Its February 1983 in the middle of the Mississippi River and John Ruskey is about to die over a game of chess.
His opponent is his best friend, Sean Howe, and yet despite being on a homemade raft in the middle of the largest, most powerful and, perhaps, most dangerous river in North America, the duo are not presently concerned with navigation. They have passed through the treacherous bridge supports outside Memphis with no problem. The river is currently a mile wide. No reason to watch the water. “A mile wide-river!” Ruskey remembers. “How are you going to hit anything in a mile-wide river? But we did.”
Ruskey and Howe had forgotten about a 350-foot tower right in the middle of that mile-wide river. Distracted by the game, they ran right into it. The raft disintegrated. Ruskey was thrown to one side of the tower, Howe to the other. The two drifted several hundred yards in the freezing water with no raft, no plan and no chance. “Eventually we pulled together some pieces and recovered some items,” Ruskey remembers. “We hung on for dear life and were lucky enough to float down to an island.”
There they landed, exhausted, dripping and hypothermic. They were stuck on a muddy island with no food or water, and night fast approaching. It was Ruskey’s first time in Mississippi. “Lord knows how we survived that night. It was a horrible night. We both probably should have died. You can get crazy when you’re hypothermic — removing clothes and other things.” In the cold and in the dark, Ruskey made a deal. “I said to the river,” he says, “get me through this night and I will dedicate my life to the river. It was kind of a marriage proposal of sorts.”
It was an accepted one that brought the Coast Guard the next morning. Ruskey got another day and the river got the Quapaw Canoe Company. It’s what Ruskey calls a “mission-based” business. That mission being to showcase the Mighty Mississippi in all its glory. There, from their two-building headquarters in downtown Clarksdale, Mississippi, Ruskey and his Quapaws, Mark “River” Peoples and Chris “Wolfie” Scaudinger, shine a spotlight on North America’s most famous winding waterway.
Ruskey is skinny, of average-height, and carries a shaggy salt-and-pepper mane matched with a two-inch beard. He’s soft-spoken but not shy, and there’s a lot of Lebowski in his mannerisms. “Wolfie” is taller, his long hair and beard a bright red. “River” is short and stocky; clean-shaven with twists.
Their origins are as varied as their appearances. Wolfie came to Quapaw from Boston College, and before that, New Orleans. River came from St. Louis after a New York-based NFL stint. The headquarters is a bohemian mix of, well, everything. Wolfie and River live in what used to be a bar called ‘The River’s Edge,’ above what was Ruskey’s first Clarksdale apartment. The River’s Edge used to keep Ruskey awake at night, and sent water and sewage running into his apartment. Now it houses his employees.
Not a ton of effort has been made to remove what remains of the club. Wolfie sleeps on the old bandstand, where he has dragged a mattress into a king-size tent. Around the tent are white paintings of jovial stick figures, modern cave art surrounding Wolfie’s sanctuary. The bar is still intact with its background mirror and liquor shelves, and light fixtures have been adorned with driftwood.
Next to the River’s Edge is the main building. Outside sits a massive log. It was brought there by the Levee Board as material for the next hollowed-out Quapaw canoe. It will be there for a while. The last hollowed-out canoe took three years to build. Inside there is a showroom, an apartment and two workshops. One is musty and open; the other is small and immaculate. It is in these workshops that the Quapaws build their voyager canoes with a modern meld of craftsmanship and technology, of wood and Kevlar that takes the better part of a year to complete.
And then there’s the basement, where all the elements of Ruskey hang out. Shelves of books crisscross the middle of a room lined with guitars, driftwood and canoeing gear. And they circle a small office with a neat stack of release forms and other business items that are certainly out-of-place within the other controlled chaos.
Here, they lead canoe tours 200 days out of the year, in addition to workshops for ecological education; camps for local kids; and their latest project, the River Gator, an interactive guide to the lower Mississippi. A popular 1800s book, the Navigator, written by Czech immigrant Zadok Cramer, inspired River Gator. It was the first full guide to the lower Mississippi, made to educate folks utilizing this new steamboat technology that was all the rage back then. River Gator is an interactive update in the same spirit but for paddling adventurers. And this is the base from which Ruskey, Wolfie and River live in a world surrounded by flowing water. Bring up the movies and you won’t hear about Iron Man 3 or Man of Steel. No, it’s Mud, about a former criminal living on the river — that’s what they’ll drive to Memphis to see. The books all have a purpose; kayaking, canoeing, wilderness guides, and of course, Huckleberry Finn is required reading.
From Colorado to Clarksdale
The Twain emphasis is Ruskey’s fascination and possibly obsession. Huck and Jim’s story inspired Ruskey and Howe to get on that raft in the first place. Ruskey was an 18-year-old kid from Colorado finishing his degree in Connecticut at a prestigious college prep school. But he wasn’t too interested in college. Instead, he and Howe packed some tools and hitchhiked to Minnesota, to the mouth of the Mississippi. “It wasn’t just about Twain,” Ruskey says, “I always liked water and maps. That big, blue curvy line spoke to me. But Sean and I did want to live like Jim and Huck for a while.”
And so they did. Two kids with some tools and a high school education found a spot on a sand bar behind a local bar. There, they spent two weeks gathering scrap from dumpsters and construction sites, eventually assembling a 12’x24’ raft that would be their transportation, safety and home for the next five months.
