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.   

An odd little island on the Mississippi
These days Mark Twain's masterpiece is controversial, for its liberal use of the "n-word" Perhaps as a result, our Scholastic edition shows the protagonists looking vigilant and active and has a careful plot synopsis on the back cover:  "Huck meets up with Jim, a runaway slave, and has a battle with his conscience.  If he helps Jim escape, he'll be in trouble with the law.  But how can he turn Jim in, when all Jim wants is to be free?"

Between the politically correct covers, we enjoyed Twain's sly satire--and imagined what he'd have to say about the reception his book now receives.  But mostly we enjoyed reading the minute details of Huck and Jim's magnificently lazy, magnificently daring and wacky trip, by raft, down the Mississippi of the 1850s  . . .  and recognizing exactly where they they been.  
Count the barges across the front: This tow is six barges
wide by seven barges long!

Sure, in places the river banks now sprout grain silos, or gas pipeline terminals, or rip rap. But to our eyes the Mississippi still had remarkably many stretches where, except for the occasional green or red navigational buoy, it seemed wild and unspoiled. 

We passed the same towheads and sandbars and forest-covered islands that Twain describes, we avoided the dead trees bobbing in the water, waved to the lazy fisherman on the banks, goggled at the tall levees . . . and doubtless we were floating at about the same pace as Huck and Jim's rough wooden raft.

Whenever my phone rings, no matter who is on the line, the caller greets me, not with the conventional "How are you?" but instead, "WHERE are you?"  I'm a bit behind in my blogging, so here's a quick synopsis of  where we were the past week.  

If you  are a map-oriented person and want a visual fix, think of how the state of Illinois, in outline, looks a bit like an arrowhead.  The jagged left side of the blade is the Mississippi River, and the right side of the blade tip is the Ohio River, a major tributary.  This week we traveled along the tip of that blade.

Another Looper leaves Hoppie's at dawn
In our briefing, back at Hoppie's Marina in Kimmswick, Missouri, we got the same information from Fern that our guidebooks were telling us:  This stretch of the trip has few amenities for recreational boaters.  

Some folks doing the Great Loop simply put the pedal to the metal and race through this stretch.  But as a SlowBoat we don't have that option . . . and we were quite interested to do the Huck Finn thing. 

So--water tanks filled, laundry done, larder stocked--we set out early Monday from Hoppie's rough dock, with the mist still swirling on the water.

Our propellor is protected by a couple of solid steel braces.
Still, we were wary of the big logs that floated along with us.
A reasonable first destination was the Kaskaskia Lock and Dam, a short side trip up the Kaskaskia River, where--as on the Trent-Severn--the lockmaster will let you tie to the lock wall overnight. (Locks on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, in contrast, DON'T allow this practice.)

But as we approached, we could see the stretch of river before the lock was busy with towboats and barges.  They were dredging the channel.  

"Sorry," said the locktender. "They'll be dredging all night." Could we lock through and stay on the other side?  Yes, but NOT on the lock wall. We'd have to anchor out.  We nosed up the channel to what looked like a fine little bay, edged forward and . . . felt her bottom stick in mud.

Up anchor . . . glad to leave the dead fish
behind at Kaskaskia lock
With some delicate horsing, the Cap'n got us unstuck. The locktender must have been watching, because he took pity and let us anchor outside the lock, in a tiny, muddy basin rank with floating dead carp. Not our finest anchorage.

A safe harbor in Little Diversion Channel
We travelled 70 miles the next day and spent the  night in a "diversion channel"--a narrow, blind-ended channel, perpendicular to the river, once used by some commercial enterprise, now wild-looking and full of snags.  A barred owl hooted through the night.  

In the morning, we put out a call on the radio:  "Any towboats coming down?"  

Yes . . .  and though we dithered with the anchor for a while to kill time and let the tow pass, when we finally nosed out to the channel mouth, there it was, just off our port bow.  The Cap'n backed her neatly around a snag and hovered till all was safe.

