Photographer’s river adventures let him capture scenes few get chance to see

John Guider woke in the middle of the night to discover water lapping at the edge of his tent. He’d settled on a sandbar the Mississippi River decided to suddenly reclaim.

“I heard something in the middle of the night, and I opened the flap to find water at the base of my tent,” Guider says. “The water table had risen, and I had to pack everything and move to higher ground.”

The river’s surprises also can bring joy to a photographer who has an eye for things less noticed. His photographs wouldn’t be hanging in the Louisiana Art & Science Museum’s main gallery if Guider hadn’t dropped his canoe in Spencer Creek near his Franklin, Tenn., home and began paddling.

Guider was an accomplished commercial photographer in Nashville whose list of clients include celebrities. His 30-year career took him around the world and garnered a long list of impressive awards.

“I had no experience in doing any of this,” Guider says. “I had never camped or canoed. I learned as I went along. One day, I put my canoe in the creek for fun, and I followed it down to the river.”

The creek emptied into the Harpeth River and segued into the Cumberland River, which led to the Tennessee then Ohio rivers. Waiting at the end of the Ohio was the mighty Misssissippi.

That would be Guider’s first journey, which wasn’t a popular idea with his wife. They were newly married and settled in his Franklin farmhouse. Guider also was keeping in close contact with his aging dad, whose health was deteriorating.

Both had reason to worry, for they knew Guider didn’t have a Tom Sawyer childhood. He was a Bethlehem, Penn., native who had earned his degree in mechanical engineering from Vanderbilt University. He’d studied with noted photographers along the way and built his career.

“It was an indoctrination,” Guider says. “I spent seven days on the Harpeth. My time on the Columbia, Tennessee and Ohio rivers gave me the experience to travel the Mississippi. That trip took three months. Then I traveled the Mississippi’s entirety. That trip took six months.”

This was between 2003 and 2005.

“The first time I came to Baton Rouge, I landed across the river at the Cargill facility,” Guider says. “They allowed me to pitch a tent there. Normally, I camp on sandbars and islands. It’s such a visual experience being in nature and being a part of it.”

There were occasional tornado warnings, water moccasins, lightning storms and river traffic. Recent high water stages often put Guider even with the tops of levees.

But nature’s pleasant surprises made weathering the dangers worth it. One morning, Guider discovered a congregation of more than 200 white pelicans surrounding his tent. He captured their flight on film, and the photo is included in the exhibit.

“I have 20 acres at my farm in Tennessee,” he says. “But on the river, I have 20,000 acres. I would go days without seeing anybody, and I learned so much about myself. It was a body, mind and spirit adventure. When I was working in my job, I had a sense of who I was and how I fit into society. But when I was alone, I realized it was just me and others. Without the generosity of others, I wouldn’t have survived these trips.”

All of these trips take their toll, sending Guider to a hotel on some stops for a shower and restocking of supplies.

Guider’s canoe usually was his calling card. People would see it, ask him about it, then befriend him. They’d drive him to local stores to pick up supplies and even pay for dinner.

“I can’t count the number people who paid for my dinners,” he says, laughing. “They wanted to know my story. People want to be good, and that gives me hope for humanity.”

Now he’s ready for a new set of challenges. After leaving the museum, he headed back to Franklin to prepare for his newest adventure, which he calls “Phase IV of the Great Loop.” The journey begins at St. Marys, Ga., continues up the east coast and ends at New York City.

Guider began his journey on April 17. His website, johnguider.com, is keeping up with his journey.