The Lower Mississippi’s Meandering Miles

Words by Mark River
Photos by Keith Benoist

“Pasted Graphic” — photo by Keith Benoist

There are many iconic natural wonders in this world that have been explored, documented, and conquered by many walks of life. These wild places are disappearing rapidly, though: some by depletion and exploitation of resources, some by expansion of industry; and some have been turned into tourist attractions, losing their energy and muse. Many of these wonders are waterways that have been dammed for energy, rerouted for navigation, or misused for profit.

“Algae Gator” — photo by Keith Benoist

After the Missouri and Ohio Rivers joins with the Mississippi River, the river starts to return to its natural existence full of wetlands, estuaries, and floodplains — essential environments for the flourishing of the natural world of organisms. The Lower Mississippi River ecosystem is wild and intact. With the nearest dam some 500 miles upstream from us in Mississippi, and not very many highly populated cities directly on the River, the meandering Lower Mississippi is the wildest wilderness in the continental United States, in the middle of North America.  Forever changing, with hundreds of Caribbean-like islands and beaches, it is one of the last unused, unappreciated, and unexplored places in the country.  You can paddle over a hundred miles in places and not see a bridge. 

“Painted Bunting Calling” — photo by Keith Benoist

There’s a plethora of species living and thriving in the watershed, with the annual flood creating and changing landscapes, so there is always something new to see and explore. These wild places are attracting paddlers worldwide who want the feel the energy of this incredible river’s natural metaphysical powers.

“Life in the Fast Lane” — photo by Keith Benoist

Water was the most efficient way of travel for the Native Americans and explorers alike.  These waters were viewed as trade routes with wellness and wealth buried in the massive forested areas lining its shores. Civilizations were built along these natural highways — the rivers weren’t seen as dangerous and spooky, but rather as wonders created by a higher being.  Somewhere along the way, the River gained a reputation as a villain who was unpredictable and forever changing, slowing wealth and prosperity by doing what it does naturally: flood. 

“Monday Blues” — photo by Keith Benoist

However, this is the River’s way of replenishment and rejuvenation, a self-made power washing and dilution strategy. The flood is the healthiest cycle of a river’s lifeline.

Quapaw Voyageur Style Canoes on Is. 64 (John Ruskey)

Here at Quapaw Canoe Company, we have employed the tradition of French Voyaguer-style birch bark canoes but tweaked the design to handle the currents, swirls, whirlpools, and outright power of the Mississippi River.  We traded the birch-bark, for cypress (the wood preferred by the natives of the Delta) and have developed the most graceful canoes on the Lower Mississippi. We can carry tons of gear, giving us the opportunity to embark on multi-week expeditions without resupplying. They are the most beautiful, elegant and reliable canoes on the River.

“Tealelaborate” — photo by Keith Benoist

The River crested here in the Delta at 49ft (on the Helena Gage). All islands are buried underwater.  Regardless, we have enjoyed day trips of paddling through the flooded forest between the River and the levee, performing clean-ups in the flooded landscape and other activities to promote engagement with our great River. 

Many large fish have congregated at the lip of the River waiting for the perfect water temperatures in the shallows before starting their annual spawn. Beavers have ravaged havoc on the treetops, taking advantage of fresh real-estate. 

“Cross Purposes” — photo by Keith Benoist

The deer are mixed with the cows grazing on the levee as if we can’t see them. The Eagles are spending a lot of time in the nests with plenty of hunting grounds in the flooding forests, providing an abundance of food.

“Chatter Sox” — photo by Keith Benoist

The oxbow lakes are replenished and restocked. Various species of water snakes and frogs rest in the canopy as we float by with amazement, as if they have formed a truce during the high water. They have no choice, but to exit their dens early, when the water rises, so they are cold and lethargic, trying to absorb as much sunlight as possible — perfect for pictures and admiration. 

“Push Ma Wa Tah” — photo by Keith Benoist

Herring gulls and coots float down the main channel. Wood ducks are pairing off in the flooded forest. Migrating birds sing in the trees, gathering materials for their nest-building. 

The male least interior terns have shown up early to practice their fishing techniques. While the River drops, they will fret and toil until the sand and females appear; then they will win a female, and the island bars of the River will become nurseries for their young. None of these amazing cycles of nature occur without the rise and fall of the Mighty Mississippi. 

We Mighty Quapaws join the rest of creation in celebration….

“Polaris Homochitto” — photo by Keith Benoist

As we wait for the River to reveal the new landscapes, sandbars, channels, wetlands, blue holes and uncover shipwrecks, artifacts, and fossils, we celebrate the rise and fall of the river and its bountiful benefits to nature and humanity. 

Keith Benoist is a Natchez-based photographer with a special feel for the wildlife and wild places along the Lower Mississippi River.

Mark River is chief guide and youth leader for the Quapaw Canoe Company. He is also southern coordinator for the 1Mississippi River Citizen Program connecting people who care about rivers with people who make decisions about them. Go to Lower Mississippi River Dispatch for more of Mark River’s blogs!

Become a

River Citizen

Yes! The River can count on me!

I am committed to protecting the Mississippi River and will take at least three actions to care for this valuable resource. Please keep me informed about actions I can take to protect the Mississippi River as a River Citizen:

Step 1

Become a River Citizen

Yes! The river can count on me!

I am committed to protecting the Mississippi River and will take at least three actions to care for this valuable resource. Please keep me informed about actions I can take to protect the Mississippi River as a River Citizen:


Step 2

Educate Yourself

One goal for 1 Mississippi is to educate the public on the urgent problems facing the River. We are supported by the Mississippi River Network, a group of organizations that are experts in various areas concerning the River. Each section below is intended to provide some basic knowledge about these important issues and links to experts who can provide more detailed information. 

Nutrient pollution

Importance of floodplains and wetlands

Farm bill conservation programs


Step 3

Take Action

There are many ways you can take action. We have a list of 10 actions you can take now, You can volunteer and you can check our action center in order to see what bigger projects we are working on. Here we give you the information you need to call your congressman or sign onto proposals. You can also check out our events calendar to see what events are happening in your area.

10 actions you can take now!

The Action Center

Events Calendar

No More Dead Zone! Full funding for proven solutions to reduce nutrient pollution

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