Thursday, September 30, 2010

What I'm Reading

I mentioned in an earlier post that, when I travel, I like to read books that relate to my travel destination.  

With that in mind, here are a few more books from our shipboard bookshelf.  And if you have suggestions for other good reads, I’d love to hear them!

A towboat named for James Fenimore Cooper's hero
The Leatherstocking Tales, by James Fenimore Cooper (published between 1827 and 1841)

A collection of five novels spanning colonial American history from the French and Indian War to the Louis and Clark expedition.  I read The Pathfinder (chronologically the first story), which involves sailing ships engaged in daring maneuvers on Lake Ontario, while we visited Fort Oswego and steeled ourselves to venture out on that Great Lake for our first major crossing.  I read The Prairie (chronologically the last story) as we floated down the Mississippi, ogling prairie wildflowers.  

You probably remember these books for the bloody battles with hostile Native Americans (or for the movie starring Daniel Day Lewis, which, though enjoyable as a spectacle, has numerous plot points you'll find nowhere in these books and (ridiculously, if you know anything about native vegetation of upstate New York) was filmed in North Carolina. What jumped out at me on this reading was the passionate conservation message.  The protagonist, hunter Natty Bumpo, loves wilderness, and as American settlers chop down trees, slaughter passenger pigeons and bison, and otherwise despoil the landscape, he flees westward.  

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mussel Shoals

This trip divides itself into distinct stages. Navigating the quirky locks of the Trent-Severn Waterway. Admiring the granite-fringed majesty of Georgian Bay. Dodging giant barges on the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.  This week we started a new phase of our trip. We dodged one last barge--on the narrow and winding Cumberland River--locked through one last, massive lock, navigated one short canal, and entered . . .  what looks like a vast lake.

Dozens of small towns were flooded and thousands of families relocated
to create Kentucky Lake. The shores are dotted with reminders.
Kentucky Lake is actually part of the Tennessee River. This segment became a lake with the construction of the massive Kentucky Dam (built between 1938 and 1944).  

Our government had been considering how to improve navigation and shipping on the Tennessee River as early as Civil War days.  Muscle Shoals, a stretch of particularly treacherous rapids in northern Alabama, prevented boats from navigating all the way up the Tennessee to Knoxville.

The Kentucky Dam was the last in a whole chain of projects, begun in the late 1930s under President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” initiatives, that finally allowed the big tows--with their cargos of grain, coal, petroleum, and iron ore--to reach towns an a region that was, previously, one of the most economically depressed in the country.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Tow Boats on the Radio: A guest blog from Bill

(Note: Cynthia is taking a brief vacation from blogging and her husband--sometimes inaccurately referred to as the "Captain"--is filling in.)

In our extensive---ahem--research before leaving on this trip, we read many scary warnings about tows on the major inland rivers--the Illinois, Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee. 

First, a clarification: A TOW is actually a PUSH, a raft of barges with a powerful tug boat clamped to its tail end, pushing the raft along. Tows range widely in size. We've encountered tows as small as a single 100-foot barge and as large as six barges wide by seven barges long, more massive than villages in which we have lived. 
Six barges wide by seven barges long . . .  larger than many villages in which we've resided

Shipwrecked on a Desert Island (Almost)

Sunset on the Ohio River
We were on the Mighty Mississippi for just a few short days. Then we hung a hard left, to travel upstream, on the Ohio River.

Instantly the water went from cappuchino-brown to pine-needle green . . .  and our speed dropped from "comparatively blistering" back down to "pokey."

We travelled a mere 46 miles on the Ohio . . . . from Cairo, Illinois, to Paducah, Kentucky, where (as you'll remember) we were frustrated in our quest for barbeque.

By the time we left Paducah it was getting late.  We didn't reach our "approved anchorage" until a little after sunset.

What IS It?

Periodically, this blog invites you to peruse a picture and make your best guess: What IS that thing?

