Helena-West Helena, AR – Helena Arkansas is home to the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival, the Delta Cultural Center and some 7,000 residents--40 percent of which live below the national poverty level. In the last year Governor Mike Beebe promoted ecofriendly tax dollars for business development with focus on the lower Mississippi. State representative Clark Hall says business has already taken the bite.
Unfortunately, the people of Helena have grown afraid of the river. Historically, cities and towns were birthed from their closest water source. Former senator Kevin Smith says Helena signs and homes all used to face the Mississippi, but that has since changed. So maybe the river wasn't enough to continue the growth of the small town alone. That's why the sale of Buck Island has become so important to this dying community.
This is where Buck Island comes into play. In July, 2005 the American Land Conservancy purchased the half-moon, shaped piece of land from a private hunting club for $1.2 million. The only known habitants of the island were the Quapaw Native American tribe, which is ideally where the first eco-tourism group in Helena got its name The Quapaw Canoe Company. Owner and river guide John Ruskey has navigated the Mississippi from Minnesota to the Gulf and claims he 'would rather drink muddy waters and sleep in a hollow log.' Ruskey brought his business to Helena close to four months ago. He says like any business in its beginning phase is frustratingly slow...he says it was the river and the sale of Buck Island that led him to Helena.
Ruskey says the Mississippi River is a part of the global imagination and world consciousness. As the largest river in North America, people are drawn in from all over. The Quapaw Canoe Company is the only outfitter for 1,000 miles of the lower Mississippi; it is also the only safe location for paddlers to enter the Mississippi as far as Memphis without strong current, free entry, or sewage runoff. The last public access point was closed by the US Coast Guard recently after a property assessment revealed the land belonged to the guard rather than the city. Lt. Michael Block, spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard in Memphis says the access point is closed to the public until liability concerns and repairs to the entrance are completed.
Ruskey says the difficulties are frustrating, but haven't kept paddlers from the river. He has had people from eastern and western Europe, Mexico, Canada, Bolivia and more visit him for expeditions. Statistics from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show there are 24 million recreational paddlers in the U.S, compare that to 11 million licensed hunters. Tim Richardson heads government affairs for the American Land Conservancy.
Richardson says the Everglades in Florida receive hundreds of millions of restorative dollars a year. No one state owns the Mississippi River and six states surround the lower portion , which means there are 12 U.S. senators and a lot of U.S. congressman to bring in financial support to the environment and communities that thrive from its production.
The American Land Conservancy is in the process of selling the land to the Arkansas Fish and Wildlife Commission, the vote and finalization of the documentation is scheduled for completion this Thursday at the Arkansas state capitol. Richardson says with their purchase the land will remain a public entity allowing access to campers, hikers, fishers, paddlers and whomever has an interest in the country's wilderness.
Marc Trembley is a river guide with the Quapaw Canoe Company. I rode with him in his comfortably dusty '94 maroon Toyota Corolla, to the boat landing. A dried chicken foot hung from the rearview mirror above Marc's radio which quietly sang songs of Bob Marley. He told me before he moved to the Delta he used to like to drive fast, now he barely presses the gas. The 24-year-old is from Indiana, he says here he is able to get back to nature, a place he feels a lot of people are missing.
Former Senator Kevin Smith hopes the river and sale of Buck Island will keep Helena's community thriving.