And one thing when I actually walk out on the beach and look out on the Gulf it hits me that people thousands of years ago saw the same thing that I am seeing now. It is the same sight for them, same colors, the same horizon. The same sounds.–Dr. Jack Davis, Professor of Environmental History, University of Florida
October 23rd, 2014
By Joey Dickinson
It was a sweltering summer day with little to no cloud coverage, and we were filming a tour of South Walton with the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance. The tour started in Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, where Park Services Specialist Jeff Talbert and Dr. Sarah Schindele pointed out a plethora of unique plants, explaining the ecology of the park, as well as the steps that are taken to maintain such a distinct and fragile natural area. Elam did most of the filming, while I dragged along behind him with a boom microphone, trying to capture what our hosts were saying, desperately trying to keep the long pole high above my head while keeping up with the camera in the intense heat. We then moved on to Grayton Beach State Park, where Park Ranger Patrick Hartsfeld met us, detailing the flora and fauna unique to the landscape. The pure-white sand bounced the sun’s massive rays back up at us as if it were a mirror. By this time my arms were about ready to give from holding the boom for so long, and we were all drenched in sweat, but this tour was so full of vital information, there was no way we could cease filming. Before long, Patrick directed everyone into what is known as the “Hobbit Hole,” a cluster of trees that the average person has to duck under to walk into. Here we were finally sheltered from the heat by the trees and shrubs. Before it was even pointed it out, I noticed a large sign with the title, “Prayer of The Woods.” I don’t know if we were recording just then or not, because my eyes were glued to the sign: “the friendly shade screening you from the summer sun,” it was too fitting. This poem, of which the author remains unknown, seemed to epitomize the coastal dune lakes, and the habitats found around them.
Places of Peace
September 18th, 2014
Essays by Joey Dickinson and Nic Stoltzfus
Ever since my first taste of the coastal dune lakes on Lake Powell for World Paddle for the Planet Day 2013, I’ve felt an overwhelming sense of tranquility whenever I’m on any one of the lakes, even if I’m working! However, one evening in particular stands out when it comes to feeling peace on the lakes. One day after filming all day in the peak-summer sun, running all across town wildly to capture both interviews and landscape images, Elam, Nic and I found ourselves lying in our freezing cold hotel room, myself on the carpeted floor, with late afternoon light still peering through the window shades. At least a half an hour of silence was broken by Elam, “I’m going out on the boat. Anyone else want to come?” His proposal was answered by even more silence, and I finally gave in, “Sure, I’m coming.” We had been filming in Walton County an awful lot at the time, making the hour and a half trip from Blountstown and back at least once a week, and although we’d been filming the lakes seemingly incessantly, we’d not actually been on the water in recent memory, and we brought the Scandy-White boat down with us this time for that sole reason. I wasn’t going to let fatigue and my intense lust for rest get between myself and that rejuvenating water. Barely able to get up off of that carpet, I knew that in just a couple of minutes, I’d be woken up by some good ole H2O. Nic decided to stay back and get some interview questions ready for the next day, and Elam and I staggered out of the hotel to Lake Powell, and launched the boat. As we began to head straight toward the middle of the lake, the engine began to spit and cry. No way.
The engine kept from shaking so long as we stayed under a certain speed, so we made our way to the outfall at a very steady pace. Although all we wanted to do was open up the engine and take off, feel some wind in our hair and zip around the lake like a playground, we were forced to slow down, turning that playground into a peaceful cathedral. As the sun started to set, orange patches of light backlit the dark blue rain-clouded sky. The wind died down almost suddenly and the entire lake was as flat as a mirror. At a certain point, the outfall became too shallow, and I jumped out into the water, towing the boat by a rope. I’m not sure why, but this filled me with one of the most peaceful feelings I’ve ever had. It was completely silent except for the smooth hushing of the gulf, and Elam and I only exchanged words to safely get the boat through the shallow patch. We pulled the boat of on the sand to walk around in the outfall and enjoy the sunset. The only other people in the outfall with us were three boys, catching minnows with their hands, staring imminently into the still water. You might have seen the image I captured as they waited for the small fish to swim into their palms. Everything was still. All of the fatigue that I was feeling had vanished and I felt completely restored. After the sun had set, we didn’t want to go back in, but alas, we had to finally get some much-needed rest. One never wants to get off the water of a dune lake, especially after an experience like that. All I could do was smile because it happened, and because of the fact that I felt completely at peace because of it, and wait for the next time I’d be able to come back.
What is the place I feel most peaceful when I am down in Walton County? I don’t know if it is a location as much as a state of mind. And that state of mind comes about when I am walking and talking with a dear friend. Walking and talking with myself is good, too, but that produces a different state of mind (as the old saw goes, “It’s okay to talk to yourself…as long as no one answers!”). The place I enjoy walking and talking the most is at Topsail Hill Preserve. There are miles of trails and plenty of wildlife to enjoy along the way. Plus, it is pretty quiet, so it is easy to hear what my friend has to say. Two memories come to mind when I think of achieving this state of peace.
