A Weekend with Clyde Butcher, Part III: Filming for a Kickstarter and a Harmonica/Guitar Duo

By Nic Stoltzfus

Sunday, March 1st

The Sunday of Presidents’ Day weekend, we began the day by filming the intro to the Kickstarter short video. Brief interlude: What is Kickstarter? And what does it have to do with Clyde?

The reason we had traveled to south Florida in the first place was to start filming video for a documentary on Clyde Butcher. For all of my dad’s previous projects he has had corporate sponsors but, this time around, he wanted to try a new model. Clyde has a large fan base that really believe in him and what he does. Maybe there is way to include his fans in making the film? Turns out this is exactly what Kickstarter is for–gather a large group of people together to fund a project. In this case, it is a documentary on the life of Clyde Butcher. We are starting our campaign on March 3rd (just 2 days away!), and this is the first time our company has tried this model. I, for one, am really excited about this because our team not only gets bigger but exponentially so. We become one large group of people working together to form something larger than ourselves. I must confess that to work on this sort of project with a large team has been a dream of mine since I was a kid. I didn’t dream of being a cowboy or a cop. I dreamed of working for Pixar or Nintendo and sitting down at a table and creating a movie or a video game that people would enjoy, remember, and take with them. So, yes, I the idea of a Kickstarter is exciting to me. I want it to work, and I want to write a documentary on Clyde that people will enjoy. (And here is my shameless plug: we really do need your help to make it happen. If you want to support this check back here on Tuesday evening at 8:30 PM EST–we will have the link for the Kickstarter posted and it will be live from March 3rd-31st. Thank you! Now you can go back to enjoying the article.)


Anyway, back to the swamp: The opening shot for the Kickstarter video is my dad standing knee-deep in the Big Cypress Swamp behind Clyde’s Big Cypress Gallery. Joey was running the camera and I was taking pictures of our set-up. It was then that I stopped for a moment to think about it all. The last time I was here doing swamp walks was as a kid. Little did I know that as an adult I would be back filming with my Dad working on a documentary on Clyde Butcher. I thought it was a really cool way to start things off: Here we are, back at the place where my Dad first met Clyde over 25 years ago (before I was even a twinkle in his eye!), and we are creating a documentary on his life story.

A panoramic of Elam Stoltzfus delivering the intro to the Kickstarter short while Joey Dickinson films. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

A panoramic of Elam Stoltzfus delivering the intro to the Kickstarter short while Joey Dickinson films. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.


Nic on a swamp walk with his dad, Elam.

Nic on a swamp walk with his dad, Elam.


Trying to get a photo of baby gators. Image by Elam Stoltzfus.

Trying to get a photo of baby gators. Image by Elam Stoltzfus.

A baby gator. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

A baby gator. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.


After this, Joey and I filmed another swamp walk. When we finished cleaning up, our crew left for Everglades City for a late lunch. We stopped at Camellia Street Grill, found a table outside, and waited for our food to arrive. There was a slight breeze and not a cloud in the sky. It was nice to feel the sun on my face—February in north Florida is still cold and cloudy, and the warmth was a welcome precursor to spring. In a way, though, since south Florida is partly tropical, it is eternal spring. Some people like this. I like a bit of cold weather and cloudy days if only because it makes me appreciate sunshine and warmth even more. Plus, as my momma told me, “too much sunshine leaves you burned.”

Nic and Joey with their swamp walk crew.

Nic and Joey with their swamp walk crew.


Once we finished eating, we picked up a quart of ice cream for the swamp crew, and headed back to the gallery. I read a few more short stories from my Flannery O’Conner book before dark and then headed upstairs to meet up with the rest of the swamp crew. Later that evening, Joey got out his guitar and played for us while John, one of the muck-about guides and employee at Big Cypress National Preserve, played harmonica. It was a really good set and they meshed well together even thought they had only known each other for less than two days. The second song in, Joey sang a modified version of Bob Dylan’s ballad “Motorpsycho Nightmare”; he switched the main character to Clyde and changed the setting to Florida. It was amusing and elicited whistles and loud applause after the duo finished the song.


Later in the evening he played one of my favorite songs, “Laundry Room” by the Avett Brothers. I really like the refrain: “I am a breathing time machine.” Since the song is about the ephemerality of love, I thought those words to be quite poignant. Not only is the song beautifully written, but there are some complex chords in the piece and Joey has continued to practice it and has gotten quite good.


After he finished his set, we went to bed, all of us ready to head back to Blountstown the next day. Before I went to sleep, I lay in bed thinking about all the great things we did over the last few days. It was a great trip, and I couldn’t wait to look through all the photos and video from the last few days.


Joey and John playing up a storm. Image by Elam Stoltzfus.

Joey and John playing up a storm. Image by Elam Stoltzfus.


A Weekend with Clyde Butcher, Part II: Valentine’s Day in the Swamp

By Nic Stoltzfus

February 28th, 2015


Swamp Crew Valentine's Day cake

Swamp Crew Valentine’s Day cake


Before I begin this post, let me begin with a preface: I am single. And in my mid-twenties.


