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A Man, a Plan, a Canoe

Spur-of-the-moment trek down the Mississippi spawns a compelling photo study

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How do you prepare for a long, arduous and lonely canoe journey down the Mississippi River to New Orleans?

"I didn't," says John Guider, a retired commercial photographer who completed just such a journey over the course of three summers. "I just made up my mind."

Prior to his departure in August 2003, Guider had only witnessed the great outdoors in weekend Boy Scout camping trips with his son. He had never navigated a canoe through troubled waters, and he didn't know much about cooking, either.

But Guider's Mississippi adventure—a mule-headed, risky, arguably foolish endeavor, undertaken by someone with a head full of vague romantic notions and a burning need to prove something to himself— became everything an American fable should be. He was smart enough to select a sturdy Kevlar canoe well suited for both deep and shallow waters. He brought along a watch and a weather radio, both of which proved invaluable. Smartest of all, he also packed a gadget of seemingly limited application—a treasured camera.

Without it, Guider would have little to show for his journey other than a deep tan and bragging rights—and with his soft, gently meandering Tennessee cadence, it's unlikely that these boasts could even be heard across a dinner table. But Guider put his camera to work even as he risked total collapse paddling 12 hours a day in the scorching summer heat. The photos Guider brought home, some of which will be featured in an exhibit at the Tennessee State Museum for the next two months, chronicle the Mississippi River and its inhabitants in all of their impermanent glory.

Guider, now 59, had spent three decades growing a successful studio in Nashville, only to find that the work to which he had dedicated his life was leaving him feeling increasingly drained and exhausted. If he didn't do something drastic, he says, "I think I would have dropped dead two years ago, just on a stress and habitual level."

On the morning he was to start his journey, in a creek near his Franklin home, Guider was barely packed. For shelter, he had bought a tent, a sleeping bag and an air mattress (the last a luxury he would later eschew). He stuffed a duffel bag with clothes and sundries, loaded up on rice and soups, and threw in some light cooking equipment and 14 gallon jugs of distilled water.

Over the next three months, he would weather violent summer storms, heat exhaustion, clouds of insects and dangerous barge traffic. And after pulling triumphantly ashore near New Orleans' Jackson Square—where he was greeted by a crowd of police and Coast Guard officers convinced he was a terrorist—he decided that he wouldn't be satisfied until he had canoed the Mississippi River in its entirety, starting at its origins in Minnesota's Lake Itasca. It would take him two more summers to complete his quest.

The black-and-white prints illustrate the immediacy of Guider's river's-eye perspective. A photograph of the morning mist over the waters of the Harpeth reveals not only an instinctive eye for composition and balance, but also a nature-loving neophyte's awe of natural light. Guider's eye is equally drawn to the humans who populate the river's edge. In one photo, he lingers on a boy fishing from a dilapidated Mississippi boat dock, a ghostly image that could have come from another century.

There is a transitory quality to Guider's photographs that speaks of a habitual wanderer's easy camaraderie. He balances a sentimental inclination toward what he calls "the common man" with an instinct for capturing simple motions. His subjects may be individually unremarkable, but when caught in the simple act of reaching for their cigarettes or lingering a moment on the shore, they can appear bashfully iconic.

Cumulatively, Guider's photos offer a glimpse of the careful footsteps civilization has made along the edges of the mythical river. In some places, those footsteps are plainly receding from the shore, and Guider dwells on abandoned factories, decrepit warehouses and the disenfranchised inhabitants of flailing river towns. Elsewhere, the river has been all but tamed, and the low-angle spectacle of cities like St. Louis and Minneapolis captured from a tiny canoe drains the water of its majesty.

Guider's photos and journal entries have been released by Nashville's FRP Publishing in a coffee table book entitled The River Inside. The journey he so earnestly describes is fascinating and sometimes harrowing. But like his photographs, his adventure is most compelling in the still, quiet spaces.

John Guider will sign copies of his book 4 p.m. Oct. 14 at the Tennessee State Museum store. Guider will also appear 6 p.m. Oct. 7 at the Otter Creek Church in Brentwood, 4 p.m. Oct. 10 at the Southern Festival of Books, and 3 p.m. Nov. 9 at the Tennessee State Museum's Tennessee History & Culture Book Fair.

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