Late one night Dad was getting ready to bike out from our cabin at Topsail to Lake Campbell to film a time-lapse of the Milky Way arcing over the lake. Joey and I decided to walk with him a bit before he biked down to the lake by himself (we weren’t staying up with him because we were planning on waking up early the following day and filming the sunrise). The three of us walked together for awhile and then Dad got on his bike and rode off. As Joey and I walked back the stars were shining bright in the sky above, the crickets buzzed, and our conversation hummed. We didn’t talk about anything in particular, just whatever came to mind. At one point we stopped and laid down to look up at the stars. I could see a bat fly over from time to time. Neither of us said a word, and all felt right with the world.
The second memory I have is when my Mom and my sister came down to stay with me at a Topsail cabin for a few days in August. My sister had not visited Topsail yet, and I was eager to show her the coastal dune lakes where we had been filming for many months. Laura just got married May of this year and moved out to Los Angeles soon after the wedding. She hadn’t visited home since then, so I was excited to catch up. One afternoon we packed up all our swimming gear and started walking down the main trail towards the beach. It was a VERY hot day in August, so walking was a bit of a chore. However, we walked the trail all the way down to the beach and she told me all about life in LA and the how things have changed since she got married, and I pointed out all sorts of plants and animals as we walked down. That moment everything was perfect: here I am with one of my best friends just walking and talking. That is peace for me.
By Nic Stoltzfus August 14th, 2014 This past week my dad showed his latest film, The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition: Everglades to Okefenokee, at the Martin Theatre in Historic Panama City. After the film ended, I was helping out with merch sales and a lady asked about my occupation. “Are you in school?” I replied that I had already graduated from college. “Are you in graduate school?” I said that I worked for my dad. “Oh, so you are home-graduate-schooled!” We both laughed, but I had a sharp moment of recognition: that is exactly how I would sum up my experience of working for my dad over this past year.
I’ve not been to graduate school, but my sister obtained her degree earlier this year and, from what I saw, it took a lot of work. And she was constantly reading—reading all she could get her hands on about her research topic. And that is what I have been doing for more than a year: my research topic is the coastal dune lakes of Walton County. My thesis advisor is Elam Stoltzfus. I need to submit my research (for the script) by next month. That’s one way of looking at it. Dad’s metaphor for my job is that I need to be a sponge and soak up all the info I can about them (“They call me Bob, Spongebob.”). It has been one long year of learning and education. Part of our assignment with creating an hour-long documentary about the coastal dune lakes, and a companion coffee-table book, is to adequately document the lakes. And how do you do that? It was on the coastal dune lakes that I got my first taste of professional photography. Sure, as the son of a professional videographer, I got basic lessons on pictures but, prior to working with Dad, I used my phone or a point and click digicam. When I started working with him he taught me how to take better pictures, and I also picked up a few tutorials on how to become a better photographer, as well. I knew I had to learn how to take good pictures (and edit good pictures!) if I was going to work with him. And I have. By taking pictures of nature I learned to slow down and take a closer look at everything. I started looking at the natural world in a different way. It’s not just one large slap of green paint, not at all. Underneath the trees and underneath the sand there is a thriving city with inhabitants unseen to my human eyes. Ants and beetles and worms and crickets moving beneath my feet. Dragonflies and butterflies above my head. Birds soaring overhead, snakes slithering beneath me. These natural areas are FULL of life—it just required me learning how to stop. And listen. And watch from the right perspective, the proper perspective. I have always loved the outdoors; I grew up halfway in the classroom and halfway out of the classroom by tagging along with Dad on film shoots all over the state. But, by working on this project, I really learned how to love and appreciate nature. Another part of my education of the coastal dune lakes was through interviewing people for the documentary. As we began interviewing people about the coastal dune lakes, my mind has expanded even further. We have interviewed geologists, artists, local residents, environmentalists, activists, community planners—the list goes on and on. And each one has a different perspective on the dune lakes, each one views them with a different lens. The artist sees them as works of art, the geologist as layers of sand piled over time, the activist as land to be protected, the local as places of recreation and fun. Every person we interviewed took us to their position and showed us what the lakes look like from their standpoint. Therefore, whenever I think about the coastal dune lakes, I think about education. There are thousands of ways that people can educate themselves about the lakes. The Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance has a great webpage with links to research and videos about the lakes. They even offer tours from time to time. We documented one coastal dune lake tour that took a look at three coastal dune lakes and their ecosystems. Dr. Sarah Schindele and Brittany Tate of Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance managed the tour. We began that morning with Jeff Talbert of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park leading the tour to a wet prairie teeming with rare carnivorous plants and showcasing Lake Campbell, one of the most pristine coastal dune lakes in Walton County. Later we drove east to Grayton Beach State Park where Patrick Hartsfield led a group through the dune ecosystem that separates Western Lake from the Gulf of Mexico. After lunch the group took a tour of Oyster Lake.