This is a period of time when relatives begin to turn up the heat on finding a companion. I have discovered that uncles are particularly zealous in this task. In fact, it is usually the first question they ask me. “Sooooo, Nic, how is your LOVE life?” I have taken to finding creative responses for this question. To one uncle I replied, “Well, I was thinking the same thing—how is your love life with Aunt B.?” To another quizzing uncle at a family dinner, I nodded my head at my likewise unmarried cousin a few years younger than me and replied, “The same as your daughter’s love life: I’m happily single and open to options.” The most fervent attempt to find me a mate was one uncle’s crusade in online dating on my behalf. “Nic, I could sign you up for Christian Mingle or EHarmony. They even have a dating site for guys living in rural areas called ‘Farmers Only.’” I was mortified.


With all this being said, when I found out that I was going to be going to the Big Cypress Swamp to film swamp walks on Valentine’s Day, I punched my fists in the air and yelled a heroic, “Heck ya! I got plans for V-Day!” You see, I hadn’t been on a swamp walk since I was a kid. I grew up with a swamp behind the house in north Florida, and I am endlessly fascinated by all the bugs and critters hiding in those murky waters. A date with the swamp was just the thing.


The night before V-Day Dad, Joey, and I drove to the Big Cypress Swamp Gallery from Miami after filming one of Clyde’s new galleries opening in Coconut Grove.


On Valentine’s Day, I woke up early and spent the morning drinking coffee with my Dad, Clyde Butcher, and his wife, Niki. They soon left and went out to get ready for the swamp walks. After everyone left, I got my laptop and plopped down on the big sofa upstairs in the cabin overlooking the swamp. It was quiet. Peaceful. All I could hear was the whirring of overhead fans and the muted ticking of a bird-shaped clock on the wall. I looked out through the large glass panels and witnessed the brilliant and bright-white morning light slashing through cypress limbs and filtering downward, slowed by fern fronds and bromeliad leaves. The sunbeams reached the black surface of swamp water and reflected upward on the cypress trunks and knees, the soft strands of light rippling on the rough bark like a glittering harp.


I took another sip of coffee and thought about what Niki told me this morning. She said that there was a man who was giving a presentation on ecology and, at the beginning, he handed everyone a blue marble. At the end of the presentation he asked everyone to get out their blue marbles and hold it in their right hand with their thumb and forefinger. “Look at it closely. Observe every crack and crevice.” The audience did so. The presenter then put up a slide showing Earth. He said, “You are holding the world in your hands. You have the power to change this planet. Now go out and share what you have learned today.”


If the Earth is a marble, what am I? I am but an atom on its surface—tiny, small, fragile. I thought on this a moment, took another gulp of coffee and closed my laptop, ready to meet up with my group for a swamp walk.


I walked to the gallery and snapped a few photos of people meeting Clyde. A family of tourists from China chatted with Clyde for a bit. An Austrian man gave Clyde a calendar of his photos of birds in the Everglades. A little boy with glasses hid shyly behind his mother as she said, “We came all the way from Miami; my son wanted to meet you today.” They got behind the desk to get a photo with him and the boy hopped onto Clyde’s lap. With a smile covering his face, he waved goodbye to Clyde as they left the gallery. After about half an hour of watching Clyde chat with visitors, I went outside and mingled with some of the gallery workers while I waited for the 1:00 swamp walk. Finally, the tour guide, Trish, assembled everyone on the walk and we started off. There were about 15 of us in the group with Trish leading the train of people and me as the caboose; I wanted to make sure I got plenty of good pictures of people schlepping about the swamp!


A family meeting Clyde Butcher at the Big Cypress Gallery.

A family meeting Clyde Butcher at the Big Cypress Gallery.

Joey and Elam filming Clyde. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

Joey and Elam filming Clyde. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

Elam filming Clyde. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

Elam filming Clyde. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

To keep me company at the back was a young couple from Tampa. The boyfriend informed me that the evening before they had waltzed away the night at a Valentine’s Day soiree held in a ballroom overlooking the Tampa skyline. Today his girlfriend traded a sparkly evening gown for bug spray and old sneakers and he thought it was pretty cool that she was the one who planned the whole thing. “She’s a keeper,” he said to me with a twinkle in his eyes. About a third of the way through a tour guide from another group, Dylann, joined up with us. She knew much about swamp plants and taught us the names for different ones as we walked. There were bladder-wort, cocoplum, wax myrtle, cardinal bromeliads, resurrection ferns…All these different species living together, breathing together, forming one giant system. Cypress trees growing out of the porous coral with a myriad of other plants living on their trunks and limbs. Flora like alveoli in our respiratory tracts transmogrifying carbon dioxide to oxygen. Perhaps this is what it feels like to live in a lung?


A couple enjoying the swamp walk. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

A couple enjoying the swamp walk. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.


We finished our walk, sprayed the mud off our muck-soaked sneakers and changed into dry clothes. I said goodbye to the tour group and worked on a few images before supper.


On my way upstairs for supper, I felt my phone buzz and looked at a message from my sister. It was a Valentine’s Day E-card: R4 is red, R2 is blue, if I was the force, I’d be with you! I smiled and went inside.


