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story.lead_photo.caption The Ladybug is the flagship of John Ruskey’s canoe fleet. He built her by hand from cypress strips especially for canoeing on the Mississippi River. - Photo by Bryan Hendricks

Malvern isn't a traditional river town like Helena-West Helena, Pine Bluff or Little Rock, but the Ouachita River is central to Malvern's identity.

It is evident at Whitewater Park, a few hundred yards upstream from Interstate 30. The park's centerpiece is the boulder garden that stretches across the river. When the hydropower generators are running at Remmel Dam or when relief gates at the dam are open, water from Lake Catherine swells the river with cold, surging current. It attracts kayakers to play in the whirlpools and eddies below the rocks, but it also attracts legions of water spirits to float the 7-mile stretch from Remmel Dam to the park on rafts, inner tubes, canoes and all sorts of other conveyances.

On Thursday, for example, a family floated that section in an elaborate inflatable contraption that looked like a giant swan with rainbow-colored wings.

Whitewater Park is a popular gathering spot not only for floaters but also for people who merely enjoy being near the river. It's a brotherhood that's identifiable by tie-dye, Chaco or Teva sandals, and sun-bleached hair. You see the same folks all over the Buffalo River, and in the rafting communities around the New River Gorge Rivers in West Virginia, the Deschutes River in Oregon, the Upper Rio Grande River in Colorado and the Boundary Waters hub of Ely, Minn.

Many people come to the waterfront after work for a breath of cool, misty river air. Many bring their children and dogs. Children are drawn to rushing water, and jittery parents admonish the youngsters to stay away from the banks. The youngsters, in response, all wear the same annoyed expressions. They aren't going to jump in, and the river isn't going to reach up and grab them.

Ray Tucker of Little Rock, a Helena native, said that his generation was taught to fear the Mississippi River.

"We were always told, 'Stay away from the river,' " Tucker said. "Don't get in it. Don't get near it."

John Ruskey, owner of Quapaw Canoe Company in Helena-West Helena, devotes his life to vanquishing that attitude. In the process, he has turned the Mississippi River into a premier recreational destination.

Ruskey, a Colorado native, originally came to Helena in 1991 as the first curator of the Delta Blues Museum. Influenced by Mark Twain, he became enchanted by the history and legends in the river that flowed past the waterfront.

"In those days, the Mississippi River was an untapped recreational resource," Ruskey said.

Understandably, people along its banks live in a tenuous detente with a river that sometimes attempts to swallow everything around it. With all the Mississippi takes, sometimes it's hard to see how much it gives.

The Mississippi's tantrums are relatively infrequent, though. Most of the time it is placid and peaceful, perfect for overnight float trips from the mouth of the St. Francis River to Helena-West Helena.

Ruskey's groups camp on sandbars under starlit skies unbleached by city lights.

"They're not like gravel bars on the Buffalo River," Ruskey said. "The sandbars are half a mile long and half a mile wide."

Gathering firewood is a challenge because it is so far to wood accumulations. Driftwood is available in the form of washed up trees, but they are rock hard and weigh tons.

I floated the Mississippi with Ruskey when the river was high and swollen. I used my Buffalo canoe that is better suited for the small river for which it is named.

The first thing I noticed was how the current draws you to the middle. The second thing I noticed was the raw power surging beneath the boat. It surged through the hull as if it were trying to render it.

"People have told me that it feels like a living thing breathing beneath their feet," Ruskey said.

A trained canoe builder, Ruskey builds custom canoes from cypress strips that are similar to those used by the voyageurs in the Colonial Era. The flagship of his "fleet" is the Ladybug, a 26½-foot masterpiece with a 54-inch beam. She'll seat 8-12 people. He has also completed several dugout canoes like those used by indigenous tribes.

Ruskey's canoes also also had a magical effect of introducing Helena-West Helena's youth to the Mississippi in a positive way.

"Fire and swinging razor-sharp tools are sure ways to attract kids," Ruskey said. "They want to know what you're doing, and then they want to help."

For some, it was a natural progression to join Ruskey's team. Now they enjoy and appreciate the Mississippi River in a way that their elders never did. They are its recreational future, and ultimately its protectors.

I think of this as my son Matthew and I nose his kayak and the same Buffalo canoe that floated the Mississippi into the chilly Ouachita River below Remmel Dam. It's a rivulet compared to the Mississippi, but it is no less formidable from the torrent rushing through one of the relief gates.

In the middle of the river is the swan raft with the rainbow colored wings. Beside us, a large family launches a motley collection of tubes and kayaks. Judging from the number of vehicles in the parking lot, a fair number went before us.

To my dismay, I quickly discover that the Ouachita is too fast to fish. I've had some grand times near this very spot, such as the morning when I caught a 13-pound hybrid striper and a big mess of Kentucky bass with Mark Roberts, to the morning when Rusty Pruitt and I caught some magnum-size rainbow trout in the first set of shoals below the dam.

That won't happen today. In fact, the float lasts only three hours before I reach a takeout point above the rock garden at Whitewater Park. Several kids offer to help us carry our boats and gear to our vehicle.

Meanwhile, a football coach has his junior high squad running wind sprints up the steep ramp from the water to the top of the hill. That's probably a better stamina builder than running stadium steps.

Several genres of music drift across the parking area as more and more people arrive.

They love this place, as well they should.

Photo by Bryan Hendricks
John Ruskey (background left) has introduced many youth in Helena-West Helena to the recreational attributes of the Mississippi River and given them the currency to claim the big river as their own.

Sports on 07/29/2018

Print Headline: River towns

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