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From Harper’s Ferry to Dubuque

Tonight we sit on another sandy beach, just south of Savannah, Illinois, after a nice 23-mile paddle.  The weather has cooled off, our muscles are rested after a layover in Dubuque, and we had the wind at our back for at the second half of the day.  We have traveled this week through some of the prettiest stretches of the river, from Pool 7 to Pool 10, but in Pool 13 now the landscape levels off and we caught our first glimpse of farmland from the river yesterday.  We are emerging from the great valley carved out by the glacial River Warren into its floodplain.  But the river always has its charms, and this stretch of the river has been fairly peaceful and undeveloped.  Most of our company on the water is eagles, egrets, herons, and the occasional jumping fish or turtle that slides off its sunning log.  In the slough just on the other side of where we’re camping tonight we can hear the chorus of honks from what must be a very large flock of geese, staging there on their way south.

The stretch of river we are leaving is referred to by ecologists as an “anastomosed stream,” a term derived from human anatomy, meaning a set of braided channels or “veins” that wind between stable islands.  The scenes we observe as we paddle along are not the same as the precolonial era, as almost all the channel islands are now monocultures of silver maple, but still the side channels and backwaters are full of life. The naturally leveed floodplain with high bluffs on either bank, is all part of the Upper Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Refuge, and as a refuge it still functions quite well.

We have been struck by the lack of garbage along the way.  At campsites we may find a stray bottle or two, but over-all there is almost no litter.  All the abandoned drums, appliances, and other detritus of our consumer society have been removed and it seems there is a renewed sense of respect and stewardship of the river.  Certainly one major contributor to this change has been the work of the local river clean-up organization called Living Lands and Waters (which we are reading about for one of our classes).  Thirty years ago our campsites would have been much worse and the whole experience much less pleasant.

In the past 10 days we have met with my old friend Jon “Hawk” Stravers, who shared with us his love of the Red Shouldered Hawk and Cerulian Warblers, and played a few songs for us; his friend and colleague Robert Vavra, a clammer and fisherman, who is now working as a tour boat operator, and keeper of river stories brought his boat out to our camp on the what is known locally as “Gilligan’s Island” and cooked up some freshly caught river fish for us.

That kind of generosity has been a frequent experience for us, and through our pilgrimage down the river we are reminded again and again of the basic goodness of human beings.  In Prairie du Chien we were overwhelmed with hospitality, allowed to stay in their park, offered showers, rides, and given contributions to the educational project one of our students is organizing.

In Guttenberg, Iowa we showed up during their Germanfest and surprised the students with a stop at the high school all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast.  In Dubuque we stayed at the National Mississippi River Museum and had presentations on the history of the French explorers, the fur trade, voyageurs, and local Indian tribes, and did studies of a local wetland, and mussel breeding experiments.  While there we slept on the dredge boat William M. Black, named after a USACE General who, among other things, helped build sanitation systems in Cuba after the Spanish-American War.  It was the Corps’ first big dredging boat, and could suck up huge amounts of sediment from the river, while burning 5-8,000 gallons of fuel oil per day.  That ended during the oil crisis of 1973 when fuel prices got so high the Corps couldn’t afford to keep paying for the fuel.

It has been a month on the river now, and it feels very natural to be falling asleep and waking up along its shores.  In a few days we’ll be in the Quad Cities, where we have a busy schedule planned with our hosts from Augustana College.