The Sept. 16th "What IS It?" quiz showed a giant can of tuna . . .  filled with gravel . . .  in the middle of the river.  We received many creative suggestions, and the winner is: Scott Barbara, for correctly identifying a caisson.

What it's not: This is NOT a bunch of Asian carp gasping for air
Caissons do a bunch of things; the caissons we've been seeing are the river equivalent of those big plastic barrels of sand you see clustered at a highway exit ramp. They're kind of like bumpers--they reduce the seriousness of collisions.

The colorful caisson in the picture is from the Mel Price Lock and Dam in Alton, Illinois. It's positioned near the entrance to the lock, to prevent runaway barges from smashing into the lock wall.

For his exhaustive knowledge of obscure marine terminology, Scott wins a tacky postcard.  YOU could be next.  Just eyeball today's photo and tell us, "What IS It?"

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Life on the Mississippi

"It's lovely to live on a raft . . ." 
While I travel, I like to read novels with my destination as their setting.  On a business trip to Missoula, Montana, for example, I read A. B. Guthrie's iconic Big Sky. I filled a 24-hour plane trip to India with (possibly the longest English-language novel ever written) Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy

Both books are set in earlier times, yet each one accurately captured the landscape and the cultural quirks I was seeing in each place.

So . . .  naturally, before a boating trip down the Mississippi, we picked up a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for 50 cents at a used book store in Chillicothe, Illinois.   

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Gone Botanizin'

A prairie bouquet
I like to have flowers around the house: A little bouquet on the dinner table, or on an end table in the living room.  Same on the boat.  When we go ashore, I always pick a few wildflowers to ornament our floating home.

But a little knowledge can be a depressing thing. As a former biologist, I know enough about plants to know that most of the "wildflowers" I've picked so far are not exactly wild.  

The staples of a roadside floral display--Queen Anne's lace, butter and eggs, birdsfoot trefoil, cow vetch, red clover--they're non-natives, exotics, invaders, brought here from Europe or from Asia, deliberately or accidentally.

But as we've moved farther west--away from the regions that have been settled the longest--it's become easier to find roadside flowers that are not, at heart, weeds.  In Wisconsin, not only did we find plant communities that were mostly native species, but we were edging into a floristic zone that (for someone raised in the East) held many excitingly new plants--prairie species.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

In Lieu of BoatCam

We needed a place to pause while we observed the holiday of Yom Kippur, so we spent four nights 20 miles south of Saint Louis, tied up at the most famous marina on the Mississippi--Hoppie's Marina in Kimmswick, Missouri.  

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rama Lama Wing Dam

Hard evidence: I knew you wouldn't believe me when
I said how fast we are going. The GPS does not lie!
From Alton we set out down the mighty Mississippi, bound for St. Louis.  The Cap'n nosed the boat out into the current, and . . .   Brace yourself for the G-forces! The river current took us to a blistering 9.6 mph.  Like a horse let out of the barn, Dragonfly fairly frisked.

Our usual rate of travel, four miles per hour, is walking speed . . .  the rate at which most travel proceeded for most of human history.  Once you get used to this slow pace, 10 mph FEELS fast.  Exciting. Even thrilling.  We gawked at the riverbanks like hicks taking our first horseless carriage ride, amazed by how quickly we were going.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

SchoolBus Ferry

The limestone bluffs fringing the water add interest to the scenery.
In southwestern Illinois there are a number of roadways where, to get across the river, you take a ferry--there is no bridge.  

Some of these ferries are operated by the Illinois Department of Transportation, and you can ride them at no charge, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  It's just part of the state transportation system

Early one morning outside of Grafton we passed this ferry, giving kids an unconventional ride to school.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What IS It?

We've seen hundreds of these on our trip so far.  Gulls like to
perch on them.
Wow, many people knew instantly what those Ziploc bags full o' water  I described back on Sept. 13 were for:  Allegedly, they repel flies.  Do they?  A university scientist has actually done some research.  See what YOU think! Personally I think this work is a contender for the IgNobel awards, coming up September 30th.

