It’s a funny thing, one day you’re reading an email on your laptop about an outing on the Mississippi River to view the full beaver moon, and four days later you’re standing around a campfire with a group of people, half of whom you didn’t know two hours earlier, on an island in that river watching that moon ascend into the evening sky.
I forwarded the email to my family, resolved to go if at least one of them said yes.
To my surprise and delight, one did, and so it was Thursday morning under dark, threatening skies, we set out for Clarksdale.
There we would meet up with John Ruskey and Mark River, arguably the two most capable Mississippi River guides on the planet, a retired local couple and a retiree from California who just months earlier relocated to Clarksdale to volunteer at a medical clinic.
From John and Mark’s base of operations, Quapaw Canoe Company, we could caravan to Montezuma Landing on the River. From there we would paddle upriver through an area he called the Montezuma Archipelago, so named for the steamboat that hit a snag and sank there in 1829.
After a 20-minute drive, we followed John and Mark up a gravel road to the top of the levee where we drove a short distance before descending through a band of trees to a flat area overlooking the river.
Across the way we could see our destination, the Montezuma Towhead, an island, due to the low water level, was aproned by a vast sandbar two to three miles long.
We adjusted our cold-weather wear — the wind was gusting, a condition that would subside after sunset we were told — donned our PFDs (personal flotation devices) and climbed into our assigned seats in the Ladybug II, a 20-something-foot-long, 300-pound-plus wood-strip canoe built by John and company.
Once I asked John if he had ever capsized on a trip. Never unintentionally, he replied.
We’d been paddling less than five minutes when Mark pointed out the bald eagle circling high overhead.
We took it as a good omen.
With no towboats in sight, we paddled across to the west side of the river and then upstream along the shoreline. Soon John suggested we go ashore and build a fire.
We pulled our canoe ashore and fanned out to collect driftwood for our fire.
Until you’ve stood on one of these sandy expanses that far exceed in size anything you see in Florida, it is difficult to comprehend their enormity.
Soon our hosts had a fire crackling and John was serving hot tea. Mark had set up tables for our potluck supper and three-legged stools for us to sit on.
The offerings included vegetarian hotdogs, a cheesecake, DoubleKwik fried chicken, salmon and salami from Walmart, homemade hummus, chocolate, a stinky soft cheese, corn chips and a powerful salsa from a Mexican grocery.
Something happens to you in this setting. With all the distractions of “civilization” stripped away, you are fully in the moment. There is nothing more than you and your fellow pilgrims, the river, the fire that is keeping you warm and the glowing moon, now high in the sky.
For the next two hours we would eat, make music and individually take walks on the silver sand.
When it came time to go, John stacked all the remaining firewood on the fire so we could see where we had been as we paddled back.
Together we pulled the Ladybug back into the river.
We would paddle upstream in the shallows alongside the island in anticipation of the downstream sweep of the river we would encounter as we crossed.
Our crossing was delayed by two downstream towboats with their gangs of barges. After the second had passed and its wake subsided, we turned and made for the opposite shore.
Almost on cue, all the talking stopped. We crossed the river in silence, the only sounds audible were the hum of the towboats receding into the distance and soft splash of paddles dipping into the dark river.
Once we reached the eastern shore, we turned and drifted downstream, letting the river take us home. Far downriver we could see the green lights of the towboats and off to the right the faint flicker of our dying campfire.
By now the full beaver moon was directly overhead.
To subscribe to John Ruskey’s Lower Mississippi River Dispatch: https://www.island63.com/mailing-list.cfm.
Birney Imes (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former publisher of The Dispatch.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.