Last night the stars were out, the air cool, and the lights from the Lansing (Iowa) bridge were reflected on the tranquil surface of the river as we camped about River Mile 664. The students have been studying for their first exam, sitting around a campfire on the sandy beach, poring over the readings and working together to learn the material. Having crammed as much in as they could for the evening, they transitioned to guitar and singing, and it felt like the end of a good day. The strains of their improvised “Campfire Blues” (and accompanying laughter) lulled the rest of us to sleep.
We began yesterday at a very muddy landing on the Bad Axe River in Wisconsin, clambering up the bank to visit the Genoa National Fish Hatchery, where they raise tens of thousands of trout, sturgeon, walleye, and now fresh water mussels. It is an elaborate operation, all made necessary by overfishing and radical alterations of the river and floodplain. But like a fish-producing factory, they crank out fish to restock rivers and lakes all over the country. This is also the site of the Massacre of Bad Axe, where Chief Blackhawk was finally defeated and hundreds of Sauk Indians died. We have certainly changed this land, with great energy, emptying if of people, fish, mussels, and old growth forests, and replacing them with new settlers, cities, corn fields, and power plants. The restless energy of the European settlers is present everywhere.
In contrast, at the end of a long day of paddling we are nothing if not keenly aware of the energy we have expended. Students sprawl on the sand, arms aching, and stomachs growling.
The motor boats speed by us and huge barges lumber past carrying thousands of tons of cargo, but paddling as hard as we can we travel the river at no more than four miles an hour. But it is a satisfying feeling to know you have put in a good hard day’s work, and it makes us think about how much energy we use back home.
We have become so used to living in a world of fossil-fuel powered labor-saving devices that we have largely lost touch with our own bodies and what they are for. On the trip we are healthy, happy, sleeping well, and having a minimal impact on the world around us. With our solar panels to power these laptops and cell phones, a canoe, paddle, and locally grown fresh food, we are good to go (with some exceptions). We in general consume very little electricity, but still when we get to a source of shore power, the available outlets are swarmed with electronic devices of all sorts, hungrily drinking up the free flow of electrons.
Our solar panels can power us most days, but only when the sun shines and we have time to set everything up.
Back home we struggle to find time to get exercise, bounce from one diet to the next, experience ennui, and seek numerous distractions. It raises the question of what exactly we are getting from all this energy we use. Certainly we want some help and machines to avoid extreme or dangerous labor, but beyond that we need to embrace the value, the joy, the deep satisfaction of a good day’s work accomplished with our bodies and hands.
And power production is plainly evident along the river. The Dairyland Power Genoa # 3 coal-fired power plant, a towering facility on the river, is one of the 29 located in the Upper River. It includes one small nuclear reactor built in the 1960s, and shut down in 1987. It is being slowly dismantled, with some of the low-level waste being shipped off to a storage site in South Carolina. The high-level waste is still stored on site, still waiting a national decision on where to store these long-lived toxins. The answer so far has been NIMBY.
We have passed one nuclear plant so far, at Prairie Island, venturing close enough to be caught in the outflow from the power plant, where the water temperature spiked briefly. As we paddled by, a security guard came out and got on the megaphone to tell us to move along, as we were too close to the shore and their security zone. The plants constitute a major presence along the river, located in areas with little political clout, such as the Prairie Island Indian Community. One needs a great faith in the engineers that this pile of radioactive material, located in the upper reaches of the largest river in North America, will not at some point come spilling south. The implications of such an event are hard to imagine, but still somehow during the 1970s we saw fit to locate all these nuclear power plants along rivers from which millions of people draw their drinking water. For the Dakota and Mdewaketon on Prairie Island the plants are just another in the long line of affronts their people have suffered, and they have found health and environmental problems that appear to be linked to the presence of the plant. There are 21 nuclear power plants in the Mississippi River watershed, five of them located on the main stem itself, using the steady water supply for steam and the huge heat capacity of the water to cool the steam down. In addition to the power plants, we see the steady flow of coal and crude oil shipped by rail, barge, and pipeline along the river, and several oil refineries as well. While traveling in Egypt I was struck by the centrality of water to their economy; here the nexus between water and power generation is at the heart of our way of life.
We have such a great restlessness, this hunger for power, and need to tinker with the world. Never content just to leave things be, humans need to arrange the world around them, often with mixed results. We dam the rivers, kill off the fish, and then busily proceed to go about producing new ones. Not content to spend a solid day of working with our hands, we invent steam engines, and drive cars, but are left with this vague sense of dissatisfaction. We can’t seem to learn that lesson from the river, which just diligently does its work of erosion, transport, and deposition; its slow, relentless flowing, driven endlessly by the rain falling on the land.