By Don Corrigan
Outdoor author Eddy Harris was in town recently and we broke bread and discussed his upcoming work and documentary on paddling the Mississippi River. We have a mutual interest in encouraging more people of color to get into the outdoors and to enlist in the environmental movement. Harris wrote a great piece in Outside Magazine a few years ago about black people’s reservations about outdoor activities in America. I plan to draw from his work in a presentation I will give in March before the American Culture Association/Popular Culture Association. This column on Harris has drawn a lot of feedback from Kirkwood, Mo. residents who remember his growing up in their town.
“OUR STRONG, BROWN GOD”
By Don Corrigan
Published in the Webster-Kirkwood Times, November 6, 2015
Poet T. S. Eliot called the Mississippi River “a strong, brown god.” Looking down on its roiling waters from one of our river bridges, on a windy day, and you know it would be foolhardy to mess with this great flowing river deity, especially solo.
But that’s just what my friend and Kirkwood native Eddy Harris has done. Harris, author of “Mississippi Solo,” has challenged the strong, brown god in a canoe from Lake Itaska to New Orleans – twice – and has lived to tell about it.
His first trip was in 1985. He fought wind and rain and loneliness, and on occasion feral pigs while camping. His most interesting adventures were when he pulled into river towns for provisions. Towns where resident blacks are scarce and canoeing blacks even fewer.
Harris encountered any number of dangers on that 1985 trip, from red-necks looking for a little fun to behemoth barges and their unsettling wakes: “Sound in the fog is as muffled and soft as light. I felt the barges coming before I heard them, long before I ever saw them.”
River sojourner Harris has been called “America’s premier memoirist and travel writer.” The Los Angeles Reader praised his writing, noting that “at every turn, Harris challenges assumptions about race, forcing readers to examine their own minds.”
Harris was back in the river city last week, after a 30th anniversary canoe trip down the Mississippi. This deja vu experience provides all the makings for a documentary and another Mississippi River book.
“I was a more scared on this trip, than the first time,” said Harris. “I was pretty naive when I put my paddle in the Mississippi that first time.”
Both Harris and a film crew in a houseboat got into real trouble at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Six-foot waves and water tumbling out of the Ohio threatened to capsize the canoe and the boat.
Harris said the turbulence had the Coast Guard asking those on the houseboat by ship-to-shore radio for next of kin on the way to rescue.
So why do this crazy trip again?
“It’s to see how things have changed,” said Harris. “The river is cleaner now in the north. I saw pelicans and trumpeter swans. It’s still dirty and industrial at St. Louis and south.
“My message from this trip is about optimism and not the racial divide,” added Harris. “On an individual level, people are good and help each other out. I had plenty of folks offering me warm clothes and meals on this trip.”
Harris grew up in southeast Kirkwood. He said he still stays in contact with some of his best friends from the neighborhood, but he’s a bit sad that his parents are deceased and cannot enjoy tales of his encore experience on the Mississippi River.
Author Harris, an expatriate who has lived in France for the past 20 years, said St. Louis residents would be surprised at how many Europeans know about the Mississippi and St. Louis, thanks in part to Mark Twain.