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Midwest Waterways
Route Map 5

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

His name is Gus and when he picked me up at the Kansas City airport his buoyant demeanor somehow relieved me of the irrational resentment I had felt at agreeing to pay so much for a shuttle ride to Leavenworth.  Gus put my two bags in the back of the wine colored sedan and cleared away his accumulation of personal effects on the passenger seat—more the sort of thing that happens when getting a ride with a friend than what you expect when riding as a paying customer.  It suited me fine, though, for Gus was easy to like.

In 1962, Gus Flores emigrated to Kansas City from Guatemala.  Now, over forty years later—after two marriages, two children, a two year stint in Colombia, an extended return to the home country, and a love affair with a San Francisco woman who recently left him—he looks forward to retirement in a few months.  And when that day comes he plans to return to Guatemala where he owns two small homes—one in the mountains and one near the Pacific coast.  But his dream is to buy land near Rio Dulce on the Caribbean side and erect his retirement retreat in this tropical Eden where the unremitting rain showers have only heightened his ardor for the place.

Gus is short and round with straight dark hair mildly streaked with gray.  His steady smile showcases irregularly arranged teeth that come in various shades of aged ivory.  He is incorrigibly young—interested in everything around him and not in the least worn down by the labors of life.  Sixty five and his woman just left him.  She could not bear, it seems, the stress of a long distance relationship with someone whose temperament and line of work would so obviously afford him countless opportunities to meet and get to know other women.  Life is a curious thing.

When we got to Leavenworth, Gus gave me his card and encouraged me to come see him in Guatemala.  I would like to, and—who knows?—maybe the spinning of the earth will deflect Kobuk from her intended path and veer us off towards unplanned destinations.  Gus is completely captivated by the plans that Kobuk and I have, and I have the feeling that given the opportunity he might abandon all to join the two of us for a while.  He would be a good companion, actually—if in fact I were looking for one.

With overcast skies and occasional fits of light, misty rain, Leavenworth is a different place from the enervating sauna I left behind nearly three weeks ago.  The air, the atmosphere, is on the threshold of being cool and there is the delicious anticipation of sleeping with chill on my face and need for the sleeping bag.

Now in retrospect I realize that the weeks of heat and humidity had sucked out of me most of the initiative and all of the enthusiasm that I had previously been relying on to overcome my inexperience on the river.  Setting up Kobuk and preparing for departure is easy now.  It is especially so since all systems seem to be functioning ok.  I have not yet tested the engines, but otherwise Kobuk seems to have borne the enforced inactivity with no signs of distress.  She is grimy with wind borne dirt and her waterline is a broad yellow scum of collected river scud, but this is superficial and in the morning I will clean her hull.

Dredging

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

For three weeks now Kobuk has laid alongside the Leavenworth dock, battened down and left alone.  I couldn’t help but wonder whether unpleasant things might happen to her during my absence but so far I have noticed nothing out of place.  Both anchor boxes were left unlocked but neither was missing any of its tackle.  Beneath the canvas cover snapped over her aft end I had left jerry cans of fuel, the Coleman stove, hip waders, a come-along, and various other small items.  They were intended as a distraction—a lure for those inclined to theft.  “Perhaps,” I thought, “these lesser order things will satiate any lusting thief and diminish his appetite sufficiently to discourage a break-into the cabin where all the more precious items on the boat are stored.”  But really, there was no sign that anyone had even stepped aboard.  As I poked around in the myriad nooks stuffed with nautical goodies, I found everything as it should be and all my pent up anxiety slowly seeped away.  I suppose the problem here is that Leavenworth’s prison reputation filled me with an irrational concern.  But no worries: either all the crooks are locked up or the ones on the loose never noticed Kobuk.

I had also worried about unpredictable Nature: would she get the river to carry snags down onto poor Kobuk’s bow and strafe her with sharp stumps of logs with broken-off branches?  Well, no, she didn’t do that and Kobuk looks unscarred.  There was a large log lodged between the hull and the dock but it did no damage and when the lines were loosened the log went on its way—so Kobuk was not victimized by flotsam and jetsam.

And of course Mother Nature is infamous hereabouts for offering up river floods that uproot trees, deconstruct docks, unhinge homes, and generally play havoc with anything in the path.  While back in Salt Lake City I had actually seen national news coverage on television reporting floods in Kansas City, and this had left a seed of worry in my normally unconcerned mind.  When I got back to Leavenworth and confirmed that Kobuk had not been beset by floods, I inquired about those news reports and discovered that they were associated with very heavy local rains that dropped several inches of precipitation in each of two successive days.  This had caused considerable local flooding but had hardly at all affected the level of the Missouri River.

It is hard to wrap one’s mind around the curious reality that when it comes to flooding, that which happens elsewhere may be more important than that which happens on site.  This is particularly true on a large river like the Missouri: events in the upper reaches of the watershed, if they become sufficiently aligned and do not cancel each other out, can magnify the flooding effect as they bear down on downstream bottlenecks.  And every river system tends towards bottlenecks as you approach its mouth.

At least it is comforting to think about the fact that excessive water release in the headwaters regions of the Missouri inflicts its punishment downstream only after a civilized amount of time has passed.  Even in flood, the water in the river rarely would move any faster than ten miles per hour.  At that rate, water from the Montana mountains, for example, would take at least a week—and probably closer to two—to reach Kansas City (assuming the Corps lets it pass through its dams). This sort of time frame has more in common with the movement of things in the 19th century than it does with action in the 21st.  I’m not sure the human mind is yet sufficiently supple to cope with the implications of world altering events that materialize in mere hours or minutes.  Of course, knowing that floods are on their way and will be here in a week or two does not change the fact that eventually they will arrive.

Only by mid-afternoon was Kobuk fit and ready for departure.  When at last we pulled away from the Leavenworth dock, I could not help but marvel at the fact that nearly a month had passed since we last explored the river together.

The gray skies and cool air gave me more energy and enthusiasm than I had ever been able to muster during those sultry July days.  I am ready for this!  From here to St. Louis is 397 miles.  Chicago is about 750 miles away and the top of Lake Michigan about 1,100.  Beyond that is Lake Huron and then the Trent-Severn Waterway, a canal system across peninsular Ontario that will deliver Kobuk and me to the St. Lawrence—as long as we can reach it before its mid-October closing date.  The entry to the Waterway is about 1,400 miles off and we have about six weeks to get there.  That is only 240 miles per week.  There were weeks in the difficult upper reaches of the Missouri when we covered more distance than that so I think we can make it.  Well, there’s no sense in getting overconfident here; better to deal with things one day at a time and let the grander scale take care of itself.

This is the first time since Montana that Kobuk and I have run down the river on an overcast day.  Without solar brightness, the surface of the water loses its highlights and luster.  Ripples and eddies, boils and slicks—these can hardly be discerned on the putty surface.  But here it matters little for the river everywhere is deep enough, deep enough for Kobuk and deep enough for delicious (albeit somewhat dangerous) inattentiveness.  This relationship with the river is taking on, it seems, the complexion of a ten-year marriage.

When Kansas City came into view, its skyscrapers projected high above the trees and river bottom lands that lay in theApproaching Kansas City oxbow bend between us and the city.  As is usually the case with cities, it looked good from a distance—clean and powerful and even compact.  It is all an illusion, of course, but most perceptions and a considerable share of all decisions are grounded in illusions—and so it is not entirely foolhardy to take the city at face value.

I had intended to spend the night tied off along the Kansas City riverfront but so uninviting was it that Kobuk and I slipped on by with no regrets.  Not only was there no sign of small boat facilities anywhere; there were no city parks or appealing riverfront facilities of any sort.  There were, of course, large industrial works, aged and encrusted in rust, but mostly the riverbank was a continuous gravel embankment rising steeply many tens of feet.

The river charts put out by the Corps of Engineers indicated a city park a few miles downstream from the downtown so I resolved to spend the night tied off there.  It turned out to be little more than a concrete boat ramp flanked on both sides by stretches of gummy mud that had been wetted to saturation by all the recent rain.  It was on the inside of a bend, however, and out of the flow of the river, so I ended up tying off on the remnant of an ancient wooden pylon broken off a few feet above ground level.  Then a second anchor off the stern kept Kobuk pulled away from shore, tethered at both ends and free of all mud as well as uninvited guests.

The matter of uninvited guests was indeed on my mind since four young rowdies were standing around up at the top of the boat ramp drinking beer and talking.  I could hear them but the only spoken word that caught my attention was “deliverance.”  These men were friendly and even volunteered to help me tie off, but, for whatever reason, my intuition told me to be wary.

As darkness settled in, the lights of the city came on.  Sitting in Kobuk eating dinner, I could look out over the stern at a long dark stretch of river water coming ever closer with the multicolored lights of Kansas City glowing in the distance and promising so much.  I guess my problem is I just can’t get past first appearances.

Leavenworth Dock:                                      39* 19.128’ N  /  94* 54.474’ W
Kansas City River Park:                              39* 08.232’ N  /  94* 32.546” W

Distance:                                                       34 miles
Total Distance:                                             1,579 miles


Thursday, August 25, 2005

Yesterday I had overheard a television weather forecast predicting thunderstorms in the early morning hours and this time the forecast was spot on.  Shortly after one in the morning I was awakened by enormous thunderclaps, bolts of lightning, and hard rain sifting through the screen windows.  I did not want to move up into the more protected bow area where the air is uncomfortably still on a warm night, so I tried to wait out the storm.  All I got for my intransigence was a wet sleeping bag and damp sleeping pad.  Eventually I gave in and made the move.

Few things make me feel more delivered to the hands of fate than being on Kobuk in a thunderstorm.  In this case, the situation was rather good since Kobuk and I were tucked in under the shadow of a high bank with plenty of trees nearby.  Still, there is something unsettling about being in a boat on the water when shafts of lightning start stabbing all around.  Thank God that lightning travels faster than sound: when you hear a thunderclap you know you have survived and if your number comes up your taking will be swift and silent.

Throughout the night thunderstorms marched overhead but by morning conditions had settled down into a pattern of gray skies and steady rain.  It discouraged an early departure; I spent a couple hours wrapped in clammy warmth listening to the gentle drumroll of raindrops tapping on the forward deck, inches above my head.  Even after finally arising, the morning routine was slowed down by the need to mop up and store wet gear.

It was nearly midday by the time Kobuk and I set out.  Almost immediately, the rain stopped and we motored along for hours under dark skies that seemed to be saying: “If you had gotten moving earlier I would have spared you earlier, so keep moving now or I’ll pour down on your some more.”  I don’t consider myself to be an animist, but I do tend to think that when the heavens speak their words are generally more reliable than those of people.

I must be reaching the age when the flow of modernization no longer drags me along in its wake but instead leaves me stranded in a stationary whirlpool.  I had thought that casino gambling in this country was limited to Nevada, Atlantic City, Indian reservations, and a few pseudo-functional riverboats pretending to ply the Mississippi.  Now, however, I am coming to realize that casinos are land-based empires all along the Missouri.  Ever since reaching Sioux City, Iowa, I have spotted them near the river, sometimes as massive, Las Vegas-type hotels dressed in neon and other times as fake paddlewheelers planted on land.

There is something pathetic about this great river supporting fewer large boats than its floodplain does.  It has been hundreds of miles now that Kobuk and I have been following this dredged canal and so far the only large vessel I have seen doing real work was the Belle of Brownville up in Nebraska—Randel Smith’s cruise boat for tourists.  In retrospect, I Bridge on the Missourirealize that the handful of tugs with barges that have passed by all were transporting the same thing: sand.  I found this puzzling for sand did not seem to be the sort of valuable product that needs to be transported by river—until the obvious finally struck me: they are merely removing the sand that the dredges along the river pull up from the bottom.  Since they are part of the channel maintenance operation, it hardly makes sense to consider them as part of the commercial river traffic.

I had thought originally that traffic would pick up noticeably once past Sioux City, but actually there has been as little south of there as there was up in North Dakota, or even on the Yellowstone in Montana.  This is one big underused—no, unused—waterway.  It is breathtaking that the river shipping lobby can so influence the Corps of Engineers that “delivering sufficient water downstream to maintain shipping” actually has a powerful effect on the decisions regarding water releases from the dams.  If I were the shipping lobby, I would “reluctantly” give up all claims on the Missouri River flow in exchange for major concessions elsewhere.  If I were the Corps of Engineers I would simplify the water allocation equation by totally eliminating the “downstream navigation” variable and then wait for the shippers to prove their need with action instead of words.  Whatever we do, let’s stop pretending that boats are using this river.  Virtually all the boats I have see could operate in a topped up jaccuzi; they certainly don’t reuire heavily manned dredges, tugs pushing sand barges, sophisticated bridges with plenty of clearance above flood waters, and Corps decisions that disadvantage upstream users in order to serve the interests of a shipping industry that disappeared over the horizon a long time ago.

While I’m in this highly critical mood, I also would like to comment on the riverboat motif so frequently used by casinos along the river.  Casinos are a high profit industry so surely the designers of these fake boats could try a little harder to create a believable illusion.  Las Vegas may be perverse but at least it takes seriously its role as a vendor of illusions.  If one of these flimsy, misshapen riverboats with matchstick paddlewheel and exploding-top smokestacks were constructed on The Strip, it would go out of business before you could say “Belle of the Missouri.”  Where are the aesthetics police when you need them?

Come to think of it, it is about time for one of those Las Vegas visionaries to float a riverboat on the strip.  Already we have a Lake Como lookalike there as well as a rocky inlet of the sea crowded with competing pirate ships.  They were grand in their day but is it not time for something on a grander scale?  A stretch of the muddy Mississippi, say, with Tom and Huck on a raft and a full-fledged paddlewheeler steaming by.  The river current could be replicated, of course, complete with eddies and boils and sandbars and snags.  And as for the water supply, well, surely the operating profits could offset the cost of desalinating water pumped in from California.  Las Vegas thrives by offering up the improbable.  What could be more improbable than a greenbanked reach of the Mississippi in the sands of southern Nevada?

