HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. — Me and Big Muddy go way back.
He’s a mysterious dude. I can’t ever tell his moods. He can be totally placid and glossy on the surface then throw up an angry roil or twirl up a whirlpool for no reason at all.
(Let me explain the “he” thing. The etymology of the word Mississippi goes back to an Algonquin word that either means “great waters” or “father of waters.”)
I went to college on the banks of the Mississippi. Back then, unless you were in downtown Baton Rouge or New Orleans, or crossing a bridge, tall levees blocked your view of it. You only knew it was “over there” but couldn’t see it.
As a geogeek, the thought of all of the water draining most of the eastern U.S. and parts of Canada gurgling past is quite fascinating to think about. But there was something that was curiously taboo about it. I know of few people who’ve actually touched it or been to it. In fact, there was kind of an unspoken fear that it would swallow you up and take you away if you dared dip a toe in it. Leave it to the big boys and girls, the river pilots plying barges up and downstream.
The Memphis Flyer did a great explanation of this fearful relationship for those of us who’ve lived along the Mississippi. They tackled that fear with a river trip including kayaking it — something I’d love to work up the nerve to do one day.
Whether the fear is rational can be debatable, I guess. The river is incredibly intimidating if you’re standing at the bank and looking across it, and a bit disorienting. And if you’re stuck in traffic on a bridge as I was on the narrow U.S. 49 crossing, the look down can bring on mild anxiety.
I’m finding ways to get more comfortable with the river. Before I set out on my recent road trip, I contemplated kayaking a small portion of it. There’s a company on the Arkansas side of the river that offers kayak rentals. I’m far from a kayaking aficionado, so I checked with a friend who goes just about every weekend. He didn’t have any experience with the Mississippi but reached out to a friend who did. Needless to say, the response showed me I needed more experience. Currents, trees, the whole bit. There’s a a lot of power in that river and the best way to show respect for it is to be prepared for it.
In the meantime, I get as close to it as I can:
Helena-West Helena, Ark., has an incredible way to do that. The Helena River Park, sometimes referenced as River Reach Park, makes use of the topography to create an elevated boardwalk that leads to the river.
It’s a nature walk, at the end of a road that climbs the levee from downtown Helena and winds along a secondary levee at the riverfront with sweeping views of the river and the Mississippi state shoreline.
The walk begins through a tunnel of towering cypress trees.
The area also was a haven for monarch butterflies. They were everywhere. They weren’t shy, either, fluttering around your face and legs, landing on any surface they could cling to.
I had to get to Memphis for the night. The drive through Helena-West Helena was amazing because of Crowley’s Ridge, apparently an ancient long mound of loess that forms steep otherworldly cliffs covered in cudzu on the city’s west side. The ridge parallels the river and shoots north. Wish I could have explored it more, but it’s OK.
Now, I have a reason to go back.