Anyone for a Dip?

Since I was a kid, I've been warned that the mighty Mississippi is a deadly stew of swirling eddies—and that swimming across it is oneof the stupidest things a person can do. Naturally, I had to give it a try.

Mississippi River guide John Ruskey, May 2007    

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"THE RIVER PROVIDETH all things," drawls John Ruskey in the mock-reverential tones of a redneck messiah. "And now, it will provideth ... fawwrwood!"

Ruskey is our ever-competent guide and spiritual leader. When he talks, which is seldom, and always in a very soft voice, we listen. He's brought us here to this fine-powdered beach in the middle of the Mississippi River, and now we're enjoying the musky coolness rising off the water while passing around a bottle of Jameson's whiskey.

It's an hour before sunset. Our group of ten friends is pitching camp here, 30 miles above Memphis, on a Crusoe-esque sandbar called Dean Island. We're not in Tennessee or Arkansas but a happy no-man's-land that's uninhabited and apparently unowned. As we fan out to collect driftwood, an air force of Canada geese honks along the flyway, arrowing north for the summer.

"In the ten years I've been canoeing the river, I've never seen a soul out here," Ruskey says. "Not even once."

From Dean Island, the Mississippi stretches for nearly a mile to the opposite bank. The channel here is deep, more than a hundred feet, and the water's colder than I expected—about 59 degrees. The smooth current seems almost languorous, until a massive creosoted telephone pole slingshots past.

Our mixed armada of canoes and kayaks lies just below us on the wet sand. We've been paddling the Mississippi all day, floating its confusion of currents, slipping into swampy back channels, and skirting the occasional tugboat as it nudges a zip code's worth of barges upriver. We've been provoking indignant horn honks from river pilots, who think they own the Mississippi, and drawing bewildered stares from Coast Guard and Army Corps officers, who think they rule it.

Maybe it's the Jameson's talking, but as I gaze at the river and warm myself by a crackling driftwood bonfire, I'm hoping the Mississippi will provideth something else, this river that is our river, the river, superlative among superlatives—biggest, widest, strongest.

It's something I've been thinking about for weeks now: What would t be like to jump into that roiling mess? To wallow and drift in it, to feel its fish-redolent muck against my skin? And, most important, to get out into the full swiftness of its main current and swim it, from shore to shore?

FOR ME, THIS IS A SUBVERSIVE, if not suicidal, idea. I was born less than a mile from its banks, but until today my associations with the mighty Mississippi have always been bad. Growing up in Memphis, I was told it was sure death to go in that nasty, stinkin' river. It was a big drainage ditch swirling with the country's foulest waste—Our National Colon. Every category of danger lurked in there: snags, whirlpools, menacing big-ass catfish, industrial sludge, burning chemicals, snarled trotlines, and cottonmouths, not to mention a wicked current intent on sweeping away everything in its path.

The riverfront, I grew up believing, was a god-awful unsavory place—full of chiggers and poison oak and rabid dogs and rusty objects sure to give you tetanus. Its only true denizens were drunks and hoboes. Historically, the Mississippi had always brought bad tidings to Memphis—yellow fever epidemics, another boll weevil blight, news of the latest stock-market crash, or the twin pestilences of Sherman and Grant. Surely it was the height of idiocy to mess with such a groove-worn fate.

One day during the 1930s, my grandfather took my mom, who was seven at the time, out on the Mississippi in a little fishing boat. Something went wrong with the propeller. The engine quit. They drifted for miles and miles, without a paddle or life preservers. The boat spun like a waterbug on the currents, until my grandfather rather ingeniously jury-rigged a new cotter pin from a coat hanger. They made it safely back, but my mom never forgot the feeling of helplessness the Mississippi inspires.

"It'll up and kill ya," she'd tell me. "And I mean right quick."

And so the Mississippi became for me something mythological and willful, like Charybdis. The more-or-less-predictable laws of hydraulics didn't seem to apply to this crafty torrent of gravy. Without warning, I was told, it will suck you down, swallow you up, smother you in its miasmal embrace. It is less a river than a conveyor belt of quicksand.

This belief in its fundamental otherness goes way back. As early as 1837, an English captain wrote of the Mississippi that "few of those who are received into its waters ever rise again." In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain describes a kid named Lem Hackett, who drowned one Sunday while playing in an empty flatboat. "Being loaded with sin," Twain writes, "he went to the bottom like an anvil."