As the first person to answer correctly, "Enfanta" claims the prize of a tacky postcard.  Enfanta, just send your snail mail address to slowboat@emailias.com

Take a look at the photo, above right.  That thing looks like a hot tub! (Check out the ladder). Or a really really big tuna can. So why is it full of gravel?  Um, it's NOT a hot tub.  It's not a can of tuna. What IS It?

Catfish Are Jumpin', That Paddle Wheel Pumpin'

These gaudy casino boats welcome you to the town of Alton, Illinois.

Full disclosure:  The crew of the Dragonfly is a gol-durned Yankee, born and raised in Massachusetts, the land of the Bean and the Cod.  

I'd always thought of Illinois as a "northern" state . . . Chicago,  organized labor,  organized crime, icy cold winters?

But for the last few days, as we float ever farther on the Illinois River, on a line due southwest of Chicago, the crew keeps saying to the Cap'n,"What IS it that makes me feel I'm in the deep south?"  

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Flood of '93

Grafton mud flats
We  enjoyed our stay in Grafton, a small town just north of St. Louis where the main street is lined with little restaurants and gift shops.

When we walked along the river, we noted vast expanses of dried mud at the water's edge--hard as rock now, but obviously inundated by the river pretty recently.

So the river is low now, but everywhere in town are stark reminders that the river can also rise quite high.

One building, located on a ridge that seemed well above the river, has a sign showing the highwater mark from the flood of 1993 . . . well above the level of the first-floor windows.

A Ground-Breaking Development

In Grafton, Illinois, front-page news in the local paper was a new housing development featuring "net-zero" affordable housing.  We HAD to check it out. The ground-breaking was Tuesday, and the marina at Grafton Harbor kindly loaned us their stylin' red pickup truck for the 20-minute drive to nearby Jerseyville.

At the edge of a cornfield, about 30 people in business attire had gathered under a tent, shovels and hard hats at the ready. The term "net-zero" refers to the utility bills--there won't BE any.

Monday, September 13, 2010

What IS It?

SlowBoat's August 31st "What IS It?" contest attracted two partially correct answers.  (If you remember, the photo showed an eerie sand-dune landscape--tawny cliffs fringed with tropical vegetation and pocked with animal burrows.)

The scene was reminiscent of a desert landscape.  Cropped out of the photo were the construction cranes and the rusting barges along the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.  Greg P. correctly identified the "cliffs" as material stored by the city of Chicago to deal with icy roads in winter--but that stuff is sand, not salt.  And Cliff from State College correctly identified the burrows as belonging to bank swallows--a common species that obviously found a welcoming home in this industrial landscape.
What IS it, perched in profusion on our solar panels?

The photo at right is a bit of a place holder--I bet you can easily guess what you're looking at here. Here's TODAY'S ACTUAL CHALLENGE:
A curious item, spotted at a BBQ restaurant, on an outdoor patio, at dusk.  I couldn't get a satisfactory image.  But I can describe the scene.

Seats at the Game

Where we docked in Beardstown
This past Saturday night Penn State's Nittany Lions played Alabama's Crimson Tide, and the Cap'n wanted to watch the game.

No TV on our boat. So we needed to find a town . . . with a bar . . . with a TV tuned to the game.

Our neighbor boats for the night
Leaving Havana Saturday morning, we checked our charts. There were several little towns along the way, but the nearest town with a place to dock was Beardstown, Illinois, population 5,900, more than 40 miles away.

And the official place to dock in Beardstown?  A rusty barge, covered with logs and litter, tied to other rusty barges, in the middle of a towboat docking facility, below a high cement wall that protects the town from flooding.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Will They Pray in Peoria?

The crew of the Dragonfly had been poring over maps and clicking around to websites.  The Jewish New Year was approaching; would we find a place to observe the holiday?  In small rural towns, synagogues can be thin on the ground.