I had decided on Lexington as the stopping place for the night, for no reason other than it was supposed to have a riverside park with a boat ramp.  The ramp did exist but the park was a sorry sight: no picnic tables, no grassy fields, no developed sites for baseball or volleyball or anything else.  The finely finished parking lot (empty) was larger than the whole rest of the park.  The only other facility was a substantial, well-constructed, concrete pair of pit toilets (no paper).  Lexington itself was nowhere in sight.

Pretty soon, an older man in an aging white vehicle drove in and parked so as to have a good view of the abandoned bridge over the river a short distance upstream.  I went over to him and asked for directions to Lexington.  He looked at me momentarily, as if to evaluate whether or not I was worthy of receiving such information, and then pointed across to the other side of the nearby corn field to a paved road that wandered steeply up a small hill until it disappeared into the forest.  He explained that the town was just a short ways out of sight and that the steep road bumped right into the main street.  He commented that he had never been to this city park before and then explained that he was looking for a good place to watch when in a week or so construction crews would blow up the river crossing spans of the abandoned bridge. I thanked him and cycled to town.

Perhaps it was the fact that the sun came out at the end of the day, but Lexington revealed itself as a lovely hilltop town.  Its brickwork and small shops and church-like county building gave it a small town feel that was reinforced by the slow pace at which traffic moved on Main Street.  There was a healthy, Midwestern feel to the place that could easily draw me back for a second look.  Too bad it doesn’t extend to the riverfront.

Lexington Riverfront Park:                 39* 11.751’ N  /  93* 53.067’ W

Distance:                                                  47 miles
Total Distance:                                        1,626 miles

Friday, August 26, 2005 

Once again nighttime thunderstorms rolled in, but by now I was more willing to rebunk forward and the fury of the storms was less.  All in all, it was a reasonably peaceful night’s sleep tucked away in the forward coffin. 

The morning was gray and rainy, just as it had been yesterday, and this precipitated (so to speak) another late start.  After the rains of the last two nights there was bound to be a lot of water in the bilge.  I hadn’t checked it yesterday but today when I looked there was more than enough to affect both the trim and the speed under way. It was also deep enough to use the Guzzler, a simple hand pump that I had installed forward of the steering wheel.  My thinking was that if ever I put a hole in Kobuk I would be able to drive and pump at the same time (a useful arrangement if your boat is sinking and you want to get to shallow water). 

Since I viewed the Guzzler as a failsafe fallback in the event that the electric pump malfunctioned or proved inadequate, I was overly irritated when rapid pumping of the handle drew no water.  Simple, hand-operated machinery is not supposed to fail!  A malfunctioning hand pump is almost as absurd as a malfunctioning baseball bat; something so simple you don’t expect to go south.  Well, the pump does have a few moving parts and since the ones on the exterior looked fine it must be that one of the two rubber flappers on the interior has failed.  The pump has had so little use that this is hard to accept, but I suppose the very lack of use in a place where the sun beats down on it could have damaged the rubber. 

Bucket and sponge removed nearly twenty gallons from the bilge.  That’s 160 pounds of sloshing liquid, a remarkable quantity considering that the whole aft end of Kobuk only measures about 8’ x 5’.  And this area is not even exposed; it is completely enclosed by a canvas bimini top and three zip-on side curtains.  All this water is nothing but leakage through the windows and around the seams and zippers of the canvas. 

It is almost unbelievable that so much water can get in.  I have actually had this same experience on a number of occasions and each time it convinces me that somewhere there must be a leak in the hull.  But then when the bilge stays bone dry day after sunny day I return to the unavoidable conclusion that that much rain water finds a way to get in around the canvas.  Before this trip takes me too far into the rainy East, I think I had better deal with this issue. 

This matter of bilge water reminds me of the one significant way in which I intentionally ignored the boat plans when I was building Kobuk.  The plans called for a water tight seal between the floor of the boat and the sides of the hull.  The floor lies flat on top of stringers, below which is the V-shaped bilge.  If I had sealed the floor (and installed a drain at the stern), it would have kept all this water out of the bilge, thereby saving me a great deal of work while at the same time diminishing the long term risk of dry rot from standing water.  These were compelling reasons to seal the floor, but to do so would have denied interior access to the hull planking.  I was concerned that if Kobuk ever had her hull breached below the waterline, I would have to have ready access to the site of the damage—not just on the outside but on the inside as well—if I was ever going to repair the damage.  Of course, I thought the canvas envelope would do a better job of keeping the rain water out. 

As Kobuk and I cruised on down the river, the skies gradually cleared from behind us.  We were moving in the same direction as the weather, and so as the clouds raced on ahead we raced along with them.  Gradually, though, we lost the race and by late in the day the sky was a blue vault with only scattered white puffs looking clean and bright, benign and gay. 

I stopped at the boat ramp in Waverly hoping that a gas station would be nearby.  There was no urgent need for fuel but on this stretch of the river between Kansas City and St. Louis there are virtually no convenient locations for refueling and so it is a good idea to check out any promising possibilities.  When I walked up the boat ramp, there were two teenage youths sitting at a picnic table with their pickup truck next to them.  I walked over and asked about gas and they gave me directions to a station that they estimated was less than a half mile away.  As I considered this, they started questioning me and eventually volunteered to take me up there in their truck.  As we made the trip to the gas station, I had a chance to find out that Ashley and Ethan Camped at Miamicame down to the park together almost every day because it was a convenient place for them to smoke without their parents knowing.  Ashley had the look of an adolescent poised on the brink of adulthood, but Ethan looked much too young to drive or smoke.  It was unsettling enough to see this overgrown child smoking; it would have been even more disturbing if he had gotten behind the wheel of the vehicle.  I guess he doesn’t look his age. 

When the sun was low in the western sky, Kobuk and I reached the bridge at Miami, a town that like so many others along the river is situated just far enough away from the water’s edge to be invisible when you are on the water.  There was a simple boat ramp there, beside which was a small bay protected from the current.  I stepped ashore there and was immediately greeted by a man and his two sons who were speaking Spanish to each other.  They helped me by taking the line from Kobuk that I had brought ashore and tying it to a tree at the top of the river bank. The sons spoke to me in English but the man did not, leading me to believe that his English was limited or that his confidence in it was.  They were from El Salvador. 

As I settled in for the night, I looked out in disgust at the shocking collection of flotsam eddying around in my little bay.  One of the problems on a river like this is that most every patch of protected water becomes a collecting pool for all kinds of garbage—not just tree limbs and driftwood, but also Styrofoam cups, rubber gloves, unsaturated paper products, milled timber, floating aluminum cans, scummy suds, aerosol spray cans, etc.  On this occasion, there was even an inflated basketball.  I turned my attention inward and tried to ignore the fact that we were floating in a sort of sewer.  At this point, three young men came down through the tall grass and spread out along the edge of the inlet to fish.  They spoke to each other in Spanish.  I am beginning to think there is a higher percentage of Spanish speaking people in the little town of Miami, Missouri, than there is in the other Miami. 

Miami Riverfront Park:          39* 19.566’ N  /  93* 13.675’ W

Distance:                                  54 miles
Total Distance:                        1,680 miles


Saturday, August 27, 2005

Not long after sunrise, before the heavy dew had begun to evaporate, I noticed through the moisture-laden screen of the rear curtain that a pickup truck was crossing the Miami bridge pulling a trailered boat.  A few moments later it appeared in the parking lot and out stepped the El Salvadorean with his two male heirs.  Pretty soon, another vehicle arrived, this time carrying a heavy-set, jowly, balding man of advanced middle-age.  He began to direct the boat launch operation in a Missouri twang so rich he seemed to be speaking in tongues.  He orchestrated the activities of the silent Salvadoreans who managed to get their trailer so positioned as to float the stern of their boat.  What then ensued was a prolonged effort to fire up and operate the Johnson outboard mounted there.  The engine would run fine in neutral, but would die whenever shifted into gear.  Eventually, the enterprise was abandoned and the boys’ father nervously and tentatively drove the pickup up the ramp, pulling the boat and trailer to flat ground.  All the while, the Missourian muttered to himself, “he’s rahdin’ thu cluutch.”  Sometime during this drawn out process, the decision had been made to seek out a mechanic.

From what I could gather, the man and his two sons had purchased the rig from someone the night before and this was their first attempt at a launch.  The Missouri mentor evidently had come along to provide a voice of experience.  Neither the sons nor the father displayed any of the disappointment that they must have felt, but try to imagine what it would be like to buy a second-hand boat in a foreign land, using a foreign language, and handing over cash to some stranger.  The father’s mind must have been churning with the humiliating prospect of turning over more money to another strange face in the hopes that he would repair the faulty product that you just purchased.  I have no way of knowing that this was the real story here, but it does seem likely, does it not?

The level of the river had risen remarkably overnight.  I had run ashore the previous evening by driving the bow into a mud bank with sufficient speed to lift it a few inches.  I thought I would stay wedged there for the night, but when I got up in the morning the mud bank was under water and Kobuk was floating around on her tether like a kite on a short string.

Where does all this water suddenly come from and where does it suddenly disappear to?  Visualize a foot or two of water that is, say, a half mile wide.  Picture it flowing past you faster than you could walk.  That’s a lot of water to just appear one day and then vanish the next.

Kobuk and I pushed off around 7:30 AM.  Being on the river in early morning of a sunny day is sweet, delicious coolness, and for a couple hours I sat on the high seatback drinking in the fresh breeze scooped into the cabin by the open clamshell top.  Shadows were long in the early light and Kobuk flitted from shady havens to sunny open reaches and back again.  It was a fine, fine trip from Miami to Glasgow, a few hours’ ride down the river.

The plan for the day was to reach Glasgow around noon, spend a couple hours there, and then carry on to Boonville.  But that’s not the way things worked out.  Glasgow turned out to be the Missouri River equivalent of Ulysses’ land of the Lotus Eaters, and the siren was named Megan—Megan Haskamp.Glasgow Bridges

As Kobuk rounded the final bend that brought Glasgow into view, the scene was a Thomas Hart Benton landscape painted by a skilled forger whose eye was much more drawn to the subtle and the mysterious.  There in front of us was a haystack of a hill swathed in forest, but with occasional streets partially visible—streets lined with tidy, white clapboard homes set among big trees.  Near the top of the hill a slender church spire pierced the forest.  The suggestion of a main street pitched precipitously towards the river with a row of red or painted white brick shops stepping down along each side.  The grain elevator was down next to the river looking like a lineup of Lifesaver packets stood on end with their paper wrappers removed but not their foil.  Two octogenarian bridges threw a fretwork of triangular steel supports across the river—one for trains and one for cars, one in a uniform layer of rust red and the other running right beside it in apple green.

Just down from the bridges was a freshly mown city park with a wider boat ramp than usual and a stretch of bank dressed in tall grass and chaperoned by a thinning row of stately Cottonwood trees.  This water level view of Glasgow was so much superior to that of any other place I had visited along the river that I wanted to stay even before I got into town.

Glasgow Market StreetMarket Street, the main drag I had seen earlier, plunged toward the river so determinedly that from anywhere along it one could look down on the muddy flow of the Missouri.  One of the shops near the lower end of Market Street is called Riverport Market.  It is an art and antique store and on this quiet Sunday a young woman was out in front on the sidewalk tending to tubs of flowers located there.  When I stopped to ask directions to the library (which I already had seen) and to a place where I might have lunch, we ended up talking for an hour.

After that, my trips around town were little more than diversions that helped me stay occupied until 5:00 PM when she would close the store and then come down to the park to spend a few hours with me on Kobuk.

It wasn’t a wasted afternoon, though.  When I left Megan to mind her shop, I almost immediately ran into Jeff Davis, a low-key, unaffected young man who owns and operates a used car business—if you can imagine such a thing.  Both Jeff and Megan were born and raised here and neither feels any strong compulsion to leave.

The same can be said for Eileen Haskamp, the librarian.  I met her when I went into the library at the top of Market Street.  This is a building, incidentally, that was constructed as a library shortly after the Civil War and has been continuously used for the same purpose ever since.  When EileenGlasgow Sunset introduced herself to me I asked her if she was related to Megan and, yes, in fact, she is Megan’s aunt.  Eileen is that unusual blend of assertiveness and formality.  She carries herself with Victorian posture and Edwardian poise.  She is a friendly person in spite of herself.

Megan appeared shortly after closing time.  With translucent gray eyes, long long legs, and a smile more constant than even my own, she settled into a deck chair and we went for a cruise on the river.  I think the attraction here is that she is so self-contained—comfortable in her own skin and at peace with constant solitude.  After running up the river for an hour or so, we turned Kobuk around, shut off the engine, and drifted back to Glasgow.  On the way, we swapped stories and traded philosophies.  The sun sank and as we approached the Glasgow bridges a palette of reds spread across the sky and water as the riverbanks receded into the dark of evening.  After tying off back at the park, we sat around for a while longer dropping words into the quiet pool of evening.  Eventually, Megan had to leave and the goodbyes were a little like pulling magnets apart: hard to do at close range.

Glasgow Park:                    39* 13.183’ N  /  92* 50.950’ W

Distance:                            37 miles
Total Distance:                  1,717 miles


Sunday, August 28, 2005

Jefferson City, the capital of Missouri (for those of you who have forgotten your grade school geography), is about eighty miles down the river from Glasgow.  I had resolved to make it there before nightfall.  It will be a 9-10 hour trip using the little Yamaha, so in early morning I pedaled around town one last time and then pushed off.

