Life on the Mississippi

Portraits of the urban river in words and pictures

This marina opened in 1985. About 14 people live here now. Everybody works. The rule is no drugs, because people bring their troubles with them. You learn to get along. We're viewed as an eyesore, or a shantytown. We refer to ourselves as Third World Marina. But if we weren't here all these years, this place would be a giant dump and overrun by transients. We've spent years cleaning this area up.

During the '93 flood, I saw a cow go floating by. It was bellowing for its life. It must have washed off the bank on the Minnesota River. In the '97 flood, an entire island with sod and trees--probably weighed 300 tons--came down the river and it struck that power pylon. The first tree that hit was about two feet in diameter. I heard a loud crack, and it snapped that tree like a matchstick. It split the island apart, but never slowed down. It was going 20 mph when it hit. The power of the river when the current is flowing is just spectacular.

One night about two years ago, I heard a couple of horrible screams. Sound carries quite well down here sometimes and there was a party up on Cherokee Bluffs. The next day, I saw on the news that a guy had been stabbed to death. When I realized I overheard a person being murdered, it stuck with me.

I have noticed a definite cleaning up of the river. In the dog days of August, the river used to smell like sewer. In 1970, I literally water-skied through turds down here. The river was lined with appliances and tires. It had nowhere to go but get better. It couldn't get worse. It could only get better. The DNR referred to this area of the river as the dead zone. Every time it rained hard, the sewers overloaded. The clarity has gotten better.

A lot of the improvements have been in the last eight years. In the last three years, I've started to notice frogs.

I've never had any reaction to the river water. It's very soft. Use a little bit of soap, about the size of a dime and you get a lot of lather. In the summer, when the water warms up, I use a little bit of bleach, just to be on the safe side. In the winter time, the water is gin clear.

I've got everything that I need. If it wasn't for this boat, I'd be living in public housing. I'm saving the state a lot of money. And it's probably saved me $80,000 in rent over the last ten years. I bought this boat in 1987 for two grand. It was just like a cave--only had two windows. I just took a Sawzall to the wall, cut it out. Now I've got ducks looking in at me. This is a Menards bargain basement boat. It's only 250 square feet, so I can keep it 80 degrees here in the winter, walk around in T-shirt and underwear.

I think it's been good for my health to live on the river. It's very depressing to wake up in an apartment with a dirty window, and look at another apartment with dirty windows. As modest as this is, it has served me very well.

You know the funny thing? When people have troubles in life, they always come down to the river. They get in a fight with their old lady, they come down to the river. Or they lose a job, they come down to the river. I've put friends up here many times. When they come, they're hyper. Fifteen minutes goes by and they're looking out the window. Pretty soon, they're here for an hour and a half and they look up at the clock and say, "Where did the time go?"

 

"Return to the Nest"

If you walk along the east side of the Mississippi River, a mile or so below the lower St. Anthony Lock and Dam, you will encounter a very strange and spectacular bit of folk architecture. Big enough to accommodate several adults, it is constructed entirely from driftwood, varying in size from tree trunk to branch. I first spotted the thing a few weeks back, and puzzled over who possibly built it. There are some magic markers on the site, and people have written all over the bigger logs, scribbling out everything from Gandhi quotations to invitations to suck cock and eat pussy. Upon closer inspection, I found an inscription that offered something of an explanation. It read: "Return to the Nest. 6/7/03 A year ago today the City of Minneapolis destroyed a sculpture here entitled Nest of the Spirit Bird. One year later at sunrise I celebrate Return to the Nest. Be art, Be free. D. Sinn." So who is D. Sinn? I got my answer on August 2, when, by serendipity, I encountered the artist at the site of his masterpiece.

David Erickson: Most people call me Badger, but I'm David Erickson, also known as the artist D. Sinn. I'm living art in America and I have been since I quit my job with the city of St. Paul in 1992. The reason the piece is called Return to the Nest? Two years ago, the night before Easter, the waning of the full moon, I was down here with a small fire and a friend and I was building a sculpture and I possessed beer and I was arrested and jailed for possessing beer and for having a fire. The next day, I got up with no pennies in my pocket because they took away all my money and wrote me a check. So I came back down here for nine weeks, almost nightly, while building the Nest of the Spirit Bird. I informed the mayor and the City Council with written invitation for my opening on May 12, 2002. I was going to have a show. They didn't show up. But on June 7, eight men with chain saws and a chipper truck came down. They destroyed it.

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