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.

Mike Mosedale

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.

There's nothing vague about what you accomplish. It's very concrete and direct. It's satisfying moving big objects like this. Northbound we unload coal, fertilizer, steel. Right now, we're unloading a barge of rice hulls, which goes to a greenhouse in Cottage Grove. Out of here, it's usually corn, soybean, and oats.

A barge is 200 feet long, and 15 to 18 feet high. If there's a crosswind blowing, that's a lot of sail. The wind can blow you out of position. Even an empty barge weighs 900 tons. If you get going sideways and can't control it, even an empty barge can cause a lot of damage. Years ago, we had some kids come down here and they would cut the lines and the barges would drift away. The police would call us, and we'd bring 'em back.

We've found two bodies. We call them "Bobs" because they kind of bob up and down in the water. One was right by that tower. It had gone off Coon Rapids dam. Some guys on the dock noticed it.

About 10 years ago, I was eating a hardboiled egg sandwich and Tom said, "What's that?" There was something resting under the slant of a barge. I couldn't see much. I said, "Well, let me finish this sandwich." Then I got one of these spike poles. I went down there and sure enough it was Bob. So while Tom was running the boat, I got one pole under the neck, another under the shoulder, and we floated him down to the dock. The medical examiner came and got him. It wasn't pleasant.

Another time--10, 15 years ago--we saw a four-wheel drive pickup truck floating down the river. It was a monster truck, with these great big tires. The wheels were turning slowly, and the knobs on the tires grabbed enough water to move down the river. It looked like a very relaxed situation. They were having a good time.

 

On The Rocks

I met Mike and Ronnie on a hot July afternoon. They were accompanied by two other homeless men, Paul and D.J., walking along the river's edge near where the Burlington Northern railroad bridge crosses from north Minneapolis to northeast. The day, the men reported, was following a familiar trajectory: wake up, scrounge for cans, and cash in the haul at a recycling yard on the north side. All told, they had gathered about 46 pounds of aluminum--worth about 17 bucks. They spent most of the money on a case of beer. What money remained might be spent on food, but dumpster diving is the more likely option when it comes to dining. All four men grew up in northeast, and that's still where they spend most of their time, mostly on the river. A preferred drinking spot, known as "the Rocks," is located below the Burlington Northern bridge. The men said there is little romance in their lives on the river. It's just one of the few places they can hope to be left alone--a hope that is often dashed in encounters with railroad cops, city police, and their fellow transients.

Ronnie: This is my first year down here on the river. I used to work for the city of Minneapolis. Now look at me. I've been on the streets ever since me and my wife separated. I don't hang with any riffraff. I only hang with guys I trust. Everybody watches everybody else's back. We keep an eye on each other.

I stay a lot of places on the river. Depends where I'm at. If I'm on this side, I'll just go down by the bushes. If I'm on the other side, I'll go down by the bushes. I move around all the time.

One of my best friends died down here. He was beat up and thrown in the river. That was probably last July. His name was Sonny.

The river's very polluted. Sometimes, I swim because it's the only way I can get cleaned up. You do what you got to do. But I wouldn't eat a fish out of here.

Mike: I used to make $25 an hour. Union work. Did that for 10 years. But after I lost my family, it's been nothing but chaos. I've been out on the streets for seven years now. At first, I thought it was fun. It ain't fun no more.

Three, four years ago, I saw a guy get beat with a club down here. And I had an Indian friend, Timmy. He was killed on the other side of the river. Someone poured Bacardi on him and burned him up. And one time, I got hit with a baseball bat by a little black guy. He knocked out my teeth and took $60 off me. I still have a steel plate in my skull.

The police are probably the worst people who are around here. But there are a lot of crazy people, too. I don't want to be down here when they're around.

Look at all this trash. Sometimes, I try and clean up. But nobody else cares.

There is a lot of wildlife. One time at my camp, three raccoons came along, one mama raccoon and two babies. That mama came up and started hissing in my ear. Three times she come back. The raccoons aren't nice here.

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.

 

"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.

We get out later in the evening when you don't want to be wrassling no boats. So we drive down in the car and grab a spot and do some fishing. This is a new spot. We've been here about a month. Sometimes we go through the lock and dam and fish behind the University. Sometimes, when it's really nice, we just ride the boat around. For the most part, we just sit out here. We done met a lot of nice people out here on this river. We just come out here, get old together, and fish. There's two or three of us who come out here. Every chance we get. Usually about three days a week

Pookie: I'm from East St. Louis, Illinois. I got here the day before Thanksgiving '87. Doc's cousin told me to come up here. He told me there's jobs and opportunities. So I got my last g.a. check, cashed in, and came up here. I had seven dollars in my pocket on Thanksgiving Day. Ate real good. Got a job that following Monday, been here ever since.

Anytime my wife and I get in an argument, I'm out of there. I'm going to the river and going fishing.