A Valentine's Day E-Card from Laura

A Valentine’s Day E-Card from Laura


By the time I arrived, all the other volunteers were getting their plates and queuing by the food. Jackie had a large spread set out for us: barbecue, baked beans, rolls, green beans, and even a carrot cake that read “Happy Valentine’s Day to the Swamp Crew.” One of the volunteers handed me a piece of homemade chocolate quinoa cake she had baked. I was a little skeptical at first (quinoa? In a cake? In a chocolate cake? How can you ruin my chocolate with something that sounds that healthy?!), but I have tasted it and have come back with good news: it was the best chocolate cake I have ever eaten in my life, and I was soon recalcitrant for judging the chocolate-quinoa pairing. Yes, quinoa, you can be friends with chocolate. Please go on a date in my mouth anytime you desire.


Although words cannot do such feels justice, I will attempt a paean to this holy pairing:


Excerpt from “An Ode to a Chocolate-Quinoa Cake


O chocolate-quinioa cake! O Cool fudginess!

Be still my sugar-crazed heart! You have

Melted my heart of all other passions.

Unlike the lava cakes they sell at Applebees,

You are not cloying

Nor overly saccharine.

Your taste is like the full-bodied taste of Guinness

Enjoyed after a long day.

Deliciousness is truth, deliciousness beauty,” – Earth is

The only planet with chocolate. That is all ye need to know.


The crew sat around chatting late into the night and I had a realization: Valentine’s Day needn’t be just for dates. It is about love—and love can be found in many different ways. Love can be found in a hot cup of coffee, or in a chat with old friends. Love can be found in nature, love can be found in the corniness of lampooned poem. These moments are just as real, and just as life-sustaining. There are many avenues to love. So, there is no reason for single people to fret on Valentine’s Day. Love really is all around you—you just have to look for it.


A group of volunteers at the Big Cypress Gallery. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

A group of volunteers at the Big Cypress Gallery. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.


Tomorrow’s blog: A Weekend with Clyde Butcher, Part III: A Harmonica/Guitar Duo





A Weekend with Clyde Butcher, Part I: Getting to Miami and the Coconut Grove Gallery Opening

By Nic Stoltzfus

February 27th, 2015


The Thursday before President’s Day weekend Dad, Joey, and I left Blountstown driving to south Florida to meet with Clyde Butcher and film some events for him. A new gallery in Coconut Grove in Miami was opening to the public on Friday and then the Big Cypress Gallery was hosting swamp walks Saturday and Sunday. We are currently working on a documentary on Clyde Butcher and these were key events that we want to include in the film.


On our way south we spent the night with Joey’s grandparents, Richard and Donna, in the small town of Citra near Ocala. We met them for dinner at Blue Highway Pizza in Micanopy. We all love pizza and Blue Highway also has some of the best wings this side of the Apalachicola River. Joey’s grandparents ordered a small pepperoni pizza and we ordered Joey’s favorite, buffalo chicken pizza; between the three of us, we finished off the whole pie. After supper we went back to Joey’s grandparents’ house in the backwoods of Ocala. We chatted for a while, drank hot chocolate, and ate delicious homemade cookies courtesy of Donna. I went to bed early in anticipation of the long drive to Miami.

Eating Blue Highway Pizza! Image by Elam Stoltzfus.

Eating Blue Highway Pizza! Image by Elam Stoltzfus.


On Friday morning we had bagels and hot coffee for breakfast. We said our goodbyes to Richard and Donna and began the drive to Miami. About halfway in, we stopped at the Canoe Creek Service Plaza right outside of Yeehaw Junction on the Florida Turnpike. It was interesting watching all the people at the plaza walking all over the place namby pamby; Tourists wore t-shirts featuring sports teams from Detroit, Ontario, New York, Boston.


We finished our lunch and began driving towards Coconut Grove. It took us about an hour to get through the traffic in Coconut Grove as vendors set up for the Presidents’ Day weekend art show, but, despite the heavy traffic, we found a parking spot.


Dad and Joey were both videoing the event, and I took pictures with my Nikon D800. I had my zoom lens on the camera and captured some great close-up shots of people looking at Clyde’s art in the gallery. I was impressed with the gallery. The white walls and honey-colored wood floors create a modern-style minimalism that is filled with Clyde’s chaotic and rugged images. The contrast is alluring and attractive to the eye.

The front of the Clyde Butcher gallery. Image by Elam Stoltzfus.

The front of the Clyde Butcher gallery. Image by Elam Stoltzfus.

The front of the Clyde Butcher Coconut Grove Gallery. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

The front of the Clyde Butcher Coconut Grove Gallery. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

A visitor viewing one of Clyde's photos. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

A visitor viewing one of Clyde’s photos. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

Soon after dark we left, headed towards the Big Cypress Swamp gallery for the Presidents’ Day weekend swamp walks. Clyde’s daughter, Jackie, caught a ride back with us because she had to wake up early the following day to drive back to Coconut Grove for the art show.


