Written by Sam Prager
The Mississippi River is one of the most important facets of Southern culture and American lore and the entity responsible for Memphis’ existence, but our placement on the river is due to several factors, including our signature bluffs and the Wolf River.
In fact, people have lived in this area for thousands of years. Some may have been here before the Wolf River was formed roughly 12,000 years ago. As long as the area has been inhabited, civilization has surrounded the rivers. From the paleoamericans who hunted the area, to the Chickasaw tribe that called it “The Land that Leaks”, to the French and Spanish settlers that trekked towards the river, to Memphians today, many have called this land their home.
The 105-mile long Wolf River rises in Baker’s Pond, located within the Holly Springs National Forest in Northern Mississippi. It runs north-west through Tennessee and through our city limits before merging into the Mississippi River.
The water from the river was also used as Memphis’ primary source of drinking water until 1888 when the city began utilizing the artesian wells to gather water from our aquifer. These methods are still used today and are replenished by the river’s watershed.
In 1985 The Wolf River Conservancy was founded to oppose a gravel mine being built along the Wolf River near Summer Avenue. Since then, the non-profit organization has been dedicated to the protection and enhancement of Wolf River lands for sustainable recreation and education.
Though many of the city’s residents are surely familiar with the “Ghost River” section of the Wolf, Outdoors Inc. owner and founder Joe Royer believes the metropolitan sections of the river can provide a unique, affordable and time-efficient outdoor recreational activity for those of us looking for a quick natural fix.
“The river flows right between the border of Memphis and Germantown and it’s just lovely. If you go down the river and into the city you come just two miles from Rhodes College. People don’t realize just how close the river is to us. It’s not only important to embrace the upper, undeveloped Wolf, but also as it comes through the city, because as we have busier and busier lives we need to have these accessible options,” says Royer, who has used the Wolf River recreationally for over 25 years.
“You have to pave paths for bicycles. You have to build bridges. But the nice thing about kayaking or canoeing is that it’s really cheap recreation. You just need an access point with a very basic boat ramp. Nothing special, just somewhere to put your boat in. Your canoe can just lay in your backyard through the rain or snow. You don’t have to tune it up, you just clean it off and go.”
Royer believes that by understanding our history and our natural resources we can better appreciate our city and our geographical area as a whole. He notes that that people are predispositioned to believe that the water in the area is polluted due to its muddy hue.
However, he explains that the color of the Wolf River and the Mississippi River is largely due to the soil that is natural to the area.
“The thing about the Wolf is understanding that in West Tennessee, our predominant soil in the area is loess and it has a very small particle size. Chattanooga and Knoxville have much larger granular soil. So when it rains there the rivers may look muddy for a little while, but soon the soil will fall down. Our soil is much, much finer. So, the current keeps it suspended in the water. The proper term is turbid. It doesn’t mean our water is polluted, it just means we have much better soil for growing vegetables. When you learn that it changes your outlook on it,” explains Royer. “If you take a jar of Wolf River or Mississippi River water and let it sit on your desk for a day it’ll be clear. Just as clear as any water from the Smokies or anywhere else.”
Outside of recreational uses, the Wolf River’s vast watershed is an important factor to Memphis’ agricultural prosperity and is also home to countless species of wildlife: foxes, bobcats, minks, deer, otters and a wide array of reptiles, amphibians and aquatic creatures.
“Our animals are valuable. Our wildlife is just as valuable as the manatees in Florida. I want to save the manatees, but I also want to save our wildlife. Our forests, our rivers are just as valuable as anywhere else in the world. And this river that runs through the middle of the city is incredibly valuable. The animals benefit from it. The people benefit from it.The developers benefit from it. It makes Memphis a better place to live,” says Royer. “I’ve climbed some of the biggest mountains in the Alps and the Rockies. I’ve learned everything about climbing in Shelby County. I’ve paddled under the Golden Gate Bridge and through the Grand Canyon, but I’ve learned everything about paddling right here in Shelby County. We have the largest river in North America, I’m not intimidated with the San Francisco Bay because we live on the Mississippi. You kind of get a chip on your shoulder. Your resources as a city are what you have, and we have these rivers.”