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Buck Island and the Mighty Mississippi

You likely missed the story back in late October, but it was a significant development for the Arkansas Delta.

On Oct. 26, there was a dedication ceremony at Helena that capped a six-year effort to protect Buck Island, a 1,500-acre island in the Mississippi River.

The American Land Conservancy, the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission worked together to protect a valuable part of the Delta while also opening up the island for recreational uses.

Buck Island will be an anchor for the Lower Mississippi Water Trail. Ultimately, this trail could bring thousands of new outdoors enthusiasts to the Delta on an annual basis.

George Dunklin Jr., who chairs the Game & Fish Commission and is one of the South’s top conservationists, put it this way: “Buck Island provides an excellent and user-friendly way to enjoy the riches of the river like never before. We strive to engage more people in protecting and using our state’s natural resources. Buck Island and the new water trail give people exciting new ways to do so.

“For advanced paddlers and boaters, the 106 river-mile trip from Buck Island to … Choctaw Island Wildlife Management Area … is now possible, and this river trail should soon gain national recognition.”

It seems strange to refer to the nation’s largest river as “hidden,” but in a sense the Mighty Mississippi long has been hidden in plain sight from recreational users behind the massive levee system.

It took a guy named John Ruskey to start changing attitudes in the area.

Ruskey graduated in 1982 from a prestigious prep school in Connecticut, Choate Rosemary Hall. Founded in 1890, Choate now has about 820 students from grades 9-12 and costs more than $46,000 annually for boarders.

Most graduates head to colleges on the East Coast — Georgetown, Yale, Columbia, Boston College, Penn, Harvard, Tufts and the like.

Ruskey, now 48, took a far different path.

He built a 12-by-24-foot raft out of scrap wood and 55-gallon drums with the goal of floating the length of the Mississippi River with a friend.

Kimberly Brown Seely picks up the story from there in Adventure magazine: “The first day they caused a barge to run aground. The second day they had to pull out a crowbar and tear down the homemade shack they’d hammered together atop the raft (they realized it was acting as a sail, with the wind blowing them upstream).

“But eventually they got the hang of the rudimentary sweep oars they’d rigged and, flat broke, managed to run the entire river in five months, subsisting almost entirely on peanut butter.

“After his voyage, John majored in philosophy and mathematics at St. John’s College in New Mexico. By the time he reached 26 he was back in Mississippi, a blues nut who landed in Clarksdale carrying a guitar, an accordion and one backpack. He camped out on the banks of the river until he got a day job driving a tractor for a Mennonite farmer.

“John studied with master blues guitarist Johnny Billington, played the juke joints, taught guitar riffs to schoolkids and was hired as the first curator of the Delta Blues Museum. By then he’d begun making hand-carved canoes and paddling the river. And because in the South locals tend to avoid the river like an evil spirit, he had it all to himself.”

Years later, Ruskey would say this about the Mississippi River: “It sure has hit me in the heart. I followed the river downstream just like a lot of other people who have ended up here. I found out in 1982 when you get the mud between your toes, you’re not going to be able to kick it out.”

Ruskey also has extensive canoeing and kayaking experience on the other rivers of the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta — the Arkansas, the White, the St. Francis, the Yazoo, the Sunflower, the Black. It’s safe to say he’s the most knowledgeable guide in the Delta.

In 1998, Ruskey left the Delta Blues Museum and began the Quapaw Canoe Co. at Clarksdale, the first wilderness outfitting business along the lower Mississippi River.

From 2002-06, Ruskey oversaw the construction of three dugout canoes for the Lewis & Clark bicentennial reenactment and helped take those canoes up the Missouri, Yellowstone, Clearwater, Snake and Columbia rivers.

In 2007, Chinook elder George Lagergren asked Ruskey to renovate two traditional Chinook dugouts that now are housed at the tribal headquarters in Wilapa Bay, Wash.

This renaissance man is also a painter, writer and musician. In June 2008, he opened a new outpost at Helena., just beside the levee on Ohio Street.