Luckily, Peoria (the largest town between Chicago and St. Louis) had a congregation we could visit: Anshai Emeth.  On the appointed day, Dragonfly tied up at the Peoria town dock.  Her crew made an emergency discount department store expedition, to score new khakis for the Cap'n (his lone pair of "dress" pants having long since succumbed to boat grease.)  Over holiday dinner--baked salmon with rosemary, roasted potatoes, summer squash with fresh herbs--we lit candles and said the traditional prayer: "May our boat be consecrated, O Lord, by these lights."  Then we hailed a taxi.

We enjoyed talking with our taxi driver, whose son had just returned from four years with the Marines in Iraq, and was now quarterbacking the local college football team.  Talk about things to be thankful for in the New Year!

Anshai Emeth resembles our home congregation Brit Shalom in State College:  A modern multifunctional building dating to the 1960s, housing a congregation whose roots are much older.

A few years ago, the first mate did a series of radio reports about the history of Jewish congregations in rural Pennsylvania.  We learned the history of Anshai Emeth in Peoria is quite similar. The first Jewish settlers arrived in the mid-1800s--liberal Jews from western Europe, who were merchants and traders.  Later in the century there was a second wave of immigration from eastern Europe--more orthodox Jews from Hungary, Poland and Russia.   Christian congregations were supportive and sometimes shared their houses of worship.

We had a very warm welcome from the congregants at Anshai Emeth, and we thoroughly enjoyed the services, led by a student rabbi, a young woman in a demure white blouse and killer red patent leather pumps.  The choir, accompanied by two guitars and bongo drums, mixed traditional and innovative themes.  A particular high point: the unconventional closing hymn, a bouncy tune that got everyone imitating the sounds of the shofar (the ceremonial ram's horn traditionally sounded on this holiday.)

We don't have a shofar on the boat, but we do have a conch (the shell of a very large, ocean-dwelling snail).  The tip of the shell has been filed off, and if you blow very hard, you can make a loud honking sound, very similar to the call of the shofar.

Shofars and conchs were invented for similar purposes: to make a really loud noise that gets people's attention!  Back in the mid-1800s, (before modern klaxon horns were invented), canal boat crews used conchs to signal their intentions to other boats.

We put the question to any rabbis who are reading: Is it kosher to salute the New Year with your canal boat conch?

Carpe Carpum

Put on your helmet.  Now, look closer . . .  closer . . .
Docked at Tall Timbers Marina in Havana on Friday, we heard an odd clicking sound near the stern of our boat. We checked, and the water was dotted with little dimples.

It was hundreds of silver carp--small ones--coming to the surface to gulp air.

The next morning I woke to vigorous and sustained splashing. A foot-long silver carp had leaped into our dinghy.

The narrow little boat was half full of water from rain overnight, so the fish was still very much alive and thrashing vigorously.  The Cap'n grabbed our small fish net and managed to flip the carp out of the boat and back into the water.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Schock and Awe

We spent an extra day in Havana, Illinois, catching up on email, with the unexpected consequence that we were in town for the annual Oktoberfest:  Carnival rides, brats 'n beer, live music, and a parade.

The red-brick streets and 1880s storefronts given downtown Havana antique charm

Friday, September 10, 2010

(High Five) We Didn't Sink the Boat Today

Before we left on this trip, we heard from skeptics who were sure Dragonfly would not prove seaworthy, or that we were fools to tackle the trip with so little boating experience.  Since then we've had a few exciting moments.  Big waves on Lake Ontario.  The time the prop shaft came loose and water flooded the bilges.  Engine trouble. The day on Georgian Bay that a lightening storm blew in.  Now, at the end of each day, we've gotten in the habit of joking to each other, "Hey! We didn't sink the boat today!"

Peoria at dawn
We'd heard that there was construction at the lock below Peoria. You could lock through--but only if you arrived at the lock outside of normal business hours, after five o'clock at night, or before seven in the morning.  

There's no place to dock or anchor for quite a ways below the lock, and we don't run the boat at night, since we're a slow-moving vessel with a dark hull. So an evening passage was impractical. That meant an early departure. 

