Monthly Archives: October 2009

Solace in suffering


The difference in river currents post Cairo, Illinois, has been, to put it mildly, dramatic.  Am now facing rising waters that two nights ago, could have taken me under – while in my sleep.  

Had camped on a patch of sand known as “Moore Island” approximately 30 miles south of the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and come midnight, was forced to pull up stakes as the waters were lapping at my tent. Moved the tent to higher ground  – back into the sands below the elevated trees, as high as it actually went on that island – but by 6am, the waters had climbed to the point where it was time to vacate.  The water had actually risen five feet in total Sunday night, but it certainly felt like more. Still in the dark, my lantern, blowing in the wind like a hurricane lamp, guided my movements of bringing goods from tent to canoe as I was in essence evicted off the island.  

Now in the river, I was greeted by raging waters, dangerous waves, monster barges, wind, and dark.  

Made it to the first boat ramp I could find to get off the river where I met and befriended the pilot of the ferry service tug that operates between Missouri and Hickman, Kentucky.  Edward Fuller has been on the river for some time, and had some ominous words regarding my mode of transport – pointing to a spot just across the river where a giant eddy has been known to spin full sized boats, as he put it, something silly.  

After listening to my story, Edward told me, “I’m not sure if I should call you crazy – or praise you”.  Edward gave me one of his bright orange rain slickers for good luck (so the barges could actually see me) along with some snacks and extra water.   We talked shop while we waited for the next car to arrive as well as for the waves to calm down.  During that time, I learned a number of good strategies to deal with the remainder of my trip:  Hug the right side of the coast (at least for this portion of the river); get completely off of the river when a monster barge approaches; but do not step foot onto Island No. 8 (a large island approx 5 miles down from Hickman, KY), as “it is a hunting island where they will shoot you on sight.”  

As luck would have it, I had to make two emergency stops onto Island No. 8, as two monster barges, one after the next, hugged the same stretch of coastline, immediately to my left.  As Edward had explained, “hunters down here don’t care about Christmas.  For them, it’s all about the start of hunting season.  They stock that island with deer and if you land on their island without an invite, they will think you’re a poacher, and they will shoot you.  They shoot on sight.”  

Just before landing, the first time, I did see one deer who jumped out of my line of sight the moment I laid eyes on her.  Laying low on dreaded Island No. 8, I was happy and quite fortunate that these were the only set of eyes to have seen me.  

Am now talking with tug pilots whenever I get the chance to check out the rapidly changing conditions on this river.  The waters continue to rise and it is now rare to find an island with a sandbar at all.  Most islands are simply comprised of the top half of trees.  I’d take pictures to show you but while I’m out on the river these days, I’m too busy concentrating.  The river current has picked up to at times clock in at ten to twelve miles per hour.  That’s up from two to five miles per hour prior to joining the Ohio River at Cairo.  At such speeds the dangerous part of the river is not what is on top but indeed what is just below the surface.  Logs, driftwood, and buoys.  And at times, a medley of the three.  

While that first morning out, post Moore Island, spooked me, the waves have not reached the levels that they did that day.  I take solace in my suffering.  There is still the nature. There is still the adventure.  At this stage of the game, I am quite literally fighting to tell these stories – to make it to these towns.   Upon landing at Cairo, at going on 10pm last Wednesday night, the good Reverend Kelly Cox asked, “Is this really worth the story?”  To which question I answered honestly – without even thinking, “Yes, absolutely!”  

Even with the rains, there are still the birds. Small birds with bright blue inner feathers, skirting about the canoe, as if to check it out, dipping and diving, always coming back for a second look.  Today, the rain was sort of cool, scattered at first, like unto heavy sprinkles.  But then it droned on and on, picking up steam, until it turned into a downpour. Cold rain that drives at you, in the case of today – all day long.  Was so cold when I pulled out at Caruthersville, Missouri, late today that I checked myself directly into a hotel – with the kind (and essential) assistance of two new friends who live here locally.  A wise investment for the hot shower alone.  And now – at long last – for the bed.  A bed that come morning, knock on wood, will not have floated away.