Doc: I'm pretty much the same. If my wife gets to shouting, I call Pookie and say, "Man, let's go."

Pookie: His wife's a preacher.

Doc: She's a minister. As matter of fact, she just went to T.D. Jakes in Houston, Texas. I hope we can catch something to eat while she's gone, so I can fry some fish. [Pause] We don't stay out here too late because at nighttime the river comes alive. Lots of critters. One time I saw a guy here holding an eel. I didn't think they had eels here. I used to jump in the water when it was hot. But after he showed me that eel, I don't go in anymore.

Pookie: And I don't fish down here at night because I don't want to get caught up in some of that nighttime activity--you know, being as I'm a married man, having children and grandkids and all.

Last year, we saw that guy who swam all the way down the Mississippi. I thought that was kind of strange. What's he trying to do? Trying to kill his self? Then I saw on the news, he swam the whole Mississippi.

Doc: We ain't seen nothing fatal on the river. The Mississippi's been kind to us because we handle it right. You can't be messing around on this water. Even a good swimmer will drown out here. I can't find nothing better to do in the summer time, to be honest with you. I love my family. But after God and family, it's fishing. It's joyful out here for us.

Ain't no telling what you're going to catch out of the river. Get you a worm, man, everything hits worms. Get you a worm, no telling what you're going to pull up. I heard there's some walleyes down by that bridge. You got to jig 'em. If the catfish ain't biting, you got carp. My cousin came here from Springfield, Illinois. I went over to his house, he had some fish fried and battered up. I asked him, "What kind of fish is that?" He said carp. And I said, "How do you eat carp?" Then I ate some and said "May I have another piece?" because, man, it was good.

 

"We Thought We Were Gods"

For more than a decade, Terry Kriesel has called the Mississippi River home. He lives on a homemade houseboat that was built by a pipefitter, but which he is constantly modifying. He uses river water for bathing and dish cleaning. His electricity comes from solar panels. There are 600 pounds of fork truck batteries in the closet. If he falls asleep with the TV on, the charge sometimes run down and he has to use a gas generator. Because space is at a premium, Kriesel only brings new objects on board when he can demonstrate to his own satisfaction that the object has at least two legitimate functions. Kriesel's boat, along with about 10 others, sits in the river channel at Island Station, a bohemian marina located not far upstream from downtown St. Paul. Long targeted for closure by the city of St. Paul, Island Station's days now appear to be numbered. The day after I met Kriesel, the St. Paul Pioneer Press ran a story in which a city official said he expected to clear out the marina in a matter of weeks. Plans are underway to erect a high-end condo development on the site.

Terry Kriesel: I've been living in roughly this spot since fall of 1991. I had gone through six months of chemotherapy for non-Hodgkins lymphoma and I didn't know how long I was going to live. I had the boat already. I split with my wife, and moved here, figuring I'd be happier with whatever time I had left. As it turns out, it's been 12 years.

I grew up on Seventh Street. These were my stomping grounds when I was a kid. We used to go swimming, fishing, bicycling. When I was about 13, they brought down a whole bunch of riprap to make the ramp at the east end of Crosby Park. There was a big section of flooring, 10 feet by 18 feet, with joists. It floated about two and a half inches out of the water. It was a perfect raft. I stole a bed sheet from my mom. Me and a buddy set a pole on it, and made a makeshift sail. We thought we were gods, floating across the water that day in May. We hid the raft and camouflaged it really well, but next year's flood took it out.

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.

I came down here a couple of months later and started this, called Return to the Nest. I left magic markers here for people to write on it. I built this in the dark so I wouldn't be arrested. I generally started just before dark and stayed until dawn

I don't live here. Right now I have a van to sleep in. But there are a lot of places I've lived like that. I built another one like this in Gainesville, Florida. It was pretty famous. They call it Badgerville. I spent five out of seven winters in that thing. It was covered with shitty plastic, but was waterproof, and slept eight people, and had paving and a fire pit and seating, and alligators and otters in the stream and even armadillos. Crazy as hell. Beautiful place.

This is where Father Hennepin got out of his canoe so that he could travel above the falls. The rapids started here. For thousands of years, people got out of their canoes here. They drank from the stream because it was fresh and pure and then they portaged above St. Anthony Falls. This is where they landed. It's a sacred place, a place of memories. I didn't pick the place, the place picked me.

I swim here once in a while. It's polluted as shit. I've never gotten sick. But then again, I eat out of dumpsters and I've got pretty good immunity.

It's been 11 years since I decided I would no longer create a taxable income because I will not pay for prisons and bombs.

For six and a half of the last 11 years, I've walked around the country. I build places along the rivers and streams because this is energy.

The only people who will knock it over are the police. Minneapolis will probably destroy this one, just like the last one. The excuse last time was that a homeless person might sleep here. They probably spent $2,000 to destroy a sculpture because a homeless person might sleep there.

I declare myself to be an act of art. My existence is my performance.

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