Walton Outdoors has put together a great site with all the public access points along the lakes. You can attend Coastal Dune Lake Advisory Board meetings and find out what the recent news is along the lakes. We’ve even done a video on the advisory board, as well! The Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance is working on an updated Dunes in Schools program targeted towards middle school students in south Walton. This is an opportunity for children to learn about the coastal dune lakes and how they work in the classroom, grow sea oats, and then plant them along the dunes at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park. Opportunities abound for educating yourself about coastal dune lakes. When I spent a year studying abroad in London with the FSU Communication Program, my professor encouraged us to use the city as our classroom. Over the last year, the coastal dune lake country of south Walton has been my classroom. From the lakes I learned the importance of stillness and that the most spectacular part of the sunset is sometimes after the sun has dipped down past the horizon; the multicolored clouds illuminating sky and water alike. The people in and around the area have been my professors. From them I’ve learned plant names, area history, and how to ward off yellow flies. The grey heron on Western Lake, the alligators at No-Name Lake, the snowy plover chicks and the loggerhead sea turtles by the dunes at Topsail have all been my teachers. The animals in the area taught me to be respectful and ever mindful that they are wild creatures and deserve more space than my pets. I have learned a little bit of something from all the life that exists down there, and I am a very fortunate student. I can’t wait for my second year—when do I sign up for fall classes?
Here is our latest video about the coastal dune lakes and education. I wrote the script, Dad did the cinematography, and our editor, Joey Dickinson, put all the pieces together. Enjoy.
My Coastal Dune Lake
Ancient crystle dunes
engulfed by a risen sea.
Ocean shrinks to gulf in time,
baring mounds of sugared quartz.
Rare pools of sparkling life are born
to milliniums of nurturing kisses
from a coddling saline surf.
Embracing tides wash life to benthic worlds
as needle rush nurseries feed
flora, fauna, future.
Flyoff vapors, cool and collected,
fall to stream across shore to sea,
barrow for the rapt organic cornucopia
of our ever renewing coastal plash.
A poem inspired by Lake Powell and written by Richard Bryan after 4 decades.
YouTube Video Episode 05
July 17th, 2014
Today’s blog features the crew at Live Oak Production Group contemplating on the coastal dune lakes and what they feel when they are out there. Attached is the fourth short video titled Jewels of 30A.
I don’t know about you, but the first thing I notice is the sound. Perhaps the most inspirational and sentimental element in my life is music, and being in or around the lakes is like sitting in the front row at a quiet, calm symphony. It’s not the same as being in the middle of a forest, where the natural noises seem to swarm and even overwhelm, flying at you from every angle. The sounds here are subtle, consisting of carefully chosen notes; to hear them you have to be listening. Early in the morning, the setlist begins with the song of an ecosystem waking up: birds chanting to welcome the breaching sunlight, and the wind starting to pick up, whistling while it works. Toward the end of the day, happy birds and frogs project their unique voices, seemingly saying their goodbyes to the sunlight, as crickets chirp incessantly, ringing in the darkness, and mosquitoes buzz around your ears like tiny, floating radios, broadcasting nothing but feedback. No matter what time it is, however, if you listen hard enough, you can always hear one constantly reoccurring musical motif – the Gulf.
Constantly breathing in and out, you can hear the distant static current roaring in the distance. I’ve heard it said that people are calmed by the sound of the ocean because it sounds similar to being in the womb. Whether there’s any truth or science to that, I don’t know, but it does have a way of bringing out an inner peace that exists in each and every one of us. Being on or at the lakes makes me feel like I’m attending pretty much the most pleasurable and exciting event you can stumble upon, a free concert. But it doesn’t stop there; like any good concert, the mesmerizing sounds are accompanied by a spectacular visual performance. Watching the soft orange cracks of early morning light stretch across the sky allow for a “behind the music” understanding of the birds’ songs. Seeing the world’s light slowly turn on, exposing colors and shades that couldn’t be seen before, one realizes why the occurrence deserves praise. Watching the slow, smooth transition into night gives a whole new meaning to those last few notes thrown into the air. And it’s all, always orchestrated to the rhythm of the Gulf’s waves spilling onto the sand, like a constant backbeat upon which all the other parts build off of.
As you move from any given lake to the Gulf, the backbeat becomes louder and louder, overpowering the smaller, shorter tones of the lakes, just as the calmer, stiller images of the tranquil lakes are replaced by the powerful velocity of the stirring Gulf. In a way, this causes a phenomenon in which, depending on where you’re standing, one always experiences not a different show, but a different part of one big, organic production. For me, the lakes have it all. A constantly changing, yet consistently gorgeous presentation, engaging sight, sound and soul.