We set out at 6:00 AM, just as the sky was starting to flush purple with its pre-dawn glow.  

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Not the Most Unusual Boat in the Marina

The small harbor is bounded on three sides by retired casino boats . . .
and on the fourth side by docks hosting another brightly colored steel boat
We ducked out of some high winds and docked Monday and Tuesday nights at Hamm's Holiday Harbor in Chillicothe.

If that sounds like a festive place, where people turn their boat slips into summer retreats with wind chimes and party lights and rugs on the docks, and where your boat neighbors invite you to hang out in lawn chairs by the impromptu spa made from a wading pool . . . well, it is.

It's also a "temporary storage site" for casino boats awaiting their next life.  Owner Dick Hamm has collected three of these very large and very elaborate vessels, along with several towboats, some barges, and other large, slow, steel-hulled vessels.

We felt very welcome.  And we enjoyed staying in a place where we were NOT the most unusual boat in the harbor.

We May Be Slow . . . But We're Low

This lift bridge is in the "UP" position.
Pretty much everyone who sees our boat wants to know, "How fast can she go on solar power?" Well, if you want to cruise all day and not deplete the batteries, you have to keep her under 3.5 miles per hour. Walking pace.

That rate of travel is not to everyone's taste. But recently, Dragonfly showed how her unique qualities make her a winner.

Here's the story. We'd passed through a lock, 'bout half an hour back, and on the radio we could hear another recreational boat, behind us, hailing the lockmaster.  It takes time to lock through . . . but even so,  the same boat drew up behind us, not very much later.  It was one of those three-story trawlers, the kind with a flying bridge so high the captain might get a nosebleed, and capable of roaring out to fishing grounds at a good clip.  We waved, they waved, they went on ahead, we continued our comfortable walking pace.

About half an hour later, we rounded a bend, and . . . there was the trawler, circling below a lift bridge, which was in the "down" position.   We checked our "official list of bridge heights." (Yes, one of the many essential tools you need on this trip.)  The waiting boat was too tall to pass under.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Illinois River Photoessay

On Lakes Huron and Michigan, you cruise sparkling blue water, sometimes more than 100 feet deep.  Here on the Illinois, the color palette runs to muddy gray-green and the water under our hull is less than 20 feet deep.  Here's a brief photo essay to convey the sense of  our life on this  river, where you so often find the pastoral and the industrial in the same frame.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Here a Canal, There a Canal, Everywhere a Canal

As we tied up inside the old lock, an Asian carp jumped
into our dinghy!
Dragonfly felt right at home when we stopped in Henry, Illinois, this morning. This small town's claim to fame?  It's the site of the first lock and dam ever constructed on the Illinois River, back in 1870.

Today, other dams have superceded this one. You can enter the former lock, because its crumbling limestone walls surround the gas dock of the town marina.

Notice the neatly cut stones
of the old lock wall
We had made an early start, after a blustery night tied to the town dock in Hennepin . . .  the "dock" being an old steel barge that had been rammed up on the riverbank and filled with earth.  Across the river, a grain silo made groaning noises all night long, and in the morning we discovered the wind had deposited a thick layer of dirt and twigs on our roof and decks.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Man, a Plan, a Canalboat

Could the Cap'n be dreaming of a bigger boat?

While we were docked in Ottawa, Illinois, we had many boat visitors.  Reporters from two local papers (Ottawa Delivered  and The Times) dropped by,  along with a representative of local radio station WCMY; the mayor himself (Robert Eschbach); and assistant city engineer Arnie Bandstra.

Arnie is passionate about canal boats.  Recently, he rescued one.  Here she is, the Rosalie. What she is, WHERE she is, and how she came to be there makes quite an interesting story. 

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Redneck Fishing Tournament

Leaping lizards . . . it's a school of leaping carp!  Spotted near Henry, Illinois.
In my last post, I dreamed that carp fishing could someday become a sport as economically significant as bass fishing, which calls for expensive gear and which supports competitive fishing derbies with big cash prizes.

