Story by Matt Tyler
As a boy, I wanted to know everything I could about the Mississippi River. I wanted to walk in the footsteps of Catfish John and share a weather-beaten raft with Huck Finn. I grew older, as we all do, and I realized the world had changed. While the river was still wild, the folks who plied its waters had become decidedly less so.
Then I heard about John Ruskey.
Ruskey’s first encounter with the Mississippi River is the stuff of legend. A self-proclaimed river rat and the owner of Quapaw Canoe Company in Clarksdale, Ruskey became acquainted with the river, and the Magnolia State, in a most unusual manner.
“I came down the Mississippi after high school graduation in 1982. My best friend and I built a 12-by-24 foot homemade raft and came down the big river out of Minnesota,” Ruskey said. “My first entrance to Mississippi was on the big river on a raft.”
Their raft eventually broke apart and left them stranded on a sandbar, but Ruskey was hooked on the river. He arrived in Clarksdale searching for someone who could teach him to play the blues, but he never lost his fascination for the mighty river that lay to the west of his new home.
“I founded Quapaw in 1998. I started taking people out one-at-a-time years before that in the 90s. I was the curator at the Delta Blues Museum for a while, and when people came to town, one out of every ten wanted to see the Mississippi River. There was no way to get there and no one to help them get to all of the pretty places on it. I’d say sure, ‘I’ll take you out there.’” “That’s kind of how Quapaw was born.”
From those humble beginnings, Quapaw has expanded to become the premier canoeing outfit on the lower Mississippi. With outposts in Clarksdale, Helena, Arkansas, St. Louis, Missouri and one opening in Natchez in April, Ruskey’s outfit and associated outposts can cater to the need of anyone seeking to see the big river, whether they are experienced paddlers or well-heeled international tourists.
“Our business has grown because of the popularity of the river and the increasing surge, especially amongst Americans, to reconnect with nature,” Ruskey said. “We do kayaking and stand-up paddle-boarding, as well as canoeing. We go pretty much according to our client’s schedule, but we do have some planned trips.”
Using 30-foot voyager style canoes, Quapaw guides can take clients as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. It is on these long trips that Ruskey believes the river really begins to work its magic.
“The best trips are the long ones,” Ruskey said. “The simple reason is every day you spend under the stars and in the wild, you become closer and closer to the river and nature. The more time you spend out there, the more you start to see and feel, and the more interesting things become.”
Helping people connect to the natural world is a passion of his, and Quapaw Canoe Company’s Mighty Quapaw after-school program teaches Clarksdale youth skills such as paddling, swimming, canoe making and river guiding. It also allows Ruskey to tackle what he considers one of the great contradictions of the Delta.
“Here we are in this landscape created and carved by water and still ruled by water in some way, and there is still so much paranoia about the big river,” Ruskey said.
He has proven adept at helping people to conquer this paranoia, though. All but two of his current guides came up through the Mighty Quapaw program, and along with the many Clarksdale youth he has introduced to the water, Ruskey has helped countless clients learn to feel comfortable while paddling one of the world’s great rivers.
After all, what Ruskey really wants is for people to get out of their house and reconnect with the outdoors. And you don’t have to canoe the Mississippi River for that to happen,
“Anyone can learn to canoe,” Ruskey said. “You don’t have to be a rich man to be able to get out on the water and get to places that no one else can get to. It is quiet, peaceful and it will immediately reconnect you back to those things you forget about when you are screaming down the highway.”
[For more on Quapaw Canoe Company and John Ruskey, check out island63.com and rivergator.org.]