How do I feel when I am out on the coastal dune lakes? When I am at Topsail, I really do feel a sense of peace. It is true what Sarah Schindele says in the video: The lake is a contemplative sphere: Still. Smooth. Tranquil. Static. The ocean behind is kinetic, frenetic; moving, moving, moving.
My favorite place is at the outfalls: the central mixing point. For weeks, months, sometimes years, sand dunes block the lakes from the Gulf of Mexico. The dark tannin-stained lakewater yens to bust through the sand and comingle with the clear ocean water. Time and pressure builds and eventually the lake pushes through the liminal membrane of seashore: birth. Pine-straw tea mixes with the salty sea; an estuarine blending of yin with yang.
The Way in the world
is as a stream to a valley,
a river to the sea.
–Lao Tzu (English version by Ursula K. Le Guin)
As of this July I have been filming and photographing the Coastal Dune Lakes in South Walton for seven months. I began recording images in January, even during some very cold days. Ahhhh…it would be nice to have some of that coolness about right now as we have these sweltering hot summer days, so hot you can wear them.
The video interviews, collection of b-roll of the dune lakes, and research will be used in an hour-long documentary that will be featured on Public Television next year.
I just wrapped up a week of photography and video productions along Stallworth, No Name, Campbell, and Morris lakes. This time of the year it works best to get up at daybreak, that is 5 a.m., and work for about 4 to 5 hours. After this I take a long break and go back to filming again around 5 p.m. On this trip I was hoping for summer thunderstorms, but every day was blue sky, not much of breeze, and muggy—perfect beach weather.
And word about these great climes has spread: Most license plates were from out of town. Folks from Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Louisiana, all on a mass exodus to this beach mecca. I guess they came here for family vacations, sunburns, and feeling the sand between their toes.
For me this wasn’t vacation, it was work. However, I did have some to time to have a contemplative mood while waiting for the camera to complete the time-lapse process. This takes patience. Here is a small example of one day here at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park:
Sitting here on the north side of Lake Campbell watching, observing a mirror-like reflection from the north side. This morning the surf is silent and there is no breeze, no movement of leaves on the trees, not a ripple on the water. Even the wildlife is hushed: muffled chirping of a few crickets, an early-morning bird sounds a muted wake-up call for her family. Traffic noise on highway 98 is distant, a faint murmur. Silence and stillness.
When I arrived here at the lake just before dawn the summer moon was setting in the west. I scrambled to assemble my cameras, but I was about 15 minutes too late as the moon set behind the dunes on the southwest side of the lake. But I will be back tomorrow morning. I was able to capture a few great images of the sunrise with the tree line along the banks of Campbell Lake.
Later in the evening I set up early to film a rising full super moon along No Name Lake and enjoy the quiet setting of this almost unknown and hidden lake. A few grey wispy clouds began to move across the lower horizon in the space where the moon was to rise. I waited and kept my eye on a young gator that was grunting and edging closer to the bank. Was he curious or was I invading his space? This made for good entertainment while waiting to see if the clouds would move through. As the sun began to set, the gray clouds blocked the moon. This evening was a no-go, or should I say, a no-show. But my life was enriched by waiting; observing the curiosity of a juvenile gator; and listening to the chorus of bullfrogs, peepers, and other nature sounds.
About two weeks ago, I was sitting in the office and preparing for the first blog I wrote on the coastal dune lakes, and I stumbled across the term “coastal lagoon” on the National Geographic website.
A lagoon is a shallow body of water protected from a larger body of water (usually the ocean) by sandbars, barrier islands, or coral reefs. Lagoons are often called estuaries, sounds, bays, or even lakes.
My eyes widened and jaw dropped. “Oh no, oh no. This isn’t good.” I said aloud. The definition for coastal lagoon was very close to that of a coastal dune lake (and this is coming from Nat Geo, so I knew it was official). I continued researching coastal lagoons. Here is a definition of a coastal lagoon from a 1994 article by Dr. Bjorn Kjerve (PhD, Marine Sciences):
Coastal lagoons are inland water bodies, found on all continents, usually oriented parallel to the coast, separated from the ocean by a barrier, connected to the ocean by one or more restricted inlets which remain open at least intermittently, and have water depths which seldom exceed a few meters. A lagoon may or may not be subject to tidal mixing, and salinity can vary from that of a coastal fresh-water lake to a hypersaline lagoon, depending on the hydrologic balance.
I thought about the definition a bit more in regards to the coastal dune lakes in Florida and compared it to the definition put forth by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in their 2008 e-newsletter, Coastal Currents.
Coastal dune lakes develop from various coastal processes, most commonly when sand deposition fills an inlet to a tidal basin or lagoon…The coastal dune lakes of Walton County are fed by streams, groundwater seepage, rain and storm surge and experience intermittent connection with the Gulf of Mexico. The periodic connection, called an outfall, empties lake water into the Gulf and, depending on tides and weather, salt water and organisms from the Gulf flow back into the lakes.