I had pleasant memories of the evening before, but there was one sour note: when it was time to put ashore back in Glasgow the main engine had failed to start.  It was the same old elusive problem I had had countless times before, even since that first incident on Lake Sakakawea up in North Dakota back in early June.  I had Missouri River Scenerynever solved the riddle, but all the circumstantial evidence seemed to point to vapor lock.  I had figuratively thrown up my hands in despair and put my trust in good fortune—in the not entirely foolish hope that one might expect cooler weather this late in the summer season.  Now the problem is that cooler weather most definitely has arrived and yet the problem persists.  Does that mean the failure is something other than vapor lock?  I simply do not know, which is of course the worst possible state of affairs.  Anyway, the engine started this morning so I carried on.

Throughout the day the Missouri River scenery continually surprised me.  Often there were small hills huddled along each shore and occasionally small bluffs—vertical, chalky-yellow cliffs framed in a luxuriant green forest—would appear at the river’s edge.  Later, in Jefferson City during a visit to the State Office of Information, I would learn from a geological map that throughout the entire eastern half of the state the river is continually dissecting a low plateau.  This holds the promise of similarly rugged scenery all the way to St. Louis.

Late in the day, a boat dock appeared on the left bank with a general store in the background and a prominent sign advertising the availability of fuel.  Such a thing is as rare hereabouts as a Pallid Sturgeon so I put in to Coopers Landing to take advantage of its convenience.  No sooner had I stepped ashore than two men out bicycling rolled to a stop beside me.  One of them—a short, compact, somewhat older fellow with a gritty, grimacey smile—barraged me with a volley of questions about which boat was mine and what I was doing with it.  He was neither aggressive nor hostile—just obsessively curious—and we ended up talking for quite some time.  His partner stood in the background through all this, and only when Wayne Armbrust, the interrogator, disappeared (to go to the bathroom, I assumed) did I have an opportunity to address this taciturn cyclist.  I never learned his name but he did manage to let me know that he was a social studies teacher and that his friend Wayne was a retired theoretical physicist.  Before I was able to discover any more about the two of them, Wayne reappeared with a list of rapid-fire follow-up questions.  So there I was, captured by the gravitational pull of this man’s absorptive mind.  But he was charismatic.  I was no more inclined to attempt an escape than was, I presume, his silent partner.

A captivating aspect of “life on the Missouri” is the way in which incongruous and unexpected events unfold in languid silence.  Today, for example, as I was motoring down a river corridor with the next bend in the distance, I spotted a stark, white cube floating along the right bank way ahead of me.  Even with the binoculars I could not identify it and only when we finally overtook it did I realize that it was a refrigerator riding high and looking pleased to be so nautically competent.

At another time, I bore down on a red nun buoy that, instead of doing its job in the staid and stoic manner common to its breed, was darting to left and right and diving underwater only to pop up suddenly a moment or two later.  It looked as if it was desperately struggling to escape some voracious aquatic creature, and indeed it was wrestling with a semi-submerged sapling that had snagged it.Black Butterfly

Less Wagnerian but equally incongruous was the glistening black butterfly with blue-tipped wings that came out of nowhere and flitted through the open slit between the cabin sides and the clamshell top.  It stayed for a prolonged visit, silently wafting from place to place—as if inspecting Kobuk’s cabin accoutrements—before abruptly departing without a word.

Kobuk and I reached Jefferson City only a short time before sunset.  The Corps river charts showed the presence of a boat ramp right next to the downtown, but it turned out to be abandoned, overgrown with weeds and littered with driftwood.  There was no alternative, however, so I nudged Kobuk’s bow up to the ramp and tied off on a tree.

As we passed under the bridge and approached this place, the capital building—all stately and gilded in golden solar rays stood right near the ramp, only about two blocks removed from the edge of the river.

Aaah, but those two blocks!  When I took the bike ashore to make a run over to the Capital building I discovered that getting there required crossing a railway marshalling yard that had more or less continuous use of at least one of the three tracks to be crossed.  For over half an hour, I stood waiting with my bicycle as the clanging bell dinged and a stationary train failed to move.  During that time, two other trains went clattering by on one of the other tracks.  Eventually, I gave up and returned to Kobuk to get a good night’s sleep.

Jefferson City Abandoned Boat Ramp:              38* 35.056’ N  /  92* 10.581’ W

Distance:                                                               83 miles
Total Distance:                                                     1,800 miles

Monday, August 29, 2005

The full run of the Jefferson City waterfront is an untended stretch of weeds and trees and bushes, of driftwood and jetsam and a few abandoned dock pylons.  From out on the river you can see parts of the city immediately behind this strip but when you are standing on the riverbank itself, you would have no idea that a modern urban downtown lies but a few hundred yards away.  No idea as long as you were deaf and could not hear the clanging bells and squealing wheels and thunderous roar of constantly passing trains.

In the morning as I was preparing to make breakfast, I could discern the railway crossing up at the top of the abandoned, weed-choked boat ramp, and the tracks all lay unoccupied.  I grabbed the bike and scampered up the river bank and over the crossing, suddenly and unexpectedly let loose in the city, like a prisoner allowed to escape through a gate left unaccountably open.  I knew I was eventually going to have to get back to the boat, but my philosophy about this sort of thing is “oneJefferson City Waterfront problem at a time, one at a time.”

The main street of Jefferson City runs like a plumb line over little roller coaster hills, paralleling the river.  The broad based and imposing capital building is a constantly visible landmark occupying a great swath of space between the center of town and the railway lines that hug the river bank.  This small city looks modern and reasonably prosperous, as if shopping centers had chosen to avoid infringing on the august memory of our third president.

There was not time to sightsee for I had errands to do today.  Even though I could not explore the city, the sunlight splashing on the sidewalks and the purposeful people going about their daily affairs was sufficient stimulus after so many days of serpentine travel through wooded landscapes.

In the middle of the day I took lunch in Coffee Zone, a small eatery in the heart of town.  It was there that I met John Carroll.  He had overheard me talking with the proprietor of the place and interjected a couple questions about what I was doing and where I was headed.  He has a particular interest in boats, as it turns out because of his involvement with canoeing.  He claims that most canoes are inappropriate for use on the Missouri because their relative instability and reluctance to run straight make them vulnerable to the vagaries of the powerful river current as well as to the obscene chop that trails behind any barge traveling upstream—a chop, incidentally, I now know persists in the form of myriad reflected waves and crosswaves sometimes for as much as ten minutes after the passage has occurred.  John told me that he uses a canoe that he designed himself—one with so much stability that he could stand on the gunwale without capsizing it.  Since he is a much taller man than I, and reasonably large framed to boot, this impressed me and so I asked him how heavy his canoe was.  He claimed that it was “light,” and somehow I never found an opportunity to pin him down with more specific questions regarding weight, beam, and the like.  John went on to explain that there appears to be some demand for his unique craft and so he is gearing up to manufacture it in fiberglass.  Once again, though, I could not get much in the way of particulars from him.

I never know what to do in a situation like this.  I liked John and enjoyed talking with him, but his canoe and his boat construction enterprise sound a little too good to be true.  But after all, what harm does it do to believe him?  I don’t intend to buy a canoe from him so there is no risk for me to accept his words at face value.  That way we can continue as superficial friends and I get to accommodate my peculiar fascination with all things novel and unprecedented.

At a later point in our conversation when I was complaining about the way in which the City has neglected its riverfront, John informed me that the City had received a multimillion dollar federal grant for a complete renovation of its waterfront but that the state government had redirected the use of that money towards expansion of parking lots around the capital and the state office buildings that are so near the river.  I have no idea whether John’s narrative is accurate (although almost certainly it is not balanced).  I will say, however, that there are some very handsome new parking lots stretching from the capital building to the State Office of Information.

As a matter of fact, the little wheels of my Bike Friday rolled across them with nifty smoothness as I made my way back to Kobuk in the middle of the afternoon.  Since trains were blocking the crossing to the boat ramp, I detoured into the State Office of Information building in search of a brochure listing riverside gas docks that I had seen at Cooper’s Landing.  I thought there would be a room with free publications and pamphlets put out by the state, but instead I was directed to the library where one of the librarians undertook a search for me.

There is something about the training or the temperament of librarians that prohibits them from ever abandoning the search for a patron’s requested item.  Eventually, I began to hint that we didn’t have to go through all this, that the brochure was not so desperately important to me.  I knew, however, that this was a futile effort on my part.  Librarians latch on to a request with all the vigor of a terrier given a bone, and are equally reluctant to relinquish it.  Much, much later, after multiple Internet searches and telephone conversations with experts in various branches of state government, I managed to ease myself out of the library and back onto the elegant street curving its way between the new parking lots.  Trains were still blocking the rail crossing, but after only a few minutes the tracks cleared and I was able to get to Kobuk.

Wading through the chest high weeds, I was able to see Kobuk’s cabin and topsides, but only when I broke out onto the small, sloping concrete ramp did I discover that much of the hull was out of water.  My heart sank.  The river had dropped since I left in the morning and now my boat was stranded.  The entire front third of the hull was parked on the ramp and only a very small portion of the hull at the stern was deeper in the water than when floating properly.  In short, Kobuk was more out of the water than in.

I organized the inside of the boat and thought about what to do.  Almost certainly I would need to locate help—hopefully nothing more than manpower but possibly even machinery.

Before seeking assistance, though, I had to at least make an effort at getting her free.  I waded around the back of the hull to see whether the trim tabs that angle downward off the bottom of the stern were at risk of shoveling into the river bottom and getting ripped off if the hull were backed up.  Both were reasonably clear, although water was much deeper on the upstream side.  Squatting in the shallows, I put my back to the port side of the hull near the aft end and attempted to move the mass sideways into deeper water.  To my utter amazement, it actually moved, and I was inspired to greater levels of exertion.  Eventually, I did get the hull reoriented with the stern projecting more perpendicularly out into the river.  I viewed this accomplishment as miraculous and although backing the entire boat down into the water looked far more daunting than had moving its waterborne end sideways, I began to go at the task with a sliver of hope.  It is possible to find a very efficient angle of attack when heaving on Kobuk’s blunt bow, but it looked as if I would have to in effect lift up one end of this 3,000 pound boat to have any hope of making her budge.

I went all out on the first effore, knowing that by the third or fourth try my legs would be too exhausted to do the job right.  Nothing happened at first, but then Kobuk slipped back about an inch.  This definitely changed my attitude about the entire project and in less than five minutes Kobuk was waterborne once again.

As I began to motor down the river contemplating what had just happened, I came to realize that I had been saved by the repairs I had done back in early July up in Pierre, South Dakota.  While getting around the dam up there, I had discovered significant damage all along the keel, the cumulative effect of having pushed of sandbars so much.  After patching the damage, I had attached a plastic strip of Keel Guard to protect the keel from similar sandbar abrasion in the future.  Many times after that I had to push off sandbars and each time I would consider the trade-off I had made.  Most definitely, the Keel Guard was warding off a reoccurrence of the abrasion problem—and that was the main thing—but its projection down into the sand also made it harder to dislodge Kobuk from groundings.   On balance, I was ahead of the game, but each time I had to push off a sandbar I was tempted to curse the keel guard for making the job harder.

But now in this one particular instance the plastic Keel Guard on the concrete had acted like a greased skidway.  I never would have gotten Kobuk free without it.

I pushed Kobuk onward until the end of the day, only reaching the public ramp at Chamois as the sun was setting.  The embankment there was very unsuitable for tying off because it was rock lined and the and the river current was nipping at it like a dog chasing a bicycle.  A very short distance upstream, however, was a tiny slough with steep mud banks.  A few trees had detached from the top of the bank and tipped over precariously, but had not yet slid all the way down into the river.  I chose the low-odds, high damage risk of tying off to a tree that might collapse over the high-odds, lower damage risk of getting beat against the rocks by the current.

I soon discovered that directly above me, hardly out of view, somebody had a more or less permanent campsite.  They were not home, but soon returned, and when they did I climbed up the bank to introduce myself and to apologize for tying off so close to them.  The young man I spoke to was lounging in a lawn chair and reacted to my little speech with faint grunts and mutters, but no actual words that I could discern.  When I delivered my apology he simply shrugged his shoulders, and so then I returned to the boat.

Curiosity finally got the better of him and a few minutes later he showed up at the top of the bank with two companions.  He engaged me in conversation, after his fashion, lacing his speech with the most remarkable abundance of swear words and obscenities that I have heard in a long time.  We discussed such matters as the depth of the water, which he cautioned me would be inadequate if the river were to drop.  I took out the boathook and plumbed the depth, thereby confirming to him that he—or I—need not worry.  We also talked about his fucking concrete pour that had been fucking delayed because his pussy coworkers were so unskilled and because of all the fucking rain.  His name was Butch and he had been camped in this location since the start of the project.  His last words to me were that all the other pussy workers were too fucking chickenshit to camp out here near the river, but he wasn’t fucking afraid of nothing.  With that he strutted off in the deepening dusk, leaving me to consider his confession of inadequacy.

Chamois Town Park:                38* 40.857’ N  /  91* 46.439’ W

Distance:                                   26 miles

Total Distance:                         1,826 miles


Tuesday, August 30, 2005

It is easy to see why this stretch of the Missouri is sometimes referred to as the Rhineland of the Midwest.  Forested bluffs are commonplace now.  Every once in a while an American mansion protrudes from its grassy clearing, riding near the crest of a round-topped hill and only slightly set back American Rhinefrom a vertical face of sedimentary rock layers that drop to the river and hold back the forest by virtue of their precipitousness.  The mansions are not Rhine castles, exactly, but are sufficiently opulent to at least suggest the comparison.  Also there is the comparability of scale: like the Rhine valley, the landscape here is grand enough to inspire a little awe but not so grand as to belittle the lone fisherman settled on the riverbank with a pole in one hand and time to spare in the other.

