09 November 2013

"Past-Perfect Storm" on the Mississippi River

"I crawled back down to the water's edge because I was afraid to stand with the wind roaring so hard. Then I immersed myself in the river like a scared possum."
Prepping for a Cub Scouts campout, I was looking up John Ruskey's recipe for "Raft Potatoes" that I included in a 2000 Memphis Flyer article about his Mississippi River canoe guide service, Quapaw Canoe Co. When I turned in the article to Flyer editor Bruce VanWyngarden, he asked for two additions: The recipe (since I mentioned it in the story) and an account of danger on the river. I emailed John, and he promptly sent me a thousand-word paragraph describing a storm he kayaked through four years earlier. I added line breaks and moved the paragraph order around where it made sense. The raft-potatoes recipe is at the bottom of this post.


Past-Perfect Storm
John Ruskey's own account of some Delta sound and fury, signifying humility.

On the lower Mississippi I have come to understand the God of the Old Testament: vengeful, wrathful, and full of contradiction. William Faulkner bemoaned the cutting of the Delta forests because it was the wilderness that taught a man humility. I was especially humbled by the river once, having fun on the edge of a tornado on a solo float. It was the spring of '98, I think, or maybe '97, and I was returning downstream from a circumnavigation of Island 63 [near Clarksdale]. The
willow forests were groaning under the weight of the wind and the leaves were showing their undersides. I was in the lee of Island 63 on the way upstream, so it was actually quite enjoyable -- all of the wind and commotion, the leaves torn from the trees, the rush of the air through the willows and mad clattering of the cottonwoods. I was kayaking upstream under the shelter of the island, but all of that changed on the return trip.

Really, in hindsight, I should have returned downstream the way I'd come; in the back channel there was little flow. However, being a good river rat I wanted to let the main channel carry me downstream. It's something like the reward you get in the downhill after climbing the mountain. I cut through a pass at the top end of 63 that's only accessible during high water and entered the fray.

With the fury of a storm that was still in the making, the channel was a mess -- all frothy and wind-whipped, foam being sprayed off of each wave and whisked in wind-beaten lines eastward. You could see sand storms upstream on the bar of Island 62, which indicated gale-force winds, and vision was down to a couple of miles. The chop was not normal -- waves rolling in parallel
lines from one direction -- but chaotic, water beating and crashing from all directions, waves climaxing on waves, waves hitting the revetment and bouncing back to be superimposed upon by other waves, haystacks leaping upward.

Each stroke of the kayak blade was like paddling upstream in a Rocky Mountain rapid, each stroke necessary just to stay in the current and to stay upright. It's something like walking a
tightrope, where your kayak blade becomes your balance pole.

Downstream a tugboat captain was having problems of his own. The onslaught of the storm front had forced his starboard edge onto the revetment and rocks above me along Island 63. Later I learned that they lost two barges.

Meanwhile, the sky to the west was darkening from grays and blues into a thick atmosphere that seemed to press down on my shoulders. At one point the clouds close to the horizon
became consumed in a vertical blackness -- you could see the forests of Island 62, but above that nothing but striated blackness. Then lightning flashes illuminated the blackness and my adrenaline started to rush when I saw the forest on the Mississippi side get bent over by an unseen hand.

The wind intensified into a loud roar and the trees began thrashing back and forth like wheat in a Kansas field -- and there I was midstream with no cover, so I beat tail for the shore, which
was fortunately downwind.

But what to do once I got there? There was a lightness entering the sky -- a greenish-blue light -- and hail began to spatter the water. There were a few trees in the water at the shore, and big rolling waves were crashing through them. I managed to get out of the kayak without flipping, pulled it ashore, hail pelting my skin. I was afraid the wind would blow my kayak away it was roaring so loudly and hard, so I removed my knife belt and strapped the kayak with the belt to some low-lying osage orange in a low place on the bank. I crawled back down to the water's edge because I was afraid to stand with the wind roaring so hard. Then I immersed myself in the river like a scared possum.

Getting in the water solved the problem of the hail, even though I was riding the waves as they came crashing into shore -- the river actually felt warm after the wind. One of the trees I was floating among pitched over. It wasn't a violent collapse. The sycamore trunk just ruptured, exposing the gleaming bony whiteness of the wood inside. It made no sound as it fell; I suppose because the wind was so loud.

So now a twisted mass of sycamore branches, twigs, and leaves was riding the rollers with me and I was wondering why I hadn't stayed at home. By and by, a lightness began to creep under the billowing clouds to the west, and then a calm fell.

Once again, I set off downstream along Island 63, feeling very scrubbed and much sobered. I'd always hoped some day to witness a tornado, but in the face of one I felt small. I certainly
would never impose these kinds of weather conditions on fellow paddlers. In fact I have stayed at camp for several days with clients awaiting the passage of severe weather, but at the
same time, powerful storms and their effect on the river are fascinating to watch.

Quapaw Raft Potatoes
"As far as food goes, I don't like hungry paddlers. A hungry paddler is not a good paddler. An unhappy paddler is a dangerous thing to have on a windy day, and hunger is just one step away from mutiny." —John Ruskey

Raft potatoes for two people
corn oil
4 medium potatoes, roughly diced
half an onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
4 eggs
1/2 cup sliced pepper jack and/or cheddar cheese

Coals of a campfire are preferred to cooking at home, but when cooking at home, set the burner to a high heat. Cover bottom of skillet with 1/8-inch corn oil. Sauté potatoes with onions and garlic until potatoes are soft and onions and garlic are caramelized. Crack eggs over potatoes and mix thoroughly; stir occasionally till eggs are cooked. Add cheese to top of mixture, cover skillet and wait till cheese melts. The raft potatoes are ready to eat when cheese is melted. The preferred garnish is cayenne pepper or Frank's Original Red Hot Cayenne Pepper Sauce.

Ruskey and his high school buddy, Sean Rowe, concocted this rib-sticking dish in 1982 while floating down the length of the Mississippi on a homemade log raft. The raft sank when they
collided with a TVA tower south of President's Island, but the recipe has survived.

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