Over the years, the Mississippi River really has seemed determined to kill people. The examples abound.

Take the tragic case of Jeff Buckley, the 30-year-old singer-songwriter sensation who drowned one night in 1997, in plain view of the Memphis skyline. Buckley went for a quick dip in the river while a friend stayed on shore. Suddenly, Buckley disappeared ... and that was it. A few days later, a tourist aboard the American Queen spotted his body bobbing in the river. The autopsy revealed nothing unusual—no drugs, no sign of struggle, no hint of suicide. One minute he was fine; the next he was gone. The river just took him.

And then there's the story of the sinking of the Sultana, the worst nautical disaster in American history. The doomed steamship passed Memphis early on the morning of April 27, 1865, with nearly 2,500 passengers, many of whom were Union troops newly freed from various Confederate prisoner-of-war camps. A few miles upstream, at around 2 A.M., the Sultana's boilers exploded. Hundreds were instantly scalded to death. Passengers jumped into the cold Mississippi, but many of the soldiers were too weak and emaciated to swim.

In the end, an estimated 1,700 people burned or drowned that night, more than on the Titanic.

While I was growing up, I remember a steady drumbeat of lesser tragedy along the river, melancholy flickerings on the local evening news—suicidal souls jumping off the Hernando de Soto Bridge, cane-pole fishermen losing their footing and slipping in, hapless adventurers whose boats swamped in the violent wake of a tugboat.

But I guess the final straw for me was this bit of silliness: Sometime when I was a teenager, I learned that a terrible creature lives down in the Mississippi murk. I'm not talking about snapping turtles or water moccasins; I'm speaking of the alligator gar, Atractosteus spatula, a primeval fish with a long snout and iron-hard scales and evil-looking teeth. Gator gars are slithering, dragonlike carnivores that grow to beastly sizes in the shoals of the river.

I once saw an extraordinary photograph of one of these monsters, taken in 1910. The fish had been caught south of Memphis, in an oxbow somewhere near Tunica, Mississippi; in the photograph, a bemused-looking man sits behind the spiny leviathan, and he is dwarfed by it. The creature was reportedly ten feet long, and must have weighed 500 pounds. Gator gars are not particularly known for dining on humans, but a certain gothic mythology has welled up around them; something about this weird fish creeped me out from an early age—and sealed my convictions about the irredeemable atrociousness of the Mississippi.

SO ALL MY LIFE, I NEVER PUT a toe in the great inland sea that flowed by my city. Nor did I know anyone who had. Although I've been away from home for 25 years, I've recently come back to write a book about Memphis and the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination. Over the past few months, I've been rediscovering the Mississippi—or, I should say, discovering it for the first time. I'm finding to my pleasant surprise that even as the city's suburbs metastasize into that Bubba Gumped, Olive Gardened, La Quintafied hell that is modern America, another part of Memphis has been trending strongly toward the water again.

One morning in early May, I tandem-kayaked a stretch of the river with outdoor-gear retailer Joe Royer, in the celebrated canoe-and-kayak race he founded 27 years ago—the largest such event on the entire Mississippi, with more than 800 boats racing along the Memphis riverfront (and with all barge traffic officially halted by order of the U.S. Coast Guard). Another afternoon, I went out with John Gary, a dedicated river rat who also happens to run the only biodiesel service station in Memphis. In his well-traveled Striper speedboat, we gunkholed around the city harbor, catching some of the barbecue smoke and live music emanating from the famous Beale Street Music Festival. Steely Dan, the Allman Brothers Band, Koko Taylor, Jerry Lee Lewis, John Legend, and the North Mississippi Allstars were just a few of the nearly 70 acts playing along the river over a single May weekend.

Yes, things were definitely stirring on the waterfront again. But to enjoy Memphis's burgeoning river culture, I knew, was hardly to experience the majesty of the true Mississippi. I needed to go farther and deeper, which is how I ended up calling John Ruskey and putting together a canoe trip with an eclectic group of Memphis friends. An evangelizing river guide since 1998, Ruskey insists that the only way to appreciate the Mississippi—to really get it—is to defy common assumptions about its lethality and to float it for days at a time in nonmotorized craft. It was while planning this trip that I hatched the notion of swimming all the way across the thing. And, quietly at first, I began to prepare for it.