I hadn't done enough research.  I have just learned that, since 2005--yes, 2005!--the town of Bath, Illinois, has hosted the Redneck Fishing Tournament, where the aim is to haul in as many flying carp as you can.  The event attracts 4,000 people to the tiny town of Bath, population 300.  It has already received major media attention.  (Where have I been?)

No tricky compound bows required for this tournament; anglers simply use nets.  One hand-held dip net per participant please.  Event organizers not responsible for broken noses and black eyes due to collisions with flying fish. Wet t-shirt contest to follow.

In three hours, 70 boats hauled in 1,800 fish.

Check it out!

Tournament website

CBS news report

Time magazine photoessay

Friday, September 3, 2010

A Sport That's (Definitely) Not Football

If you live in Central Pennsylvania and listen to WPSU-FM, you know that the Dragonfly's first mate likes to report on unusual sporting events, for a radio series called "Sports That Are Not Football." 

We docked last night in the historic town of Ottawa, Illinois (famous for hosting the first Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858), and this morning, at a local laundromat, the manager told me about the hottest new local sport.  It calls for the cool nerves and keen eye of a hunter combined the powerful biceps of a competitive weightlifter and the reflexes of a video-game addict.  The sport is Aerial Bowfishing for Asian Carp.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Barging Ahead

A vintage 1930s, bascule-type, cast-iron bridge opens
for a "tow" in downtown Joliet 

 Superbowl. Superhighway. “Supersize it.”  SUV.  In American culture, “Big” = “Good.” 

So yo, check out THIS big boy (photo at right).

This is what folks here on the river call a "tow."  A tow consists of one to nine barges (there are six in this tow--it's two barges wide and three barges long) that, strictly speaking, are not actually towed; they are nudged along by a very large, tugboat-like vessel (which is out of the frame in this picture).  

And yuh, the boat that's moving these barges around looks like a tugboat, but don't call it a tug--it's a towboat.  Towboats and their associated barges are big and heavy and made of steel and move slowly--kind of like us.

We stayed two days at the town dock in Joliet, Illinois, and daytime, nighttime, 24/7, we saw these big tows moving past us on the Illinois River. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

GUEST BLOG: Jay Speaks!

The first mate’s father writes a regular column for his local newspaper.  It’s called “Jay Speaks!”   In this guest installment of the SlowBoat blog, Jay speaks about the family’s "boating history,” and relates what it was like to cruise with the Cap’n and crew last week.

Jay and Kitty Berger and Dragonfly in Palmyra NY
Within minutes after the Cap’n docked the boat at a marina in Waukegan, Illinois, the little rubber dinghies started circling, and we could hear the tramp of feet as other boaters flocked down the wooden docks to get a closer look.

The questions came fast and furious. “Did you bring that barge here from Europe?”  “Is that an English narrowboat?” “How many amps do you get out of your solar panels?”  “How fast can you go?”  “Can you run all day on solar power?” “Did you build it yourself?”  “How old is it?”  and . . . “May we come aboard and look around?”

Hopping the Electric Fence

You've probably read the news reports saying a segment of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal had been outfitted with an "electric barrier" to prevent the obnoxious Asian carp from swimming upstream and entered Lake Michigan.

I wondered, what does a fish barrier look like?

Yesterday, I got my answer, as we motored right through the section of electrified water.

The National Basement

Dragonfly threaded the canyons of Chicago fast as a morning commuter tossing off a shot of espresso, and before you could say "Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal," we were heading southwest out of downtown, away from the gleaming glass towers, under the Dan Ryan Expressway, and into the industrial hinterlands. We passed the Chicago Public Works yard, with mounds of road salt and sand, ready for the winter.
A little farther on, asphalt plants vented the smell of hot tar into the humid air.  We noticed a petroleum refinery, placed (with unintentional irony) directly across the river from a facility where stacks of flattened automobile carcasses were being bundled.  Meanwhile, signs along the river bank read: "This water not safe to swim in. This water not safe to jet ski in. This water not safe for any contact with human skin."