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Weekend Wanderer: Kayaking the Tallahatchie

A tale for the brave.

Camping and kayaking are wonderful ways to have good, clean fun, reconnect with nature, and blah blah yadda yadda  bite me. No, camping in campsites is fun, and kayaking down well known and well charted rivers is just a hoot. This story is not about that. Indeed, this story is about as far from it as you can get, unless your tribe’s name is Flecheiros and you spear your daily lunch-fish from a river in the Amazon.
Kayaking down the Little Tallahatchie River had been in the back of my mind for a while now. Spanning 85 miles across northern Mississippi, the Tallahatchie is the subject of some rather dark folklore and history. In Bobbie Gentry’s number-one hit “Ode to Billie Joe,” which you probably don’t remember unless you drink your prune juice and mothball cocktail through a set of wooden dentures, the main character jumps off of the Tallahatchie Bridge to his untimely demise. In the real world, 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally lynched and thrown into the river in 1955. I’ll spare the gory details on that one. The segment of the river I had my eyes on is called the Little Tallahatchie, which is the north-eastern part of the river, before it hits Sardis.
I set out with my colleagues and close friends Joe Box and Brad Davis. My long term readers, all 23 of you, (Hey Mom and Dad! I need twenty bucks.) will recall that my last kayaking expedition didn’t quite go according to plan. I sought to right my wrongs by planning more thoroughly and having an abundance of spare time to account for unpredicted obstructions. The paddle was to be seven or eight miles total, with an additional two or three miles across Sardis Lake to get to the pickup point.
We put in at 3:00 p.m. on Graham Lake, which is a boat ramp on County Road 297, east of the Tallahatchie River Bridge on Hwy. 7. It’s a little misleading, because Graham Lake is more of a river than a lake. Our spirits were as high as the sun was hot. We dug our paddles deep, confident that we had planned and packed for all possible setbacks. The first two miles were scenic but shallow. A couple of times we were forced to drag our kayaks across sand bars, but never for more than 15 feet. When the tributary we were on merged with the main river, it was no longer an issue. We took the first part of the day at a leisurely pace, even stopping to swim at one point to alleviate the oppressive heat.
We stopped once more for a hydration break at the Tallahatchie River Bridge. It’s not the same one that ol’ Billie Joe jumped off of, but it’s still a pretty interesting spot. The old railroad bridge spans overhead with decrepit foundations rising from the riverbanks like moss covered monoliths, conjuring feelings of a long lost glory. It’s one of the more picturesque parts of the river. 
Afterward, we paddled for about an hour and a half and began casting about for our campsite. We brought hammocks to sleep in, with tarps for a canopy. We weren’t able to find a suitable campsite for hammocks, so we eventually stopped on an open sandy part of the river bank. We made a make-shift tent out of our tarps and paddles, got a fire started, and set some trout lines in the river- not that it mattered. Fish are elusive creatures at the best of times.
We settled in for the long haul and began to amuse ourselves in various ways. You’d be surprised at how entertained three grown men can be by lighting sticks on fire.            
Then, at dusk, it started.
Mosquitoes. Hordes of them. Thousands, no-millions. As thick as the night sky, they descended like the blood-thirsty vengeance of mother nature herself. How dare three lowly human creatures seek pleasure in her company? For six long hours we suffered through the plague of insects. I tried everything I could think of. We emptied a can of 40% Deet repellant. We wrapped ourselves in our hammocks. At one point I even tried burying myself and smearing my body with mud. No, really! My hand to God. They were relentless. Never before have I ever wished it would rain while I was camping, but that night, that God-forsaken night, I begged for it. And it did. Not, of course, enough to drive the horde away. Let it never be said that Madison Ruthven is no kind of philanthropist. That night, my friends and I generously donated blood by the gallon to the esteemed mosquito population of the Tallahatchie River Area.
At 2:30 a.m., while being eaten alive and soaked to the bone, we decided we could stand no more. We broke camp and were on our way by three. We paddled for hours on an eerie, barely visible river only to find that the lake we had been expecting had reverted to a series of maze like canals. Due to seasonal changes, the water level in Sardis had dropped drastically, rendering our navigational plans obsolete.
We paddled in that timeless, energy sapping bog of a purgatory until sunrise, whereupon we dragged our kayaks to the shore in order to lick our wounds and design a plan of action. We eventually settled on ditching our kayaks and setting off on foot to find civilization. We struck out through fields of vegetation seven feet high, thick with dew covered spider webs and so dense we couldn’t see our feet in front of us. After trudging through three quarters of a mile of the everglade-like mass of weeds, we finally found some abandoned dirt roads. Which promptly ended. Defeated, we slogged back through the hell-flora to our kayaks. We would have been worried about snakes, but by that point any biting related mischief would have resulted in the slimy bastards choking on our sheer manliness.
We crawled back into our kayaks and slunk back into the canals to retrace our steps, hoping to see something we had missed in the dark. Joe luckily still had some battery left in his phone, so we had a general idea of where a populated boat landing would be. The problem was, we had no idea where the labyrinth of canals would take us. We pushed on for hours more. Twice, I climbed rotting, branchless trees in the rain to survey the layout of the canals. The second time, as I was climbing down, three fishermen sped toward us in a motorboat. We hailed them and asked directions to the nearest landing. I can only imagine what they were thinking as they encountered three college kids in kayaks, one halfway up a tree, at eight o’clock in the morning in the middle of nowhere in the pouring rain. We followed their directions, and in half an hour we slithered out of the water onto the boat landing like a pack of prehistoric amphibians, slowly evolving back into some semblance of the homo sapiens  we used to be. We made it back to civilization, but I’ll never forget what it felt like to be completely lost, hungry, soaked, exhausted, and half eaten to death in the wilderness.
So why the hell did we do a miserable thing like that? Well, first of all, it wasn’t supposed to be miserable. I just have this unfortunate knack for planning perfect storms of wretchedness when I take trips. Second, if I had stayed in Oxford last weekend and gone to the square, or whatever, I would have forgotten every mundane thing that happened within a month. The cluster-cuss that was last weekend will be seared in my brain until the day I die. It was a learning experience, and we came out the better for it. We had, for lack of a better word, a real adventure. I’ll take an unforgettable weekend like that over the monotonous buzz of an unremarkable bar any day. That being said, I think I’ll go hit up a bar. Mosquitoes won’t touch you if your blood is mostly alcohol, right?
Madison Ruthven writes for the DM and cage fights nature on a whim. Ask him out for a drink at mdruthven@live.com