Thursday, May 03, 2007

River has something for all

Race helps spur interest in Mississippi's charms

Commercial Appeal [link]
by Bryan Brasher

Before many Mid-Southerners have breakfast Saturday morning, more than 500 people will begin paddling canoes and kayaks from Green Belt Park south toward Jefferson Davis Park on the main body of the Mississippi River.

For some of the paddlers, the 26th annual Outdoors Inc. Canoe & Kayak Race will be their first exposure to the Mississippi.

But many others have been enjoying the legendary waterway for years -- and in ways you might not have imagined.

Once feared by even the surliest river rats, the Mississippi has become a hotbed destination for a vast array of people who simply can't stand to spend their free time within the confines of four walls.

City officials who are marketing the Memphis Riverfront expect that interest to continue growing.

In fact, they're counting on it.

"The river and river front are free to use, so there are no actual numbers -- no paper trail -- to tell us how many people are going out there," said Dorchelle Spence, director of communications for the Memphis Riverfront Development Corporation. "But we see anecdotal evidence from our windows all of the time. We have a front-row seat from our offices on Front Street -- and I can say without a doubt, recreational interest in the river is growing."

Paddling frenzy

Spence said companies like Outdoors Inc. and the Mississippi-based Quapaw Canoe Company have helped raise people's knowledge of the river by providing safe, easy, educational trips onto the water.

Saturday's race is a perfect example.

When Outdoors Inc. owner Joe Royer started his Canoe & Kayak Race back in 1981, one of his chief goals was promoting the river -- not only abroad, but to locals who may have been ignoring the river their whole lives.

"I understand that people love to get away to Yellowstone for a week or to the Smokies for a week to have a great experience outdoors," Royer said. "But that's not always possible -- and if you live in this area, it's not even necessary. We have one of the most spectacular natural wonders in the world right here in our own backyard."

Royer's race has introduced thousands of paddlers to the river in a safe, structured environment. People who have grown up fearing the river's legendary whirlpools and cross currents have paddled his course incident-free for more than a quarter-century with safety officials from the U.S. Coast Guard and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency looking on.

Even people who dare not venture out onto the water in a canoe or kayak have gained an appreciation for the Mississippi River during the race.

"For some people this is a race," Royer said. "For others, it's an event.

"You'll see people gathered along the banks of the river watching the race. There will be people barbecuing and playing with their kids. All of those people are enjoying the river, even if they're not on the water."

Little bit of everything

On its web site at memphisriverfront.com, the Memphis Riverfront Development Corporation has a list that shows the tremendous diversity of activities available along the river.

The list includes everything from canoeing and kayaking to meditating and relaxing. It lists new-age activities like yoga, Pilates and rollerblading, and age-old pursuits like painting, kite-flying -- and even dating.

"Sunsets in Memphis are just like the sunsets that people get in the West," Spence said. "You have the sun setting over the water against a pastoral plain, and it's a very romantic setting.

"Certainly, it's a popular dating destination -- and an inexpensive one, too."

For those who don't see dating as a true form of outdoors recreation, the Riverfront Development Corporation is working to make traditional outdoors pursuits more readily available.

The Development Corporation lists 11 downtown parks on its riverfront map, including Mud Island River Park, which is now renting canoes, kayaks and pedal boats for use in Mud Island Harbor.

Plans are also in the works for Beale Street Landing -- a modern docking facility that will allow people to get close to the water without boarding a boat.

"Right now, there is really no place where you can dip your feet in the water or sit close to the Mississippi," Spence said. "If you walk down the cobblestone bank, you get into that muddy, mucky section, and it just isn't that much fun.

"The Beale Street Landing facility will allow people to experience the river up close."

Construction is scheduled to begin on Beale Street Landing this year as soon as the high water subsides. The project is scheduled for completion in 2010.

An artist's rendering of the project is available at www.memphisriverfront.com.

(Cat)fish of a lifetime

While many people are finding new ways to enjoy the Mississippi, one long-time river pursuit -- the pursuit of giant catfish -- is also growing.

Famed Mississippi River fishing guide James Patterson takes a solid stream of catfishermen onto the river on day-time trips that range in price from $250-$400 for two people.

His web site at bigcatfishing.com features more than 50 photos of customers holding catfish that weighed 20 pounds or more -- and those fish were caught in 2006 alone. A separate gallery features dozens more pics of catfish as large as 61 pounds.

Such world-class catfishing has led to national attention for the Memphis portions of the Mississippi River, and it's prompted visits from numerous major tournament trails.

The Bass Pro Shops Big Cat Quest Tournament Trail will visit Memphis on July 28, and the Cabela's King Kat Trail will return on Aug. 25.

"I get excited every time we come to Memphis because you just never know what sort of fish might be brought to the scales from that Mississippi River," said Darrell VanVanctor, director of the Cabela's King Kat Trail. "People who haven't experienced catfishing on the river owe it to themselves to try it just once."

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