In the Flow: Paddling with
Matthew Burdine of
Mississippi River Expeditions
By Sandi Butler Hughes
Photos courtesy of Matthew Burdine
Upon seeing the Mississippi River for the first time, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto called it “River of the Holy Spirit.” Matthew Burdine, owner of Mississippi River Expeditions, is a current day Mississippi River apostle. He believes the river continues to offer new opportunities for exploring, and Memphis can be the recreation capital for America’s iconic river.
Mississippi River Expeditions (MRE) is an outfitter and guide company for canoe trips on the river. “Memphis has more river wilderness access than any other city in North America,” Matthew says. “The lower Mississippi, from St. Louis to the Gulf, is 1400 miles with big islands, sandbars, and beautiful wilderness. It is a canvas of possibilities for ecotourism.” Matthew wants people to experience the river, not just look at it. “The canoes are custom-built, multi-person sailing canoes made in British Columbia, and they are safe. They are ocean-going canoes and are very difficult to flip. So you don’t get wet unless you want to!”
Matthew grew up in the Mississippi Delta so he has long had a relationship with the river; that relationship became a love affair when he decided to solo-canoe the entire length of the Mississippi, 2400 miles. In 2015, he slipped his canoe into the headwaters of the river, and six months later he was in the Gulf of Mexico. It was a very spiritual and pivotal journey. “I had lost my mom to breast cancer in the early 2000s. I partnered with the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, and I called my trip ‘A Million Strokes For A Cure.’ It was my own Huck Finn odyssey.”
Matthew also spent 10 years as a whitewater river guide in Colorado and the mountains of the West. “That is a vertically grand world in those river canyons. Here on the Mississippi, it is a horizontally grand world but just as grand,” he says. “And when you see Memphis rise up out of the horizon when you’re on the river, it gives you a new appreciation and love of the city.”
MRE is partnered with the famed Quapaw Canoe Company and John Ruskey in Clarksdale, MS. John is a legend in the paddling community with decades of expertise on the Mississippi. Matthew partnered with John when he founded MRE, and it serves as the Tennessee outpost for Quapaw Canoe Company.
As a river guide, Matthew’s top priority is safety while making sure everyone has a good time. All MRE river guides are experienced in big, moving water. The canoes are Coast Guard approved and equipped with marine radios, and he keeps a close eye on the weather before launching. Like any proper Southern gentleman, he minds his manners: he knows the protocols and etiquette when it comes to sharing the river with barge traffic. “As for the water in the river, there is a big misconception that it is filthy - but it is NOT. Past Baton Rouge, yes, it is polluted. But in our region, it is a wilderness paradise.” He also knows a lot of river stats and fun facts and weaves interesting stories of river lore and legends that he shares along the trip. If you get lucky, he might even bring along his guitar for a campfire sing-along.
All MRE trips are private charters so you will only be on a trip and in a canoe with people you know, and no prior canoeing experience is necessary. He equips everyone with life vests and beautifully hand-crafted wooden paddles. Trips range from three-hour morning and sunset cruises from Mud Island to full-day floats from Shelby Forest to multi-day canoe-camping trips. You can also design your own trip. He has guided yoga retreats, family reunions, team building trips for companies, and dinner cruises. He is planning to host supper club cruises in the fall, complete with a chef who prepares dinner on a sandbar. He has the gear and canoes to accommodate large groups of as many as 50 people. There are miles and miles of sandbars and beaches to enjoy, all within a short paddling distance of downtown, so the possibilities are as open as your imagination.
Matthew’s primary goal for MRE is to change the perspective of locals and how we view the river. “I’m trying to make the Mississippi as sexy as the Grand Canyon,” he laughs. “Memphis is the perfect place for ecotourism especially with the Big River Crossing, the Ducks Unlimited Park just across the river in Arkansas, and acres of wilderness at our doorstep.” Preach it, Matthew - preach!
For more information, visit canoememphis.com and follow Mississippi River Expeditions on Facebook and Instagram.
In the Flow: Paddling with Matthew Burdine of Mississippi River Expeditions from 4Memphis Magazine