On this glorious, clear night, camped on the sands of Dean Island, I join a couple of the Jameson's drinkers in erecting an exceedingly weird driftwood figure, a cultish mannequin that's very Children of the Corn. Burrowing in the sand, we find all manner of decoration to filigree our River Man—a paint-can lid, a corncob, a bald-headed Barbie doll, a walnut, a feather, a spray can of Fix-a-Flat, miscellaneous bones. The nation's refuse, both natural and man-made, has become our found art.

The Mississippi is far from pristine, of course, but camping here I'm struck by its unexpected wildness, its burly swagger, its feeling of being a foreign place even as it pumps through the familiar heart of America. And I'm wondering how I could have spent my life disregarding something so grand. As Ruskey puts it, "It's never a good idea to ignore a beautiful woman."

We lavish one detail too many on our River Man and he collapses in a heap of cluttered lumber. Coyotes howl somewhere in the canebrake. A crescent moon is launched in the sky, and now the heavy FedEx jets—one, and then another, and another one still—come roaring overhead in a mighty lockstep, dropping south toward the sorting complex in Memphis, bearing the packages of the world.

This much I know: Swimming the Mississippi is one of the stupidest things a person can do. And, anyway, it's probably illegal. But I don't see a way around it now. Tomorrow morning, I'll have to follow through with my plan. To hell with steamboat disasters and the diabolical alligator gar.

I'm goin' in.

WHEN I FIRST MET RUSKEY, a few days before our trip, I was worried about how he'd react to my little scheme. After all, it would be his show, and he'd be the one who'd have to answer for my lunacy.

Ruskey's a riparian philosophe, a Renaissance man of the Delta. In addition to being a great paddler, he's a musician, an artist, a poet, a gourmet chef, a master woodworker, and, almost incidentally, a businessman, sole proprietor of the Quapaw Canoe Company. I visited him at his offices near the banks of the Sunflower River in the blues capital of Clarksdale, Mississippi. Ruskey runs Quapaw out of the ground floor of an old industrial warehouse—the Cave, he calls it—which he has wallpapered with Army Corps maps and cluttered with snake skins, turtle shells, sturgeon skeletons, and other bric-a-brac from his river forays.

With Clarksdale's ridiculously good local station, WROX, blasting on his truck radio, Ruskey and his wife, Sarah, took me around town—to the famous crossroads where they say Robert Johnson made his deal with the devil so he could play guitar, and to Ground Zero, a popular juke joint Morgan Freeman helped start up a few years ago. Then we breezed past the old Stovall Plantation, and I watched a low-flying plane dust the same fields where Muddy Waters grew up as a sharecropper. We drove on top of the levee and wound down to a secluded spot on the river. There we sat at dusk, dangling our feet in the water, eating stinky French cheese and gazing out toward Montezuma Island.

"From here," Ruskey said, "there isn't a bridge for a hundred miles. It's all uninterrupted wilderness and floodplain. On most of these islands, you've got nothing but deer, bear, and boar roaming in enormous hardwood stands. And the beautiful part is ... no one knows about it!"

In his own understated but tenacious way, John Ruskey has devoted most of his adult life to understanding the science, engineering, history, politics, and literature of the lower Mississippi (that is, everything below Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio empties into the river). As Ruskey likes to say, he's got mud in his blood. He's extremely laid-back in his mannerisms—a blues aficionado, he used to be the curator of Clarksdale's Delta Blues Museum. But on the subject of the Mississippi he can wax rhapsodic to the point of religiosity.

River Jesus, I came to call him. He noted how Einstein's son spent his whole life studying the chaos and complexity of rivers. He's been known to lasso giant floating trees and ride them downriver, like Slim Pickens straddling that atom bomb in Dr. Strangelove. With a straight face, Ruskey told me, "Rivers connect us all."

In the summer of 1982, when Ruskey was 18, he and a friend decided to go to the headwaters of the Mississippi and build a wooden raft. For five months, they floated the river; they were aiming for the Gulf of Mexico. But one February night, close to the Tennessee–Mississippi line, their raft smashed to pieces on a concrete TVA pylon. Clinging to the wreckage, Ruskey and his friend drifted for miles in the frigid current. Hours later, they washed up on a deserted island and built a bonfire to signal for help. The Coast Guard eventually picked them up.

