Written by 1 Mississippi intern Mark in Mississippi*
As I return from the most “aquatastic” exploration in the history of my river life, I could not believe I’ve had the opportunity to experience and acknowledge the picturesque landscape known to man. This was the inaugural run of the River Gator, 30 years in the making, and it was epic.
The ecologic scenery incredible, but fleeting to humans, because it changes daily and nightly as we replenish our bo dies after a hard day paddling under the wild skies of the Lower Mississippi River Delta.
Last year at this time the Mississippi River was at flood stage, 50 feet higher. The miscellaneous islands, peninsulas, and sandbars were underwater, wildlife displaced and discarded, with only the animals with superior genetic instincts making it in to mainland. Many mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes were literally swept away and missed a year of offspring and reproduction.
It was incre dible to see the landscape usually covered with a perfectly camouflaged medium for the complex conglomerate of living organisms the river hides. It make me recall one of my favorite classic rock songs, “Horse With No Name,” by America. The lyric, “The ocean is a desert with its life underground / with a perfect disguise above,” can be applied to freshwater also. When the river is at low water, you can see the different levels of structure and landscape that are invisible 90 percent of the year. Most notable are the various exposed petrified stumps and root balls, failed manmade structures and large trees which provide habitat for various freshwater fish and invertebrates, making it challenging for predatory fish and human accessibility. During low water, the cycle of life is booming: replenishing, restoring, and balancing ecological diversities. There are not many places were you can experience freshwater, desert, grasslands, and deciduous forest in the same natural canvas.
The Creator always gives us mammals and other creatures of nature that we need. As the waters recede, blue holes and freshwater springs hold stranded fish, mostly filter feeders, leaving a “sushi smorgasbord” for water snakes, raccoons, coyotes, turtles, and other beach-combing predators looking for a easy meals. Great blue herons, egre ts, and cormorants stand side by side gorging themselves without any competitive instincts, knowing there’s plenty for all. Pelicans hover over shrinking holes gathering for their feast. Female least terns, on the verge of extinction, nest on sandbars while males bring them gifts of fish to win hearts. Kildeer nest on gravel beds at the confluences. Greater yellowlegs and fish crows work the shorelines chasing small fish while the belted kingfisher dives with stealth from the air. Like their ocean cousins, Mississippi map, mud, and red ears use the exposed dunes to lay eggs during the evenings, risking lives for the next generations with owls, kites, and bald eagles watching from above. Small rifts and tunnels flow into the channel full of frogs chasing sandflies and other insects attracting copperheads, cottonmouths, and various water snakes.
The channel narrows daily, continuously exposing remembrance of the shallow seas that covered the landscape long ago. The carcasses of ancient creatures create limestone deposits that filter the beautiful freshwater that we enjoy today. Rocks and mineral beds from tributaries such as the St. Francis, White, and Arkansas Rivers collect at the confluences to form gravel beds full of petrified mud, wood, and fossils from as far as southeast Missouri and Leadville, CO. Skipjack herring seem to leap out of the water being chased relentlessly by large, striped, hybrid, and white bass. Longnose and alligatorgar wait patiently at the sloughs of the oxbow lakes emptying back into the channel dispersing schools of gizzard shad. Fishermen on the surface seeking the delicious flesh of the blue, channel, flathead, and spoonbill catfish with floating contraptions and underwater nets.
The oxygen production of the temperate deciduous forest of cottonwoods and black willows fill my lungs, cleansing my bloodstream, refreshing my soul, reinvigorating my mind, creating creative thought processes needed to decipher the cycle of life occurring before my eyes. It’s great to be at top of the food chain. Orioles, cardinals, red-wind bla ckbirds, blue jays, flycatchers and nuthatchers simultaneously pluck the forest canopy of insect nymphs like kabobs while competing in song, making the forest an orchestral collaboration. Wild turkeys exchange calls fro m the willows, being perfectly camouflaged by the reflection of the sun off their translucent feathers. Deer tracts cover the grasslands and beaches, foraging on new growth and wild greens. The beavers have plenty of food but lack the protection of the receding, descending and evaporating river channel from predators.
I ponder our existence and positio n on the food chain as I sit admiring the geographical and geological settings at the mouth of the new channel the Arkansas River carved after the 2011 flood. As th e cottonwoods and black willows make it snow in June, I process these cycles of life, the checks and balances that keep our environment and lives stable and sustainable. The Quapaws chose this region to settle. Maybe for the diverse habitat, or the cool evening Rocky Mountain breeze which accompanies the sunset, or the strong electromagnetic fields present when I step foot on this sacred landscape.
Probably, all the above, I just take it all in knowing next time will look different as the cycle of life never stops.
Mark River Peoples
1 Mississippi Southern Region Intern
*Field Notes is a new series from the 1 Mississippi campaign, created and developed by our regional campaign interns as a means to encourage River Citizen engagement and to help our interns grow as environmental leaders.
Note: The River Gator Paddler’s Guide to the Lower Mississippi River went live on June 1st at www.rivergator.org.