On our way out of Miami we stopped at the last Publix before civilization ends and turns to swampland. Joey and I ran inside to get supplies for the weekend. We arrived at the Big Cypress Gallery soon after 9. Jackie said goodnight and went upstairs to the cabin the gallery rents out to guests. Joey, Dad, and I were staying downstairs in the “Man Cave”, a room with a full sized bed and a bunk bed we would call home for the next three nights. After reading a few short stories by Flannery O’Conner, I was about to go to sleep when I heard a knock on the door and a hullo. Clyde came to our room, pulled up a chair, and chatted with us. He told us several stories, including things I had never heard before. I learned that he and Niki wanted to move to Florida from California, not because of the photography, but because of the sailing. He said his vision of Florida was all dolphins—based on the movie “Flipper.” He talked about growing up, his family, and the future. Dad, Joey, and I all listened, fascinated by these bed-time stories. After a spell, he yawned, put the chair back, and headed to his camper to go to bed. Dad clicked off the light and I soon fell asleep.


Stick around for tomorrow’s blog, A Weekend with Clyde Butcher, Part II: Valentine’s Day in the Swamp

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.


Team Apalachicola by Guest Writer Mark River

12/12/14: This blog was written by Mark River from the Quapaw Canoe Company about our trip down the Apalachicola River last year. I have been given permission to repost the article in full by John Ruskey, founder of the Quapaw Canoe Company. Tomorrow I will post a reflection on where everyone is at a year after our trek down the river. –Nic

Team Apalachicola—-

Photo by John RuskeyPhoto by John Ruskey

As season comes to a end , the Mighty Quapaws had one more expedition. Our friends from sunny California were embarking on a plan on how to document river’s from a camera mounted on one of our voyager canoes. It was a brilliant idea.

This project called ” Riverview” was a concept developed by Kris Gustafson , a oceanography teacher, at Scripp’s Oceanography School of San Diego. The concept was to attach a 360 degree camera onto the Grasshopper canoe and document the Apalachicola River in Florida. When I heard the plan, I instantly found a quiet place to pray. Knowing I might have to stay at base camp, I needed to express my humility to the Creator to corral my selfishness and do whatever to team needs to make this expedition successful.

The team arrives from San Diego after a late night of driving. I wake early to do my normal routine of pull-ups and inclined lunges and notice they have made it safely as a solid piece of metal rested in our lot. I know it hadn’t been there long as our adopted cat” shady cat” is resting underneath the vehicle enjoying the heat from the vehicle. I examine the beast of a vehicle and noticed it was powered by biofuel. I think to myself, “my type of people.”

The sun eventually rises and heats up the delta. I wait patiently to meet the crew as Wolfie and I start planning for the Clarksdale Christmas Parade, which is one of my favorite times of year. Wolfie, a talented writer, is scheduled to be first mate on the expedition, but has deadlines to meet before departure.

He looks at me and says, ” River, you gonna have to take my place on the trip. I have to make these deadlines.”

My heart skips a beat as I look to the heavens and say, ” thanks.”

The crew is set. My bags were already packed because of my unshakeable faith in the Creator and humanity, while Kris, Dan, and Paulie rise from their needed naps from the long trip. Kris, who is known for his work with Below the Surface is a well known water keeper and old friend of Driftwood Johnny. Dan, a navy man and avid diver, and Paulie, our medic for the trip. The “dark chocolate”, Kris’s truck, is loaded with equipment and gear. We unload the truck while Braxton and Dan, former sailors, start coming up with a plan on how to mount the 360 degree camera onto the Grasshopper.

Kris yells,” I heard you going on the trip.”

I yell,” Thanks for having me. It’s and honor.”

He looks at me and says,” River, you’ve earned it.”

The Mighty Quapaw’s are busy preparing for the parade, arranging holiday lights, working with our Griot after school program, and shaving cypress logs for our new awning being designed for our storefront. It gets even more exciting when the crew decides it would be great to do a test run of the camera in the parade.

The plan is to participate in the parade and leave the following evening for the Apalachicola River. The crew is already starting to bond as we trade gifts and gear to assure everyone’s protected and seasoned for the trip. The spirit is in the air. My stomach is already started to feel like the night before Christmas.

Braxton Barden, one of our latest Mighty Quapaw’s, is in full blown work mode, configuring the apparatus upon the canoe and programming the GPS system. Him and Dan come up with a great model. Now it’s ready for the trial run.

Parade day is here as the Mighty Quapaw’s finish up our floats. We will have our york boat the Annie, Butch, Quapaw’s first vehicle, along with Grasshopper, loaded with Griot Art students along with the “Dancing Diva’s” starring one of our own, Emma Lou Ruskey. The Rat King, “Watermelon Slim” and the “Nurkracker” will be dueling in hull of the Annie.

The parade goes on without a hitch, as the town of Clarksdale line the streets

enjoying a special time of year. The crowd woes at our contraption, while the fireman and policemen wonder what we’re doing. The camera mount look’s strong and sturdy, and the team looks solid. We end the parade with hugs and laughter while the firework show lightens up the Sunflower River. I look around and take it all in. I think about the expedition and how this trip could change the way our world look’s at rivers. I think about incorporating this expedition with the http://www.rivergator.com and documenting the entire Mississippi River.I think about all the uncertainties leading up to this point and celebrate our accomplishments. The team has already come together. Now we must take this energy to Florida and make it count!

We cross the bridge , Driftwood says, “River, that’s the Chaatihouchie.On the other side is the Apalachicola.”