Among the Walton County lakes, each is different and each outfall is unique. Salinity in the 15 lakes ranges from totally fresh to highly saline, resulting in biologically diverse ecosystems.
Coastal lagoons and coastal dune lakes—they sound a lot alike. But do they look alike? Here is a picture of a coastal lagoon from his article:
Here is a picture of a coastal dune lake in Walton County, Florida:
Hmm…that visual of a choked coastal lagoon looks a lot like a coastal dune lake, doesn’t it? I wanted a little more information, so I looked up examples of choked coastal lagoons he cited.
To be fair, both of these are much larger than the lakes found in Walton County—and neither of them have dunes that separate the lakes from the ocean. But—I hadn’t heard of them before, and I was still a little unnerved—what exactly are these lakes we have in SoWal? Should they be coastal dune choked lagoons? Or something else entirely?
Dagnabbit! I felt like I had opened Pandora’s box or taken a bite from the apple in the garden—what once was clear was now obfuscated, muddled.
In order to work my way out of this puzzle, I e-mailed Dr. Sarah Schindele, grant coordinator for the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance and superhero extraordinare. Sarah has been my main contact in finding out more about all things science-related to the dune lakes. She wasn’t sure how to answer my question, so she put me in touch with a professor she knew at University of West Florida’s Department of Environmental Studies, Dr. Klaus Meyer-Arendt. Dr. Meyer-Arendt received his PhD in Geography and Marine Science from Louisiana State University (like Dr. Kjerfve). He currently specializes in coastal research, so I knew he would be able to provide me with accurate information in regards to my question. Here is what he replied in an e-mail to me and Dr. Sarah Schindele:
…coastal dune lakes–including those of Walton County–comprise a subset of choked coastal lagoons. Dr. Kjerfve is a very respected oceanographer, and his article is very comprehensive. I personally always interpreted coastal lagoons as being linear, parallel to the shore, and normally free of freshwater input. Dr. Kjerfve’s article points out that this is not always the case. So, in terms of a typology of coastal waterbodies, I would tend to go along with him.
…these lakes are not very common but that they have been classified as a subset of coastal lagoons. I don’t believe that lessens their importance…..and their special status in Florida.
Ah…it made a little more sense now. I still want to make 100% sure that this is true and that coastal dune lakes are a subset of a choked coastal lagoon, so I am currently in the process of contacting Dr. Kjerfve. Once I find out more information from him, I will include it in my next update about the coastal dune lakes.
I thought more about it all—coastal dune lakes are a subset of a larger grouping. Kinda like—like birds! The Snowy Plover (Charadrius nivosus) is found in the plover bird family (Charadriidae). The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is found in the cardinal bird family (Cardinalis). Both bird families are branches under the much larger bird class (Aves). Defining coastal dune lakes in this way doesn’t make them any less rare or unique; this definition situates it in a larger framework and is a starting point for conversation about coastal systems around the world.
Attached is a video that we did here at Live Oak Production Group featuring the coastal dune lakes of South Walton and how they work. Enjoy!
08/12/14 UPDATE: In an 08/09/14 e-mail from Dr. Kjerve, he wrote that, “Whether a system is called a lagoon or a lake is usually the local terminology although the fresher the water is, there more likely it is that the system will be called a lake as in South Africa, Thailand, Australia when the water is mostly fresh. To me, coastal dune lakes and coastal lagoons are identical systems geodynamically.”
Meaning? Well, to update the above metaphor, it would be akin to the word “bird” being “tori” in Japanese or “pássaro” in Portuguese; the winged animal we see in front of us is still the same thing, despite the different names we have for it.
June 14th, 2014
By Nic Stoltzfus
Thursday, March 13th: Today Joey and I woke up and prepared all of our gear and walked down to the main office to set up and interview Mark “River” Peoples. After this we headed over to interview Hannah Tippitt, a Clarksdale local, and Megan O’Connor, an elementary school Spanish teacher in Clarksdale. After the interviews, River, Joey, and I met up with Braxton and had lunch at Dutch Oven, a local Mennonite-run restaurant. In the afternoon we had a little bit of downtime, so I wrote for awhile and Joey did some more filming around town. That evening River came back over and we went to Ground Zero Blues Club (the one that Morgan Freeman founded) for open mic night.
Friday, March 14th: Today was our last full day in Clarksdale—my, the week went fast! Joey and I set up the camera gear down in the main office to interview John Ruskey. In a role reversal, I ran the camera and Joey asked the questions. Joey had two pages of specific questions and really wanted to make sure he asked all the questions as succinctly as possible. Our interview with John was the longest of the week, about an hour long; John really dug in deep and shared with us stories of his life.
John Ruskey has a colorful history, and I won’t go into all the details here because I want to focus on his role as a mentor and how the Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program was birthed (if you want a brief history of Ruskey I recommend you check out Gregg Patterson’s 2009 article featured in Arkansas Farm Bureau’s Front Porch magazine).
