Mississippi from St. Louis through a slideshow.
It was just a taste when you consider the full story Ruskey painstakingly completed in 2017, after six trips down the great river as he described each of the 1,154 miles of the Mississippi from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico. The result, which can be found at rivergator.org, is an invaluable resource for paddlers on the Big River.
The six-year-long project, funded by the Walton Foundation, resulted in a million words supplemented by detailed maps and photos. Much like the great explorers of the past, Ruskey’s detailed observations serve as a travel guide through one of the great natural wonders of North America.
Ruskey, 52, makes a living guiding canoe tours of the river — 1,000 to 2,000 people a year, 100 days or more on the Mississippi each year.
He is a tour guide, yes, but he is also a philosopher, journalist, historian, evangelist and champion of a place he feels has been neglected and often abused.
“Water connects all of us,” Ruskey told the Rotarians. “It’s the thing that determines the health of our communities, our families and the world. The myth of the Mississippi as a sewage ditch or a place to build a steel plant is detrimental to its health, and our health as a result of it. We have to have industry, but let’s leave the wild places wild.
“The river, as it is now, is incredibly rich, but the greatest threat is ignorance,” he added. “A beauty not recognized is a beauty not protected.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]