Along the way, towns such as Hermann and New Haven, and even Washington where I ended up for the night, are little hill communities that (unlike their upstream companions) pay attention to the river.  Each has a riverfront park with all the expected amenities, but more significantly each has a substantial part of its commercial core positioned along a street parallel to the river and immediately next to the park.  In each case, the buildings stay on the far side of the street so as to leave a largely unobstructed view across the park and out onto the river.  No matter whether you are looking out or looking in, this arrangement enhances the view and leaves the impression that the river and the town depend on each other.  Maybe they don’t, but even illusions can improve the quality of life.

This particular manifestation of interconnectedness between settlement and transportation corridor is often seen in Great Plains towns where the main street runs right beside the railroad tracks and confines its buildings to the far side of the street.  It is not a particularly appealing arrangement when the only thing to be seen is a strait run of steel tracks on a raised gravel bed, but when the view looks down on a broad stretch of quietly roiling waters, with a verge of trees a half mile in the distance, well, then the effect iHermanns rather more appealing.  Typically, those prairie towns no longer rely much on the rail line.  For them to turn their backs on the corridor that created them would be perfectly acceptable from my point of view—especially considering the way in which those avaricious rail companies simultaneously raped both the resources and the people along their routes.  Unfortunately, it is more often river towns that have rejected their past.  It is too bad it wasn’t the rail towns instead.

When I moored Kobuk at the end of the Washington courtesy dock and began to walk away, a short, gimpy man with a baseball cap and ill-fitting trousers hobbled over towards me motioning vigorously with one arm that I should come to him.  His arm seemed to be expressing both anger and authority, and as I approached I wondered what petty regulation I had failed to observe.  But my interpretation was completely wrong for the man was a retired, gregarious Greek American by the name of Nick Kotakis, and his only concern was that my younger legs would take me away from him before he had had a chance to adopt me.  He did not merely engage me in conversation; he shackled me to it through a remarkable combination of face-to-face intensity and nonchalant intimacy.  It took him no time at all to learn my story and while extracting it from me he managed to simultaneously outline his own.  Nick is the town eccentric—my favorite kind of person.  He is head of the local arm of the Coast Guard Auxiliary and he is in charge of the local boating club that has a clubhouse sitting out over the river on stilts.  After forty years of floating around the world with the military, Nick came to rest here in Washington and evidently spends his retirement days keeping an eye on the waterfront.

When I commented on how pretty Washington is from the river, Nick agreed but solemnly shook his head and explained that looks aren’t everything.  The town is in a financial crisis, he said, and recently he ran for office to see what he could do about cleaning up the mess.  He was defeated, but plans to run for mayor in the spring and figures that if he files right at the start of the filing period he will have his name first on the ballot, which will all but assure his election since many voters are lazy and simply select the first name they come to.

As soon as Nick had an outline of what I was up to, he told me in a hushed and confidential tone that we had to go to the local newspaper.  He knew one of the owners, he said, and she would want to do a story on my boat trip.  Nick ran me up to the newspaper office a few blocks away and led me in to speak with Carol (?) Wood, who obviously knew him quite well.  She did assign a reporter to the story, and before nightfall Kip Christianson had interviewed me and had turned me back over to Carol who came down to the boat to take a few photos.  When she was finished, we stood there talking for a few minutes and she commented on the fact that Nick is a very unusual individual.  She claimed that during the last election when he was on the ballot for councilman (?), he declined to take part in debates and contended that it would only be appropriate for him to reveal his political agenda after having been elected.

Nick obviously has some unconventional views, and when he had strongly urged me to go in his car with him to get gas, I was more than a little skeptical about his assertion that we should go right away because the price of gas was going to go up 40 cents before the end of the day.  Nick seems to be one of those people who just want to help as much as possible and will go out of their way to convince you to accept the help.  I was not desperately short of gas, however, and declined his kind offer.  The following morning when he finally did convince me to accept his help with getting gas, I discovered that the price had indeed risen 40 cents.

Washington Courtesy Dock:                 38* 30.689’ N  /  91* 00.631’ W

Distance:                                                50 miles
Total Distance:                                      1,876 miles


Wednesday, August 31, 2005

This is one of those days I failed to keep control of; it slipped its leash and ran off without me.  I was constantly doing things, it seemed, but somehow, wasn’t able to push off for points downstream until mid-afternoon.  There wasn’t that much preparing to do so I have no rational explanation for why readiness was so elusive.  When at last I did cast off, the day was so advanced that any further delay would have meant arriving at St. Charles after sunset.  I wanted to reach St. Charles because it is only 28 miles from the Mississippi and would be the ideal starting point for getting from the Missouri River to the Illinois River in just one day.

When Kobuk and I reach the Mississippi, we will turn left and head upstream. Given the price of gas these days ($3 per gallon), running against a rapid current is an expensive proposition.  Fortunately, there will only be seven miles of Mississippi current to go against before reaching a dam and lock.  Upstream from the dam is a Lewis and Clark Statue40 mile stretch of the Mississippi that has in effect been turned into a reservoir called the Alton Pool.  About half way up that 40-mile reservoir, the Illinois River enters from the east side.  Kobuk and I hope to get into the Illinois before the end of day.  That is a run of about 65 miles, quite doable given Kobuk’s top speed using the main engine.  But now with the price of gas as high as it is, I cannot afford to run the big engine much of the time.

I have been thinking a lot about the Illinois River because of this fuel efficiency problem.  I would like to run as much of the time as possible using the little outboard, but it can only drive Kobuk at about five and a half miles per hour on flat water.  Because we have been going with the river current, we have been able to motor down the Missouri at nearly nine miles per hour, but if the Yamaha is going to be used to push Kobuk against the current of the Illinois then forward progress will be slowed to less than five and a half miles per hour by whatever speed the river current is running against us.  Even if the current only runs at one and a half miles per hour—substantially less than the flow speed of the Missouri—Kobuk will only be able to move along at four miles per hour.  That would mean only 32 miles covered in an eight hour day, or over ten days of slow motoring to reach Chicago and Lake Michigan.

It will be a constant temptation to power up the main engine and use it to motor along at, say, 25 miles per hour because then the trip to Chicago would only take a few days of cruising and each of those days could be a leisurely 4-5 hours instead of 8.  Besides, the math says that a boat traveling at 25 miles per hour loses a much smaller percentage of its forward progress to river current than would one traveling at a much slower speed.  All the percentages in the world, however, do not change the fact that the large engine uses many times more gas per mile than does that little outboard.  I suspect that I will end up succumbing to temptation some significant part of the time.

St. Charles does not have good facilities for small boats along its riverfront, but there is a nice city park there and its shoreline has some protection from the powerful current of the main river channel.  I eased Kobuk up into the tall grass next to the steep mud bank that drops down from the park there, in the lee of a rock groin.  I liked the location because it was right next to the downtown but removed from it by the park.  Furthermore, the sharp descent down the river bank combined with the tall grasses along the waterfront hid Kobuk from general view.  The park closes at midnight but nobody knows I am here.

There is one nagging worry: the water here is only a couple feet deep and a sudden drop in river level could leave Kobuk stuck in the mud.  That looks like a risk all along this side of the river, however, so I put the risk out of mind and went to town.  By the time I returned to the boat I was too tired to worry about it and sleep came on almost as soon as I got horizontal.

St. Charles Frontier Park:                     38* 46.711’ N  /  90* 20.813’ W

Distance:                                                40 miles
Total Distance:                                      1,916 miles


Thursday, September 1, 2005

Before Jefferson purchased the entire Missouri River basin from Napoleon, St. Charles was a little French settlement with a few hundred residents.  The Midwest has lots of towns and cities that first took seed as French outposts among the Indians—centers of exchange and storage and transshipment for the extraordinarily lucrative fur trade that thrived in those days.  St. Charles is one of them.

Not just the Missouri basin but the whole of the continental middle between the Appalachians and the Rockies, from the Gulf to the Arctic, was the scene of a mad scramble by the eighteenth century equivalent of transnational corporations, each trying to gather for itself the largest possible share of the animal furs to be had.  The result was of course a rapid and rapidly accelerating depletion of the beaver and the other fur-bearing animals throughout the region.  By the time the mountain men came along in the 1820’s, the exploitation of the interior lowlands already had run its course.  Americans tend to be most aware of the mountain men because many of them were American.  What they were doing in the mountains and farther west, however, was nothing more than the last chapter in a sorry saga that had already been running for decades.  Throughout most of its history, though, the North American fur trade was dominated not by Americans but by French and English fur companies.  Ironically, it was the French who controlled the portions of the interior that were to become the United States whereas the English developed monopolistic ascendancy in the areas later to emerge as Canada.  Places like St. Charles and St. Louis in Missouri, Portage in Wisconsin, Detroit in Michigan, and Des Plaines in Illinois are nominal reminders of this French ghost on the American landscape.

Today, St. Charles is a small, dynamic American city with an historic downtown and suburbia all around.  Monumental efforts have been made to restore the old heart of the city and now it is sufficiently abstracted from the present that tourism is thriving.  There is a very long, tree-lined, brick-paved main street with a remarkable nuSt. Charlesmber of small shops housed in restored buildings from yesteryear.  Modern buildings—that is to say, anything built in the past five or six decades—are nowhere to be seen.  Take away the vehicles and put the population in period dress and you might think you were a Connecticut Yankee in, say, Teddy Roosevelt’s court.  It is a charming form of escapism, and I like it.

Two blocks farther back from shore there is another commercial street that is in the process of being redeveloped as “Frenchtown.”  Although there are a number of restored buildings and quaint shops there, they are sporadic along the way and often an abandoned building or a vacant lot or—worst of all—a contemporary structure sits to either side.  In other words, Frenchtown has a ways to go before it can sustain the illusion of age.

Somehow, this historic core has a look that is suggestive of New Orleans, not the New Orleans that actually exists (or did exist before Katrina struck a couple days ago) but the New Orleans of popular imagination.  The resemblance is weak, however, and I am glad; whereas New Orleans is too much like New Orleans for its own good, St. Charles has the look of a New Orleans as visualized by a bunch of sensible, practical, Midwestern businessmen.  It is New Orleans in moderation, which is of course a contradiction in terms.

Since arriving back in Leavenworth last week, not a day has gone by without Kobuk and me running some of the river.  None of the days has been overly taxing, but somehow the constant movement has worn me down.  Today we stayed put.  In the morning I bicycled along the river edge looking for an alternative place to tie off, but no locations look more promising than the one we already have, so in the end it was a day in which Kobuk did not even budge.

As I prepared for bed that evening, I became anxious about the possibility that the water level would fall.  In the dark, with stars overhead and the glow of the city off to one side, I untied the line holding Kobuk close to shore and waded with her to marginally deeper water some ten feet away from the muddy shore.  Then I tied her on a loose line to shore and hoped that the circulation of water which was holding her off from shore would continue to do so all night long.  By morning, the river had dropped and the ten feet of open water had disappeared.  Kobuk was still afloat, but barely.


Friday, September 2, 2005

The rapid overnight drop in the river spooked me.  I had errands to run in town, but after each one I would return to make sure Kobuk was not being stranded by an ever-shrinking river.  When finally we set out, there was no problem pushing out through the tall grasses that seined the water in this little protected bay.

There is an itch, now, to get out of this river.  It is not rational since the Missouri only leads to a different river, and that in turn to another, and so nothing much will change.  In fact, the only predictable change will be the need to travel at a slower speed due to the oncoming current, not the sort of thing I look forward to.  Still, the idea that in a few more hours Kobuk and I will have finished running over 1,900 miles of the Missouri River system—all of it that might be expected of Kobuk’s 13’ draft—offers the prospect of having carried to completion a certain significant segment of the larger journey.  I set off from St. Charles with a heightened sense of anticipation at the prospect of coming around the final bend and sighting the Mississippi at last.

The Missouri River current seems to have gradually increased its velocity all the way down from Sioux City.  When I left there, the Yamaha was pushing us along at about 7.5 miles per hour, but now here on the final day I am disappointed if we fail to keep moving along at 9.  Whenever it happens I begin to think that I have taken us out of the main channel and I start angling Kobuk over to where it might be.

Even as our speed has increased, the level of the water has been dropping.  Since less water in the river should make it flow slower, I can only conclude that that the steady increase in velocity downstream is even more pronounced than what we have experienced.

With only about an hour to go before reaching the Mississippi, the Remote Troll began to malfunction more and more often.  Ever since early in the trip, conditions on the river would overpower it; that is, toggling the control switch would fail to pivot the bracket.  My guess is that this has been caused not by an underpowered electric motor but by the mechanisms of the pulley system.  The panel holding the engine is pivoted left or right by a pulley system rigged in such a way that steel wire is drawn in one direction or the other as a consequence of being wrapped around a steel drum that rotates in either direction in response to the little electric motor.  Only if the steel wire is tight, it seems to me, will the drum not slip beneath its wraps.

This is all just theory because there is no convenient way for me to operate the toggle switch up in the cabin while at the same time peering over the stern to watch the drum.  Until today, I have simply put up with the problem since it would only occur a few times each day and the solution was easy: throttle back to neutral, perhaps do a 360* in the swirling current, and then power up once again taking care to not pivot the bracket very far from parallel with the stern of the boat (in other words, steer gradually).

