River School with Proctor Academy by Mark River Peoples (1 Mississippi Outreach Assistant, Mississippi USA)

 Every year we embark on a journey with Proctor Academy of Andover, NH. somewhere along the Mississippi River. This year in particular, we decided to let the students pick the route of the voyage, which added a mysterious factor to the event. Democracy was put forward and the decision was announced. It would be the last 48 miles of the Arkansas River, from Pendleton Dam, to the confluence of the Mississippi River and then heading upstream to Rosedale. The Arkansas River is a favorite, but always unpredictable. It’s always cloudy, with Big Island to the left and many traditional hunting camps to the right, this place is wild and rugged. In the summer, this is one of Arkansas’s best fisheries. Boats line the dam fishing deep holes for catfish and buffalo. The state park is full of RV’s and tents, but this is winter, and only flocks of pelicans, cormorants, and thousands of ducks, migrate between the the White River Refuge, the Arkansas River, and the many oxbows throughout Big Island. This is a great time to be here. Just us and the wildlife.

 We launch the Grasshopper canoe and two four person canoes. The day is cloudy, wet, and cold, but sounds of the waterfowl flying overhead helps me block out the elements. With the three hour drive from Clarksdale,MS, didn’t leave us with much daylight, so we quickly found a campsite just around the first bend. We find an inlet along the downstream side of a wing-dike and entered into a beautiful blue hole, with steep bluffs of sand and trees to protect us from the North wind. Everyone is excited as we gather firewood to prepare for a chilly evening. We are expecting a wet and cold evening, so we make a “morning pile” of wood, which we will cover and keep dry. The morning comes quickly, as various storms punneled us throughout the night, but we notice our lovely oasis had changed. Our boats and all our gear was landlocked. The water had receded overnight, with no warning at all. There was a half-mile portage to the main channel. We were looking for answers. How could we have made this mistake?

 We noticed many cranes and bulldozers aligned along the dam while we entered the park. My mind quickly takes me back. They usually only open or close the dam depending on electricity production, but this was drastic, with only a trickle of a stream for the main channel. We realized we were at the mercy of the river and that we would spend the day on land. No problem for the students from Proctor Academy. They continued their studies through continuous rain showers. We kept the fire blazing throughout the day and retreated to our tents during the heavier ones. We made a call to our land team, to try an get some information about the water release schedule, only to find out they had no plans to release water anytime soon. We could only hope for the best. Our shore day goes slow. Many nature walks up and down sand dunes, finding skeletal remains of animals. Examining deer rubs on trees, occasionally hearing gunshots from distant hunting camps. Marveling at the huge flocks of waterfowl constantly flying over camp. Restoring relationships with the wild, at peace with the weather and situation, and with yourself.

  Patience and faith pays off. The heavy rains we endured forced the Corps of Engineers to release water from the dam and our boats were floating. What a relief. I was plotting all evening in my tent on how we were going to portage the boats and equipment to the water. When the water drops like it had, it leaves dangerous quicksand-like areas throughout the landscape. It would have been a monumental challenge. The sun opened up to the east towards the confluence of the Mississippi River, a familiar setting on the lower Arkansas River. This section of the river seems to have it’s own unique weather patterns. As you get closer to the confluence, the weather gets better. Having a rest day, the crew paddles hard to make up time we lost. As we come around a bend, the old rail bridge becomes the finish line for a unplanned race between boats. The Grasshopper’s aerodynamic design is tough to beat when everyone’s in sync and blows the smaller, lighter boats away. Enormous flocks of birds continue to cover the sky. The fish are in a feeding frenzy, as they surface around our boats, which happens whenever water is released from the dam. Large bald eagles fish from the tall sycamores. Cormorants dive deep enjoying the rise of the river. Herons swauk at us around every bend when we disturb their fishing. The colorful trees throughout the deciduous forest are highlighted by the sweet gums bright red leaves, giving us an incredible contrast of color only nature can accomplish. The days are really short, so we start to look for campsite around the next bend. We see a wonderful landscape of beautiful, pristine sand, with a large nursery of young willow trees. All of a sudden, we get confronted by a family of beavers, displaying territorial behavior. Splashing their tails around our boats, not showing any fear. We enjoy and admire their performance and persistence, and reward them by moving on to the next sandbar. These intimate interactions with wildlife are priceless.

