This past Sunday was the best day of my summer. No question.
My friends and I arrived at the Quapaw Canoe Company in Clarksdale in the afternoon, equipped with watermelon, granola bars, bug spray and copious amounts of sunscreen. I had little to no expectations for the rest of the day, but boy, the Quapaw staff knows how to make a good first impression. Ivy grips the walls of the old brick building they operate out of, which they’ve converted into a hostel for weary travelers. We stepped through the wooden door frame into the main room, which used to be an old bar, to find chandeliers made from tree limbs, a family of hammocks, and a circular bookshelf which housed encyclopedias and works from Beat Generation writers. They stowed our packed dinners into coolers and led us downstairs to the loading deck.
As we were walking towards the stairs, my friend Jacob and I heard laughter from behind us. We turned to see Mark, a brawny river guide whose dreadlocks barely escaped from underneath his ball cap, grinning eagerly. We quickly realized we were about to walk into a storage closet.
“I was gonna let y’all figure it out,” he chuckled as he hauled our cooler down the stairs. We met the rest of the crew down by the canoe.
The driver’s name was Ellis. If you looked up “smooth” in the dictionary, I’m pretty sure you’d find a picture of this guy. He was probably in his mid 50s or 60s with long, black, curly hair that hung from behind his cowboy hat. A pair of black aviators rested on his face, as did a tidy black mustache. He wore a crisp collared shirt tucked neatly into a shiny belt, long slacks and dark boots. The brother of famous Clarksdale blues muscian Super Chikan, Ellis is known for his suave dancing, which he confidently demonstrated for us.
Chris was a young Boston College graduate originally from New Orleans. He had long brown hair; a scruffy beard lined his jaw. As he shook our hands, he flashed his big smile and pearly white teeth. I don’t know that I’ve ever met someone who gave off a more authentic, genuine, free spirit vibe than Chris did.
The leader of this eclectic crew, owner and founder of the Quapaw Canoe Company, was John Ruskey. He had a long, greying beard and wore a skin-tight swim shirt that was some kind of compromise between tribal and floral print. He was an unforgettable character for sure, but I’ll get to that later.
We loaded all of our gear into the magnificent twelve-seater canoe that they built themselves. According to Chris, building that canoe was one of the most beautiful processes in the world. All eleven of us piled into their SUV, which was dressed in bumper stickers that read things like “Eco Warrior” and “Leave No Trace.” A dreamcatcher hung from the rear-view window and the front headrests were decorated with Hawaiian print. A feeling of familiar comfort blanketed my soul as I was reminded of coffee shops and farmers markets in Carrboro. My thoughts were interrupted by the slam of the trunk; Mark, Chris and John were crunched up in the very back of the old SUV.
“We can fit more people in our canoe than in this car,” John muttered as the engine sputtered into gear.
We lugged the canoe on a trailer behind us for about fifteen miles, past the levee, until we reached a serene grove of trees which led to the muddy bank of the Mississippi.
Mark hopped into the first seat at the stern and John took his place at the rear, our captain for the day. Jacob, Joanna, Jacqui, Rachel, Mehul and I, plus Chris and a journalist from Germany, filled the remaining seats, two in each row. We pushed off from the bank and began to paddle.
In order to keep from colliding paddles with Chris, who was in front of me, I had to synchronize each row with his. We whisked through the muddy water with brisk, harmonized strokes. I stared downstream and was immediately awed by the vast, tremendous river.
At some point, we passed a group of people in baseball caps lounging on the bank with their ATVs.
“Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!” one of them yelled.
“Hoo-wee!” Chris howled back. “When the river rat meets the redneck…” he said, smiling as we resumed our unvarying rhythm.
We veered off into a back channel behind an island, where lush plants lined the riverside. Willows hung over the edge of the water, swinging in the wind.
“Okay, here’s where you can swim!” John yelled as he dove into the water. Chris joined him, completing a front flip off the side of the canoe. Jacqui, Joanna and Rachel followed, leaping into the water to cool off under the hot Mississippi sun.
Mark turned to his right and started laughing. John was sprinting through the woods, filled with jubilation. He returned to the canoe breathing heavily and with a two-foot rip in his sleeve.
“Hoo-wee!” he yelled.
I spent most of the next hour or so listening to Chris and the German journalist talk about music, literature, and to my amusement, energy policy. I interjected to make a couple points, but I really just felt like listening. At some point, the conversation reached Beyoncé (as it always should) and the journalist asked if Beyoncé was a common name in the United States, or if it was made up, since “it is common for that ethnic group to make up names… like LaQuisha.”
A little taken aback, Chris smiled and countered, “Yeah… it’s kind of bullshit here when white people make fun of black people’s names.” He proceeded to tell a story about a “bad-ass” schoolteacher of his who chewed out a white student for making fun of a black student’s name.