In his interview, John Ruskey told us that he was inspired to mentor the youth from his blues teacher and mentor Johnnie “Mr. Johnnie” Billington.
He [Johnnie Billington] is as important as anything towards the creation of the Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program…He showed me how you can take something that we are sharing, like the blues or canoe building, and break it down into the simple skills that are involved along the way, and teach the very basics from keeping the beat, to tapping your hand on the snare, to all these different steps on the long road to becoming a successful performer on stage. But, he showed me how you can do that by breaking it down to these very discreet, learnable steps. And he was really inspirational for me and how to do that with the young men and women who used to show up on my doorstep wanting to learn to carve a canoe. Because I just use Mr. Johnnie’s method, I taught them with the very basics from the beginning, and taught them how to learn how to build a canoe with very, very simple steps…that came directly from my experience with him when I was learning to play the blues.
But, you may wonder—how did an accomplished bluesman come to be a river-guide along the Mississippi? The way Ruskey tells it, living in Clarksdale, he recognized that people who came to the city for the blues were also interested in the river—and some even wanted to go out on the river and explore it. Since he had experience paddling the river, he decided to start a canoe company to take people out on the Mississippi.
The Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program was birthed almost simultaneously. One morning John was outside hulling out a dugout canoe, and, because it is concave and made of wood, it made a dull thumping sound—thump, thump—that could be heard all throughout the neighborhood. So, curious neighborhood kids would come out and watch him. “Who is this guy? Who is this strange guy? Why is a building a canoe? Is he crazy?” Those were the sorts of questions that would be whispered amongst the kids. Finally, the kids dared each other and got the bravest of the bunch to ask him what he was doing. John would patiently explain that he was carving out a dugout canoe to sail on the Mississippi river. The brave kid would run back to the group and they would spend the next few days back to the status quo—just watching and whispering amongst each other. A few days later, the group would dare another brave kid to go up to John. “Hey, Mr. Ruskey—can I try out one of your tools?” And John would reach over for an extra pair of gloves and safety glasses and teach this kid how to carve out a canoe. And that is how the Mighty Quapaws were born. So, really, you can’t have the Quapaw Canoe Company without the Mighty Quapaws.
Joey and I finished up our interview with Ruskey, and I was emotionally drained. We had covered so much information and my head was spinning. It is amazing how much this man has done! How does he do it? (After Joey came back and transcribed all the interviews he came up with 33 pages; 21 of those were from John Ruskey.)
Joey and I packed up our gear and then headed to downtown Clarksdale to film more around town. We worked through the afternoon and then came back to the Quapaw HQ to clean up. Joey then helped River to sand down one of the canoes, and I filmed them working. Around 5:30 we called it a day and walked across Sunflower Avenue to Dreamboat Jerry’s for barbecue and tamales. We picked them up and came back to the Owl’s Roost to eat. After dinner River, Joey, and I went back to Ground Zero. On line-up for tonight were a series of local artists playing for a benefit concert: “Wearing the Green and Singing the Blues;” Since the early 2000s, Ground Zero has hosted this yearly benefit concert to raise money for the Jonestown Family Center. We listened to some blues, and left around 10. Joey and I went to sleep early so we would be well-rested for the drive back to Florida the next day.
Saturday, March 15th: This morning Joey got up around 6 to film John’s morning routine; John normally wakes up around 4 or 5, but showed mercy on Joey and started a little later. River and I walked over to Ruskey’s house and met up with him, his wife (Sarah), and his daughter (Emma Lou) around 7 for breakfast. Braxton and his girlfriend also joined us.
John was preparing breakfast, and I went to the kitchen to hang out with him. He was by the stove stirring up sausages and flipping pancakes. But these weren’t any ordinary pancakes—they were “bunny pancakes.” Here is how to make bunny pancakes: start with a pancake in the shape of a rabbit head, and then take a long sausage and cut it lengthwise and lay it down on the ears, use two almonds for eyes, and use pineapple wedges for whiskers. Voila! Bunny pancakes!
John’s daughter, Emma Lou, is a young girl with expressive and curious blue eyes, like her dad, and is fascinated by all kinds of plants and animals. She loves dogs and cats, but, above all else, she loves bunnies. And bunny pancakes are Emma Lou’s favorite pancakes. It was in that moment, standing in the kitchen with John, that things became clear for me. John Ruskey is more than the “Chief Visionary Officer” for the Quapaw Canoe Company. Yes, there is John Ruskey, accomplished bluesman. John Ruskey, river-guide. John Ruskey, environmentalist. John Ruskey, communitarian. But I think the thing that keeps John going day after day is John Ruskey, husband. John Ruskey, dad. It is not easy being a small business owner/artist and also being a family man.
