Not enough water in the Mississippi.
We considered ourselves river kids when I was growing up in Greenville. The truth is, we never played in the Mississippi River at all. Early in life, Delta children memorize the phrase, “That river will kill you.”
So, our exploring, bank fishing, and bar-pit rafting was along Lake Ferguson. Greenville is on Lake Ferguson. But the lake opens into the Mississippi on its south end, therefore it rises and falls with the river. So right now, along with the Mighty Mississippi, the lake has fallen to record low levels.
Along the river, you grow up with stories about the 1927 Flood, the flood of record until the super flood of 2011 eclipsed it by a foot or so. It’s astonishing how much water there is in the Mississippi when it’s in flood stage. At the 50-foot mark on the Vicksburg gauge, the flood gates on Steel Bayou are closed, trapping any rainwater coming into the Delta inside the levees until the Mississippi drops low enough to open the gates and let the water out and not let more in from the high river.
The main road to Grand Gulf State Park near Port Gibson is under water by the time the river is 50 feet in Vicksburg. There are lots of neighborhoods flooded inside the levees all along the river when it is in flood stage.
But for most of this summer and fall we have had the opposite problem. Not enough water in the Mississippi. The gauge at Vicksburg has been flirting with the 1-foot mark for weeks.
The river stage in Memphis is below minus 10 feet on their gauge. That is a new record low for Memphis.
It is surreal for those of us who grew up watching towboats with their flotilla of barges riding high on the mile-wide crest of the Mighty Mississippi unobstructed by anything to now see tows snaking their way through channels flanked by sandbar walls or sunbaked mud flats.
However, when the Mississippi drops as low as it has been this year, it opens a world rarely seen. The bottom of the expansive river is almost as unexplored as the bottom of the ocean. The bottom is normally inaccessible because of 10, 20, 30 feet of water overhead.
But here lately, people have been free to explore the world where normally only catfish reside. The sandbars and rock bars of the Mississippi River bottom can hold real treasures — Civil War artifacts, ice-age fossils, and lots of other stuff. But, before you go treasure hunting, remember that the bottom is mostly just sand and rocks.
When Lake Ferguson would drop low, we would explore the normally underwater places for treasure, finding a lot of tangled fishing lures. But we were of the age that finding something meant we might find anything if we kept looking. That same sense of adventure is pretty much what makes people get out of bed every day to face the world again.