From sleeping in shotgun shacks virtually unchanged since cotton-pickin’ days to living with nature on the legendary Ol' Man River, Mississippi is a world away from America’s better-known states
Gary hooked his fingers into the belt loops of his faded Wranglers and surveyed our group against the backdrop of the Mississippi and the mountain of supplies gradually lowering the canoe further and further into the brown fast-moving water.
A scriptwriter would be hard pressed to have come up with a better character than the gamekeeper with his straggly beard, battered moccasins and slo-mo Deep Southern drawl who emerged - stage left and unannounced - out of the woods. He assessed the situation, paused then uttered the immortal line, “Y’all must be nuts”, and wandered off.
Although none of us dared admit it at the time his synopsis summed up our collective thoughts. Cloudy childhood images of Huckleberry Finn were nothing compared to the reality of seeing the mighty Mississippi for the first time. The 26ft canoe, which had seemed large on top of John Ruskey’s 1956 Chevrolet truck, suddenly looked like a toy boat dwarfed on the edge of a huge expanse of water. Sections of the Mississippi are more than a mile wide and only sandbars, vegetation and forests break the sweeping landscape of water and sky.
In 1998 John, the former curator of the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, started the Quapaw Canoe Company to share his passion for the river with fellow travellers and give them a rare opportunity to see this little-known part of America from a completely different, and natural, perspective. The first person to run canoe trips, or ‘floats’, on the Lower Mississippi, John and his crew will tailor-make itineraries from day trips to extended adventures for those wanting to camp out for up to three weeks.
Each expedition is different depending on conditions. We soon discovered life is lived on ‘river time’ and the Mississippi dictates whether you will go slow, fast or be forced to head to the nearest bank to escape sudden, and often dramatic, changes in weather conditions. Half an hour after we set off in bright sunshine the smooth river surface had been whipped into white-topped waves breaking over the top of the canoe and we had to set up camp much earlier than planned.
To outsiders, the Mississippi is undoubtedly shrouded in romance, a view perpetuated by the Delta Queen Steamboat Company, which takes trippers on stately cruises. But we were experiencing the river as native settlers first discovered it, a massive ever-changing volume of water that instils a sense of apprehension in many locals and elicits views and warnings similar to those of the taciturn gamekeeper.
But John is a veritable Mississippi veteran, having navigated the river from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Whilst we experienced adventure and adrenaline in equal measures, we never felt in any danger, as safety is paramount. Under John's watchful eye we even started to ‘read’ the river and take a course to avoid hidden underway hazards, eddies and whirlpools. Carried along by the current, and in winds of up to 25mph, we were able to take welcome rests from paddling and enjoy the unfolding scenery.
Evocative words like bayou and levee come to life against a natural habitat where inhabitants include bears, deer, coyote, beaver and possum. One day we were surrounded by hundreds of darting swallows, the next the unforgettable sight of a flock of giant pelicans, with 7ft wingspans, taking off in our path. The journey took us deep into expanses of untouched wilderness, where the only running water comes from the river and you live and eat with whatever you carry on the canoe.
Each day John and his team set up camp, lit a fire and cooked up amazing meals, and as night fell John would get out his guitar and sing the blues. Every morning a huge breakfast of bacon, eggs, cranberry pancakes and maple syrup added extra inches to squeeze into our wetsuits.
On our last day, when we paddled 48 miles, we stopped at Mounds Crevasse. It was here the Mississippi breached the levee in 1927 and created the greatest flood disaster in American history, leaving one million homeless and creating an inland ocean 60 miles wide and 100 miles long. This part of America is well off the tried and tested tourist trail and a world away from the rather superficial themed attractions we have come to know and love.
Back on dry land, accommodation ranges from five-star hotels to cheap motels on characterless highways, but one place that defies categorisation is the Shack Up Inn, providing B&B (bed and beer) on the former Hopson cotton plantation at Clarksdale, site of the world’s first automated cotton-picker.
Lodgings include two original plantation workers' houses or shotgun shacks, so called because any passing bullets would go straight through the front door and out of the back. They've been restored just enough to accommodate 21st-century expectations, and co-owner James Butler seems to have worked on the theory that one man’s junk is another man’s recyclable treasure. The result is an amazing and eclectic collection of memorabilia that overflows into all the rooms and adjoining commissary building, used for blues concerts. Old barber’s chairs, church pews, medicine bottles, clothes, typewriters, cars, shop dummies, moonshine stills, homespun folk art and dog-eared photos are among the thousands of items that make one of the most unconventional and unintentional museums of social history.
Outside, broken mirrors and ‘bottle trees’ deter evil spirits, and the obligatory creaking rocking chairs on the porch provided the perfect place for us to relax, after the first hot shower in a week, and exchange tales of the riverbank.
Mississippi may miss out on tourists who flock to other parts of the States but the home of the blues has so much to offer. John Ruskey is also an artist and his hand-illustrated map and narrative of our canoe adventure was just one lasting memento of a trip where the memories will also last a lifetime.
Continental Airlines flies to Memphis from several UK airports, with fares starting from around £442. America As You Like It offers a seven-night Mississippi tour, plus car hire and insurance, from around £700 per person.
The Quapaw Canoe Company offers a range of flexible, tailor-made expeditions from Clarksdale and self-guided adventures from Helena, Arkansas. Prices for expeditions start at around £80 per person, per day, based on a group of six, and including meals, canoe and camping equipment.
Where to stay
Shotgun shacks cost from £40 to £52 (depending on the shack) per night on weekdays, and £52 to £62 at weekends, based on two sharing. All the shacks have a bathroom, coffee maker, microwave and fridge and some have kitchens.