To see more images of Hodding Carter's 300-mile ride down the Mississippi at flood stage, check out guide John Ruskey's blog at Deltabohemian.com.
“John, I’m totally getting you and this river,” Chris said enthusiastically. “It’s definitely gotten inside my head. Making me rethink my priorities. I want more of it.…”
“Yeah,” John replied, “It’ll do that to you. I have to get out here. Alone, if possible.” Then he invited Chris to come back and apprentice himself as a guide.
I slept like a stone, until, hours later, the scruffy pig returned. Perhaps attracted by my ripening river essence, he skittered over my sleeping bag, back to reclaim his turf.
THE FOLLOWING DAY was just as grand, with the river thundering along at two million cubic feet per second, a volume capable of filling the Louisiana Superdome in 50 seconds. Fifteen miles south of Greenville, we tied off to a floating 40-foot willow tree fluttering with spring leaves and ended up covering ten miles during lunch. We were now less than 15 miles from Vicksburg, where the river, nearing its crest, was washing onto city streets and forcing residents to flee their homes. The main levee was holding, but what about the backwater levees and floodplains they protected? With that in mind, we canoed into the woods late that afternoon.
We were following an old river passage called Forest Home Chute. As we paddled through flooded stands of hardwoods, the trees formed a single intertwined canopy stocked with thousands upon thousands of songbirds. At times we had to repeat ourselves to override their mesmerizing, almost deafening, calls. Paul Hartfield, a local biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, had told me years earlier, as we canoed very near this area, that these woods depend on periodic flooding to thrive. Thick with sycamores, oaks, and sweet pecans, bottomland forests like these can then support migratory birds, from the endangered Bachman’s warbler to the recovering bald eagle. Maybe the birds were celebrating the crest.
Around 6 P.M., we came upon two southern hackberry trees, their smooth white bark lit by the setting sun. They were bare of limbs for a good 15 feet above the river’s surface, shielded from the main channel by hundreds of yards of swell-dampening trees and spaced a perfect ten feet apart. We strung two hammocks, one about eight feet up and another about four feet lower. John had decided to stay in the canoe, no matter how many times we pointed out the abundance of space. Once I was safely tucked in, I wanted the night to last forever. How often do you sleep with only a thin sheet of nylon and two feet of willow-scented air separating you from our largest river at its most powerful state in a century?
If the Mississippi was a little bit of heaven, then our destination six miles inland, the Yazoo Backwater Area, was surely a taste of hell. The Yazoo used to be beautiful and clear, but these days it’s a muddy drainage ditch loaded with agricultural chemicals. It’s also a pawn in a high-stakes battle between entrenched foes fighting over the lower Delta. For years, the Corps and its local supporters have been trying to install the world’s second-largest drainage pumps in this sparsely populated 4,000-square-mile basin, even as U.S. Fish and Wildlife has been restoring tens of thousands of previously farmed acreage to wetlands. Simply put, this place is a mess.
We’d have to zigzag in, following Forest Home Chute to Paw Paw Chute and crossing a small oxbow lake to reach the Yazoo River, its flow now reversed by the surging waters of the Mississippi. From there it was just down a short canal to the backwater levees and the Steele Bayou floodgates, the last line of defense protecting these lowest of lands.