The teacher said, “Carly? Carly? What kind of a unique name is Carly? Your name isn’t unique at all.” Naturally, I brought “James Smith” to his attention, and we all laughed. The progressive attitudes of this diverse group of river guides was refreshing, especially in a part of the country where racism is definitely still alive and very real.
At this point it was probably about seven o’clock, though I didn’t have my phone or my watch so I had no idea. We floated up to the shore of a massive sandbar in the middle of the river for a dinner break. After a mud fight and a brief swim, we settled down on the beach in a circle and unpacked our dinners as the sun began to set over the looming clouds of an impending thunderstorm. John pulled out a guitar and started to sing. Everything was so perfect. The moon suddenly appeared over the gentle curve of the wooden canoe. It was so bright and full I thought it was going to burst.
I picked up a stick of bamboo, jabbing it into the earth as I walked across the cool sand. Through the brush, I saw Chris doing a hand stand on the other side of the island. I strolled over and to my surprise, he asked about my tattoo. We started talking about life and school and all sorts of things. He told me that not many locals go out on the river with them.
“There’s a specific type of person who comes out here. They have to seek it out,” he said. He told me about some of the interesting characters he’s met out on the river, and how this was supposed to just be a summer job.
I admire Chris so much for doing what he does. He’s just another college grad, but he actually did something he wanted to do with his life. He didn’t change his major to fit the requirements for some fancy job, or sell himself out for the money. Everyone says they want to do things, like move to the mountains, or travel the world, but they never do it. Ever. He decided against going back for grad school and instead moved from Boston to Clarksdale and became a river rat on the Great Mississippi. That doesn’t make him a failure or a screw-up, and it doesn’t mean he’ll do this for his entire life. It makes him real, that’s what it makes him.
We all got back into the boat as the sun was about to set. It was no longer visible over the clouds, but shining just enough to make the sky glow. Behind us, the scene was so picturesque. Everything had been painted beautiful, varying shades of blue, from the water, to the trees, to the clouds in the sky.
Chris started playing an old canvas drum. Knock knock DONG, knock knock DONG! The sound reverberated across the water with such ease. He handed the drum to Joanna and her face lit up with excitement. Beaming, she continued the slow, methodic beat. I coordinated my rowing with the rhythm of the drum. Chris lit a small wooden torch, tied together with rubber bands. He held it above his head so we could all smell the sweet, earthy smell of the burning plant.
As it got darker, we put away the instruments and the guides got out head lights. Suddenly, we saw some frantic movement on the left side of the canoe, right near Chris’ oar. He jumped and everyone froze for an instant. Slowly, John’s head emerged from the water, hootin’, hollerin’ and cackling at his practical joke.
“You got me again!” Chris exclaimed, still a bit flustered. We all laughed.
At that moment, we heard a loud crack of thunder. A storm was coming. Flashes of lightning illuminated the sky and the boat began to sway. It was still somewhat light outside when it began to rain. John told everyone to stop paddling and we soaked up the moment, sitting together in the canoe, rain dripping down our bodies.
All the light finally disappeared and a wave of cool darkness kissed our sun-soaked faces. The river seemed so tranquil for awhile, like the stern was breaking a film of stillness when it pierced through the water.
We chatted amongst ourselves and sang songs, but at some point everyone made an unspoken and collectively unanimous decision to row in silence. It was one of the most relaxing, unbelievable experiences of my life, and I still don’t really know why. I sat crisscross-applesauce with one foot resting on the side of the canoe and the other on top of the cooler between Mehul and I. I stopped rowing and put my right hand over the side of the boat, feeling the water between my fingers. My breaths were steady and deep. It started raining again. Really hard. I turned my face up to the sky. There was something so powerful about that moment, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to put it into words.
Before I knew it, we were back on the muddy bank. The next half hour or so I was kind of in a trance. I kept to myself. I remember walking off towards the woods when our guides were loading everything back up and strapping it down to the trailer. I was listening to all of the insects and I remember them being so loud. Like I was in the middle of the crowd at a rock concert. Without thinking, I started picking up trash and water bottles that people had tossed into the grass. I put it all in my lunch box.
As we drove back, I started coming down from my natural high, back to reality. We said our goodbyes to the river rats, thanking them for everything. Seriously, if you are ever anywhere near Clarksdale, Mississippi, please go on these guys’ river tour. It was exceptional.
My friends and I finished the night with dessert at McDonald’s. In case you didn’t know, the McDonald’s in the Cleveland, Mississippi (the town I’ve been living in for the past 2 months) is the most frequently visited McDonald’s in the Southeast United States. Take that as you may, but my dipped cone was fantastic.