Cape Girardeau looked appealing--and the gate to the city
was open--but alas, there was nowhere for a pleasure boat to dock.
The next night found us around Joppa, Illinois. We'd checked our charts minutely and found a wide bend in the river where we could drop anchor close to shore, well away from the shipping channel.  But because of the current and the boat traffic, we thought it prudent to keep watches at night--the crew till 1:00 AM, Cap'n from 1:00 to dawn.

The moon was full, the night was warm, and the mosquitoes seemed to have exhausted their hunger.  Jupiter stood clear of the moon, with three of ITS moons visible through binoculars.  

Across the river, the power plant was lit like a Christmas tree, and trains would groan by every now and then.  Or the radio would crackle to life, and a tow captain would warn other boats he was coming down.  

Every towboat captain seems to have the voice of a country-western idol:  deep, rich bass and charming southern drawl. The protocol for letting other boats know where you are is to announce the name of the towboat (they're mostly named for people: the Mary C, Bob Koch, Sam Latrico . . .  none of those coy, punny boat names for working boats, not a Pier Pressure or Seas the Day among them)  and then say, laconically, your destination, as in, "Southbound, Joppa Steam Plant." 

"See you on the one . . . "  Two towboats pass port-side to port-side--staying to the right, like cars on the freeway. (When two tows pass starboard to starboard, as if they're driving in Great Britain, that's "see you on the two.")
If another tow is upbound, he'll radio back, and the two captains genially agree on a plan: "How's 'bout I see you on the two?" "OK, then, the two it is, skipper, and ya'll have a nice trip now, down to N'Awlins."

You'd think the confluence of the Mighty Mississippi
with the Ohio--another broad and muscular river--

wouldbe dramatic.  You'd be wrong
Then about 10 minutes later you'll hear the deep thrum of the engines, and see two faint red lights, widely separated, moving in concert against the black shore--one of the lights being at the bow of the tow and one waayyy upstream at the stern.  

The tow passes, the engine sound  fades, and THEN the wake reaches you, a mile away across the river, and softly rocks the boat.

The next day, as we transited the Ohio River's Lock 52 with three other pleasure boats, we watched a towboat discharge one crew and take on another.  

One guy, walking past us in the lock, squatted down to advise, "Ya'll need to stop, up the river apiece, there's four hundred different kinds of barbecue!"

We could smell the sweet tang as we approached Paducah.  It was Barbecue on the River, an annual charitable fundraiser, nearly as famous as Porkstock.  And, look! the town (miracle of miracles) had a dock--the first we'd seen in four days.  But we spent only a short while admiring the elaborate brick buildings downtown and the detailed waterfront murals showing "life in Paducah of the 1800s," because the local police, Chamber of Commerce, and town council all told us the same thing:  "You can tie up for a bit--an hour or so--but no you can't stay overnight, commercial boats use that dock.  Do enjoy our barbecue . . ."

So on we pressed, as the sun started to sink and the sky faded to purple, to Cumberland Towhead, an island that marks the junction of the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers.  And more on THAT anchorage tomorrow!


  1. Wow, what a run you had! Too bad you couldn't stop into Metropolis, IL and get your fix of tacky roadside Americana (and the home of Superman).

  2. How delightful to read of your Mississippi Adventures! I savor the descriptions.

  3. We were VERY disappointed that there was nowhere to dock in Metropolis, we understand the water tower has a huge painting of the superhero!

  4. Thank you for the eloquent descriptions of your observations on the river and the excellent photos as well. It would seem that many of the towns along the Mississippi are missing an opportunity for folks on pleasure boats to visit and spend some time and money too. While the cost of maintaining a public dock is no doubt somewhat expensive, surely it could be partially offset by charing a small fee. I look forward to your next entry. Stay safe and enjoy your trip.

  5. Thank you so much for taking the time to blog your trip, in essence, taking us along. What an enjoyable trip. I read every "great loop" blog I can find and yours is one of the best. I started as you started and was curious how the slower speed would affect the trip. It seems slower is better. Your photos are excellent but I have one question. It would appear the photo of two barges passing are in fact, passing starboard to starboard. Maybe I didn't understand the terminology. I grew up on the Ohio River in Huntington and would love to do the loop. Please travel safe and keep up the excellent blog.
    Thank you again,
    Fred in Fresno