We honk the horn with enthusiasm greeting our friends as they wait at the ramp. Introductions with hugs , not handshakes, lets me know that this trip would be special. The Florida Crew consist of Elam Stoltzfus, a producer,director,cinematographer, and editor of Live Oak Production Group,Inc.His partner and son, Nick. Joey, the intern and fellow Florida State best bud, and Jason Riney, a explorer who most recently circumnavigated Pensicola, Fla. Our diverse crew consisted of one Voyager canoe, three kayaks, and one paddle board. Locals gather, talking through their trucks, about us as we mount a 360 degree camera in the Grasshopper canoe. Driftwood and I continue to pack the canoe as if a regular day on the Mississippi River. The crowd grows bigger as the questions start to fly.

Who built that boat?

How much weight can it hold?

Where you guys from?

What are you’ ll doing?

We continue on answering all question with grace.

I take a second to reflect, ” I’m in Florida.”

_JAR1314Photo by John Ruskey

I smile and take it all in. I look around and see palmettos and cypress trees. Spanish moss hanging from the trees.

A sign that says, “No swimming, alligators frequent these waters.” As Driftwood dives of the dock.

We set off up the middle of the channel. Buoys and anchors from the pass when barges frequented the river. Fishermen fish out their boats targeting structure created by man. A lonely alligator suns on the bank. Great blue herons and egrets fish from the low lining tree limbs aware of the danger under the surface. A bald eagle feeds on the gravel bar.The water’s a jasmine green as clear as a mountain stream. The trees are turning beautiful colors. It feels like a fall day on the Mississippi River.

_JAR0480Photo by John Ruskey

We paddle 15 miles and find a sandbar to camp. The stars fill the sky as if they followed me from home. Great horned owls sing their song throughout the night as I ponder,” this is the same sky I see at home-just from a different angle.” I wait for the coyotes, but they never sing.

I rise with sun to be welcomed by a bald eagle flying across the river channel and lands in a large sycamore tree.

_JAR1280Photo by John Ruskey


Driftwood and I greet each other thanking the creator for looking after us. It’s a welcoming sighting and assures us that we are one with nature.

Photo by John RuskeyPhoto by John Ruskey

We pack the boat with great anticipation as another immature bald eagle hovers over the canopy of hardwoods landing on the highest limb. The presence moves us to get the drum out and celebrate another glorious day, while we bless the canoe and each other. The sage feels my lungs and leaves me to believe this would be a special day.

Photo by John RuskeyPhoto by John Ruskey

The river meanders slightly as houseboats start to appear around every bend. Large pillars of oak reach out into the channel like the wing-dikes on the Mississippi River. The structure is the old way of dredging and straitening this waterway.

Beautiful bluffs of limestone remind me of the family property in southeast Missouri. Unique colors of orange,pink, and sulfur stacked in sedimentary layers.

Photo by John RuskeyPhoto by John Ruskey

Sitting around the campfire that evening while listening to Driftwood and Joey strum the guitar while the fire winds us down slowly. Joey had the voice of a young Bob Dylan. That night staring at constellations as they move throughout the sky, I coined Nick-The Big Lewboski because of his affectious laugh and big personality. News that Nelson Mandela died yesterday sent the eagles to show us the way and to let us know everything will be alright, but never the same.

When I laid my head to rest last night, I had finally got the feeling I get on natural rivers as I hear the sounds of skipjack herring chasing shad while being chased by aggressive territorial fish like large and smallmouth bass. I was deeply worried about the reservoir like setting at the start of the Apalachicola River. There were no signs of fish feeding , just many boats zipping through river being impatient and fishing only man-made structures. That let me know that big catfish existed in this river. Catfish seem to turn up when dams are built. Most of them get planted in these settings from waterfowl and other water birds transporting catfish eggs on their feet from the previous bodies of water.

I take a walk along the beach gazing across the river as I hear and see a great horned owl perch way up the tree on the bluff opposite of our campsite. He sings his song as if he has all the time in the world. The clouds are teasing us with small gust of precipitation so everyone pulling out their rain gear preparing for a rainy day.

The camera is put away for the time being as we launch the grasshopper and head downstream. We stop at the Bluntstown boat ramp to meet Elam’s wife, Ester, and resupply while we greet the people who heard about the expedition waiting to see our canoe and camera. One women with a very sketchy john boat says,” that ain’t no boat , thats just sticks in the water” we all give each other the look and smile. It was the highlight of a rainy day.

Photo by John RuskeyPhoto by John Ruskey

I start to feel at home as willow trees welcome us around the bend. The sandbars are getting steeper and horizontal, like the islands of the Mississippi River. The river is back to it’s natural self and so am I .

A bald eagle statues in the tree across the sanbar letting me know this is where we would camp for the night. We are now 63 miles from our destiny. The relationships have bonded and we have become a tribe of nomads clinging to each other for the sake of humanity. Their are no bad attitudes and we laugh like we known each other for years. This expedition was meant to happen.

We wake with a haze in the air. In the nigth I could hear huge gars feeding in the shallows. As we get further from the dam, the willows started to show up on the sandbars, letting me know it’s getting back to it’s natural state. Old cypress trunks stratal the banks , while the sandbars grow vertically and back channels appear. The trees in Florida in the winter look like fall in the delta. Their colors are spectacular.

