The Quapaws in Clarksdale Part I: Getting There

June 9th, 2014

By Nic Stoltzfus


The fall of 2013 Joey Dickinson (current editor at Live Oak Production Group) was trying to decide what to do for a final video project at Florida State University to finish out his degree in Media Production. It had to be completed the following spring, but he needed a topic sooner. He had a couple of ideas, but none of them stuck. He knew he wanted to make a short documentary featuring a star environmentalist, but he hadn’t found the right person yet. The semester came and went: nothing. His plan was to pick a topic over winter break and go with it.


At the end of the fall semester, Joey and I were part of a 9 man crew that paddled the length of the Apalachicola River. Members of the crew included two “river-rats” from Clarksdale, Mississippi: John Ruskey and Mark “River” Peoples. With them they brought their most recent handmade canoe, the Grasshopper, for her maiden voyage. Over the course of the nine days that we spent with them they fed us a steady stream of stories of life in Clarksdale and all the programs they provide at the Quapaw Canoe Company. They talked about how they take people down the Mississippi River on tours, and work with the local students to teach them canoe building skills, and about how they partner with local businesses to bring commerce to the Delta region. I was shocked. People still paddle down the Mississippi? I thought it was dirty! Polluted! Who wants to do that? All of us leaned in closer as River and John continued to tell stories about back home. As we parted ways at the end of our journey, Joey asked John Ruskey if he could make a documentary on the Quapaw Canoe Company. He agreed and the two started planning a time when Joey could come out to Mississippi. After e-mailing back and forth John Ruskey and Joey settled on a date, which was Joey’s spring break, so Joey and I planned to go out March 9th-15th. The plan was that Joey and I would go to Clarksdale and shoot all the principal video for a 15-20 minute documentary featuring John Ruskey and the Quapaw Canoe Company. Dr. Andy Opel from the FSU College of Communication and Information’s Media Production Program would be Joey’s supervising professor on the project. Joey planned to use equipment from FSU’s Media Production Program and Live Oak Production Group (my dad’s production company). At the time Joey was still an intern at Live Oak Production Group. When Joey told my dad (Elam Stoltzfus) that he wanted to go to Clarksdale and film a documentary about Quapaw for his senior thesis project he thought it was a great idea, and he wanted to do all he could to support him. Something similar happened to my dad his senior year at FSU: He was an intern at Everything Video in Tallahassee and the director, Glenn Sharon, let him use the company’s equipment so he could work on his final video project. So, Dad saw this as a way of giving back.

The crew of the Grasshopper!

The crew of the Grasshopper! Crew (L to R): Mark “River” Peoples, Paul Veselack, Daniel Veshinski, Kristian Gustavson, and John Ruskey. Elam Stoltzfus in background on the kayak.


With all the pieces set, Joey decided we would leave on Sunday from Blountstown, Florida bound for Clarksdale, Mississippi. Let the wheels and good times roll!


Before Joey and I started out driving Sunday morning we had a big breakfast with my family and my Aunt Lois. She came down from Illinois to escape some of the cold weather and spend time with family in Florida. Sunday morning Mom made biscuits and gravy—a family favorite. She used handmade sausage from our neighbors, the Dueitts, for the gravy. Mike and Rhonda Dueitt are originally from Mississippi, and I felt like it was a fitting way to begin our journey to the Delta. After packing and doing one last equipment check, Joey and I said goodbye to everyone and drove off in Dad’s Sequoia. We decided to take the shortest route to Mississippi that iPhone’s Siri gave us—north through Alabama followed by a turn west at Birmingham to Clarksdale. It was a cloud-free March day with a faint breath of winter hanging in the air. Joey and I both love music, so we plugged in his iPod to the car’s tape-deck and cruised on to Mississippi; we two explorers flowing further north and deeper South, sliding down on the mellifluous music of Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix. We stopped at Montgomery at a local sports bar called Baumhowser’s and ordered fried Wickles as an appetizer. Wickles are an Alabama homegrown favorite—sweet and slightly spicy pickles. The waitress brought them to our table fried honey-brown with a side of cool ranch sauce to dip them in. After lunch we continued driving north through Alabama as the sun arced westward through the sky. At Birmingham we turned west and followed the setting sun towards our destination. A lovely sunset greeted us at the Alabama-Mississippi border and we entered the Delta with nightfall on our wheels. We gassed up our rig in Oxford, home of Sam Merideth and Ole Miss. On the hour long stretch from Oxford to Clarksdale we listened to Robert Johnson, the legendary Delta bluesman. Around 9 pm we arrived in Clarksdale, home of the Delta Blues. As we pulled into the Quapaw Canoe Company HQ in downtown Clarksdale, Mark “River” Peoples was there to greet us. He greeted us with a giant smile and shiny eyes, brimming with joy at reuniting with two of his comrades from the Apalachicola River expedition. He gave us big hugs and welcomed us into the Quapaw Canoe Company’s office to meet Braxton. The two of them live onsite, so there is always someone at the Clarksdale office 24/7. Braxton Barden has been working for Quapaw for a few months; he is a retired Navy officer who was stationed in Japan close to Yokohama for over a decade and has traveled all around the world. We chatted with the two of them for awhile and they told us the plan for tomorrow: we would meet at 6 and head over to Helena, Arkansas (one of Quapaw’s three outposts is located in Helena). We would put in here and paddle upstream with a crew from Teach for America. After we came back the plan was to head to “Bluesberry Café” and listen to some Delta blues. My eyes widened and I realized that we had a full day ahead of us; I wanted to go to bed soon so I would be well rested for tomorrow.


Tomorrow’s blog: The Quapaws in Clarksdale Part II: On the River and Monday Night Blues

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