  The river has started to widen, as we get further from the dam. Sandbars that look like endless deserts, with the trees miles from the shoreline. Animal scat shows traces of honey locust and persimmons. Large plots of disperse sand show signs of wild hogs. This is wild country. The students continue their rigorous schedule. Exercise, food prep and cooking, cleaning, and a substantial amount of schoolwork-all done by organize groups. This is the future of education.

  Proctor Academy is a coeducational, independent preparatory boarding school located in Andover,NH. It was established in 1848, on a 3,000 acre state certified tree farm, which they use to fund the school by selling lumber, and heat the dormitories in the winter. They also have a sugar farm where they harvest and sell maple syrup. Many of the facilities are run by renewable energy. The school goal is to unlock potential of students through rigorous academic courses to tap into individual creativity and passions.These students are part of the Mountain Classroom. Very unique I can say.

  As we start the next day, you can the hear the towboats from the Mississippi River. A usual sign that we are close to the confluence. We plan to spend our last night at the bottom end of Cat Island, which is located at the confluence. The day is full of surprises. The river has continued to change its course since the 2011 flood, so we always see new landscapes and settings around every bend. The current starts to accelerate as we approach the mouth, so we float and enjoy this brisk sunny day. We arrive at our camp an hour before sunset. The sight of the Mississippi River overwhelms the students. They realized the different in size and strength. We take the time to go over safety precautions to make sure everyone’s in the same mindset. We start to prepare dinner for the evening when a friendly hunter in a boat stops and warns us that there will deer hunters arriving to hunt in the morning. We figured that, noticing two four wheelers parked behind some brush when we arrived. The students were excited. We had a few hunters in the crew.

  The night is cold, but we were protected from a north wind by the trees. The sounds of towboats rocked me to sleep and the early morning sounds of four wheelers woke me. I put on my hunter orange and take a walk. The island is in constant change, so it is important to see and document the changes. I hear gunshots in the distant, so I head towards camp, wanting not to miss the hunters. They were hired by the owners of the island to thin the huge herd of deer occupying the island and to shoot wild pigs on sight. The meat from the pigs and deer would be used to feed families in poverty stricken rural areas of Arkansas. My instinct was right, the hunters had killed a deer and offered free venison, if we wanted it. Not having much room in our canoes, we had to take a raincheck for another day. The students connected with the hunters, as we packed our canoes. They made the decision to go downstream to Greenville. The day is sunny and cold as we paddle pass Ozark Hunting Camp. Big alligator gar roll in the middle of the channel. Large bighead carp take flight in the towboats wakes. The students celebrated the sighting of two bobcats exiting their den along a revetment wall. We paddled on pass the mouth of Lake Whittington, to Catfish Point, on down to our camp for the night, Choctaw Island. I noticed the teams moral had changed. This was no longer just school, but an adventure of a lifetime, something they have never experienced, that they will never forget, and will change their lives forever. Now that’s education!

  We made camp at the bottom of Choctaw Island. A magnificent 8,000 acre island full of wildlife, trees,and sand. I’ve seen bucks that look like elk on this island. I’ve tried to walk the island before , only to turn around and say, “another day”. It’s to big. Our campsite is located on the bottom end on a bluff with plots of willow trees, with sandbars in between. The students are starting to really engage themselves with the river, but we have two days left, and that’s making some of them sad. The abundance of life, the sounds, the fresh air, and the overall majestic energy makes the Mississippi River, one of a kind.

  The morning comes quickly. The plan for the day is to head towards the city of Greenville, were we will camp right outside of town for the last night. The Mississippi River saves the finally for the end. As we move along in the channel, we start to spot deer bedding and feeding in the brush along the cliff-banks. The students enthusiasm is at a all time high as they count the deer. We stopped counting around 30. The students were blown away. All I kept hearing was, “ I never thought the river would be like this! This is paradise”.

The evening before take out is mixed with sadness and achievement. The students have connected with this great river and relationships have blossomed throughout. We sat around the fire discussing the challenges the river faces, plastics and nutrient pollution, were at the top of the list. Many students expressed intentions to return, some realized how important the Mississippi River culture is to our country and how it shaped the United States. They met students in the Delta that were just like them, but grew up in a different social economic situation. A humbling and learning experience that will stay with them forever. They’ve seen wildlife flourish like nowhere else, in their travels, and understood what we mean when we say, “ The river connects us all”. Become a River Citizen today and help save the wild Mississippi River! Mark River