Life on the Mississippi

Portraits of the urban river in words and pictures

Ronnie: Yeah, but it's their world, too. I've seen a lot of animals down here. Fox, deer, all kinds of geese. The strangest thing I've ever seen was Mike jumping off this bridge. From the very top.

Mike: Last time I did that, I wound up at HCMC. I thought I was going to die.


Mike Mosedale

"A Lot of People Without Hotel Rooms"

The five-mile stretch of the river between Lower St. Anthony Falls and the Ford Dam is among the urban river's wildest zones--a virtue it owes to its geology. The steep bluffs on either side of the gorge effectively prevented the development of most of the riverfront. Because it is undeveloped, it attracts those on the margins--the homeless, people cruising for sex, teenage partiers. It also attracts competitive rowers. For these folk, this reach of the river is nearly perfect. Because the Ford Dam is not far downstream, the water pools and moves relatively slowly. An added benefit: There are no public boat launches. That means that motor boats must pass through a lock to get here. As a result, rowers usually have this part of the river to themselves. Jill Cooper is an instructor at the Minneapolis Rowing Club, located just under the Lake Street Bridge. Spending as much a time as she does on the river, she regularly catches glimpses of the river's seedier side.

Jill Cooper: I spend two hours on the river in the morning, and two to three hours in the evening. I'm here six days a week, so I see a lot.

There are a couple of guys who like to stand on the shore and sing really loud. They don't sing very well and I can never make out the words exactly. But when you turn to look, they're naked. And not very attractive.

We don't see the homeless much. But you can smell their campfires. It's kind of a nice smell on a Sunday morning.

I've seen two dead bodies. One was stuck on a buoy in front of the boathouse. It had been in the water for a long time, so I didn't get very close.

The other we found tangled in the trees by the river's edge. Some of the rowers spotted it. I went over to verify it was a body and called 911. Because it was inaccessible by land, I took the fire and rescue guys there in my boat. There was a naked couple in a cave just above the spot where the body was. I don't think they were trying to be exhibitionists. They were just having a moment. But it wasn't a good spot to be naked, because all of a sudden they got converged on by all the fire and water patrol.

That's the river--a lot of people who don't have hotel rooms.

There are a lot of people who lay on the beach down by the Shriners Hospital. That seems to be a hangout scene for naked sunbathing. People ask me about running on the trail there. I think the cruisers have gotten a lot more covert in recent years. They're not interested in other people unless they're there for the scene. I think a woman is completely safe in that area.

My most emotional experience on this river was watching one of our eights--one of the big boats--break apart against a bridge abutment in 38-degree water.

The rowers miscalculated the current and it just swept them in, and broke the boat in half. It wasn't my group, I just happened to be there. I found out I could throw a woman twice my size over my head. That took me days to recover from.

The river is definitely getting cleaner. It used to smell really bad. But there are still too many dead fish floating in the water. Last year, they were all over the place. It makes you wonder. I wouldn't swim in this water, and I definitely wouldn't eat any fish in the water.

One other thing I've noticed: The squirrels and the deer always seem to swim from St. Paul to Minneapolis. Always that way, never the other way around.


The Catman of 33rd Street: "It's Been Joyful Here For Us"

If you spend much time boating on the Mississippi above St. Anthony Falls, chances are you've passed Pookie and Doc--a.k.a. Willie Adams and Vincent Cooper. The two lifelong friends light out for the river whenever the weather and their work schedules permit. Sometimes, they are joined by other friends and family members. Occasionally, Pookie brings along his dog, a big and somewhat frightening-looking mixed breed named Homicide. I first met Pookie and Doc when they were fishing off a little spit of sand, just north of the old broken barge dock at 33rd Street. They had been catching channel catfish there for a few weeks. By the standards of river spots, it's not especially scenic. Okay, it's ugly. But as Pookie observed, "Fish don't bite in beauty. They bite in water."

Doc: I work for the Minneapolis park board, so I chase kids for a living. When I get done chasing kids, I come down here and chase me some catfish.

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