"That whole experience," Ruskey told me, somewhat sheepishly, "drove the river deep into my soul."

Certainly it made him more respectful of the Mississippi's capacity for treachery. I've seen it in his face every moment of our canoe trip, a steady hypervigilance in back of his seeming serenity. River Jesus is calm, but never cavalier.

"In the Mississippi," he said, "when things go bad, they go bad in a hurry. This is the Himalayas, the big mountain of rivers. When you 'fall' off this peak, you don't just fall a few feet. You're going to end up miles downstream. And unless you really know what you're doing, you're probably going to end up a floater."

After he said that, I felt doubly stupid about wanting to swim the Mississippi. But when I finally worked up the nerve to broach the subject with Ruskey, his reaction surprised me.

"Awwwwrahhhht!" he said, fairly brimming with enthusiasm. "You're a man after my own heart. A baptism! Everybody should swim across the Mississippi, at least once. It's a God-given right that ought to be written in the Constitution."

"You think so?"

"Well, you gotta go about it in the right way. Pick the right time and place. You have to know where the wing dikes are, where the eddies and shoals are. And you have to watch like a hawk for barge traffic. But it's an excellent thing to do."

"It ... is?"

"Look, I get in there all the time. The Mississippi's the mirror of our soul, a barometer of our national health. If we can't swim in it, then we're really in trouble."

Which brought up a terrifically pertinent question. "How dirty is it in there?" I asked. "Am I going to end up with a huge, honkin' dioxin goiter on my neck?"

"No," Ruskey replied. "Tests in this stretch of the Mississippi show up negative for every major contaminant. And toxicology studies have shown it's safe to eat fish in the lower Mississippi—which you can't say for most of America's rivers and lakes. You don't want to swim directly downstream of places like the Memphis wastewater plant, or else you're going to get a mouthful of coliform bacteria. But most places on the lower Mississippi, the water's surprisingly clean."

Yet, as Ruskey could tell, I remained skeptical. "Hey, I'm not saying you'd want to drink it," he said. "But it's perfectly safe to swim."

Then he looked at me with mischief in his eye and said, "I got the perfect spot in mind for you."

OUR SECOND DAY ON THE river, after a few mugs of cowboy coffee, we take a walk along the water. We study its current, test its temperature, survey the far bank with binoculars. And then we pull on our wetsuits, which Ruskey thinks we may need to avoid hypothermia if our swim goes longer than anticipated.

I say "we" because over last night's campfire I succeeded in finding two recruits to swim with me—two more loose screws from within our ranks.

Tom Roehm is a prominent Memphis environmentalist and an engineer by training who often canoes the river and its tributaries when he's not designing spinal implants for surgeons. "Are you kidding me?" said Roehm, a big, bearish, self-described "aquacentric" guy who used to compete as a distance swimmer. "I wouldn't miss this for the world. It's something I've wanted to do for 20 years."

Alan Spearman, a filmmaker and photographer with the local Commercial Appeal, recently made a documentary about a modern-day Huck Finn he met on the river. Spearman has, by one vessel or another, traveled every mile of the lower Mississippi, from Cairo to Venice, Louisiana. "I've swum in it before," Spearman said, "but never across it."

Ruskey has selected a passage of the river rather ominously called the Devil's Racecourse, so named (on old maps and even in Twain's Life on the Mississippi) because this stretch was once infamous for its steamboat-wrecking snags. Ruskey will paddle out in the channel with a few others in his 27-foot voyageur-style canoe, Ladybug, a noble vessel he hand-carved out of Louisiana bald cypress years ago. From out there, Ruskey will keep an eye on barge traffic while monitoring the radio for river-pilot chatter. If something goes wrong, he'll be close by.

"I guess it's showtime," I say.

"Here goes nothin'," adds Spearman.

I zip up my wetsuit and join Roehm and Spearman at the river's edge. I strap on a pair of ridiculous-looking split-fin flippers, which an open-water-swimmer friend of mine recommended. Then, together, we wade out into the mud.

"Good luck, Flipper!" hollers my college buddy Howard Stovall, a Memphis entertainment producer who grew up on the aforementioned Stovall Plantation—Muddy Waters's old stomping grounds. "You guys are insane. Man, you couldn't pay me to get in there!"

"And a fine 'fuck you' to you, too," I say.

