For Mark ‘River’ Peoples, no problem is so big it can’t be solved by launching a canoe into the Mississippi River and spending a few hours discovering its rhythms, learning to manage its current and connecting with its wildness.
If you can paddle the Mississippi, Mark feels, there’s nothing you can’t do.
“My purpose in life is totally connected to this river and it's incredible. When I'm on the river, I have it all figured out,” Mark says.
Mark’s belief in the river’s power to heal, teach and inspire is one of the reasons he is committed to sharing it with youth in the Delta region of Mississippi and Arkansas.
Whether he’s demonstrating the proper j-stroke technique or talking to students about challenges they face at home or at school, Mark’s goal is not only to improve their river skills but life skills as well.
“What the canoe does is teach you confidence, self-worth. It helps your self-esteem. We want these kids to know they can do whatever they choose to do,” Mark says.
That’s particularly important in the Delta, one of the most economically-challenged regions of the country, where opportunity can sometimes seem out of reach for youth.
According to data compiled by the Equality of Opportunity Project, the upward mobility odds of a child born in the Delta are the worst in the country.
But Mark sees unlimited potential in the students he mentors; they just need a chance to develop their talents, and mentors to guide them.
“The Delta has is a really complex history, but the people are beautiful here. A lot of them are just lacking opportunity,” he says. “So we're trying to change that trend. A lot of kids are insecure about the future. I’m trying to open doors for them to see what they can achieve.”
A native of East St. Louis, Mo., Mark moved to the Delta in 2011 and became a river guide after meeting the founder of Quapaw Canoe Company, John ‘Driftwood’ Ruskey, who was leading a canoe trip near the city.
“I thought, ‘Man, how can I make a living on the river?” Mark recalls. “I came down to Clarksdale and met John. I paddled with him. He offered me a job. And here I am.”
One of the things Mark discovered is that many Delta residents have little direct connection with the Mississippi River, despite its proximity and its defining influence on the region’s history.
A lot of the students who take his canoe ethics course grow up wary of the river, even afraid, because of frequent flooding. They learn to overcome that fear first by paddling on the smaller Sunflower River, which runs through Clarksdale, and then taking more challenging trips on the Mississippi itself.
“These wild places are few and far between. And one of our missions at Quapaw is to bring attention to the rivers and to protect them for generations to come. Because without fresh water, we're nothing,” says Mark, who also represents 1 Mississippi, a conservation organization dedicated to raising awareness of the need to protect the Mississippi.
“The Mississippi River is the most incredible resource we have in this country … If you look at a map, it looks like the circulatory system of our country. And it is.”
The Walton Family Foundation funds Griot Arts to provide Delta youth a safe place to channel their energy and build skills after school. The foundation supports 1 Mississippi through its Environment program.
For Mark, every trip on the river represents a chance to connect with his students.
“I get a chance to talk to these kids about their day, about what their plans are in life. And I get to give them advice. When they’re out here on the water, they seem to relax,” Mark says.
“I talk to them about being punctual. I talk to them about attitude. I talk to them about how important school is, how important this time of their life is and everything. And whatever they build now, it’s going to help them later.”
One of Quapaw’s goals is to train youth to become river guides themselves. Over the years, several former students have gone to work for Quapaw.
But Mark says the river also teaches kids leadership skills that can help them in any career – whether police officer, geologist, biologist, firefighter, teacher or entrepreneur.
“A lot of these kids, they look to us as role models. I want them to look at me and see what I'm doing. They have somebody to look up to. They can say, ‘Well, Mark River's doing it, why can't I do it?”