That’s how long it took to crash in Memphis. The act of building the raft doesn’t strike Ruskey as that unique. He cites a recent tour where some children, uninterested in lunch, stayed by the bank of island 62 (creatively named by Cramer) to collect driftwood. While the adults ate, the children gathered more wood and eventually fashioned a makeshift raft. “They didn’t have any training or anything,” River says of the kids. “And the thing floated pretty good.”
“Rafting’s just in our blood,” Ruskie replies. After the wreck, Ruskey “just kind of floated around North America” for a few years. He hitchhiked, played street music, climbed every mountain he could find and swam in every river. Eventually, he landed at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and left a few years later with a degree in Philosophy and Math.
Then, in 1992, he came to Clarksdale — not for the river though, at least not yet. “I came specifically to Clarksdale to learn to play the Blues,” he says. He apprenticed with a Blues musician named Mr. Johnny and volunteered at the Delta Blues Museum. Within a year, he was the named curator of the museum and became a staple player in town, appearing with several bands, including one led by Mississippi Junebug. But eventually the river called. In 1998, Ruskey left the museum and started Quapaw. The river had given him more than just one day and he needed to repay that kindness.
Beautiful and Full of Life
Ruskey calls Quapaw a “mission-based business” and that mission is “to share the beauty of the river.” That’s a tall order for the lower portion. In the two biggest cities in that section, Memphis and New Orleans, the common knowledge is plain. Stay out of that disgusting death trap.
Massive catfish, terrifying Garr, weird currents, boils and eddies, chiggers, snakes, poisonous everything, sewage and sludge, massive towboats and whatever else will make you sick, make you drown, make you die. “We don’t ignore the trash or the towboats or the danger,” Ruskey says. “It’s the most deadly river in North America by some statistics but those same statistics show that a lot of those deaths are from steamboat accidents or motorboat accidents involving alcohol.”
But it’s still kind of gross right? “We don’t ignore the trash or the towboats or the mud. It’s some of the gooiest, awfulest mud in America,” Ruskey says. “But it’s not ugly, it’s not a ditch and it’s not a trashed-out waterway. It’s beautiful and full of life.” Ruskey cites how he and his team often find mussel shells, a bottom-feeder indicative of a healthy water system, and he puts blame on city planning for some of the nastiness perception.
“In Memphis, you’ve got two sewage treatment plants—one above the city and one below President’s island,” he says. “And the one above the city brings that smell into two of the most visited Mississippi River Parks in the country at Mud Island and Riverside drive. So you have millions of people walking away thinking that’s what the Mississippi smells like.” And that’s a shame because, to Ruskey, the river doesn’t smell like that, it doesn’t feel like that, it doesn’t kill like that.
“It’s kind of like climbing the big mountain,” he says, “and when you go on a big climb you wouldn’t climb without some previous climbing experience and the right equipment. If you don’t know how to climb and tie knots, then you’d be a fool. It’s the same thing for someone to think they can get on the Mississippi in an inner tube with some beers. You do and you’re not coming out.”
Experience, preparation, the right vessel and the right equipment — those are Ruskey’s pillars of river safety, and it’s what he and his Quapaws provide to people on their tours. Because looking scared from the Memphis bank just doesn’t work for Ruskey.
“The best way to let someone experience what’s out there is in a kayak or a canoe and with a paddle in their hand,” Ruskey says. “I try not to do too much talking unless someone asks me a question. I try to let the river do the talking. That way people can let the river speak to them in their own way.
All we do is just get the people to the right spots.”
The right spots are places like Quapaw landing, where Ruskey usually starts his trips and for which the company is named. They are places like the levee break on island 63, where a visible waterline streaks across the willow trees, explaining the knee-deep mud that served as a Mississippi river bottom not long before. They are places like the blue hole just south of island 63, were the water jumped the levee and crashed down on the other side, leaving a kind of green mini pond.
The right spot is on the other side of an eddy, up a small inlet where dropping willow seeds look like snow in July. The right spot is a submerged willow canopy where Herons glide in and out. The right spot is especially island 64, a hulking mass of sand, mud and trees that looks as though another living person has never seen it. The banks are long and sand sinks to the calves. Further up the island, the ground is firmer, the shade darker and it is Ruskey’s favorite place to camp.
This is Ruskie’s home away from home, his most special place that he has the privilege of sharing with dozens of people every year. “When you show them that, when you let them see it, they have their own experience. Ninety-five percent of the people we take out return back to shore glowing with enthusiasm from this intimate outdoor experience.”
The experience is more intimate than they know. In 1999, the extra days granted to his raft mate, chess nemesis, co-survivor and best friend, Sean Howe, ran out. Ruskey made a special trip to island 64, and brought with him a driftwood plaque that read, “UTRAM BIBIS? ANDAM UN ANDAM?” It means, “Of which do you drink? Water or wave?”
He spread Howe’s ashes in off the bank, keeping him forever with the water, which, if you’re looking, is also where you’ll find Ruskey.
The lovely life of John Ruskey
Clarksdale’s own Huck Finn shares the Mississippi with the world
Story By Doug Gillon | Photos By Casey Hilder