Note: This is the fifth installment of my six-part blog series
“River Gator: Exploring the River, Expanding Ourselves,”
a recollection of my adventure on the Lower Mississippi River.

Ever since I was a girl, I have loved maps, especially when I saw the all-powerful “You are here” arrow or dot. There is something so nice about being put on the map – I AM THERE. Driving across the country with my family as a child, we used a good old-fashioned atlas, a collection of maps, to find our way. There were no GPS or Garmin robot voices telling us to turn left in 500 feet back then. That trip showed me the beauty of looking at a map to know where you are, but I also realized all the places I was not. It showed me how big the world was and how much exploring there was to do.

One of the fantastic things about maps is that as we learn more and the world changes, there is always a need for a new map. For example, as trade grew, so did the need for a map of the world. Muhammad al-Idrisi created the Tabula Rogeriana in 1154 by incorporating knowledge from merchants and explorers with information from traditional geographers to create the most accurate map of the world ever produced at the time. This map continued to be the most accurate map available for the next three centuries.

The Tabula Rogeriana

The Tabula Rogeriana

In our part of the world, one of the earliest maps of North America was created by Louis Hennepin. A missionary and explorer, Hennepin explored the Upper Mississippi and named the only waterfall on the Mississippi River after his patron saint, St. Anthony. Though he incorrectly identified California as an island, his rendering of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River Valley made a big impact on the future of our region. As different global powers sought to assert control over the New World in person they also competed with each other by identifying their claimed territory through maps.

1698 Louis Hennepin Map of North America

1698 Louis Hennepin Map of North America

Today, the Army Corp of Engineers maps the Mississippi River and shares this information with the public on their website, helping hundreds of River travelers navigate its meandering path. These maps are helpful, but limited.

That is where Rivergator comes in. The Rivergator website is home to a new atlas of maps focused on the Lower Mississippi River, from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico. The atlas organizes the River into six main sections, four of which are published; the very first and last sections are currently being created.

Written for paddlers by paddlers, each of the main sections are further broken down geographically through Google’s “My Maps” to illustrate the best locations for launching, camping and resupplying. They show the River’s current, warn travelers about specific dangers as well as show what back channels are accessible at particular water levels.

John Ruskey lays out Army Corps maps in the sand.

John Ruskey lays out Army Corps maps in the sand.

Rivergator is easy to interact with too; just click on a map to zoom into another section, and then click there to zoom in even further. It’s a great place to do preliminary exploring, get a feel for the big River and get inspired to jump in your canoe.

Imagined and led by the legendary River guide John Ruskey, and written with assistance from many of the great River Rats of the day, it’s as if you have all the best guides giving you advice on each stretch of River, and, essentially, you do.

Together they are creating a new resource to make the River more accessible than it has ever been.

I find myself looking at a map over and over, telling myself that, once I memorize it, I won’t need it any more. Yet again and again I pull it out and look it over, maybe just for the joy of seeing so much information illustrated. There are maps to help you find the beer at a music festival, the fire escape, buried treasure, the food court at the mall and the fastest route from point A to point B on city buses. Putting a name to a place allows you to talk about it with other people. Maps can even give us a better understanding of our relationship to the universe, and show the sun, in fact, does not revolve around Earth (or ourselves).

One of the Hull House maps showing homes by nationality

One of the Hull House maps showing homes by nationality. Photo Credit: HH_Nat_Ma_01, Seven Settlements: Database of Photos. University of Illinois at Chicago Library, Special Collections and University Archives.

Maps have been an integral part of our society for thousands of years because they are a powerful way to illustrate information. For example, the Hull House in Chicago published a collection of maps in 1895 which were integral in inspiring legislative changes to support immigrant communities. Map makers, or cartographers, can help us understand the world in a new way.

Often we reach for a map when we feel lost. It happens; nature is engrossingly beautiful, thoughts creep in, then you cross over into daydreaming and all the sudden you don’t know exactly where you are. It’s thrilling and terrifying at the same time. That is the unseen power of a map. They make you comfortable enough to explore – to reach beyond what you know and get lost in a new place. It’s their secret magic. We feel good about getting lost, because we know we can find ourselves when we want to.

There was a moment, when I was out on the Mississippi, paddling with the Quapaws, that sums up the power of maps for me. It was late at night, most folks had retired to their tents and I was sitting up on the bluff above the River, trying to feel the spirit of the River so fully it would never leave. Slowly creeping up the River was a paddleboat, aglow from inside, straight out of a Mark Twain novel. It moored across the River from us and I began to wonder: Did they know we were there? What were the people on board doing? Playing Cards? Eating? Reading Huckleberry Finn?



Amazed, I wandered off into my mind, thinking of how many other campers through history witnessed such a similar glamorous, mystical sight. This rendezvous was not on the map, but our expedition needed a map to get there. The map was the foundation that allowed me a much greater River experience by putting me in the right place at the right time.

The world is constantly changing and the Mississippi River is no exception. New passages are created while others dry up. Alterations in the River remind us what was true yesterday may not be true today, truly a life lesson imprinted in my mind from the River. The best we can do is enjoy it for today, and Rivergator lets us do just that. Plus John does it with style, using his own brilliant watercolor maps. Explore the Rivergator resource now, for soon our exciting River will transform yet again and clear the slate for the next generation of map makers.


Rivergator homepage map. Have fun exploring!

Rivergator homepage map

Have fun exploring!


A-GombergPhoto   Annette Anderson

   1 Mississippi Campaign Manager






Continue reading the rest of the series!

How the River Raises You to Be Your Best – Series Episode 1

Fresh, Simple, Spicy, Saucy – Food on the Mighty Miss – Series Episode 2

Good and Dirty – Series Episode 3

Still is Still Movin’ to Me – Series Episode 4

Gifts from the River, Gratitude from the Heart – Series Episode 6

Plus a bonus blog:  Top 10 Most Awesome Things About Quapaw Canoe Company