The Story of How “The Mighty Quapaws” Got Accepted Into the Clarksdale Film Festival

By Joey Dickinson

Wednesday, January 28th

 

As some followers of this blog may recall, on December 5th, 2013, the Live Oak Production team banded together with a crew of six other men, whom we would soon know as fellow “river rats,” in order to launch the first ever test of Google’s “Riverview” concept on the Apalachicola River. The crew was a diverse one: the project itself was spearheaded by Kristian Gustavson of Below the Surface, a research group out of San Diego, California; we were joined by explorer Justin Riney, who was on the verge of finishing his year-long Expedition Florida 500 project (in which he paddle boarded completely around and throughout Florida); the vessel which was to carry the Google camera was crafted by John Ruskey and Mark “River” Peoples from Quapaw Canoe Company in Clarksdale, Mississippi; Daniel Veshinski accompanied Kristian all the way from the West Coast rounding out the crew was Paul Veselack, Kristian’s stepfather, who traveled from Illinois to serve as the team medic and designated comedian.

The trip was like a dream. We got along swimmingly, something remarkable considering we didn’t know each other before the trip. Putting a huge amount of physical energy forth every day, setting up camp and cooking every night, breaking down camp and doing it all over again for almost a week straight can put pressure on anyone. However, it seemed that the further we went down the river, the more we got along. And the further we went down the river, the more we got to know each other. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I heard countless stories from Justin’s adventure around the state of Florida, from Danny’s service in the Navy, and even from Paul’s experience in medicine. Everyone had a phenomenal attitude: a vigorous love for adventure, an incessant need to be closer to nature, a tireless teamwork perspective, a lust for life. My interest was particularly piqued when River began to tell me about his adventures with the Quapaw Canoe Company in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Considered to be one of the origins of the Delta Blues, Clarksdale is a small old southern town where the blues still reigns, and a river mightier than the Apalachicola runs through the backs of the residents’ minds constantly. This has been the home of Quapaw Canoe Company since John, better known as “Driftwood,” started the operation in 1998 with the sole purpose of sharing the beauty of the greatest river in North America. River continued to tell me that not only is this canoe company the only way for folks to experience the river motor-free for at least a hundred miles, but it is also the only way to experience the river the way that early explorers did: paddling the river on traditional, hand-made canoes. Just as I thought to myself, “What could top that?” River explained that the canoe company also offers an after school program for youth in Clarksdale, called the Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program, in which they instill environmentalism, teamwork, leadership and personal perseverance by way of teaching “canoe ethics.”

 

Joey on the Apalachicola River on the expedition where he met John Ruskey and River Peoples. Photo by Elam Stoltzfus.

Joey on the Apalachicola River on the expedition where he met John Ruskey and River Peoples. Photo by Elam Stoltzfus.

 

I was intrigued by what was going on in Clarksdale and wanted to see it for myself. After we finished paddling the Apalachicola River, I asked John Ruskey if I could come to Clarksdale to create a documentary on the Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program as senior project in Media Production before I graduated from Florida State University and, to my delight, he agreed.

 

I headed to Clarksdale for spring break, along with Nic to give me an extra hand, which would be much needed, with no real ‘plan’ other than to film everything I could, and to develop a story as I went along. Thankfully, my now employer, Elam Stoltzfus, whom I was just interning for at the time, agreed to produce the film, and granted me use of his professional equipment for the project, of which I am extremely thankful. I knew that at the very least, I would come back with a decent film about an after-school program, but after filming for five very full days, the story, and the trip itself, had developed into much more than I’d ever imagined possible. The folks at Quapaw Canoe Company are simply incomparable to any other organization I can think of, and the more learned about them, and the more I learned from them, the better the story got. This wasn’t as simple as I’d thought. This wasn’t merely one man’s attempt to help out his community while simultaneously promoting the preservation of the big river, it was the story of generations of innovators, willing to pass on their wisdom to the next generation and preserve what they’d learn. It was the story of a different way of life as one big family, with no traces of “no,” or “can’t” in the family tree. It was a passing on of principles and purpose; whether it be through the emotion-evoking, storytelling art of playing the blues, or through the eye-opening art of canoe building. How on earth could these things possibly be connected? Well, I suppose you’ll have to watch the film to find out.

 

John Ruskey with a group of students from Mississippi State University.

John Ruskey with a group of students from Mississippi State University.

 

Over five days in Clarksdale, Nic and I had filmed from sunrise to sunset; we’d paddled upstream on the mammoth Mississippi to stop at one of the river’s many islands; we observed the Mighty Quapaws learning canoe building skills; the two of us visited various “juke joints” to listen to true, unspoiled, “I-believe-God’s-lookin-down-crosseyed-on-me,” blues; and we spoke to some of the most genuine, life-loving, honest-to-goodness people I’ve ever come across. It was an adventure of a lifetime, and I was confident that I’d captured a heck of a story—I only wish I could have stayed longer!

 

As Nic and I departed, we carried with us a few souvenirs: Over 10 hours of footage containing interviews that I would later transcribe to over 25 pages of text, a few CDs purchased from Watermelon Slim and Razor E. Blade (two grizzled and aged Vietnam vets turned blues singers), a few books given to us as gifts from Driftwood, and two hats. The hats were given to us by our loyal host, Mark River. The hats, although different colors, both said the same thing: “Live Simply.” This is the overall attitude I took away from the entire experience, and I have to say it has fundamentally altered the way I go about living my life. Upon coming home to Florida I had one goal in mind: to do justice to what I had just experienced by making a documentary that not only explained what the apprenticeship program is currently doing for Clarksdale’s community, but also told the story of how it all came to be – how it all dated back to music.

Watermelon Slim singing at Bluesberry Cafe.

Watermelon Slim singing at Bluesberry Cafe.

 

Watermelon Slim lookin' sideways at the camera

Watermelon Slim lookin’ sideways at the camera

Seven months later, I am honored to say that my documentary, The Mighty Quapaws, has been accepted for screening in the Clarksdale Film Festival. For those who will be attending the festival, here is the blurb about it that the festival planners put in the schedule of events:

 Friday, January 30th

4:30 PM, UPSTAIRS THEATER: Delta Cinema

The Mighty Quapaws

(17 min.) New documentary tells the story of the Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Founded by John “Riverman” Ruskey of Quapaw Canoe Company, the young program teaches “canoe ethics” — using the “Mr. Johnnie method” — to brighten the lives of his students and the future of the river itself. Directed by Joseph Dickinson.

 

My hope is that those attending the festival will get a taste of the incredible story and lifestyle of the Quapaw family. As I tell my friends and family, “I really just wanted a reason to go back!” I can’t wait to represent my film in person, and to be reunited with my river-rat brothers. If you’d like to read more about the behind-the-scenes of filming in Clarksdale, you can read Nic’s blog series HERE, and you can watch The Mighty Quapaws below.

 

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