Life on the Mississippi

Portraits of the urban river in words and pictures

In his 1909 memoir, Old Times on the Upper Mississippi, the steamboat pilot George Merrick lamented the multitude of changes visited upon the great river in the previous half century. "[L]ike the wild tribes which peopled its banks 60 years ago," Merrick glumly concluded, "civilization has been its undoing." In the years since Merrick put those words to paper, the sentiment has been echoed a thousand times. Given the sorry condition of the river--where sewage still washes in with each heavy rainfall, where mercury and PCBs still foul its food chain, where all manner of flotsam still litter the banks--a thousand more repetitions are probably in order.

But for all the changes that have come to the Mississippi, one thing has remained the same. People are drawn to the river because it offers escape. Bums go to the river to escape cops. Ex-drunks go to escape the lure of bars. Husbands go to escape wives. Teenagers to escape parents. Average Joes to escape their workaday lives. It goes on.

Of course, escape is an illusion. The world has a funny way of catching up with you--no matter how much time you spend chasing catfish or drinking under a bridge. But for those who fall under the river's spell, that doesn't matter much. All that matters is the balm of the moment.

For the better part of the past month, I tooled around the urban reaches of the Mississippi looking for people who know the river best. By this, I don't mean scientists or scholars or policy wonks. I mean the people who spend an inordinate amount of time floating on its surface and wandering its banks.

I found them.

In conversations, I discovered there were a lot of shared experiences. Most river rats have encountered a dead body or two in their time on the water (a severe defect in my own credentials, alas), and almost all of them have witnessed people engaged in bawdy acts (I have that covered). Most everyone agreed that the river is unacceptably dirty. Opinions vary as to its worthiness for swimming. No one reported adverse consequences resulting from contact with the waters--surprising, given the chronically high fecal coliform counts. But everyone I spoke with agreed about one thing: The Mississippi deserves to be treated a lot better than it is.

 

The View from the Rose Bee

As any reasonably attentive Minnesota schoolchild knows, the Mississippi River's headwaters are located at Lake Itasca. But when it comes to commercial navigation, the Mississippi's headwaters lie in Minneapolis--just off the Dowling Avenue exit on I-94 at the city-owned Port of Minneapolis. That's where the Corps of Engineers stops dredging the river to accommodate barge traffic. It's the end of the line. Tom Mischo and Glenn Jensen have spent the bulk of their working lives on this somewhat inglorious stretch of the river, where they push around barges in a battered old towboat called the Rose Bee.

Tom Mischo: I'm 48 years old. I've been working on the water since I was 18. I was in the Coast Guard for four years. Search and rescue. I started on the river 24 years ago. First I was a deckhand, then a pilot. In the line of river work, we're kind of like parking lot attendants. We shuffle empty barges in for loading, and take the loaded ones out to the fleet. And vice versa, bring the loads in for unloading and take the empties away. We're the end of the food chain.

This boat was built in 1945. It started its life as an old Army sea mule. It was destined for the Second World War. When the war ended, it was rebuilt into a river boat. It's been rebuilt several times.

The water quality since I started has dramatically improved. It is amazing how much wildlife we see. We never used to see an eagle. Now I see them nailing fish all the time. We see red foxes, turtles, and lots of fishes.

For years, we never used to have mayflies here, but they're back. One night, a few years back, we watched them closely. It was amazing. There was no wind blowing and the mayflies were all around the boat. Then, when one would drop into the river, the other ones gathered and pulled them out of the water. They were trying to get them to fly. It was happening all around us. Hundreds of them being picked up by the other mayflies. It almost makes you think they have a conscience, that it matters to them that they're dying. It was an amazing thing to witness. Insect compassion.

You see unusual things. Early in the morning on a cold winter day, when the river has a glare of ice just formed over it and the sun's not quite up, there's a phenomenal reddish glow. But what gets me is the way it sounds as the ice breaks across the hull. It's a glassy, tinny sound. Metallic.

Glenn Jensen: I'm 54. I started on the river in '78. I worked down in St. Paul, going between Savage and Hastings. Then I came up here in '82, and I've been here ever since. There has been a lot of change in the behavior of people working on the river. In those days, safety concerns weren't in the forefront. Nowadays, one never sees a deckhand without a life jacket on. Drug testing has been mandated. There's a lot less lowlife on the river than there used to be. When I started, any Joe, Dick, or Harry could get a job on the river. Now people make a career out of it. Jobs are hard enough to come by, and it's a nice enough job that you want to keep it.

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