Growing up a few miles from the Mississippi River, I have always held a deep respect for its power and majesty. From historical towns and roadsides camped along its banks, I have admired its might from a distance. Mark Twain's stories have inspired me to explore and long for my own mighty Mississippi adventure. The river holds something that is missing, but you can become one with the river by journeying on its surface.
Mark Twain's stories have inspired me to explore and long for my own mighty Mississippi adventure.
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My dream came true when, recently, I got the chance of a lifetime—I would sail down the Mississippi. I have crossed ferries and experienced a riverboat cruise, but I have never been so close that I could reach down and touch the water from the boat. This experience has brought me firsthand the intricacies of navigation and the subtleties of interacting with barge traffic. The tugboats are moving an obscene amount of freight up and down the river daily, requiring much space and consideration from pleasure craft. The river is a major artery of travel and transport that forms a mostly unseen foundation for our economic output as a nation—the Mississippi.
...I have been enlightened and delighted by reading about details of life on the river by Mark Twain.
I would like first to introduce you to my cousin Mike Watt. He is an adventurer who has flown hang-gliders and ridden motorcycles on solo travels to Central America. He has lived and worked internationally as a web designer in remote locations. A few years back, he discovered his passion for sailboats and developed a plan for a sailing trip that would begin in St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico through the rivers and canals. When he asked me to join him on the link from Ste, Genevieve to Cape Girardeau, I got on board.
In Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, the author details how navigating on steamboats required a vast knowledge of the river. Riverboat pilots needed to know every bend and every snag and sand bar for 1200 miles up and downstream in the dark. Today, there are user-generated GPS maps that show sonar readouts of the bottom of the river from top to bottom. River travelers can generally see depths and channels and anticipate where to avoid shallows. Depth finders have replaced sounders with poles "marking the twain" to gauge depths in real-time. Boat travel can be sublime and peaceful but can turn into a complete disaster and a life-threatening situation instantly. The apps and tools are separate from alertness and constant observation.
Mike picked me up on the side of the river near Modoc Ferry outside of Ste Genevieve in his tiny dinky rowboat. It was surreal to hop over a few rocks and weeds with my cooler and sleeping bag and row out to his anchored sailboat. To float on this river that I have looked at my whole life with such wonder and respect was an incredible experience. When I got aboard the sailboat, I joined Mike's crew mates: his two tiny terriers, Hansel and Gretel. We fired up the diesel motor and turned the bow south towards the Gulf. We encountered several large barges tugging up the river. When a small craft like ours meets a giant freighter, it can be scary. We traveled 25 miles that day, motor running, and only burnt about a gallon and a half of diesel.
Mike picked me up on the side of the river near Modoc Ferry outside of Ste Genevieve in his tiny dinky rowboat.
The bend in the river created a natural respite from the wind...
Towards nightfall, we found a pretty sand beach at the turn of "Potato Bend" where we anchored. The bend in the river created a natural respite from the wind and gifted us with tranquil waters. We brought the dogs ashore to run about on land. From there, we watched the river barges maneuver the tight bend with care. We grilled up a feast and caught up with stories of childhood and adulting in the modern age. After a while, the weariness of the day and the excitement of the next caught up with us, and we went down to the tiny cabin to sleep.
The next day, we made it to Cape, and Mike rowed me to shore. For the next several months, the rest of the journey is just him and his dogs. I watched him motor under the Bill Emerson Memorial bridge, and off he went.
I watched him motor under the Bill Emerson Memorial bridge, and off he went.
Even with nearly a 300-year history, our nation's settlement in the region has only been for a brief moment. Our indigenous ancestors have been on this river for thousands of years, interacting naturally. By experiencing the river in this way, I feel more connected to these ancestors and have had a perspective through the lifeblood of our country, our river, The Mississippi. I will remember this float trip forever and treasure the memories.
pics & words by jamie smith
A Note from the Editor:
Samuel Clemens became a riverboat trainee in 1857. A few years later, he earned his pilot's license and began piloting the steamboat Alonzo Child upriver from New Orleans, but the Civil War broke out and ended his piloting career in 1861. He went on to become a famous writer. As a writer, he used the pseudonym Mark Twain to remind himself of his riverboat days in the Mississippi.
"Mark Twain" means two or the second mark on a line that measured depth, signifying two fathoms or 12 feet of safe water for riverboats. The method of dropping a line to determine the water's depth was a way to read the river. The Mississippi is littered with boulders and sand bars that could "tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated," as Clemens wrote in his 1863 novel, "Life on the Mississippi."
NOW, Get Out There! Time's a wasting.
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