Start: 6:30 AM - Tunica, MS
Finish: 11:30 AM - Helena, AR
Daily dist: 36
Total dist: 597 miles
Weather: NW breeze clear and cool
Somehow I thought the state of Mississippi would be a bit warmer. But apparently winter is winter wherever you go. I woke up a bit cold at about 3:30 this morning and managed to tough it out for an hour more rest. After that I ran through my morning routine of oatmeal and breaking camp and was on the water by 6:30 AM. The wind was already pushing ripples on the water before sunrise so I was happy to have an early start to avoid the big blows I’ve seen the last two days on the water. Luck was with me and I actually had a tail wind for a change and made great time on the way into Helena.
A quiet morning on the river
Helena Arkansas has been a spot on my map for a few months now, ever since a couple of friends, KC and Jole, from San Diego said they could set me up in their building if I wanted a place to stay when I came through. I had figured on blazing right on through from Saint Louis to here (stopping for water and food of course) but as you know I’ve had several adventures that had me stopped for a few days, long before I made it here. Because I’m still rested from all of the hospitality I’ve received up north, I had made plans to make my layover here as short as possible and just move on. That was until I was shown by my local hosts all there is to explore in this little town.
Shortly after a call from me, Pat and Buddy Wheeler came down to the boat ramp with their pickup truck to relocate me to the building where I’ll be staying the next two nights. A full nine feet of my kayak hanging out the back end of their truck was a sight to see as we drove the two blocks to the warehouse that houses my friends camper trailer. KC and Jole were a little vague about what exactly their ’building’ is until just a day or so ago. All I knew was that they were renovating some sort of building in town. I didn’t know what kind.
Look closely in the window you can see 9 feet of my boat hanging out
It turns out the building is a 30,000 square foot, three story warehouse located a stones throw from the levy in the historic district of town. KC and Jole purchased this essentially unwanted building and have been restoring it into a useable condition with apartments on the third floor, community room on the second, and eventually a restaurant on the first floor. The brick walls and absolutely massive structural timbers are something you just don’t see in buildings of this kind any more. Parked inside this huge building is a camper trailer which is where I’m staying. This large space is the perfect place for me to spread out and do some gear maintenance before continuing on. I did discover today that I did do a slight amount of structural damage to the boat when I hit the dike the other day so tomorrow I’m going to take the time to work on that.
My “hosts“, Pat and Buddy farm over 6000 (yes that’s Six Thousand) acres of crops on their farm just outside of town. I rode with Buddy all over their spread in his pickup truck learning all about farming operations in this region. On their land they grow a variety of crops ranging from soy beans to rice, cotton, and some wheat.
I was interested to learn about how rice is a huge crop in the area. It’s grown with the same flooded paddies that you envision in Asia only at a commercial scale. Buddy explained that rice plants can be grown on dry land but do require a lot of water to remain healthy. Flooding the fields serves two purposes. First it keeps the thirsty plants watered and second it acts as a sort of herb-aside by preventing other grass (weeds) from growing amongst the rice… genius really. To make the flooding easier the fields have been contoured to what is called “zero grade” meaning they have been scraped and molded to be perfectly flat and level. With no low or high spots it only takes a couple inches of water to keep the bottom of the plants covered. Of course the contour of the land does require some terracing but the individual graded paddies can be up to hundreds of acres. The way Buddies fields are set up he’s able to pump water into the highest field and through a system of dikes and gates control the flow of water down into the fields at lower elevations. The overall look of the land takes on a large patchwork of eerily flat fields delineated by ditches, dikes, and mounded access roads. Buddy rotates between crops to allow the land to rebound after feeding one type of plant for a couple years. He says that rice is great because its root structure and residual stalk left behind and burned after harvest do a great job of rebuilding the soil. Soy planted in a field after a couple years of rice often yields a good harvest.
Harvested rice field flooded to bring in ducks to hunt.
Farming at this scale is no small task and Buddy (and more his son he’ll tell you now days) employs several people and huge machinery to make it all happen. We stopped by his headquarters where he had a half dozen huge field working machines parked, each one valued at over a quarter million dollars new. Smartly Buddy has established a homestead for one of his crew right next door to keep an eye on the equipment. On another corner of the property a pair of grain towers have been built to house the better share of a seasons crop and again a home is being moved in to house a pair of watchful eyes to be sure the structures remain unmolested.
Riding with Buddy, who has lived most of the 76 years of his life right here in Helena, was an interesting experience. While we toured this massive ultra modern farming operation with zero grade fields worked by half million dollar auto-controlled sprayer machines. Buddy reminisced about the days when the huge fields were broken up into 40 acre homesteads worked by hand and horse by sharecroppers living in shotgun shacks scattered everywhere across the country side. We visited the swimming hole, in a small backwater of the river, where he (and hundreds of others) have been baptized, as well as a couple now empty corners of fields where a home he once lived in once stood. He brims with pride with the success of the farm he now runs yet saves a twinkling of nostalgia for what once was.
Riding with Buddy
Buddies wife Pat, I was warned by Jole, is a fireball. She instantly took to mothering me making sure I was comfortable and fed and even, to my embarrassment, doing my laundry while Buddy and I were out touring the farm. She is originally from the Mobile Alabama area and came to this area with Buddy after meeting him there. She, like Buddy, is a storehouse of information about the history of the area. She once worked for a touring company that serviced people that came off of the river boats that used to cruise up and down the river. Unlike the other river towns that would try to impress the tourists with southern fluff and antebellum homes, the Helena tour was an unpretentious taste of river town farming community life. The bus tour of the town included a “taste of the south” meal and a visit to the Baptist church to hear a real choir lift the roof. As Pat put it “You think you’ve heard a gospel choir when you see one on TV, but it’s nothing like the real thing!” Apparently the people loved it and often the Helena stop was the favorite of their river cruise. Sadly the days of multi day riverboat cruises are past the river boat companies having gone bankrupt well over a decade ago.
The loss of this sort of river traffic seems to be the last nail in the coffin for the vitality and commerce in many of the small river towns. Much like New Madrid, Helena is a hollow shell of what it once was. Driving the streets around town is eerie. Store front after store front lie empty and the streets (once full of cars and people every Saturday night in Buddy’s distant memory) are now stone quiet and devoid of almost any sign of life. It’s almost as though thirty years ago someone just turned off the town and it has sat waiting for people to return ever since. If ever some industry said “gosh I need a complete town that I could fill up with all of my work force and have everything that it needs already there” this would be the town. It’s all here…just empty and waiting.
Efforts have been made, in fact you can see that huge sums of money have been invested, in keeping this town from completely imploding, with murals on the levy wall, a blues fest ampa-theater, paved levy walkways and observation decks, even a state of the art slack water port on the river just outside of town. The building I’m in and the efforts of KC and Jole another example. All of it an investment in the future with hopes that industry and people will return. Buddy said that businesses have looked but with the school system and city government in understandably poor shape, would-be industry is afraid to move in. They fear that their managers and administrators would balk at the thought of moving their families here, which they probably would. Hence it’s a “chicken or egg” situation. The town can’t improve without industry and industry won’t come unless the town improves.
If you happen to know of a Boeing size manufacturer that needs a town to move into, please let them know about Helena.