Photo by John RuskeyPhoto by John Ruskey

The one thing I have notice is the lack of beavers. Driftwood and I hold the alligators responsible for that. The team’s getting stronger and more efficient daily. We are spending more time together around the fire listening to Nick and Joey entertain us with endless portfolios of material. As we get further south the mosquitoes get thicker , but I’m use to it. We had a beautiful day and the crew is incredible.

We spent the night on a sandbar that reminded me of the bank channel of island 64. The willows buried high on their trunks, while the leaves fall with every wind gust. If you never heard a willow leaves land on the fly of your tent, it’s like thin potato chips falling from the air.

We paddle to our resupply point where we are greeted by Ester with donuts and chocolate milk from the Ocheesee Creamery, a traditional Mininite farm, which happened to be owned by her sister. The town is called Wewahichta , Fl. It’s a beautiful community of houseboats and lake houses located on the main channel of the Apalachicola River. An oxbow chute that leads to the Dead Lakes, which has a old cypress forest like I’ve never seen before. Old trunks that could be anywhere from one hundred to five hundred years old. It was worth the beauty, but upstream paddle to get out was difficult. As always we faced and embraced the paddle and we was rewarded by a north wind pushing us down river as we ate lunch in the canoe.

We paddle to a protected bay with cypress and tupelo trees intertwined in great numbers. When we pulled in my natural instincts set in and I feel a mysterious aura as we paddle slowly through. I could hear no sounds or animals. It was surreal and had sign that read,Camp Swampbooger. I think to myself,”something happened here.” Later that evening around the fire, I hear that a large amounts slaves had been hung there. I felt it.

Photo by John RuskeyPhoto by John Ruskey

We past by various houseboats at every bend. This river had the highest concentration of houseboats I’ve ever seen. We past one that had a separate dog kennel floating with hunting dogs. We also pasted many abandon boats landlocked and in need of repairs.

Photo by John RuskeyPhoto by John Ruskey

We make to camp and a hour later one of the damaged houseboats came floating around the bend. We all got footage.

We start our day in the rain, but it was more like a warm shower as we rush to pack the boat. We do a wet pack and get on our way to make sure we allow time for any inconveniences along the way. The day is felled with scattered showers and sunshine alternating around every bend. We are curious about what happened to the runaway houseboat we witnessed floating down the river the day before. We paddle around every bend taking guesses on where it may land. Houseboats appear around every bend and we wonder how these boats avoided disaster. Eventually we come around a tight bend where the houseboat had collided with a submerge tree. We sign of relief glad no ones home had been destroyed or hurt, but the owner lost something special.

Our last camp was Fort Gadsen. This fort was very active during the War of 1812 and later became a haven for runaway slaves and relocated indians. They thrived being less resistant to malaria and became a force to be recon with when slaves from all over converged to join forces with the indians. When we made the landing, again I could feel the mystic spirits of the fort and embraced it without fear. In our tents that night, I could see all types of shadows and silhouettes, but never felt fear. I could hear dogs occasionally sounding as if approaching only to fade away. I think to my self, ” the slaves and indians are running from the dogs.”

We rise with big smiles and sun. We all had encounters with spirits and someone watch something hovering around our campfire late into the night. We are all looking forward to seeing the Gulf of Mexico today as well as the beautiful oyster town of Apalachicola.

The landscape starts to flatten as brackus swamps and marshes look as if sunken into the land. Schools of mullet work the shallow banks pushing shad upon the shores. The peripheral landscape widens as we get closer to the bay.

Photo by John RuskeyPhoto by John Ruskey

The beautiful town of Apalachicola, caught between new development and old establishment is a site to see. Large brown pelicans soar the bay feasting on the bays bountiful givings. Big yachts, shrimp boats, and oyster boats line the cities downtown area. People from these million dollar yachts smile and take pictures. One woman comes out of her spectacular yacht and says, ” nice canoe, can I take a picture?” That made my day. Grasshopper fitting in well with yachts!

We finish the day and head back to Blountstown to celebrate our journey. Ester treats us all like we were her own as we eat around the dinner table telling stories and processing data from the trip. We finish two days earlier giving us ample time to get our wits and prepare for the journey home as Christmas creeps upon us.

The following day, I get the tour of Blountstown from Laura, the daughter of Elam and Ester, and Communications teacher at Florida State. Laura, a striking woman with porcelain skin and truthful, piercing eyes, explained the social economic checks and balances of the town and its deep history of Mininite farms and football. We all went out for cheeseburgers and had a glorious time. We went down to the Blountstown ramp and the water had risen 10 ft. Thank goodness we finish when we did or our camp spots would have been submerged.

The Apalachicola River is a beautiful, mystic river with tons history . Its crystal clear water and bountiful wildlife support thousands of houseboats and still had beautiful water and trees. The expedition was one the best I’ve been apart of and the relationships that were formed are forever. Our chemistry was so natural, it felt like we all knew each other for a very long time. The next time I go back, I’m checking into a houseboat! Mark River

Coastal Dune Lakes Documentary Update Winter 2013/2014

By Nic Stoltzfus


This is a general update for the coastal dune lakes documentary project.