As the son of a small business owner/artist, I recognize these struggles. My dad missed some of my school events because he was filming on-location and family vacations frequently consisted of part-work, part-play. Sometimes I felt like I was competing with his art for attention and affection. No, my dad isn’t perfect and he has messed up, but I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this if he hadn’t believed in me and offered me a job as a writer with Live Oak Production Group. Our family has had its share of ups and downs, but (so far) we have managed to stick together. All I can say is it takes a lot of grace. And love. And forgiveness.
I know for a fact that my dad wouldn’t be who he is today without his wife and my mom, Esther. And I think that Ruskey would say the same think about his wife, Sarah. This is part of the secret to my dad’s, and John’s, current success—a family who backs him up, and a man who backs up his family.
Joey and I packed up the car and said one final goodbye. One our way back we were mostly quiet; Joey was exhausted from our harried pace and mostly sleep. I drove and thought. I thought of Johnnie Billington. What did he do that set him apart from other great blues musicians—B.B. King or Elvis or John Lee Hooker? He came back.
but Mr. Johnnie felt the need to come back
to refertilize the place
it all came from
it wasn’t good enough to take and express himself
it wasn’t good enough to make a living
taking and expressing and making others
feel good for a drunken moment
somehow it was necessary to give back to the birthplace
to keep fertilizing the soil of the people, their youth
to plant seeds in the dreams and ambitions of
growing young men and women
and somehow make it possible for a person to
stay in the community where they were born
and make a respectable living
if all of the children left the Delta
the land were turn stale and rot
and there wasn’t enough time and luxury to
let a good thing go bad
if you didn’t put a guitar in a child’s hand
some gang leader would get them a gun
–John Ruskey, Excerpt from Part VI of the poem, “In the Beginning.”
We arrived home Sunday evening, unpacked, and soon started working on other projects. Joey finished a rough draft of the documentary to submit to Dr. Andy Opel so he could graduate, but knew that it wasn’t the final version that he had dreamed of making. The beginning of May, Joey started working for Live Oak Production Group full time. We had a couple projects that we needed to finish in a quick time-frame but, after that was finished, Dad and Joey were going to start work on editing the final cut of the Quapaw documentary. Joey finished work on the documentary, The Mighty Quapaws, this week, and here it is:
As a final end note, I want to thank Mr. John “Driftwood” Ruskey:
Thank you for inviting Joey and me to come to Clarksdale to film a documentary on the Quapaw Canoe Company. Just as Johnnie Billington deeply impacted your life, you have continued the chain by being an inspiration to both Joey and myself. After the expedition that we took down the Apalachicola River, you sent me a book in the mail called “The Artist’s Way.” In it, the author recommends writing every day. You stressed to me the importance of writing every day and how doing so changes your perception of the world. I started writing every day late last December, and have written every single morning since then with only skipping a handful of days. Writing daily has been of the best things I have ever done in my life, and it has allowed me to tap more into my creative side and also work on becoming a better writer—a little bit every day. So, John Ruskey, I want to say thank you so much for opening your home to Joey and me and for being a mentor to both of us. You have fundamentally altered the path of my life, and for that I am eternally grateful.
June 14th, 2014
For more information about John Ruskey and the Quapaw Canoe Company click here.
For more information about Joey Dickinson, me, and Live Oak Production Group click here.
June 13th, 2014
By Nic Stoltzfus
Wednesday, March 12th: Today was exceptionally windy; there were up to 45 mile an hour winds whipping up over the Mississippi—and that is too dangerous for small vessels like the Quapaw canoes to go out on the water. So, the canoeing trip for today was canceled. Instead, Braxton and River decided to show us around the levees. But first—breakfast.
This morning we ate at River’s favorite grease spoon in Clarksdale: the Delta Amusement Café . When I say grease spoon what I really mean is grease bowl—toast smeared with butter, butter-anointed grits, a greasy sausage patty, three oil-slicks of bacon, and some slippery butter-swabbed scrambled eggs. All this topped off with some gas-station strong coffee. Perfect way to start the morning. All aboard the Heart Attack Express! Here comes four more strapping young men!
After breakfast our hearty quartet drove up to a place called Moon River—an old oxbow of the Mississippi River. River told us that, when the river gets high, these usually unconnected oxbows open up and the fish go in them and lay their eggs. The freshly-hatched fish hang out in these oxbow lakes for a year or two as they mature and, when the river spills back into them again, they leave and head downstream.
After our jaunt to Moon River we started driving back towards Montezuma Landing. As Braxton drove us around in his station wagon my mind wandered. People think “river” and they think of only a singular main channel. But, my oh my, it is more than that. This river has, for centuries, spilt over her banks during flood season. These floods deposit nutrients into the delta and enrich the soil with nutrients. This cycle of nature is dangerous and has displaced people in the past. One of the largest natural disaster the United States has ever witnessed was the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The Mississippi spilled over her banks and displaced almost a million people. It is considered one of the worst floods (if not the worst) along the Mississippi and one of America’s greatest natural disasters. This is one of the factors in the Great Migration of African-Americans from this region to places up north like Chicago, New York, Detroit. And with them they took their culture. The blues was packed up in a suitcase and clickety-clacked northbound on rails and automobiles to find a new home. For more info on this history, Ruskey recommended reading Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America by John M. Barry. In a later conversation Mad Dog recommended the same book to Joey; he said that it really explains the centrality of the river to the region.
