The celebration of my recent birthday motivated the indulgence of a longstanding urge. I canoed a portion of our state’s namesake river, “Father of Waters.”
There were two standard responses to my plans. “I am so jealous. I have always wanted to do that,” or incredulity as if close proximity to the Mississippi is equivalent to playing Russian Roulette.
Jay Schoenberger states in I Am Coyote, “Many locals know it as a body of water to stay clear of; every year several people who underestimate the strength of the river drown in its undertow. Few know it as wilderness. Wilderness for many means jagged mountains, evergreen forests, and rock-bottomed streams with clear, cold water. Not a muddy, stump-filled channel conveying barges through the belly of the country.”
The stretch from Clarksdale to Greenville contains no bridges. It is an outdoor enthusiast’s delight: raw, rugged, and sublime. Visiting the river requires appropriate safeguards, but it is not to be missed if one respects the Mighty Mississippi.
Flatboats and keelboats plied the muddy waters during the nation’s early days but, somewhere along the way, people began fearing the river. It is our loss.
Did misdirected attempts to make the Mississippi into something that it is not compromise our pride and joy; a compelling tourist destination; our equivalent of the Yosemite and Grand Teton National Parks?
A report, the week before my journey, says that the world’s longest system of levees and floodways, meant to rein in the mighty Mississippi River, may actually make flooding worse:
Carolyn Gramling’s synopsis in Science News, dated April 4, allows that, “Using tree rings and lake sediments, researchers re-created a history of flooding along the lower Mississippi River extending back to the 1500s. This paleoflood record suggests that the past century of river engineering — intended to minimize flood damage to people living along the river’s banks — has instead increased the magnitude of the largest floods by 20 percent, the researchers report April 5 in Nature.
“ ‘The early 20th century got a lot of flooding,’ but only 25 percent of the increase in flood magnitude over the past century can be explained by those climate patterns, [Samuel] Munoz [a geoscientist at Northeastern University] says. The other 75 percent was probably due to the river modifications, the researchers found.”
Our inability to appreciate and utilize the world-class wilderness at our doorstep suggests short-sightedness and hubris. Maintaining healthy riverine systems and their natural hydrology — protecting floodplains intended to absorb high water — could obviate natural disasters and expenditures in response. Proponents of the Yazoo River Pumps and the One Lake Project perhaps “paddle upstream” in the face of “suggest[ions] that the past century of river engineering — intended to minimize flood damage to people living along the river’s banks — has instead increased the magnitude of the largest floods by 20 percent.”
Hodding Carter Jr. notes in Lower Mississippi, his 1942 volume in the remarkable Rivers of America series,
“... [T]he Mississippi, together with its tributaries, drains a total area of about 1,324,000 square miles. At its most easterly point, the divide of the watershed is within 250 miles of the Atlantic, and its western limits extend to within 500 miles of the Pacific. In high water or low, the Lower Mississippi receives the discharges of the Ohio, the Upper Mississippi, the Missouri, the Tennessee, the Cumberland, the White, the Arkansas, and the Red. The vast watershed is divided into six principal basins, any one of which may be in flood in any given year. And, conceivably, all of them may.”
“... [A] superflood... will fall some raging spring when the Ohio, the White, the Upper Mississippi, the Missouri, the Red, and the Yazoo will be simultaneously in flood. If that happens, the valley will be fighting against a volume of four million cubic feet of water passing any given point each second. Two million such cubic feet precipitated the 1927 flood; and even in 1937, when the levees were higher, and the cutoffs were in operation, the levees were hard pressed to hold the less than three billion [sic] which the Ohio and the Upper Mississippi contributed. Four million cubic feet would mean a potential overflow sixteen feet higher than the present highest levees, if levees were the only obstacle.”
Recognizing this reality, we ought to understand and respect the river. Otherwise we are easy prey for hucksters eager to profit from panaceas.
Kern and Hammerstein’s “Ol’ Man River” recognizes that,
“Ol' man river, that ol' man river
He don't say nothin', but he must know somethin'
He just keeps rollin', he keeps on rollin' along”.
“As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever”: Nothing that humankind can say or do can diminish the Mississippi’s magnificence and power.
Jay Wiener is a Northsider.