Story and photos by Chris Battaglia
It doesn’t take long in Memphis to hear from local paddlers about just how grateful they are for the outdoor resources at hand. Jim Gafford, Director of Outreach for the Wolf River Conservancy (WRC) is quick to point out the foresight that “Memphians” had in protecting areas in their city for future generations. Still, given the soulful surroundings, Gafford’s tune changes to a bit of the blues that folks could be doing more, setting aside even “more lands than you're saving now.”
At least from my expansive view 25 miles east of downtown, it’s obvious this city has had a head start to open-space opportunities. My few days to experience all the best paddling that Memphis has to offer begins here in the suburbs with Gafford and his friend Dale "Greybeard" Sanders. I’d reached out to some Mississippi Delta connections in the paddling community (through the robust resource of the Lower Mississippi River Paddlers group on Facebook) and ended up at the doorstep of a local legend.
It’s a fitting, and maybe understated, label for Sanders. In 2015, “Greybeard” successfully paddled the entire length of the Mississippi River from source (Lake Itasca, Minn.) to sea (Gulf of Mexico), and in January 2017 became the oldest person to through-hike the Appalachian Trail (at 82 years old). Greeted by his bushy gray beard, Sanders immediately makes me feel like a member of the paddling community — inviting me into his home for birthday cake, fried green tomatoes from the garden, and a Memphis base in the "paddler's den,” a nice finished basement where he hosts incoming through-paddlers on the Mississippi.
The paddling connections just keep popping up with the same welcoming hospitality. Tom Roehm is quick to answer the call in my quest to get out on the area waterways. We first head to the Wolf River Harbor, where we run into a local, year-round paddler and surfski racer, Elmore Holmes. Sweat beading on his brow, boat on his shoulders, Holmes just returned from his regular paddle on the Mississippi River.
"There's an island over here called Loosahatchie Bar on the Arkansas side, and once you get to the other side of the channel, you could be in the middle of the Amazon — you're in a completely different place, in a wilderness area, just a couple miles from Memphis." Holmes says that there are a few paddlers around town, but the Mississippi "is a pretty well kept secret."
Later that afternoon, I accompany Gafford to paddle at Shelby Farms Park, the country's largest urban park — 4,400 acres within the city limits.
"Our bison range is to the left," he points out, right before we arrive at Hyde Lake for Canoe and Cocktails. Our small drove of paddlers ranged from first-timers, to Wolf River guides, leisurely circumnavigating the lake for a nice social outing at sunset.
Friday morning comes and it's our big day: We paddle the Wolf. Greybeard sets up his new travel van for towing our two canoes, and we meet some folks for a hearty breakfast (biscuits, eggs, gravy) at the Wolf River Cafe in Rossville. The plan is to paddle the Ghost River section at La Grange, but at the launch — sun blazing and high — we change our minds, re-load the trailers, and head for the shaded promise of the Lost Swamp Trail.
"The Wolf River – when the Conservancy was formed, for all practical purposes, was a dead river. It was polluted badly, and was too bad to swim in it," says Greybeard.
Kandy Bernskoetter, one of more than 40 registered guides for the Wolf River and member of the WRC board of directors, is our trip leader. She guides our group among lush cypress stands, alongside beaver dams, and under towering catalpa trees. Weaving through narrow chutes of trees with blue-and-white signs, we then emerge flanked on either side by the spatterdock (cow lilies), or wild roses and elderberry. At every turn I find myself in awe of the splendor of the Wolf's scenic ecology and its ability to transport me mentally in a way that I've never felt on another river.
The weekend brings various groups together for the first-ever organized cleanup in the Wolf River Harbor, on land and in boats. Volunteers are emerging from the woods and from kayaks with truckloads of trash left behind as the water levels drop. Bluff City Canoe Club (BCCC) member Leanne Logan cites that "we often partner on events like this cleanups, help promote paddling in the area," and that their organization boasts more than a couple hundred members and celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
On my last day in town, I am in the car with Ben Quaintance, headed to Arkansas. He has his own, smaller iteration of a canoe network — one full of members who want less vehicle shuttling, while simultaneously making trips less formal, mid-week affairs.
"Because so much of the time, I paddled solo and wanted to paddle by the weather forecast," explains Quaintance, who alongside paddler Mike Dale, put together a list of retirees "because like a lot of clubs, there’s a lot of grey hairs.” He tells them where to be and what time, and if people show up, that's great.
We drive across the Mississippi River and briefly detour in the run-down town of Turrell, passing by the wildlife management's interpretive center (closed on weekends) to see the canoe launch at Lake Wapanocca. Its surface was bright green, topped with a thick layer of algae that Ben says feels like Jell-O for the first mile of paddling.
"Single-bladers don't have a problem with it," he notes with the slightest smile.
St. Francis Sunken Lands Lake is a natural area about an hour northwest of Memphis. A dirt parking lot leads to the Oak Donnick access ramp skirting the perimeter of the lake, exploring through six miles of rich, shady, bottomland hardwood forest. It felt like a bald cypress theme park. A small handful of powerboats motored through, but since they can't access the forested area, we were — for the most part — alone.
Following our paddle, Quaintance takes me deeper into the Delta, to Clarksdale, Mississippi, where I reunite with the river guides who instigated my love for paddling and the region: Quapaw Canoe Company. If ever the opportunity presents itself to paddle and camp with the most knowledgeable and expert guides on the Lower Mississippi River: take it. It will change you. At the very least, you can use the sections of the Rivergator (a free paddler's online guide to the Lower Mississippi River) to self-guide any further exploration around Memphis on the Big Muddy.
On our final drive together, Greybeard and I have one last discussion on how someone his age remains so active. He asserts, "If you want to live old and stay active, you have to find a formula to be happy. And when I say 'active,' I mean get out of the gym and bike, walk, hike, run, swim, paddle—whatever you do, you've got to get outside and just do things. And I've done that my whole life."
Somehow, I’ve ended up spending most of my time in Memphis with the 60-plus crowd — and I loved it. I couldn't have asked for better car company, paddling mates, and stewards of great advice and the great lands. It's as clear how paddling is a vital part of so many Memphians' formula for happiness.
— This article was produced with support from REI.
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