After the flood, in the southern portion of the river the Army Corps of Engineers erected more levees along the sides of the main channel as means of preventing it from spilling over into the rich farmland and small towns scattered along the river valley. Nature chaotic became nature controlled. But there was a consequence: the nutrients from the river no longer spilled out into the farmlands and so the once nutrient-rich soil became depleted over time. Countless capillaries of the main artery shriveled into dried blood; Man’s mangled open-heart surgery of Nature. And what of the folks who witnessed this tragedy play itself out?
At some level…they lost their souls. Perhaps it is more than just the individual oppression, the breakdown of race relations. Perhaps the collective crying out over the dissecting of the river—their homeland, their body—is what formed the blues. It is not happy music, the Delta blues. Something has died in this land, and it hasn’t returned. It never will return. No one should really “whoop it up” or “have a whale of a time” as they listen to the blues—it is not that kind of music. You can dig it, appreciate it, even enjoy it. But, most of all, you must empathize with what is being sung, what is being played. You can’t play the blues unless you have dealt with heartache, dealt with sadness. And the people in this region have seen their fair share.
I look at shacks found by the edge of the road: dilapidated, derelict, decrepit; run-down, rickety, stuck in time. Memories pervade the air in the area, intermingle with the searing humidity. It was once a bustling place, but it lost something. The river is no longer as important of a travel route as it once was. Somewhere along the way, people stopped using rivers as ways to get around. Rivers are natural highways, now we see the world mostly from manmade highways. Canoes and steamboats faded from the American consciousness and now highways and roads are our means of uniting the states. We cut through the country by car, not by boat, and certainly not by canoe.
However, even in the midst of the poverty, lawlessness, and barrenness of the land, culture formed in the Delta. People found ways to express what happened around them with the blues and other art forms.
There is something about the Delta people that goes to the very heart of what it means to be human. Perhaps nowhere else in America do such extremes in ways of life and emotional history exist so intimately.
This is what Dr. Barry H. Smith, current director of the Dreyfus Health Foundation, wrote in the preface to Magdalena Solé’s art book, New Delta Rising, featuring pictures and stories of the Delta region. Dr. Smith is right: in the midst of depravity the essence of humanity still endures. The heart of this land may be broken, but briny lifeblood of the Mississip continues to flow.
We continued to drive around. We listened to the local blues radio station and cycled through the iPod. Jimi Hendrix’s “Hear My Train A-Comin’” and “Electric Church Red House.” Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang.” Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “Snow.” The past, the present, and the future all fold on one another, flat. Flat like the Delta valley.
We went to Montezuma Landing (aka Delta Landing) and checked out the nearby docks. There was a barge headed to some upstream port with a sole towboat pushing it upriver and the wind was so strong that it was pushing it back. The tug was chugging as hard as it could with a sizable wake behind it, but it wasn’t moving anywhere fast. Another towboat started up and crossed over to help the struggling tug. Joey filmed a timelapse of this as I took stills around the area.
After watching this scene for about half an hour the four of us started to get hungry, so we went to Friar’s Point, the next town north of Clarksdale, and stopped at the local Chinese grocer and ordered fried chicken gizzards. Braxton ordered fried rice. The menu in the back was disorienting: fried gizzards and fried chicken next to General Tso’s chicken and sesame chicken. Strange.
The cook brought the gizzards out in white styrofoam containers. I popped one into my mouth—it had a nice buttery flavor, but it was too chewy. Joey thought that they tasted like fried boots. It was a “bit too southern” for my tastes, as Braxton put it. Joey and I couldn’t finish ours, so we gave our leftovers to River, who happily accepted them. While in the store, I heard the lady up front yelling to the lady in the back in Chinese. A local came in and muttered to the lady in front in southern black slang, “Hey, y’all got sweet tea? My friend wantsome.”
That evening we got back and went to Yazoo Pass in Clarksdale for supper. Joey and I couldn’t decide on one item because they all looked so good, so we split a burger and a shrimp po’ boy and each got a bag of Jalapeno Voodoo chips to go alongside. We brought our food back to the Owl’s Roost and sat around and told stories and listened to CDs that Joey had gotten of Watermelon Slim and Razorblade (he picked up Razorblade’s CD from the man himself and bought a Watermelon Slim album at the local record store—Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, Inc.). A relaxing way to end the day.
Stay tuned for the conclusion (and attached completed video!): The Quapaws of Clarksdale Part V: John Ruskey