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Quapaw Canoe Company going with the flow in Mississippi

  • Business columnist Phil Hardwick talks with Mississippi’s SBA Small Business Person of the Year, John Ruskey.

On March 7, the Small Business Administration announced the 2024 Small Business Persons of the Year for each state. In Mississippi, that person is John Ruskey, owner of Quapaw Canoe Company in Clarksdale. Ruskey will be honored along with other state winners during Small Business Week, April 28-May 4, in Washington, D.C. 

Quapaw Canoe Company, founded in 1998, provides wilderness adventures by canoe, kayak, or paddle board on any section of the last 954 miles of the Mississippi River, from Cairo, Illinois down to the Gulf of Mexico.

In this two-part series, we interviewed Ruskey about the company and himself as a business owner.

How did you come up with the company name?

Quapaw means “the downstream people.”  That’s the direction we like going — with the flow, downstream!  Most of our big canoe adventures begin someplace upstream, like Tunica, and end up somewhere downstream, like Rosedale or Greenville, Vicksburg, or Natchez.  We operate on the Lower Mississippi River and sometimes run from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico in a single expedition.  

But most of our trips are more local. They are within the Clarksdale, Vicksburg, Natchez, Memphis, or Wilson, Arkansas areas.  No previous experience is necessary.  All trips go with at least two guides and a shuttle driver.  All paddle together.  We will teach you all the basics.  The river takes care of the rest.  Our voyageur canoes are built in a time-proven tradition perfected centuries ago on the Great Lakes.  They are safe and stable on big waters, in big waves. 

What were the biggest barriers to success for you and your business?

Initially, my biggest barrier was finding river guides.  I couldn’t find anyone locally to help me guide others on the river in canoes.  So, I began a training pathway we call the “Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program.”  It’s open to anyone who has a sincere interest.  It survives to this day.  We just started a new program with a new apprentice in the New Year, and she is doing great.  It’s basically on-the-job paid training.  

John Ruskey

When we started in the late 1990s, I invited my neighborhood teens who displayed interest in canoe carving and the great freedom of the river, to join in and participate.  I’m talking about kids who come from underserved impoverished neighborhoods, most of whom did not even know how to swim.  It was amazing how quickly they learned the necessary skills — like sharpening axes and adzes razor sharp, and survival skills like making a fire, building shelter, paddling skills, and navigation skills.  This was done on the biggest and arguably the wildest river on the continent.  Wild for its extreme size and unforgiving chaotic currents. One by one, my young apprentices grew into seasoned guides, some of whom still work with me today, and help carry the company into the future.

What are the best days in the life of your business?

My best days are during trips when we are leading youth groups on the river, like school groups, after-school programs, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, or some other kinds of youth groups. We get a lot of church groups.  Their minds are opened, their curiosity aroused, their senses heightened.  You can see changes happening in one day of paddling.  I remember one girl on our annual summer camp for high school youth, who started out fearful of the muddy water.  She had always been told it was dirty and dangerous.  After the first hour of paddling, she impulsively joined others in a refreshing cool-down swim.  “I can’t believe I just did that!” she squealed in delight, as the joy of splashing in the water caused her to experience a new kind of understanding and enlightenment.

Children viscerally feel the thrill of the elements of the big river, the open sky, the big waves, the giant sandbars, and even the jumping fish (bighead carp), which sometimes land in the canoe, and cause a stinky slimy mess.  Many adults are shocked and then disgusted.  For most kids, it’s all a great adventure! They eat some of the best food and get their best night of sleep ever under the stars on one of the giant river beaches.

What are the ages of the youngest and oldest persons who have canoed with Quapaw?

Youngest: 7 months.  A Clarksdale mother brought her whole family of five on one of our monthly “Community Canoe” trips.   (We do these to provide an enticement for teachers and youth, and anyone else who has wanted to get on the Mississippi to see what it’s like.  Free for youth under 18, 1/4 price for educators, 1/2 price for everyone else).  She nursed her seven-month-old baby girl along the way and played in the sand with her on the island.  I never heard any crying.

Oldest: a 92-year-old federal judge.  He and his sons travel the world, seeking outdoor adventure on their vacations.  The year he chose the Mississippi, the river was high, and the water was cold.  It was a four-day trip.  The judge paddled the entire time and camped with his sons in primitive settings.  On the last day of the trip, he took a quick plunge swim in the cold water, as a kind of personal baptism (I think it was March).

What is Clarksdale like as a place to do business?

Clarksdale is a thriving nursery for creative types and entrepreneurs.  I’m not sure I would have been able to survive anywhere else but here.  I think Quapaw Canoe Company, in its 25 years of operation, has been an integral player in creating what Clarksdale is today.  It is an amazing community full of kindness, caring, thoughtful interactions — and full of opportunities for sharing, growing, and blossoming.  It has more juke joints per capita than anywhere else in the world.  It also has more churches.  And arguably more opportunities for after-school youth programming, like Griot Arts and Spring Initiative, and the Delta Blues Museum Arts & Education Program (which I helped start in the 1990s).  Not to mention sports, band and cheerleading, church programs, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts.  It is home to one of only five charter schools in our state (Clarksdale Collegiate).  It is a natural for my type of business because of the dynamic base of a healthy community with great accommodations and world class cultural offerings (like the Delta Blues Museum, and live blues music every night of the week!)

At the same time, Clarksdale suffers from all the woes of any town its size in rural America. In the past three decades, I have seen the disintegration of vital infrastructure, as well as increasing truancy, homelessness, and rising violence. In everything we do, we try to be part of the solution, not the problem.

Find out more at the company website here.

Read original article by clicking here.

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