Now, however, the problem is recurring almost every time I try to steer right, and so finally I have to stop and see if it can be fixed.  It is impossible to reach the electric motor or the little steel drum without getting out of the boat and standing in shallow water, so I work on the only option readily available to me: tightening the spring-loaded wire pulley.  Even this could prove to be a fruitless endeavor since I cannot reach the backing nut to hold it while tightening the tension eye.  Afterwards, however, the problem occurs less frequently, leading me to believe that I am on the right track.

After 1,944 miles and over two months on the river, Kobuk follows the curve of the last bend and enters the Mississippi.  It is three in the afternoon on a cloudless day, quiet and still.  As we round the red buoy off the point of land between the two rivers.  Kobuk turns left and exits from the swirling, boiling chaos of the Missouri and moves out into the sleek, laminar waters of the Mississippi.  Compared to the Missouri, the Mississippi is a domesticated creature and the little outboard pushes us against her with more success than I had dared hope.

But now, for the first time, there is traffic, lots of traffic.  A long row of tugs and barges lines the Illinois side and out here in the channel there are three separate sets of barges being pushed by tugboats.  All tugboats are painted white and they look gay and carefree in the brilliant sunlight, just as I hope Kobuk does.  Their barges are old and weathered,At the Confluence rust-darkened and serious, and each tug is pushing many of them.  I feel as if I have arrived someplace, although what that place might be I really don’t know.

The vectors of barge movement offer a navigational challenge.  Since it is the regulatory duty and survival imperative that small boats steer clear of them, you're constantly looking for a safe heading to follow.  Barges move slowly—about the same speed that we are moving—but the passage of one is something that takes more than mere seconds.  Furthermore, one always has to factor in the possibility that a tug with barges may change direction at any time.  And then there is the large train of waves following after one of them.  In a small boat like Kobuk you really have  to hold on to ride those waves.  I can only imagine what it must be like to get caught in the intersecting wave trains of two passing barges.

Only a few miles up from the confluence, there is a dam and lock on the Mississippi and I approach it with some anxiety since I have never been through a lock before and the arrangements for making passage must be made with a radio that I have barely used.

It all worked out smoothly, however.  The voice on the radio gave me simple directions, and not very many of them.  How professional!  The ride in the lock also was smooth.  I was expecting great inrushing volumes of water that would toss Kobuk around like a cork in a washing machine, but in reality the turbulence was no worse than the Missouri River on a good day.

Alton LockAs is so often the case, the imagined hazard failed to materialize and an unimagined one took its place.  It was not a serious hazard, but when I steered Kobuk into the lock a disgusting assortment of dead fish, slimy logs, oil slicks, and discarded trash littered the way and presented such a gauntlet of obstacles that I grew anxious about the possibility that the jet intake might become clogged.  It didn’t, though, and when the lock gates opened and the release horn sounded  I was able to take Kobuk out of there looking no less nautical than the other two small boats that had locked through at the same time.

When you exit from the lock, the city of Alton rises up along the east side of the river.  Striking out from town like a highway to the future is the Alton Bridge, a disturbingly modern structure that spans the Mississippi and provides access to the undeveloped Missouri side.

In the shadow of the bridge on the upstream side, a modern marina with all the facilities a rich yachtsman might desire sits behind rocky breakwaters in opulent seclusion.  This artificial harbor almost surely was built with public funds since at one end of it there is a modest boat ramp and dock with a partially paved parking lot nearby.  The marina is large and clean and charges unconscionably high prices to moor: $50 for overnight and $6 if you just want to leave your boat during the day for a few hours.  It is a corporately operated enterprise, of course, and it hires mostly young women to do the work.  Skipper Bud, the corporate employer, puts them in blue knit, collared t-shirts, and pays them to smile.  I suppose you get your money’s worth when you stay here, but I only need a place to tie my boat so I motor on over to the public dock and tie off on the side of it that is away from the ramp.

This small relocation within the artificial harbor only requires a move of about a hundred yards, but while making the transit two mechanical problems crop up.  The first one is an old story: the main engine won’t restart.  The second one is new: the auxiliary will run but not in neutral and not in reverse.

Alton Boat Ramp:                     38* 53.052’ N  /  90* 10.465’ N

Distance:                                   35 miles
Total Distance:                         1,951 miles


Saturday, September 3, 2005
Alton Casino and Elevator

Alton, Illinois.  Now, here is a town with its own special look.  You would think that all these Midwestern towns along the river would look about the same, but actually they don’t.  Then again, I suppose it is just a matter of the state of mind you happen to be in.

Alton slips down the sides of a steep bluff with a grid of streets that put the main part of town barely beyond the curling clutches of those infamous floods of the Mississippi—like the one of 1993.  There are businesses down in the bottomlands to be sure, businesses like chain hotels, casinos, the perfectly predictable grain elevator of massive size, McDonalds, and a smattering of other establishments.  One in particular caught my attention: there is a very large lumber yard here and my mind keeps visualizing board feet of glue-lams, 4X4’s, 2X6’s, sheets of fiberboard, rafters, 1X2’s, plywood, and many other forms of milled lumber charging downstream and destined for secretion out into the Gulf of Mexico, either in bundles or as individuated items.

But the old town and the suburbs—they sit high up high enough to escape the risk of floodwaters.  Of course, Alton is lucky to have a little high land.  That is not a commonplace in much of this river valley, although the farther north one goes the more the land rises above the river.

The Alton Bridge across the Mississippi is an unusual design.  It has two towering minarets from each of which is suspended twin fans of yellow, plastic-covered cables that support the entirety of the highway for which the bridge was constructed.  They The Alton Bridgebear the weight and their taut tension holds them as straight as the sun’s rays radiating from a central focal source.  They fan out like the ribs of a Chinese fan, and their look is so outrageously modern that you can’t help but think that Alton is “with it.”  People here are proud of their bridge.

Kobuk is moored to the unused side of the town dock next to the town boat ramp.  Its location is almost directly beneath the Alton Bridge, although because of its massive size the underbody of the bridge highway is many, many tens of feet overhead.  Even so, the bridge traffic sets up a vibratory hum that in no way is special or distinct from the hum that you hear when cars and trucks cross any large bridge—in spite of the unusual design.  It is clear evidence that even today designers pay their attention to visual rather than auditory cues.  Why not pay attention to both?

I ended up spending the whole day in Alton, and for that I blame the used book store in the antique district where ___ ___ and his two cats lounged around in a squalor of unsorted publications with a semblance of order on shelves around the perimeter.  I browsed for special finds and eventually emerged with Oliver Lafarge’s Laughing Boy ($1) and Michael Arlen's Passage to Ararat. ($3.50).  There is an undeniable feeling of achievement associated with successfully shopping for bargains, and today I got it.

In the evening, for the first time in more days than I should admit, I did laundry.  I also took a few bites out of Arlen's book.  I ought to have been working on the problems with the Yamaha, but, hey, you can’t work all the time.


Sunday, September 4, 2005

All day yesterday I had the ‘I don’t want to deal with it’ mentality and so this morning I reluctantly convinced myself to take a look at the problems with the auxiliary and its Remote Troll.  As for the balky main engine, I knew from experience that it would run fine once it had had a night’s rest.  Even if I knew what I was doing it would be tough to fix an engine that is working ok.

Since water depth at the dock was too deep to stand in and the shore area was all mud, I decided to put off the Remote Troll problem as well.  For the next little while, Kobuk will be cruising in waters with little or no current and it seemed reasonable to hope that the less challenging conditions might ameliorate the problem.

The mind is highly creative at fabricating sensible reasons for not dealing with something.  In this case, I suffered no punishment for my procrastination: all day long the Remote Troll worked reasonably well, only malfunctioning a couple times, gentle reminders, I suppose, that the problem is in remission and still needs to be cured.

I did spend some time looking into the gear shifting issue, but all I was able to determine was that neither the controls up in the cabin nor the control levers on the side of the engine were responsible.  All the external hardware is designed to pivot a square rod that disappears into some sort of gearing device.  The rod pivots as it ought to but with perfect ineffectiveness.  At this point, I gave up and prepared Kobuk for departure.

For a few afternoon hours, I guided Kobuk up the length of Alton Pool, a lovely stretch of water with a serrated barricade called the Piasa Bluffs on the Illinois side and forested floodplain lands along the Missouri shore.  Speedboats, runabouts, sailboats, and expensive cabin cruisers were out in force and for the first time barges and small aluminum fishing boats were scarce.

Except on the limestone faces of the Piasa Bluffs, the forest everywhere is jungle thick.  It is the first time the landscape has looked like the East rather than the West.  I am not sure what the difference is.  There has been an abundance of forest ever since leaving Nebraska behind, but somehow the woods back there had a look of trying too hard—like a parrot trained to talk or a monkey riding a bicycle.

Although the water here continues to be more brown than blue, you can at least see a couple inches down into it and this makes you want to jump in and take a swim.  If it’s not careful, this Alton Pool could give the word ‘reservoir’ a good name.

The small town of Grafton sits just upstream of the Illinois-Mississippi confluence, on the eastern side of the Illinois River.  The western side is a set of elongated islands between which waters of the Mississippi sluice over into the main channel of the Illinois.  A ferry threads its way between them as it shuttles back and forth between Grafton and the Missouri side of the Mississippi.

Grafton may be small but on this Labor Day weekend people have come from all around to take advantage of the good boating.  All these visitors are catered to with the right kinds of shops, plenty of restaurants, wine tasting outlets, and the biggest bar I have ever seen.

Work has just begun on a marina for the town, but at present there are very meager facilities for mooring or beaching a boat.  Even so, I was lucky enoMississippi at Graftonugh to sneak in on the back side of a courtesy dock beside the town boat ramp.  With Kobuk snugged down for the evening, I went out for a spin on Bike Friday to see what I could see.

What I saw, in very short order, was a sign for The Aerie Vineyard advertising a grand view of the river.  That sounded good, so I turned right as the sign directed and headed up a very steep hill.  It was so steep that it taxed my limits even in the lowest gear.  The road disappeared around a bend a short distance up and I thought to myself that beyond there the worst must be over—this being Illinois and all.  But the hill continued, of course, and continued steeply.  After having invested so much in getting up that initial stretch I didn’t want to give up just because the hill was longer than expected.  I soldiered on and finally made it to the top, but it left me slick with sweat and gasping for oxygen.

But it was worth it.  A raucous crowd was laughing and talking as a guitar and vocal duet laid down passable renditions of Jimmy Buffet songs.  All this was happening on a broad, awning-covered deck that looked out over the treetops and down on many miles of both rivers.  The Aerie Vineyard no longer sells its own wine (if it ever did), but after having worked so hard to arrive at this appropriately named location, any wine was fine with me.  I spent several hours listening to music, watching the crowd, and surveying the mighty river on which Kobuk was but a distant speck of white.

Late that night when I crawled into the forward bunk to go to sleep, I was lullabied by the distant sound of party animals enjoying live music at the Loading Dock, a nightspot on the waterfront.  When you’re next to the water like this, night sounds carry impossible distances and in the process transmute into golden notes that delight the ear and reassure the solitary soul.

Grafton Town Dock:                 38* 58.072’ N  /  90* 26.057’ W

Distance:                                   17 miles
Total Distance:                         1,968 miles


Monday, September 5, 2005
Grafton FerryGrafton Morning

As the Illinois River prepares to merge with the Mississippi, it meanders between low hills.  It flows past lush forests that arch out over the water’s edge on both sides and obscure the banks of the stream.  For tens of miles this bowered waterway slips past undisturbed naturalness with only the occasional Midwestern hamlet to vary the scene.  Hadley, Hardin, and Kampville—these little towns simply exist, neither expecting nor even hoping for a tomorrow that is any different from today.

By setting out early, Kobuk was able to shed her morning dew while under way.  Almost imperceptibly, the fog on the windshield dissipated and the beads and little rivulets of water on the forward deck shrank into nothingness.  As the sun rose higher, this morning veil slowly lifted and a landscape of gauzy mysticism resolved itself into a clarified vision in which the edging forests flaunted their intricate patterns of dark and bright, of multi-hued greens, of leaf and twig—like the proverbial snowflake, each tree different and yet patterned like all the countless others.

Along the eastern bank, Snowy Egrets perched in the trees overlooking the river.  Silent and motionless, each removed from his neighbor by a more or less standard distance, they looked like spotless centuries standing ritual guard.Southern Illinois Waterway

Particular features on the river, recognizable to any local but unknown and insignificant in the larger world, crept by and disappeared aft.  Six Mile Slough, Deep Lake, Twelve Mile Island, Dark Chute, Godar’s Swamp, Panther Creek, Brushy Lake—these and a host of others came and went.  While the hours passed uneventfully, the little auxiliary engine droned on and on, like a bagpipe’s haunting monotone.

A trip from Grafton to Chicago on the Illinois Waterway is 330 miles of upstream motoring.  Locks and reservoirs have stripped most of the current out of the river, but it does still exist and whenever it is noticeable it is adverse.  Once the step up to Lake Michigan is completed, the remaining journey to the Atlantic will be a series of steps down.  Let us, therefore, get to Lake Michigan.

The southern half of the Illinois Waterway is a scenic passage with only a few towns widely spread.  Facilities such as gas docks and waterside convenience stores are scarce.  It is not as empty of human presence as the Bighorn or the Yellowstone were, but it is sufficiently reminiscent of all those weeks on the upper Missouri that I am ready for a change.

Peoria straddles the midpoint of the Waterway, as close to Chicago as it is to Grafton.  From Peoria north, development of every kind pushes up to the water’s edge, I should imagine.  The headwaters of the Illinois River are only a few miles to the west of Chicago, and from there over to Lake Michigan a canal has been dredged that links the Illinois to the Lake.  There at its northern extremity, the Illinois Waterway stops pretending to be a modified and managed river and becomes instead a concrete conduit carrying water through outlying industrial zones before at last slipping through the very heart of the city.

