The warm, knee-deep waters of a sandy section of Town Creek are about 20-something miles by blacktop from the elementary classroom Millie Thompson would have decorated with autumn colors by now. There’s something about the way the leaves on the paddle to her happy place on Monroe County’s Old Tombigbee River in Wren cycle through from summer greens to autumn reds that’s a little more relaxing than instilling educational basics to her pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes five years ago.
Since switching professional roles from a teacher to a kayak rental proprietor, she still seems to be educating a former student every now and then.
“I had one of my former kindergarten students who’s probably close to 30 now who came out to rent a kayak, and it was getting closer to dark, and she called because she wound up going the wrong way at a split,” Thompson said. “I taught her A,B,Cs back then, and now I’ve given her a lesson in river navigation.”
The Aberdeen Elementary School retiree has always had some sort of connection to the outdoors. From pulling her horses in a pink horse trailer to trail rides to making waves up and down the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway on a Sea-Doo with some retro sunglasses on her face, she’s put a hip twist on being a worshipper of the sun.
“This is a lot less strenuous on your body. I’ve been on lots and lots of trail rides and have been out on them with the kids when it was 30 degrees. I loved to get out on a horse in the woods by myself, but it’s a lot of upkeep. With kayaks, you just pull them up and wash them off,” Thompson said.
In 2012, she packed up the very few belongings she needed for her 1,000-square-foot cabin on stilts on a high point yards from the banks of the Old Tombigbee River. The move was a downsize from a 2,600-square-foot house on five acres 10 miles south of there.
“I didn’t need three toilets and a big yard to mow,” Thompson said. “I got a U-Haul trailer, and told the kids to come and get everything they wanted because this place was already furnished. I basically brought an iron bed, an armoire and an antique desk, and sold the rest at a yard sale.”
That liberating life decision mimics her laid-back personality. The charm of the water was always an invitation to stick her toes in or take the Sea-Doo for a little exploring, but borrowing a kayak for a few months last year sparked another way of reinventing outdoors fun.
“I just wanted people to share my paradise. A man who came yesterday said, ‘I’ve lived in Amory my whole life, and I didn’t know this even existed,’” Thompson said during an interview in mid-August. “It really is a secret place.”
Just north by water from her home is a split where going left takes paddlers over fairly shallow stretches of Town Creek with winding sandbars on their right and towering bluffs on their left.
Where the course splits right, trees on the bank offer a more pristine paddle through Monroe County’s more natural scenery onwards to Bigbee.
When Thompson took the plunge of starting her business, River Life Kayak Rentals, Memorial Day weekend this year, she started buying kayak after kayak to stack her armada of colorful boats.
She frequented Walmarts in Amory, Starkville, Columbus and Tupelo, had TJ Maxx locations in Columbus and Tupelo calling her when a new shipment arrived, and found a few more online.
“Twenty was going to be my limit, but I’m up to 22 now, including mine,” said Thompson, who vows she’s not buying any more kayaks.
Since starting, her kayak rental business has opened up a new outdoor activity for several people who’d never even held a paddle in their hands.
“The majority of the people have never been, and they ask if it’s hard. I tell them, ‘Naw, I started when I was 60.’ I told myself when I was 60, I’d get a tattoo and start a business,” she said with a chuckle while a smidge of a peace sign tattoo with a flower behind it was visible on her left shoulder through her tank top.
Throughout the summer, she’s hosted ages 7 to 70 for birthday parties, casual paddles and two reunions including people from Birmingham, Jackson and Memphis. She touts Monroe County’s central location and her unique service to the reunions.
Beyond canoe and kayak rentals in southern middle Tennessee, south Mississippi, Tishomingo State Park and northwest Alabama, she’s cornered the market for her immediate area on rivers.
“One guy from Tupelo told me that he can afford it now since it’s cheaper here, and he doesn’t have to drive so far. He’s been here three times so far. I’ve had other guys come in from Alabama since they couldn’t rent from Bear Creek during the week. I really like for people to call in advance, but most people just show up,” Thompson said.
She’s heard positive reviews after paddlers come back from a day of exploring the streams. Some have asked about tent camping, and she always offers rental of an approximately 300-square-foot Katrina cabin on her property.
Whether people devote to an overnight trip or not, she has concluded their experience by grilling some courtesy hot dogs for the paddlers. She added that one lucky group recently got to feast on some Boston butts since she’d cooked more than she could eat for herself.
Thompson is branching the business away from the old river to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway for a day Oct. 17 at Aberdeen’s Bukka White Blues Festival. She plans to keep the service going through the fall for anyone wanting to see some of those autumn reds on the way to her happy place.
Name: River Life Kayak Rentals
Address: 30077 River Bend Lane, Amory, Mississippi
Telephone: (662) 640-2043
Photos by Lauren Wood // Story by Ray Van Dusen