I settle into the water, which is bracingly cold. I feel my heart pound, my skin tingle, my nerves race. I look across the channel to the Tennessee bank, clothed in a vegetational haze. Down here at river height, it suddenly seems a whole lot farther away than it did when I was standing up.

"OK, let's do this," Roehm says, and then we start swimming, following his lead.

For the first 30 yards or so, we swim through slackwater that's very easy going. Then we cross a distinct line of demarcation and hit the main channel, and suddenly we're fired downstream as if out of a cannon. It's impossible to fight this current even for a second. Any destination I might aim for on the far bank is now meaningless. I just have to let the flow carry me along and try to angle off it ever so slightly.

Lucky for us, Ruskey has shrewdly picked a crossing where the main channel shifts from the Arkansas side to the Tennessee side in a direct and pronounced swirl—which is to say, the current is moving in our favor. It's unnerving, at first, to be swept along by something so powerful, but after surrendering to it, I feel an intense exhilaration, as though I'm on a midway ride.

Soon we're scattered by the flow, and each of us swims alone, finding his own rhythm. The water surface is ripply and agitated now, slapping with crosscurrents, surging with boils. I can feel the river pressing in on all sides, grappling with me, trying to decide how best to deal with the impertinence of my presence. I recall something Ruskey told me several days ago. On fair days in the Grand Canyon, he said, you might find the Colorado River registering 10,000 cubic feet of flow per second. Here, the Mississippi is likely flowing at about 750,000.

Out in the middle of these 75 Colorados, I lose all sense of the current's velocity. At times, I think I'm not moving at all, but then I look back at the bank and see that, on the contrary, I'm hauling ass—effortlessly sliding down the nation's gullet.

"Sharpen your angle and pick up the pace!" Ruskey yells from the Ladybug. "There's a bad eddy down there on the Tennessee side—you'll want to make shore well before then."

"OK," I yell back. "But can you take these useless pieces of shit?" When Ruskey paddles by, I chuck my flippers into the canoe.

I dig in a little deeper—barefoot now and fully exposed to any lurking alligator gars. The river tastes like all rivers do: slightly metallic, alive with nutrients, a faint and not unpleasant hint of algae and fish. I don't know if dioxin has a flavor, but my taste buds aren't picking up anything funny— no tannic notes of Monsanto, no satiny finish of Dow.

What's unusual, though, is the grit. I've never swum in water this clouded with sediment, all that northern dirt flowing south. It is, of course, just that—good, clean dirt—but it works into my eyes, coats my tongue and nostrils, and crunches in between my clenched molars. In the old days, river pilots used to pride themselves on drinking a stout glass of this granular stuff every day, for good health. Nature's Metamucil!

Underwater, the sound is like a thousand bowls of Rice Krispies all popping at once. This, I conclude, must be the sound of untold tons of sediment tumbling on the river bottom, a great churning cloud somewhere below me.

It's 15 minutes into the swim, and I'm making good progress now. My home state—or, more specifically, some uninhabited place in Tennessee marked on Army Corps maps as Cedar Point—is drawing close. For me, this is a good, brisk workout, but if there's a feat in swimming across the Mississippi River, it's a feat more psychic than physical, more conceptual than aerobic. Any half-decent swimmer can do it.

Still, I hear myself chuckling. I can't believe I'm out here, doing this most exotic thing, which is also, given my background, the most obvious thing. It's as if I were some guy from Pamplona deciding, perhaps a little late in life, to go ahead and run with those demented bulls. I'm swimming across the Mississippi River! And I'm feeling strangely at home, as though I'm meant to be here, as though it belongs to me and I to it. There's joy in facing a natal fear—and in learning that, for today, at least, the river's not going to up and kill me.

I crawl toward the thickety bank, where stands of willow and cypress are choked in muscadine vine. Then, with my left hand, I touch the Great State of Tennessee. Total time from shore to shore: 27 minutes, and we've drifted nearly a mile downstream in the crossing. Roehm and Spearman have already made it in, a few minutes ahead of me. Soon River Jesus paddles by and, one by one, we pull ourselves into the Ladybug.

I look back toward Arkansas and savor my accomplishment. I'm pleasantly exhausted, coughing up a little river water and tugging on my neck for signs of an incipient goiter.

"Well, awwwrahhhht," Ruskey says. "Now the river is within you."

"It is, John—literally," I say, crunching on sand. "And I thanketh you."

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