Peoria, therefore, should mark the beginning of a transition from trees and grasses and snaking riverbends to standardized stretches of true canal.  Only in the final stages will the citified waters Grain Elevator near Meredosiabecome totally regimented, but some thirty or forty miles out the transformative process will accelerate.  I am not looking forward to this endgame, but it does at least promise a new look—a type of water transit that Kobuk and I have never experienced.  Besides, at the end of it all lie the blue waters of Lake Michigan.  I am ready for a little blue.

By late in the day, Kobuk had covered nearly forty miles.  This was what I had expected, but it was not a particularly big chunk out of the 330 miles to Chicago.  During the last hour, therefore, as the sun was slipping down below the treetops, I switched over to the main engine and sped along the winding channel with Kobuk’s hull up on a plane and with the wind breezing through the cabin like a narrow street on a gusty day.  We covered thirty additional miles this way and as twilight descended we pushed up onto the sand next to the boat ramp for the unhappy little town of Meredosia.

The mood here is sober and downbeat   Many people in town were employed by a chemical factory under the ownership of Celanese, but back in June talks between the union and management broke down and the workers walked off the job.  Now those jobs—apparently about 160 of them—have been taken by non-union workers who came in from outside.  The former employees have been locked out and the odds look poor that they will ever get their jobs back.  Even though it is Labor Day and a rally by the local chapter of the union has brought to town the governor and three state senators, the impassioned speeches expressing solidarity are small comfort.  Everybody seems to know that Celanese is never going to hire back the townsfolk as long as non-unionized out-of-towners will do the work for less pay.

Meredosia Town Park:             39* 49.659’ N  /  90* 33.910’ W

Distance:                                   71 miles
Total Distance:                          2,039 miles


Tuesday, September 6, 2005

It was good to get away from Meredosia.  It is not a bad town, I suppose, but the mood of the place dragged me down and reminded me of all those times in my life when a quiet voice was whispering to me that there was no place to go, nothing to do, and no way of escaping from the present.  What an absurd notion!  No way of escaping from the present?  That is the one thing we are sure of escaping, but often it doesn’t feel that way.

One of the things that strikes me as unique about modern times is the widely held belief that tomorrow will be a different day, that a little luck and a lot of work will make next year a different year.  This faith in an ever-changing world is a relatively new thing; most societies retained for centuries (if not millennia) the sense that the future will be fundamentally the same as the present.  Such a view must discourage the individual from thinking about the possibility of a better life.  After all, how can ‘progress’ occur if everybody believes that everything will stay about the same?  This notion of stasis, of fundamentally unchanging conditions, surely discourages creativity and innovativeness.  I think most modern people look back on those conservative days as a time when people were trapped in their traditional ways with no real hope of escaping.

But what is the alternative to such stultifying stability?  It is, of course, instability—and this has its own drawbacks.  Here we are today in a culture that not only accepts but actually expects that time and ‘improvement’ will walk hand-in-hand towards the future.  But of course improvement is only one of the two possibilities.  Change will occur, and if it is not for the better then it can only be for the worse.  There is the insecurity of not knowing for sure what direction change is going to take, and here in Meredosia everyone is concerned that change is headed the wrong way.

Even though Kobuk is constBarge on the Illinoisantly passing through a wooded landscape with clearings hardly ever seen on either bank, I have read literature and seen maps indicating that the states of Missouri and Illinois both were more covered by grasslands than they were by trees back when the Europeans arrived.  There is some controversy as to whether this situation was the typical state of affairs or was the consequence of a land management system employed by the local natives.  Indians apparently used fire to suppress the growth of trees and encourage the spread of grasses because wildlife was more abundant in open grasslands.  I should think that prairies must have been widespread even without Indian fires or else the Indians would not have thought to maintain and expand this resource, so to me the question is: ‘What were extensive grasslands doing in a region with enough rainfall each year to sustain forests?’

Conventional wisdom maintains that more than 20” of annual precipitation, reasonably spread among the seasons, will support forests.  Less than that is likely to favor grasslands over forests.  But Missouri and Illinois average significantly more than 20” of rainfall per year so why was such a lot of their landscape open and treeless?  Maybe the Indians had more influence on their environment than I give them credit for.  Russian studies of the transition zone between taiga (boreal forest) and tundra suggest that the tree line can be extended farther north by planting trees there and protecting them for a few years.  If we can extend the limits of an entire biome by means of such a simple expedient then I suppose Indian fires could indeed have driven the eastern edge of the grassland biome ever farther east.

In any event, the maps that attempt to recreate the vegetation patterns of that earlier time depict an intricate network of forests along river valleys and grasslands at the slightly higher elevations.  As one travels eastward across Missouri and Illinois, the average annual rainfall increases as did the proportion of the land covered in trees a few hundred years ago.  One might presume that the transition from grass to forest was a direct response to increasing rainfall levels—that’s what gets taught in introductory geography courses.  Actually, though, the linkage probably was more subtle: the greater amount of moisture farther east meant that rivers and streams were more numerous.  Forest became more extensive, perhaps, because the more heavily dissected terrain associated with more rivers provided a greater abundance of suitable habitats for forests.

In the middle of the day, I kept hearing loud splashes aft.  Each time I would turn to see if a fish had jumped but of course by the time I looked the event was over and whatever it was had disappeared.  Some of the splashes were very loud and seemed very near.  I couldn’t help thinking it mysterious that I never saw any fish jumping up ahead even though they seemed to be doing so behind us.

It reminded me of a tall tale that I had been told back in July when I was still struggling with the shoals and snags of the upper Missouri.  I don’t remember where it was or who it was, but someone up there told me to watch out for the leaping catfish on the Mississippi.  In a most sincere tone, he insisted that an exotic Asian catfish escaped into the Mississippi a few years ago and has since spread like a plague.  He claimed they grew to a large size (although he was not specific), and he said that they were attracted to the sound of passing motors and were known to jump right into the boat sometimes.  He even contended that boaters occasionally got hit in the face by them.

One hears all sorts of improbable tales from people along the river, many of which turn out to be complete fabrications.  Leaping catfish that smack boaters in the face seemed about as improbable as you can get, so I filed this one away under ‘doubtful.’

Now, however, with the sound (if not the sight) of fish jumping in Kobuk’s wake, I retrieved the file and began to peruse it with a little more open mind.  Whenever I would watch astern, nothing would happen there, but eventually I would give up and return my attention to our forward progress, only to hear another giant splash aft.  It began to make me jumpy.

Eventually we rounded a bend in the river and could see the River’s Edge Boat Club in the distance off the port side.  There seemed to be hundreds of seagulls floating around on this stretch of the river.  I could not remember ever having seen them in large numbers resting on the water like this, and I sat there in the cabin musing about it.  Suddenly a fish appeared in the corner of my eye, coming at me eye to eye.  Whack!  He smacked the glass of the starboard cabin window and dropped out of sight.  I leapt up and stood staring at the residue of slime and mud plastered against the outside of the window.  How could such a collision not have broken the glass?  I looked around expecting to see leaping fish, but, no, nothing was out there breaking the surface of the water.  I edged back onto the seat and moments later heard a splash astern.  Then there was a loud thud on the port side of the hull.  I was being attacked!  That settled it; how quickly we become believers.

A short while later I stopped at the River’s Edge Boat Club to get something to eat, but all they had was beer so I adjusted my appetite.  It was a large place, elevated on stilts to cope with the periodic floods hereabouts, and its vast hall had a bar looking out over the river.  At first, the bartender and I were the only ones in the place, but after a while a local showed up, a paunchy, vigorous, 80-year-old roustabout with time on his hands and things to talk about—things like duck hunting and living a long time.

When I asked these two about their crazy fish and described to them what had happened, they acted as if I had removed a skeleton from the closet.  They cursed the fish and confirmed everything I had heard upstream.  They grumped about the fact that these goddam fish leave your boat all slimy and bloody, plus they’re no good to eat.  And then they went back to ducks.

Late in the day, Kobuk and I pulled up to shore next to Havana Riverside Park.  There is no accounting for how we detect the mood of a town, but as I walked up to the main street I could feel that this was a different world from Meredosia, even though I had not spoken to a soul.  This intuition proved accurate, and I ended up spending a layover day here.

Havana Riverside Park:                 40* 18.037’ N  /  90* 04.032’ W

Distance:                                          50 miles
Total Distance:                                2, 089 miles


Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Having gotten to shore the previous evening with an hour to spare before sunset, I decided to do a little work on Kobuk.  There are trim tabs attached to the bottom of the transom that improve performance using the main engine.  When only being powered by the auxiliary, though, they might actually be slowing us down.  Since most of the time these days is spent running with the little Yamaha, it seemed like a good idea to take them off and see if there is any difference in boat speed at full throttle.  In the process of removing them, I realized that grass was beginning to grow on the hull below the waterline.  This called for a scrub down so for some time I was swimming with a bristle pad in one hand and whatever I could grab onto in the other.


I had planned to set out for Peoria about mid-morning, after making a visit to the Havana Public Library, but it did not open until eleven and then I had to spend more time there than expected.  The day wore on and eventually I decided to stay over one more night and leave early the next day.  This is one of those decisions that on the surface seems to be a rational adjustment to circumstances, but in fact it was largely an irrational move brought on by the contentment I felt while being in this place.  It was not a particularly beautiful place and there was nothing in Havana that captivated me, but it simply felt right to be cycling around on its streets, some of which were brick rather than pavement.


Thursday, September 8, 2005

As the mist was rising and before a morning breeze had put a ripple on the water, we motored away from Havana headed upstream to Pekin and Peoria.  Before the first bend in the river, however, the Remote Troll began declining all invitations to turn left, and did so in a rather squeaky voice.  I was reluctant to return to Havana, but there was no reasonable alternative.  An inspection revealed a worn cable: all but a few of its strands had snapped and the unraveling broken ends had begun to wrap around the drum in contrary directions.

Havana has a marina with docks and gas and a convenience store, so it seemed best to head there on the chance that there would be a mechanic available.  Entrance to the marina was only a few hundred yards away, but it turned out to be an exciting voyage since the main engine had decided to misbehave.  It started, but then the stuttering and coughing began and I had to coax it to enter the little harbor and take us dockside.

As I tied off, Bob Skoglund, the owner of Tall Timbers Marina, appeared on the dock and offered me temporary haven.  There was no mechanic but Bob had seen a lot of boats with problems before and was able to help me out.  A replacement for the Remote Troll cable required no more than a trip to the local Ace Hardware store.  As for the main engine, Bob diagnosed water in the fuel filter and so that ended up being perlaced as well.

Back in July when I got the help of a mechanic at a marina on Lewis and Clark Lake, he had suspected the same thing, but when he inspected the fuel filter he pronounced it water-free and I reinstalled it.  Bob, however, claimed that the filter paper can get saturated with water and cause problems even when no water comes out of the filter as it is emptied.  He convinced me to replace the filter and in fact the engine did run better afterwards.

As for the Remote Troll, it now worked as well—although it still balked occasionally turning left.  Back to the drawing board; for now, it will have to do.

By the time Kobuk was ready to set out, it was already afternoon and half the day was gone.  Instead of Peoria, the destination for the day would have to be Pekin, about 35 miles upstream.

This river does have barge traffic, and during the afternoon I ended up overtaking two of them.  Rigs on the river typically consist of a tugboat pushing fifteen barges that are lashed together three wide and five long.  I would guess that the overall dimension is around 100’ wide and 900’ long.  The locks on the river are 600’ x 110’, so a barge passing through must break itself in two with the front nine barges passing through first and the back six with the tug doing so separately.  I have yet to learn how the initial set of barges is propelled out of the lock.

Barges on the Mississippi can be much larger than here on the Illinois.  They can be both wider and longer.  Naturally, the size of the locks on this river is a limitation for the size of barges but some say that the narrower river channel and the sharper turns here on the Illinois also account for the barges being smaller.  I know that there is talk of enlarging the Illinois Locks, of which there are six or seven along its 333 miles, but it is not clear to me that such an overhaul would be sensible.  Unless the locks could be so big as to accommodate the largest of the Mississippi barges, there would remain a need for different sized rigs in the two waterways and so the rationale for modification becomes moot.  I am sure the Corps of Engineers thinks that enlarging the locks would be the right thing to do, but I am not sure that the Corps is entirely objective about the matter.

Overtaking a barge is a somewhat complicated by the turbulence set up when such a large vessel is moving through the water.  Bob was saying that whenever  a yacht hangs up trying to cross the shallow bar that runs across the entrance to his harbor one only need wait for a barge because its passage raises the water level about a foot.  He didn’t mention how long this flood of high water lasts, but I would imagine you have to work fast.

When overtaking a barge, the backwash is great enough to slow your forward progress by almost a mile per hour.  Considering that the Yamaha driven Kobuk only does about 5.5 miles per hour and that the typical barge travels at 4-5 miles per hour, the loss of speed meant that we could only inch along beside the vessel.  Under such circumstances, passing is a half-hour sprint side by side with Goliath.

Incidentally, removing the trim tabs has made a difference: Kobuk moves through the water over half a mile per hour faster.  Without this competitive edge, we probably never could have outdistanced a barge—not without firing up the main engine.The Leaping Carp

Mid-afternoon and we’re cruising along under a probing sun on a hazy day.  The fish are jumping and I am watchful.  I have actually seen a few of them now, and no longer just infer their presence from splashing sounds.  After the experience of a couple days ago, I am wary of these guys, and so it is a little less shocking when I look back just in time to see a leaping carp break the surface of the water abreast the stern off the port side.  He arcs so high in the air that he entirely misses the engine box and lands with a massive thud on the floorboards just behind the cabin.  I scramble to corral him in a bucket as he flops around from place to place leaving a trail of blood and mud and slime.  I think he must be about 18’ long and weigh three or four pounds.  In any event, with his head in the bottom of the bucket and his body lying limp in there, his tail sticks out the top.  Every once in a while he flops around with all the power he can muster, threatening to upset the bucket, so I toss him overboard.