First, we have selected a final title for the coastal dune lakes film. It is (drumroll please!) Coastal Dune Lakes: Jewels of Florida’s Emerald Coast. This title was selected because from our interviews we heard people refer to the dune lakes as jewels or gems for the region. Since this part of the Florida coastline is referred to as the Emerald Coast (the former being a precious stone), the subtitle has a nice ring to it.

CDL Logo

Coastal Dune Lakes: Jewels of Florida’s Emerald Coast

Dad and I returned from the Great Lakes region of Australia in August and most of our time has been spent completing the film for final review. Joey Dickinson, our editor, has been editing the film since late June. Along with the main production team, these are a few more people who are working towards completing the film:

Manley Fuller with the Florida Wildlife Federation; Celeste Cobena, soap pedaler and local activist; and Susan Paladini of the Coffeen Nature Preserve have all provided us with historical information that we will use for the film.

Rick Hord, a local from Okaloosa County, was selected as the narrator for the film after doing an extensive search and even asking our Facebook audience for suggestions.

Eric Schrotenboer, a local Panama City resident, is crafting an original film score for the hour-long documentary. He also scored the intro to all the coastal dune lakes shorts.

Justin Dyke, a graphic designer based out of Tallahassee, has crafted maps and graphs for the film.

Pete Winter, of Winterstone Productions in Tallahassee, will be doing the final sound mix. He did the final sound mix for works such as Ulee’s Gold and has worked on the sound design  for all of the feature length documentary films at Live Oak Production Group.

As you can see, we place a high emphasis on working with local talent. Why is that? In short, it is because we want to bring our community with us in whatever we do and that includes supporting the arts in our region.

Speaking of art in Northwest Florida, several photos from the coastal dune lakes project have been on display:

Three of my photos were placed in the Blountstown Public Library Reading Room for two months in September and October. These same three pictures were displayed at the Chipola College Sunday Afternoon with the Arts. The photos are currently back at the studio, and I am looking to find new public venues for display.

If you are in the Tallahassee area, one of my pictures will be hanging in the Tallahassee Regional Airport’s ArtPort Gallery until January 19th.


"Dancing Outfall" The image is now on display at the Tallahassee Artport until January 19th

“Dancing Outfall” The image is now on display at the Tallahassee Artport until January 19th


We will continue to release video shorts until the film premieres next year. Here are the dates and subjects for the shorts:

Dec. 4th: What is a Choctawhatchee Beach Mouse?

Dec. 18th: Water, Sand, Life as narrated by Claire Bannerman

Jan. 1st: Sea Turtles on the Dune Lakes?

Jan. 13th: The Great Lakes of Australia

Jan. 27th: Who is Elam Stoltzfus?

Feb. 12th: Who is Joey Dickinson?

Feb 26: Who is Eric Schrotenboer?

March 12: Who is Nic Stoltzfus?

March 26: Release of the Documentary Trailer

We are working closely with WUSF Public Media broadcast station out of Tampa to put in place all the final details it takes for the hour-long documentary for placement on Public Television as a national release. The plan is to make the documentary available for broadcast to all the stations the week of Earth Day.

We have three dates locked in public showings of the film. *All three of these showings will be before the film is released on public television.*

Here they are (save the dates!):

March 28th, 2015: At the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center there will be a special sneak peek of the film along with talks by scientists about the lakes in a first-ever Coastal Dune Lakes Symposium.

April 2nd, 2015: World premiere of Coastal Dune Lakes: Jewels of Florida’s Emerald Coast. Come check it out at the green by WaterColor Boathouse! (Time TBA)

April 22nd, 2015: On Earth Day, the film will be shown at Gulf Place along with other activities. The event is from 6-8 PM on the Gulf Place green.


Also, we will be releasing a six-part blog series I wrote on our trip to Australia’s Great Lakes (the coastal dune lakes found in New South Wales) and that will be released over the holidays. Here is the timetable for that:

Dececember 9th: Part I: Getting There

Dec. 16th: Part II: Smiths Lake

Dec. 23rd: Part III: Myall River and the Broadwater

Dec. 30th: Part IV: An Aerial View and Interviewing Dr. Stock

January 6th: Part V: Myall Lake National Park and Smiths Lake Sandbar

Jan. 13th: Part VI: Mungo Brush and the Aftermath (with Australia video short attached)


We are working on a companion coffee-table book that will be released spring of 2015. I am heading up that project, and I am in the last stages of finishing the book. Cynthia Barnett, author of the upcoming Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, has agreed to write the foreword for us. Dad met her as a fellow artist-in-residence at Seaside’s Escape to Create program. I am working closely with Greg and Keri Atchley of Design 360, based in Santa Rosa Beach, for the layout and design of the book. This will be the first book by Live Oak Production Group, and it is exciting to be a part of that process!

Finally, I am working on a list of frequently asked questions about coastal dune lakes that I plan on completing before the film is released; I will share it on this site for public use. Any ideas or questions are welcome. Please e-mail them to info@liveoakproductiongroup.com with the tagline “Coastal Dune Lakes FAQ”.

Thanks much and stay tuned!

