Canoe guru John Ruskey’s exploits along the Mississippi River have been featured in Southern Living, Outside Magazine, and National Geographic. But it’s his work with the at-risk children of this region of America that intrigued me: the idea of using a canoe as education; of transforming a log into useable art; of the dugout canoe as a life-changing experience.
Garon, Fredrick, Brooklyn, and Veronica, four KIPP Charter School Middle School kids from downtown Helena, Arkansas smile as they walk the levee from their school to Mr. Ruskey’s Helena-based workshop. This is their second class at Quapaw Canoes, and even though their friends are catching the bus for home, these kids walk with a stride in their step.
Helena has a rich and illustrious past. As one of the few original bluff cities on the Mississippi River, the boomtown that once was is now an economically-depressed region, save – one of the only things going for it – the hope, promise and vision of the children.
Mr. Ruskey has been volunteering his time with the local KIPP Charter School for over a year, so when the principal phoned and asked if it would be possible to transform a log into an original dugout canoe, comprised of KIPP-only students, the answer was, “We’d love to do that.”
Mr. Ruskey does not speak in sound bytes. He speaks from his soul and he speaks with conviction. When asked how art, education, and the Mississippi River come together, Mr. Ruskey explained, “They come together with each paddle stroke you take. If you watch the way a paddle cuts thru the water – it creates a double spiral on either side of it – and if you look at the shape of a classic canoe, it’s almost the same shape you see created in the water as you’re stroking the paddle. And that’s the wonderful thing about the Mississippi River and any moving water – but on the Mississippi you see it more than any other body of water I’ve ever experienced. You see expressions of patterns, of life patterns – the very basic patterns that govern our life – you see them expressed, constantly being expressed and then re-created over and over again. And so it’s actually there on the face of the water that you see all those things come together. One of our mottos here is that the River brings us together, and in that sense it literally does bring together education and canoes and art – they all come together as you’re paddling the canoe.”
The KIPP Dugout Canoe Project, as it is officially known, is a twice-weekly after-school class that begins with a pad of paper and a pencil. The students are asked to sit quietly and look at the log and visualize what it will one day become. Some draw the log as they see it while others draw a dugout canoe with an animal head. At some point, the kids, in coordination with their school, will vote democratically on what the final shape is to become. For now, part of the fun is just that idea alone. The idea that this cottonwood log can one day become anything and everything they hope and desire it to be.