As the day wore on the atmosphere became thick with a haze that the sun found hard to penetrate.  The air was still and all the precursors pointed to a thunderstorm.  We arrived at Pekin an hour before sunset, but already a gray light had descended as if twilight were already here.

Cooper’s Island sits close to the eastern bank with a bridge running over to it from Pekin and with the Pekin Boat Club situated on a narrow channel that separates the island from a long, low stretch of wild bottom land known as the Pekin Lake State Conservation Area.  On the island side of the channel, a vertical wall of weathered log pylons and rusted iron platework rises tens of feet to secure the high bank of the island and keep it from collapsing.  Down at the foot of the wall and only inches away from it is a long wooden dock, unpainted and irregular, that runs noticeably less than perfectly straight off into the distance where small, projecting finger docks hold the boats of Pekinese yachtsmen.

By the time we arrived, the first light puffs of an approaching storm forewarned of rain.  I quickly tied to the outer end of the empty dock and zipped on the curtains aft.  Large trees towered above the high wall and as the wind picked up it plucked from them the first harvest of autumn leaves.  They fluttered down and swirled around and in the dusky light they settled like a mottled carpet on the old dock and floated lightly on the channel waters.  Fall is in the air.

Pekin Boat Club:                                 40* 34.629’ N  /  89* 39.176’ W

Distance:                                              35 miles
Total Distance:                                    2,124 miles

Approaching Peoria
Friday, September 9, 2005

It should have been a quick trip up the river to Peoria, but just as I reached the Peoria Lock and Dam the gates closed for locking upstream.  Kobuk and I had to wait through two complete cycles for a long barge that was coming downstream and that had to be split.  After an hour and a half, the tug cleared the lock and I motored over to enter, only to discover that the crew already had closed the lock gates for filling since three yachts were waiting upstream.  Once they saw my situation, though, they drained the lock and opened the gates to let me in.

The two other times I have gone through a lock, I had roped to a wall and fended off the concrete as the water rose.  I had thought this to be the standard way of doing the job, but on both occasions there were one or two other small boats passing through with me and they opted to just stay in the middle of the lock and with their engines running.  Whenever the churning water carried them towards a wall they would power away from it.  I decided to try their method this time, although I was a little nervous that the main engine might quit at a bad time.  I had to use the main engine because only it might be powerful enough to deal with the roiling waters (not to mention the Yamaha’s aversion to ‘reverse’ and ‘neutral’).  This method did seem to work better—fewer dings and scratches and close calls—but I am not sure it will be appropriate nearer to Chicago where the locks will be letting in enough water to raise boats twenty to thirty feet instead of ten.

In spite of its reputation as the graveyard of anything avant garde, Peoria has more to offer than most cities its size.  The waterfront zone has been redeveloped and now offers lots of attractive shops and eateries as well as venues for the arts.  There is a handsome new boat harbor intended only for day use.  It is tasteful, clean, and modern, and yet avoids all hint of opulence.Peoria

The main street of Peoria runs back from the river and gives you the odd sensation of strolling around on the streets of a scale model of Chicago.  Tall, monolithic buildings in the downtown streets loom over the pedestrians.  They are not skyscrapers, but they are big enough to draw your eyes upward and thereby give the illusion.  In any event, they are taller than one would expect in a city of such small size.

If people in Peoria are defensive about their reputation, I can’t say that I blame them.  Everywhere that I looked the streets were clean and well-maintained and the buildings were reasonably attractive.  Most renovations of older structures were thoughtful and modest while the enterprises catering to tourists were less kitschy than usual.  I can see why Peorians might feel little need to attach themselves to things like The Vagina Dialogs and Mapplethorpe’s photographs.  For the typical Peorian, such things probably seem somewhat marginal to the essentials of life.  Why fool around with things like that when there are all sorts of more satisfying things to do?  I understand that some would view this as a narrow minded attitude, but there really is a limit to what any one person can pay attention to and it hardly seems kind to condemn Peorians for choosing known pleasures over ones that are suspect (because they have not yet proven themselves).

Those who challenge convention give society the kick it needs to mend its ways, but not all outlandish rebellions are good ideas—only a few of them are.  Peorians, I imagine, recognize this truth and choose to bide their time, waiting to see which cultural innovations will end up actually transforming society.  If this is narrow minded then I suppose we ought to attach the label to estate planners, successful politicians, respected doctors, etc.  They too rUpper Alton Lakeely on the proven and only warily approach the untested.

Since passing by the Peoria Lock and Dam, the raised level of the Illinois River has created a broadened waterway with a plethora of side channels and lagoons and lakes.  Often, there are long and slender islands lining the main channel where the original river banks used to be while broad shallow lakes lie just beyond them, here and there accessible via the channels between the islands.  Peoria actually sits next to the river at the downstream end of a large lake.  The river has spread out over a mile or two of width and meandering down the middle is a buoyed channel distantly removed from either shore.  The water outside the channel is most everywhere deep enough for small powerboats to operate, but it also is so shallow that a tall person might stand on the bottom and still be able to breathe.

On windy days this lake must develop a nasty chop, but on this day a gentle breeze from the south only ripples the surface.  The flatness extends on and on for miles with the shores of the river off distant on each side.  Pleasure boaters are out today and most of them follow the channel.  There is an avenue of two-way traffic snaking along out in the middle of an otherwise empty lake on this still and hazy day.  Kobuk and I chug along towards Chillicothe as part of this parade and for the first time in days the leaping carp are not trailing behind.

Chillicothe Town Dock:                         40* 54.950’ N  /  89* 28.939’ W

Distance:                                                28 miles
Total Distance:                                      2,152 miles


Saturday, September 10, 2005

It is a malaise.  I have been at this now for a few months and I am wondering today if I should give it up.  No longer do I feel oppressed by the foolish anxiety that I may not accomplish anything; running the Missouri has relieved me of that burden.  Two thousand miles of an unpredictable river is only a very small part of the grand plan, but it is enough to justify the dreaming and labor that went into this project.

It is just one of those days when I feel more alone than usual.  Why am I here?  Why am I not off somewhere doing things with my friends or making an effort to establish a settled existence?  I am no longer young, after all, and it leaves me somewhat chastened whenever I have to strain and grunt just to crawl into the forward bunk, whenever I find myself using a free hand to lift my knee because stepping over the carling while simultaneously ducking under the curtain is hard for me now.Route Map 6

There is no answer to these questions.  I am here because this is where I have always wanted to be.  I would have been here when I was younger but I didn’t have the courage then.  I foolishly thought that there was too much to lose.  Now I know better.

Life has much to offer but we only savor it if we pursue the things we truly want.  Avoid the disreputable woman, choose the sensible career, make the practical purchase, do the reasonable thing—what you will get for your troubles is comfort before death.  Not much excitement but a certain modicum of comfort.

When we are young we would on any day choose excitement over comfort, but the aging process somehow switches these priorities—unless, of course, it is the actual switching of them that causes us to age.  I think, actually, that the latter is the case, that pursuit of comfort causes us to age.  It is a physical consequence, to be sure, as any Spartan soldier would attest.  But more important, far more important, I believe, is the surrender implied by taking the easy route.

There is no denying the physical deterioration that comes with getting older, but how often do we use this inevitability to avoid doing anything at all?  Very often, I think, and it is tantamount to saying ‘My useful life is over; come take me, Death, any time it suits you.’

In many respects pursuit of comfort is the sine qua non of conspicuous consumption.  But humans, like all other living organisms, were not designed to be comfortable.  If you are a secular believer in natural selection, this statement should be obvious.  If you are a deeply religious soul striving for spiritual enlightenment, it still should be obvious.  Only the hedonist might contend otherwise, but even the hedonist would have to admit that pursuit of pleasure requires a certain level of effort.  If it were natural, why would it have to be so consciously pursued?

Logical argumentation often becomes disconnected from reality because it relies on a mode of thought that achieves clarity only by exploring the extremes.  Living a good life, however, usually requires avoidance of extremes.  Life ages well in response to moderate choices and moderate behavior.

I am not, therefore, trying to say that we must avoid all comfort—only that when comfort takes on more value than excitement then our priorities are confused.  A major problem here is that, in this as in virtually all other matters, society establishes a standard that comes to be unconsciously used by virtually everyone as the basis upon which to judge the difference between moderate and immoderate.  Like individuals, society are rife with bias, and in this case I would contend that our societal bias excessively values comfort and unduly discounts the value of excitement.

It is one thing to counter the arguments of an individual when neutral observers might legitimately evaluate the relative strengths of the two sides.  But how do we argue against society?  To not accept its judgment regarding a particular is to contend against a theorem that is embraced as fact by almost everyone.  This is a maddening situation and may explain why so many rebels behave so badly.

I simply cannot accept that society has found the right balance between comfort and excitement.  The very words carry different connotations, ‘comfort’ accepted as benign and uncontroversial but ‘excitement’ demeaned as superficial and immature.

I have nowhere to go with this argument.  I am not out to convince anyone of the need to switch from a comfortable existence to a more exciting one.  It is really just an effort to help me through this day of self-doubt.  And I believe that it is working; whenever this trip ends and I am only able to experience it via memory, I am sure that many of the days spent on these rivers will be wonderfully easy for me to recall.  I doubt that that would be the case if I were at home, comfortable with my settled existence and content to spend my time with those who are closest to me.  It is a harsh truth but there is no sense in hiding from it.

At the end of the day, Kobuk was at a yacht club courtesy dock in the town of Peru and I was sitting at the yacht club bar looking out through large picture windows at the outside deck filled with dozens of weekend partiers and watching the river beyond with its active boats running here and there leaving curlicues of ephemeral white foam in their wakes

A couple came to sit beside me and, as tends to happen at a bar, the man and I began to talk.  His name was Tony—Tony Lorongelo, or something of that sort.  He was 67 years old and had retired a number of years ago after making, by his own admission, a fortune in the stock market.  He looked like Bob Hope,  His nose was not as distinctive and his features in general were less suggestive of a cartoon, but somehow the shape of his face reminded me of the comedian.

Tony’s father came from Sicily and Tony himself has lived his entire life near Peru.  He said that he and his wife, although not members of the yacht club, frequently came here to drink a few beers and to look out at the view.

When Tony heard me tell him about my boat trip, he complimented me on turning my dream into reality and then began telling me how he too had made a dream come true.  He had always loved to hunt, and when he when he was 37 he found a way to take a big game hunting trip to Alaska.  In the shadow of Mt. Denali he shot a grizzly bear.

Tony explained that on the day of the kill he was taken out by a teenage guide who had never done a grizzly kill before.  They knew in advance where to find the bear and as they approached the killing ground the guide turned to Tony and said that when they had the beast in their sights then he would give the signal and their simultaneous shots should kill the bear for sure.  Tony turned to him and said: “I’m in the Mafia and if you shoot my bear then I’ll shoot you.  I’ve come a long way to kill a grizzly and I don’t want anybody else shooting it.”  The young man blanched and with open eyes agreed that he would only shoot if the bear was going after Tony and was about to get him.

It was obvious that Tony has fond memories of that time and enjoyed talking about it.  Although he also looked back with pleasure to his success as a golden gloves boxer in his youth, it is the bear hunt that remains for him the high point in his life.  I hope he always remembers that 67 is not too late to reach a higher point.

South Shore Boat Club (Peru):              41* 19.218’ N  /  89* 08.024’ W

Distance:                                                42 miles
Total Distance                                        2,194 miles


Sunday, September 11, 2005

Moorage at Peru’s South Shore Boat Club (located on the north shore!) was convenient for the night, but it fronts on the river and Sunday boat traffic starts early.  To avoid the crowds and the waves, I pulled away from the dock not long after the dusky red sun came over the port carling looking like an amber traffic light on a foggy day.  It was only a short distance on to the Starved Rock State Park where I hoped there might be a dock and convenience store, to say nothing of a public beach with bathing.  ‘It is there,’ I thought to myself, ‘that I will make breakfast and clean up.  Such was not to be, however, since Starved Rock had no reasonable dock next to the ramp, had no convenience store, and certainly had no stretch of shore that would invite bathing.  I passed it by and continued on the short distance to Starved Rock Lock and Dam.

The idea of finding a sandy beach at the state park was not an idle fantasy; in the last few miles before reaching Peru yesterday there were long stretches of sandy riverbank with weekend boaters parked there.  In the last two days, sand has begun to appear occasionally along the way, and it is the first time I have seen such a thing since leaving Omaha, many hundreds of miles upstream on the Missouri.  Let me modify that.  I did see some stretches of sand on the Missouri just upstream from its confluence with the Mississippi, but this struck me at the time as exceptional, and I can think of no other such exceptions in the last 800 miles of travel.  I guess sandy conditions tend to prevail in the upstream portions of river basins.

I find myself increasingly eager to reach Lake Michigan because I am expecting sand there—not just sand and sandy shorelines but also blue water.  To be honest, I am tired of mud in either its suspended or its depositional form.  I know it is to some degree irrational, but I will feel clean when I can wade ashore and see my feet in the process.

Starved Rock Lock and Dam kept me waiting for five hours.  I arrived just as a full-sized barge was locking through.  They had to ‘cut’ it (break it into two parts), ofStarved Rock: Waiting to Lock Through course, and could not let me lock through with either half because the cargo was hazardous chemicals.  During my wait, a second barge came up the river and only during the second stage of its cut was I able to lock through with its tug and six barges.