CDL Video Episode 11: A Prayer of the Woods

October 23rd, 2014

By Joey Dickinson

The Hobbit Hole at Grayton Beach State Park. Image by Elam Stoltzfus

The Hobbit Hole at Grayton Beach State Park. Image by Elam Stoltzfus

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.

Prayer of the Woods found at Grayton Beach State Park. Photo by Elam Stoltzfus.

Prayer of the Woods found at Grayton Beach State Park. Photo by Elam Stoltzfus.


The Quapaws in Clarksdale Part V: John Ruskey

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 in his office.

John Ruskey in his office.

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.”


Roy Williams teaching one of the students from the Helena Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program how to carve a dugout canoe.

Roy Williams teaching one of the students from the Helena Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program how to carve a dugout canoe.

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.


Nic Stoltzfus

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.

The Quapaws in Clarksdale Part IV: Deeper Thoughts on a Deep River

June 13th, 2014

By Nic Stoltzfus

The bow of the Grasshopper, Quapaw's most recent handcrafted Voyager-style canoe.

The bow of the Grasshopper, Quapaw’s most recent handcrafted Voyager-style canoe.


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.

Map of the changing course of the Lower Mississippi River over time. I found this image attached to an excellent article about the river over at the Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/05/what-weve-done-to-the-mississippi-river-an-explainer/239058/

Map of the changing course of the Lower Mississippi River over time. I found this image attached to an excellent article about the river over at the Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/05/what-weve-done-to-the-mississippi-river-an-explainer/239058/

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.

A sign from the Delta Landing Boat Ramp.

A sign from the Delta Landing Boat Ramp.


The road to the levee.

The road to the levee.

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

The Quapaws in Clarksdale Part III: Getting Used to River-Time

June 12th, 2014

By Nic Stoltzfus

Tuesday, March 11th : I woke up this morning and Joey and I prepped to go back on the river again today—except today we started at 7, an hour later than yesterday. That extra hour of sleep was mighty nice! The Clarksdale crew (John, River, Braxton, Ellis, Lil Mike, Dinky, Valencia) assembled all the gear and we drove to Helena for another upriver paddle, this time with a group of students from Mississippi State University participating in the Mississippi Delta Alternative Break program. During their spring break these students traveled all over Mississippi Delta region doing volunteer work. Their plan for today was to clean up trash on Buck Island. We paddled up to the island and most of the students dispersed upon landing to begin picking up trash. A few stayed behind to help make lunch.

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

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

During this time, Joey and I filmed separately for a bit—he was doing timelapses, and I was shooting b-roll. Afterwards we came back together to conduct interviews. When we did interviews with the Mighty Quapaws it was evident that this was more than just an apprenticeship program by what they had to say to us.


I have an older cousin, and he was actually working with John before me so he would come out and tell me about the trips and stuff like that and I came down one day and from that day on I been here ever since. And then they put me in a boat; I wasn’t scared the first time they put me out—I enjoyed it.


I can say meeting John changed my life, because, like I said, he taught to me a lot of stuff that I didn’t know…John is a good guy and giving guy, a caring guy; I guess I see him as a father figure, a good father figure.


–Markevius “Dinky” Jones


Markevius "Dinky" Jones

Markevius “Dinky” Jones



I was surfing the web, I came across it on the web, and I had a friend in it and I didn’t even realize, you know Dinky, yeah he kinda introduced me and got me in with the whole situation.


John Ruskey, he’s amazing, he’s an amazing nature guy, the River King…the Mississippi River King, John Ruskey.


–Michael “Lil Mike” Wortham


Michael "Lil Mike" Wortham

Michael “Lil Mike” Wortham



(On Mark River) He cool, he funny, and good at giving me advice when I’m canoeing.


I’ve learned patience, and how to canoe and how to paddle and like…Do it right.


–Valencia Metcall


Valencia Metcall

Valencia Metcall


Soon, lunch was ready. The cook crew smoked ribs in a cast-iron kettle placed over a woodfire that Braxton had prepared; boiled hominy with rosemary in a separate cast-iron cauldron, and cooked sweet potatoes and sweet onions in a final covered pot. Needless to say, lunch was divine.

I spent lunch sitting on the banks of Buck Island talking with Nick Timmerman, a Phd Candidate from MSU whose thesis is on race relations in the Mississippi Delta. We didn’t get a chance to chat for long, but he recommended that I read James C. Cobb’s “The Most Southern Place On Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity” for a more detailed look at race relations in the state. The folks at Quapaw also recommended this book to us, and River gave Joey the book upon arrival in Clarksdale. I read through the book when I got back, and it really does a good job of giving a great overview of the Delta region and how it came to be the way it is today. I also highly recommend any Delta blues enthusiast to buy the book if only to read the chapter detailing the birth of the Delta blues (“The Blues is a Lowdown Shakin’ Chill”).

After lunch we headed back to the Helena Outpost, cleaned up, chilled a bit, and Joey and I reheated some lunch leftovers for supper. After supper Joey, Mark, and Braxton headed to Hambone Art Gallery for some more blues, but I stayed in to catch up on some much-needed sleep.

Tomorrow’s blog: The Quapaws of Clarksdale Part IV: Deeper Thoughts on a Deep River