Several thousand white-beaked coots covered the water when we arrived at the landing at the silky cusp of nightfall. When we shoved off, they did too, with wings over the water that sounded like muffled firecrackers.
We left the two-mile harbor of Rosedale, Miss., like four fugitives, under a darkness occasionally broken by the sweep of towboat spotlights. Their propellers churned domes of mud up the narrow channel as they moved the fruits of the rich Delta earth onto riverbound barges. The owl hoots and insect choruses of the forest were covered by motor sounds, beeps, gurgles and men shouting. John and Mike kept near the woods, letting the rushes and bank weeds creak and scratch the bellies of our canoes. The ripply reflection of the towboats covered the water in yellows and reds.
When we made our quick turn up the Mississippi, all went still and dark. The narrow harbor channel expanded into an openness that rivals the ocean. A panorama of nothing but water surrounds you for miles in three directions. Nightfall widened the space even further, beyond the visible. The space absorbed the buzz behind us into motionlessness. And you never would have known that the force of several Niagara Falls was rolling in the water beneath the canoe. We paddled up the quiet river behind frosty breaths and looked for a sandy spot to make a quick camp.
Like a rock thrown in the water, the circumnavigation of Big Island had begun, perhaps the first circumnavigation by canoe since this area was abandoned by the Quapaw people.
Big Island is the original Crossroads. It is perhaps the most dynamic mixing place in the Lower Mississippi River Valley, an expansive, watery no-man's-land carved out by the meeting of three rivers: the White, the Arkansas, and the Mississippi. It creates one of the largest roadless areas in the Mid-South. When any two bodies of water meet, worlds collide and new worlds are born. But Big Island is the unlikely spot where three big rivers come together. Its dirt tells the story of waters that have crossed paths, intertwined, braided, jumped banks, traded mouths, and swapped channels for thousands of years. The result is a labyrinth of water, sediment, and forest, once tangle-y and lawless enough to harbor gamblers, moonshiners, and river pirates. It saw the passage of peoples, from Quapaws to French Voyageurs, from Blue Coats to Red Coats, from pioneers to pilgrims. Today, it's rife with bears and bugs and great-grandfather trees that make it a perfect playground for adventurers and a perfect classroom for nature-starved kids.
John Ruskey and Mike Clark know firsthand the need for experiential learning. And they know Mother Nature's potential as a powerful teacher. Ruskey, the owner of Clarksdale-based Quapaw Canoe Co., has run an after-school apprenticeship program for 15 years. He lets the Mississippi River teach his "Mighty Quapaws" the lessons that their underserved neighborhoods might leave off. Clark, a veteran educator, began his career in a Chicago high school in the 1980s, where he bore witness to two decades of inner-city violence. After relocating to St. Louis, he found a sparkling-fresh classroom to teach in: the Mighty Mississippi.
Ruskey and Clark teamed up in 2002 with the Big River and Circumnavigation projects to get the feet of our next generation muddier. "Leave No Child on Shore" could be their credo. Their first collaboration was a 2,500-mile odyssey down the Missouri River in a dugout canoe. Since then, they've organized yearly expeditions around a chosen geographic landscape that would be broadcast into classrooms. With solar energy and satellite Internet, the environment and the classroom come together, and students can join the expedition as virtual voyageurs through photos, writings, water-quality samples, and GPS mapping from the field. The kids see their hometown river through a lens that beautifies it rather than demonizes it.