These locks were built to facilitate commercial barge traffic between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi drainage system, but conditions have changed since then.  Recreational boating has become very big and nowadays many small boats lock through for every one barge.  Under these conditions, is it sensible to think that commercial traffic should continue to take priority over small craft?  The locks were built with everybody’s tax money, not just that of big business.

Why should making money be considered more important than having fun?  After all, according to economists, money in the capitalist system supposedly flows to that endeavor providing the greatest ‘utility.’  Utility consists of a variety of things, but in a rich society like ours, fun is a big part of all the utility we enjoy.  So, now, when we favor barges over pleasure craft we are favoring money, of which a large part will be used to buy fun, over fun, which is a major reason for seeking money in the first place.  It seems illogical to me.

Wouldn’t it be better to seriously consider building small boat locks next to the existing large locks rather than enlarging existing locks to accommodate bigger barges?  If you had to bet which type of marine traffic will increase the most in the next few decades—barges or pleasure craft—I doubt very much you would put your money on barges.  Let’s be realistic here and modify the Illinois Waterway to accommodate the most likely future demand, not simply build bigger locks so that barge companies can make more money and the Corps of Engineers can continue to build big.

At present, from the time lock gates close until they open again is over an hour (slightly less farther downstream).  It is more than that if a cut barge is passing through.  If parallel locks were built for small craft, a very much quicker cycle would be possible because far less water would have to be moved in and out and because the smaller gates could be opened and closed faster.  This would greatly please the pleasure boaters who now have to constantly wait on the barge traffic, deal with lock walls that greedily chew on their boat hulls and boat fenders, and—worst of all—suck up to lock operators at whose pleasure the ‘insignificant’ boaters are permitted to pass.

Every time I hear a radio broadcast between a pleasure boater and a lock keeper it makes me cringe.  The boaters treat the lockmasters with the deference shown to royalty because they know that an ounce of bad attitude is likely to cost them a couple hours of wait time.

It is actually humorous in a way, for many of these yachts are owned by wealthy individuals who must not be accustomed to kowtowing.  This alone is a good reason to continue the present system, but not good enough.

If there were separate locks for the small boats it ought to please tugboat captains as well, for they at present have to put up with a flotilla of midgets skittering around them and behaving like the amateurs that most of them are.  For example, when I was trying to get through at Starved Rock I heard the lockmaster inquiring of the tug captain whether I could lock through at the same time and the captain’s reply was that it would be ok as long as he wasn’t responsible.  Separate locks would benefit most everyone.

Starved Rock State Park overlooks the river from bluffs.  They are horizontally bedded layers of striated sedimentary rock.  It is dramatic terrain by eastern standards and the Starved Rock Lock and Dam has been run across the river precisely where the drama is greatest.  For this reason, the long wait for transit through the lock was not as tedious as it might have been.Barge and Bridge

In the pool above the lock and dam, the landscape along the edges of the engorged river was somewhat less striking for having been drowned in the reservoir, but even so, this part of the voyage was alluring because of the frequent outcropping of bedrock lining the banks.  There is less development here than I had anticipated and it is delightful to be closing in on Chicago without having it close in on me.

In the waning hours, passage through the Marseilles Lock slowed our advance once again and for the first time since the trip began I found myself operating Kobuk after sunset with the twilight too thick to read by and with the instrument panel glowing with little circles of pale yellow light.

We managed to slip in though the narrow entrance channel for Hidden Cove Marina near Seneca.  It was perfect in its shadowy silhouette: black silky water, dim lights in the distance, forest all around.  I tied to an ancient wooden dock, springy to walk on, and traversed its great length to reach the solitary building where lights suggested I might be able to make arrangements for the night.  Kobuk and I were permitted to stay right where we were, alone on that long dock, and that suited us very well.

Hidden Cove Marina:                            41* 17.868’ N  /  88* 36.919’ W

Distance:                                                30 miles
Total Distance:                                      2,224 miles

Near Blodgett

Monday, September 12, 2005

There are from today two vivid memories that will stay with me always.  The first is of a certain location along the waterway where all signs of urbanity and affluence were absent.  It was at a bend in the river where a lagoon branched off to the right and the waterway itself divided in two straight ahead.  The different arms of water created elongated peninsulas reaching out toward you, inviting you to step ashore there and sit for a while to enjoy the scenery.  On one of the peninsulas there was a simple gas dock with a marina located away from it some distance up the lagoon.  Between them, a warren of derelict wooden docks extended out into the lagoon and angled crazily on unreliable old posts that had settled and shifted over the years.  The docks were neither level nor straight, nor did they maintain a constant height above the water or even create predictably geometric partitions of the water surface.  Every move that they made was a surprise.

I motored up to the almost unapproachable gas dock and tied off Kobuk.  We did not really need gas, but it was a good excuse for putting ashore here.  Nobody was around but a sign indicated a button to be pushed for service.  It activated a loud horn, but even after sounding it and waiting for someone to appear, nobody showed up.  I reluctantly decided to leave, but at the last moment I saw another sign proposing that for gas service one should call a listed telephone number.  I did its bidding and in the process felt like Alice in Wonderland following unreasonable directions.  Someone answered on the first ring and said that he would be there to help me immediately.  Then, down a graded country road a man appeared riding on a golf cart.  He was similar in age to me with a full beard on his face and Harry for a name.  He spoke gently and manifested a sort of politeness that one rarely sees nowadays.  After selling me a jerry can of gas and a bag of ice, he gave me a second bag of ice for free and took me to his house to have a drink of fruit juice.  We talked for a while, until eventually he had to go back to work at the marina, but before my departure he insisted on giving me nectarines and crackers that I might eat on the way to Joliet.

The second memory was in Joliet itself.  After negotiating two more locks and pressing on until a late hour, Kobuk passed under the first few Joliet bridges before arriving at the Bicentennial Park.  There was a high concrete wall there to which transient yachts were tied.  It had cleats appropriate for a PT boat and they were mounted on top of the wall which stood about as high as the top of Kobuk’s cabin.  To tie off, I would have to ease up to the wall and then jump to the top of it with a couple lines in my hand.  This looked doable, although not easy. 

But then I discovered a few complications.  The only vacant spot was immediately upstream from one of the bridges and the sub-structure of the bridge extended out into the water there.  To approach the vacant spot, I would have to move into it running with the current downstream.  This is not a recommended procedure, and especially with a small engine that cannot be put into reverse.  It would be best, I decided, to use the jet drive, but when I started up the main engine I discovered that the jet intake was clogged with some sort of debris.  I approached the wall with the knowledge that either I got to the top of the wall with at least the stern line in hand or else Kobuk would quickly run down on the bridge substructure straight ahead.  I had the small engine running at its slowest speed but with the current Kobuk was moving uncomfortably fast.  I had the main engine running with the jet drive in reverse but it was ineffective because of the debris in the intake.  We contacted the wall the way amateur boaters would do, at which point I shut off the main engine and ran around to grab a line and jump up onto the wall.  I did manage to make it but when I got up there I discovered that I had left the small engine running and yet the only safe cleat to tie to was back upstream about twenty feet.  There was no choice but to out-pull the outboard.  It is not much of a mariner who gets caught in an embarrassing situation like this one.  It certainly is remarkable what a little adrenaline can do.     

Joliet Bicentennial Park:                        41* 31.519’ N  /  88* 05.226’ W

Distance:                                                 36 miles
Total Distance:                                       2,260 miles


Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Kobuk and I are on the doorstep of Chicago.  If all goes well, we should pass through the center of the city sometime late this afternoon.  All those movies with scenes from executive offices in skyscrapers, looking down on the canal with its many crossing bridges?  Now we get to pass under those bridges and look up at the towering buildings.  And then . . , and then . . , Lake Michigan at last!  I have no idea where we will be able to tie off for the night along that urban shore, but surely there will be some place where a little craft can tuck itself in and hide.

Just as in downtown Chicago, the streets of Joliet cross over this waterway every block and in order to keep the bridges as close to grade as possible they are equipped with draw bridges that all have the same cantilever design and are truly beautiful.  Ornate and massive, their green painted steel arcs over the canal in a shallow parabola.  Everything about them looks curvilinear and fluid; there is no boxiness anywhere.  They look very traditional, like the bridges of Russian St. Petersburg, but they raise and lower quickly and efficiently—which is a good thing since their 16’ clearance above the water is insufficient for most watercraft passing this way.  Even with Kobuk, the smallest boat I have seen so far transiting the waterway, I felt compelled the previous evening to stand on the side deck and confirm that the top of the radio antenna would not hang up.

By 7:30 AM I had cast off from the concrete wall fronting the Bicentennial Park.  The jet drive which had been clogged when coming to the wall now functioned again.  This was a very satisfactory development for I had not relished the thought of swimming in the barge canal to clean it out.

Only a few miles on from Joliet we came to the Lockport Lock and Dam which with a water level difference of 40 feet (?) is the deepest of the locks on the Illinois Waterway.  The standard procedure for a small craft in one of these locks is to snug up against one of the towering walls with your fenders out.  A lock hand peers down from way above and drops a ¾” line to you.  That’s a heavy line and when its end comes to you from 40’ above it is the nautical equivalent of catching a fastball.

The idea is to hold your craft up against the concrete wall as the swirling waters rise up to fill the cavernous space, but of course it is devilishly hard to pull towards the wall when the line you are using is attached almost directly overhead.  As the lock fills, everything gets easier because the water turbulence diminishes and the angle of pull for the control line improves.  When the gates open the water level in the lock has been perfectly equalized with that of the pool so they swing silently and with very little swirling water.  A few minutes of stillness pass before the sounding of a horn that indicates you may exit.

I am not certain, but I think the Lockport Lock put us at the Lake Michigan level; we should be able to run free from here to the lake.  Free of locks but not free of excitement.  The channel is narrow, perhaps little more than a hundred yards across, and almost immediately we motor into an intensely industrial zone with cranes and docks, piles of sand and coal and other substances, and with barges everywhere, parked by the score along each bank.  Tugs are active everywhere, moving barges up or downstream or pushing against the sides of them to secure them for loading and unloading.Chicago Canal

Moving up this waterway with these huge vessels all around intimidates me somewhat since Kobuk’s propulsion systems are not reliable.  I am using the Yamaha most of the time and whenever we are passing between barges I worry that a large craft that has the right of way will suddenly appear coming towards us.  The Yamaha cannot reverse and the Remote Troll may not be able to turn us around in the narrow width available.  I am constantly prepared to use the main engine for it provides superior maneuverability, but what if it decides to not start?

Also, a laboring tug pushing sideways on a barge churns up a great deal of active water in this constricted space, and the Yamaha has to struggle to keep Kobuk from slipping sideways on the water.  Will we bang against the side of a barge or the rock wall of the channel because Yamaha can’t push us forward fast enough to escape?  In one such instance, the escape was a matter of inches.

Approaching ChicagoBut then, after passing through such bustle and action, the canal continued on for mile after mile of green bowered straightness with only occasional development parting the flanking woods and only sporadic presence of tugs and barges.  In the last few miles, the city did indeed close in and a grand variety of urban landscapes passed by on both sides, everything from industrial lots to yacht harbors to junkyards to upscale highrise apartment buildings.  And always in the distance could be seen the Sears Tower and the other tall buildings of the downtown.

Nearer and nearer those tall buildings came until they were a precinct straight in front of us with the canal running like an arrow towards its very heart, passing under a bridge every city block.  The bridges here all are low and industrial traffic on the water has disappeared completely.  Only tour boats now—tour boats and Kobuk.  Sky scrapers seemed toDowntown Chicago rise sheer from the water and the bridges were busy with people walking over them—people in great numbers moving in such a way as to suggest that the flow of them was itself a living organism.  And then we broke out of the business district and the canal took us straight out towards Lake Michigan.

But there was one more lock to pass through, one that I had not seen indicated on the Corps of Engineers chart.  It made one last step up to get into the lake, a step of only one foot.  Permanent ropes hang from the low wall and I took Kobuk to a place near the exiting gate before shutting down the Yamaha and grabbing on to one of them.

When the gate opened, the vast lake opened before us and we moved out into a fearsome jumble of lumpy, unpredictable waves that set Kobuk to pitching and rolling with such a force that I became concerned the Bike Friday might get tossed overboard.  I was shocked and apprehensive at the size Downtown Chicagoand vigor of the wave action, and I began to wonder whether Kobuk would be able to survive in this alien environment.  It was not that we were in immediate danger; although whenever we had to take the waves broadside it did not feel good.  The way Kobuk was struggling, however, made me wonder whether Kobuk was really capable of handling the 750 miles of open water that now lay before us on Lakes Michigan and Huron.  Still, boats can do remarkable things if they have the right driver, and I reminded myself that much will depend on my learning to react effectively to whatever the natural conditions put in our way.  When we first got on the river in Wyoming I had a similar reaction to conditions, but gradually found ways to cope with them.  Let’s hope the same will happen here in open waters.

I had gotten directions to the entrance into Diversey Yacht Harbor a couple miles north of the city center and eventually Kobuk and I entered through a narrow channel that is (1) controlled by a traffic light and (2) passes under the ever-busy Lakefront Drive.  We are in the big city for sure.  At the far end of the yacht harbor where a channel passes under a bridge on which is posted a sign prohibiting the passage of motor boats, I found a timbered embankment fronting on Lincoln Park and tied off there.  It was a protected spot and appeared to be just beyond the limit of the yacht harbor.  The top of Kobuk was so low that when you were standing in the park any distance away from the embankment she was invisible.  I felt we were secure.  

Diversey Yacht Club:                             41* 55.585’ N  /  87* 37.960’ W

Distance:                                                46 miles
Total Distance:                                      2,306 miles

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