“Our whole mission with Quapaw Canoe Co. is to get you out on the river and experience that awesome wilderness in the heart of our country,” Ruskey said at the time of the Helena opening.

One of the people who was most excited that summer day in 2008 was Tim Richardson of the American Land Conservancy. ALC had worked for years to establish the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail, a series of publicly owned islands and landings that would allow boaters, canoeists and kayakers to work their way down the river.

Richardson, with whom I dealt when I worked for the Delta Regional Authority, pointed to a similar trail along the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., with more than 25,000 acres of islands and shoreline under public ownership.

ALC purchased Buck Island in 2005. In 2010, ALC negotiated a conservation easement with the federal government to protect the native forests on the island. A year later, ALC completed a public access and conservation easement with the Game & Fish Commission to ensure the island would be available for public use.

“This has been a dream of ours for many years,” Ron Nassar of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said last year. “The Mississippi River Delta is a … forested wetland, but much of it is behind levees. Truly, a treasure hidden in plain sight, Buck Island and the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail finally let the public begin to see the Mississippi they’ve been missing.”

Buck Island has 880 acres of forests and 620 acres of sand beaches. There are five miles of hiking trails on the island and a three-mile side channel.

The island is only a three-minute boat trip from the Game & Fish Commission ramp in Helena’s harbor.

Now, the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail has its anchor.

“As a local business owner, I can tell you firsthand that Buck Island is an unparalled resource for Helena,” Ruskey said. “People come from all over the world to experience the Mighty Mississippi. It has a very powerful draw, but people need a way to access it. With Buck Island and the river trail, they get to see the beauty of this place as never before.”

The NRCS used funds from the federal stimulus bill to conserve the island.

“Buck Island’s 880 acres of native trees are a critical part of its conservation value, and in time it will become an old-growth forest,” said Reed Cripps of the NRCS. “Migratory birds, deer, turkey, beaver, opossum, bats and many other wildlife find food and shelter here, and the trees provide refuge during major floods.”

The Game and Fish Commission’s Choctaw Island is 106 miles downstream. The mouths of the Arkansas and White rivers are in between.

Choctaw Island is not a true island, but it’s bounded on the west by the Mississippi River levee and connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. Choctaw Bar Island, meanwhile, is a true island in the Mississippi River that makes up about 2,000 acres of the state’s wildlife management area.

The Game & Fish Commission purchased Choctaw Island near Arkansas City in October 2001 for $4.5 million from Price Services Inc. of Monticello, a lumber company. It was the largest state land purchase since Arkansas voters had approved the one-eighth of a cent conservation sales tax in 1996. Also at the time, it was the only public land inside the Mississippi River levee in Arkansas.

Price agreed to sell the land for about half its appraised value. Since Price is a lumber company, the area had a history of timber harvest and management, though about 70 percent was bottomland hardwood or a pine-hardwood mix.

In September 2010, nine miles of nature trails, a paved parking area and an access road were dedicated. The trails are a birdwatchers’ paradise with bay-breasted warblers, golden-winged warblers, Philadelphia vireos, black-billed cuckoos and other migratory song birds all found on Choctaw Island. Least bitterns, king rails, common moorhens, roseate spoonbills, wood storks and black-bellied whistling ducks also can be found.

Bald eagles, ducks and geese flood into the area in the winter.

The Arkansas House speaker, Robert Moore, lives at Arkansas City and was instrumental in securing funds for the project. It’s safe to say that few people love the Delta more than Moore.

He’s also a big fan of what has happened upstream at Buck Island.

“The Mississippi is the lifeblood of the Delta, its people and its economy, but for too long people have been cut off from it,” Moore said. “With Buck Island and the water trail, people have a new way to see what this magnificent river and our beautiful state have to offer. It’s nothing less than a national treasure.”

John Ruskey learned that back in 1982. He discovered what even the natives had missed, the fact that there’s a lot to see and experience inside those levees.

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