This is a guest post by “Wolfie” Chris Staudinger, who is “learning and living on the Mississippi River with the Quapaw Canoe Company in Clarksdale, MS. One day, he will move back to his homeplace of Lower Louisiana and establish a community of houseboats and container homes on stilts.”
There are certain moments on the River that shine more brightly than others. When they happen, they’re sharp like dreams. It’s like the energy of the earth surges, rises from its core, and lights up something very small. Ditches, low fogs, rocks, and other unremarkable things become geysers of this glow.
They make me sad or excited or nostalgic for something long gone like a holly bush that I used to hide in when I was five years old.
It’s hard to relive or relate one of these small moments. And because of that, it becomes difficult to tell other people why it is that I spend so much time on the River.
“Well,” I shrug, “It’s the willows.”
“The willows?” they say, and their eyebrows arch dubiously. I squirm. “They move in a strange way.”
A couple of weeks ago, I had one of these feelings. I was out with a group of river people surveying the near-record low water. I was walking around after a long day of paddling feeling the way you might feel after work or school, when five o’clock comes, the sun gets weak, and a twinge of boredom creeps in while food simmers on the stove. There’s indecision of where to go next, both in your head and in that hard, darkening light.
We were on Willow Island near Vicksburg, Mississippi. It’s different from the other islands of the Mississippi, which tend to hover low over the water and sit off to the side, almost indistinguishable from the mainland.
Willow Island, on the other hand, sits on a very narrow channel, so that it looks much more isolated. And it has a fifty-foot high white sand bluff at its center, which makes it stand tall like a statue of a squat man with a big proud chest.
I learned that the island had changed dramatically during the record high water of 2011. A channel had once crossed the far end of the island and was now filled in. A new one was carved out. I began walking to that end of the island, towards a lone stand of tall trees right at the edge.
Young, bushy willows cover the top of the big bluff, where I was camped. During the autumn, their leaves dry up brown and curve like dead fingers. When they fall, they make a brittle carpet that massages the bottoms of your feet. I followed the brown carpet, surrounded completely by these wispy willows that felt more like Christmas trees than their stern, tall fathers. I can linger in these stands, staring, for chunks of time, watching these mysterious villages move in the way that only they can describe.
They surround you. They give off a bittersweet aroma. They creak in the wind.
The forest opened up into a very green, very still lagoon, which could have been carved by last year’s flood.
It’s a “blue hole.”
They’re carved out of the ground during flood stage when the river becomes angry and crashes into a bank. The lip of earth makes like a ramp and lifts the water up onto the land beyond. When the water falls, it falls hard, and it keeps falling for days until the flood crest passes. The force of the falling water creates a tumbling action that can dig craters 200 feet deep into the earth.
A day earlier, we had passed Mounds Landing, where the River broke through its banks in the Great Flood of 1927. The breach ultimately flooded about a fifth of the state of Mississippi. John Barry puts the levee break neatly into perspective:
“It was an immense amount of water. The crevasse at Mounds Landing poured out 468,000 second-feet onto the (Yazoo-Mississippi) Delta, triple the volume of a flooding Colorado, more than double a flooding Niagara Falls, more than the entire upper Mississippi ever carried.”
It left a blue hole that couldn’t be measured at the time because it was too deep.
Today, the lake spans sixty-five acres.
The lagoon on Willow Island was motionless. There were no signs of crashing waters. A line of brush encircled it into a sanctuary. The main channel of the river was several hundred yards away.
The island’s belly, with its bluff and lagoon, is separated from its foot by a wide, uninterrupted plane of sand, and I started running. It wasn’t for exercise. Something just said, “Go get in that space.”
Molehill dunes and pelican feathers blurred on the sand beneath me. Feet made a chirping noise in the sand, chest heaved with all that air. And then I was there. I stopped at the shallow ravine that, one year ago, was a channel full of water. On its other side was a different space: what once was an island within an island.
The willows here were much older. They were tall and wobbly like long legged schoolgirls. They were sparse, spread out, weathered and beaten. Roots were exposed where ground had been pulled from beneath them. Some leaned at dangerous, improbable angles. Some had fallen. Goose feathers dotted the ground, but no birds sat in the high branches. Everything was quiet save my breathing and the creak of the swaying trees.
The low hanging sun colored everything peach. I walked through the tuft of trees to see what was on the other side of the ridge that fell towards the backwater. Deer, turtles, and beavers sometimes prefer those boatless, calmer waters.
I looked over the slope, and the sand was orange with the sun. The backwater was muddy and almost dry. I started walking back to camp, but I turned to look again at those old willows. I saw watermelons at their feet. A whole patch of big, prizeworthy melons.
They were so perfectly still and tiny on that big river that I could do nothing but stand and look at them. Their silence was overwhelming. I was in a nursery.
They were like newborns, hovered over by some invisible mother. About fifteen of them lay in grave-like divots on the soft sand. They were connected by thin, drying vines that still coursed with energy. A November warmth spoiled them.
It felt like stealing from a church. Or kidnapping. But I snapped two vines. I picked them up and left the rest with the big gray willows.
Should you wish to join “Wolfie” Chris Staudinger or read his writings, [email protected] is his email.
In 2010 i spent five days on the Mississippi River with captain John Ruskey from the Quapaw Canoe Company, based in Clarksdale, Mississippi and over the river at Helena in Arkansas. If you want to see a place that is wild and beautiful beyond dreams you cannot go wrong with a trip on the Mississippi with the Quapaw crew.
You can see my account of that trip here.