Thursday, September 16, 2010

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?"  

One clue might be all the old-fashioned paddleboats we're seeing, with their big stern wheels, Victorian trim, and rooftop calliopes . . . straight out of Mark Twain's Huck Finn (which we are currently re-reading).

Get your catfish here . . . also buffalo (another
kind of river fish) and fresh frog's legs!
Of course these "steamboats" have no steam boilers, and they're not going anywhere . . . they're casinos!

Another clue might be the cuisine . . . restaurants specializing in Bar-B-Q and catfish, offering fritters as a side dish, boasting of their many, many varieties of home-made pie.  

Staffed by waitresses who ask, "Kin ah git yew anythin' else?" and call you "Honey" even when they are twenty years younger than you are.

The holy trinity of southern desserts: watermelon, Georgia
peaches, and fresh baked pie.
Maybe it's the fact that it's mid-September, and all the trees are still green, and the morning forecast is always 10 degrees warmer than our current hometown of State College, PA.

At any rate, all this Southern ambience is enough to send us off, at the drop of your "gimme cap," into choruses of that old Doobie Brothers classic. "Old black water, keep on rolling . . ."  Especially on Wednesday, when we rolled past the dramatic limestone cliffs outside of Grafton and past the very confluence of the Illinois River with the Mighty Mississippi.  

Except the water wasn't black, it was a deep yellow brown, and instead of the Mississippi moon we had the Mississippi sun, in a blue sky. Going downriver, the Mississippi comes on from your right, hard to spot from upstream, marked by a couple of nondescript little islands.

The park in downtown Grafton features this wonderful
plaza map of the confluence of the rivers
(That's the Illinois on the left)
 A friend called just as we passed the wedding of the waters, asking (as everyone does when they call us) "Where ARE you?"  When I explained our momentous location, she was anxious.  "Is the boat rocking and pitching?  Don't you need to go tend lines or something?"  But no, it was a placid and surprisingly unremarkable passage.

Then Dragonfly strayed into shallower water, and next thing we knew, catfish are jumpin'. Oh, yikes, actually, the CARP they are jumpin', and these suckers are BIG, bigger than any carp we've seen so far.  We're talking fish three feet long, with bulbous rounded bodies, hurling themselves six feet in the air!

Dramatic limestone bluffs outside Grafton,
just before the confluence with Ol' Man River
We moved back to deeper water, and the crew went inside and happened to push back the curtains in the salon and, land sakes, honey! one of the glass slats in the jalousie window was smashed, right in the middle, a neat round spot where the safety glass was crinkled and crumpled, as if a fast-moving baseball had smashed right into it.  Outside on the deck below the window was the tell-tale sign: slime, a few scales, and carp blood.

We docked in Alton, Illinois, and found a place that could cut new glass, and our kind Looper neighbors, from the American tug Freedom, gave the Cap'n a ride to the glass place, and lickety split, the window was good as new.  (That Cap'n, he's a handy man to have around.  If he ever tires of perfessoring he has a fabulous career ahead of him as a marine diesel mechanic, general contractor, or towboat captain.)

And now we are rolling down the mighty Mississippi, singing that sweet old song, with some new lyrics.

Carp, they are jumpin'
Our hull they are thumpin'
Their slime, it is driving us purely insane!

All together now:  Old black water, keep on rolling . . .


  1. Arnie B. wrote: You commented about the 'southern' feel. That is because Illinois was settled originally from south to north. Migration down the Ohio River and back up the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. Most Chicagoians say anything south of I-80 is "Southern Illinois.

  2. And anything west of DuPage too, while you're at it! But you really don't notice the southern feel until you get south of Springfield.

  3. Hi, Cynthia & Bill--

    Two things: One, when you talked about the paddle steamers, I thought about the Elvis Presley song, "Proud Mary," with its catchy verse, Proud Mary keeps on burning, Proud Mary keeps on turniing, Rolling, Rolling, Rolling on the River." Second, while you were cruising Father of Waters (the Native American translation of "Mississippi"), I was cruising the Mediterranean aboard the Voyager of the Seas! Great cruisers think alike!