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Mississippi: Paddling through the wilderness

The crème brûlée crust of the sand cracks beneath my feet, as if I’m the first person ever to cross this perfect little beach. In a way, I am – the sandbar might not have been here yesterday, and may well be swept away by the mighty Mississippi in a few hours.

Mississippi: Paddling through the wilderness

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Leaving our canoe beached, my friend and I wade into the water, which the sun has already warmed, though it’s not even 8am. The river is practically deserted; a short distance away an ancient tugboat pulls what looks like a small village behind it, but the Mississippi’s no longer the vital trade route it once was.

Canoeing round here is also unusual – our guide, John Ruskey, of the Quapaw Canoe Company, is among the few to come out on this stretch, and his connection to the river runs deep. He’s been exploring it since the early 1980s, when he, a friend and some chickens sailed down from their native Colorado by raft, following the waterways until they reached the Mississippi. The journey only ended when the pair became distracted by the chess game they were playing and crashed. The chickens perished.

Like John, my fascination with the Mississippi started with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Through reading fragments of the book at school and writing American literature essays at university, Mark Twain’s most famous novel has tugged me towards the Deep South for years. And while the rest of my trip here is spent getting to know the region’s towns, history and people, today I’m Huck, paddling through the wilderness.

We’d left Clarksdale, northwest Mississippi, in darkness at 5am, but by the time we got on the water the sky was growing light with the first hints of sunrise. John had planned an 18-mile journey that would take us downriver past local landmarks with names like Miller Point and Horseshoe Bend, and a series of numbered islands.

Our paddles soon fell into a regular rhythm as we swept through the water, making stops on the shore and larger sandbars for cereal bars and cups of sweet chai. Although it felt isolated, there was evidence of life – the footprints of large-looking birds dried in the sand, rustles in nearby bushes – all circumstantial though.

With the unbearable midday sun fast approaching, it’s time to leave, and we head down a ‘shoot’ – a smaller channel off the main river – towards where John’s Quapaw colleague is waiting to drive us back to town.

John calmly points to a spot a few yards from the boat. “Look, there’s a ‘gator.” I hadn’t even considered there would be alligators here – in my mind they belonged in the swamps of Louisiana, not in this pristine stretch of river – but sure enough, I see the dark, nobbly head poking slightly above the water.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen a ‘gator in this shoot,” John says, “but as the back-channel lakes dry up we’ll get more down here.”

The animal soon disappears, no doubt to lurk somewhere just beneath the surface. Perhaps we were never quite as alone as I’d thought.

Quapaw Canoe Company: www.island63.com