Filed under On the Mississippi, Status Update

The Great Migration of Cairo, Illinois


The positive voices of Cairo, Illinois are drowning out the exteriors of a now legendary, crumbling Main Street. When one takes the time to step behind this facade, there are a group of local leaders who are putting their best foot forward, hopeful of a future that has no other option but to be bright.

CAIROaMy muse for this story was singer/songwriter Stace England, who dedicated an entire album to the living legacy of Cairo, titled Greetings from Cairo, Illinois. After shooting a rather haunting rendition of “The North Starts in Cairo, Illinois”, Mr. England explained, “When [blacks] were traveling by bus from the South they were separated by a curtain from the white riders … They could take that curtain down in Cairo, because the North started here. So you can imagine people who had lived with segregation their entire lives getting into the land of opportunity [which would have been] a very dramatic thing.”

Yet the land of opportunity, or as Mr. Twain put it, “the promised land,” was not exactly full of promise for all citizens.

My first day in town, Preston Ewing, the City Treasurer and unofficial town historian, explained that before I could attempt to capture a glimpse of Cairo’s future, I’d “most certainly need to understand the past.” Mr. Ewing understands the past of this city as few others do, having served as the president of the local NAACP in the late 1960’s, a time in which Cairo gained national attention as a flashpoint of activity during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

CAIROhCairo, Illinois is geographically important due to its location as the very first city of the North, located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers along the Mason- Dixie Line, a place locals refer to as “the epicenter of the country.” As such, Cairo was referred to as “the promised land” by runaway slaves, headed north. “If you made it to Cairo and crossed the Ohio River, then you could consider yourself to be on somewhat free territory,” explained Bishop Paul Jones, who serves as Alexander County’s Circuit Clerk at the local Courthouse.

Bishop Jones is the first African American to hold the title of Alexander County Circuit Clerk, while Mayor Judson Childs is the first African American to hold the title of Mayor in the City of Cairo. An achievement for the African American community, on a local level, considering the town has been around for the past 150 years.

In the past, there have been two, rather well publicized communities in the town of Cairo – white and black. And yet, as Reverend Ronnie Woods, affectionately known by the town as “Coach”, (a title in reference to his twenty plus years as Cairo High School football coach) is quick to point out, these once separate communities are now coming together.

CAIRObTake a look around, as Mayor Childs would say, “with your eyes and your ears” and one will find that folks here have moved past their racial differences. In only a few short days in town, I was able to witness this firsthand, from the positive energy of the teachers of the Jr. and Sr. High School, to a “20/20 Vision” program embraced by local entrepreneurs and city officials alike, to a number of patrons at the town’s local hangout, the Nu Diner, who confided that Cairo is, symbolically hand in hand, simply moving forward.

Music & Lyrics used with permission by Stace England. Copyright Pearlie Mae Music 2005. All Rights Reserved.


Filed under Americana, Mississippi River Town, On CNN

The Shotgun Restoration Project


In a town showcased by major media as an epicenter of “urban decay”, it was encouraging to find a group of folks standing up for the historical “shotgun” architecture of the local area. Featured in this video are Professor Bob Swenson of Southern Illinois University’s School of Architecture, his students, Jim Schmidt, 25, and Toni Lettiere, 23, Shandll McGoy, 31, and local “Vision 20-20” entrepreneur, Bill Harrell. According to Mr. Harrell, one “could buy a local ‘shotgun house’ for between $600 to $1500 at auction [plus your own labor + $10,000] to make it livable.” Not a bad proposition for those looking to step into their first home – and save the living history of the community at the same time.


Filed under Americana, Community Project, Mississippi River Town, On CNN

Halfway point reached: Cairo, Illinois

Reached the halfway point of my river sojourn tonight with a triumphant entry into Cairo, Illinois. The US Corp of Engineers calls it the halfway point because its where the river is divided into the Upper and Lower portions. In reality, I’ve got 1341 river miles behind me with 970 to go! Excited for the stories lined up here… Thanks everyone for following – here’s to adventure!


Filed under Status Update

A glimpse of my world


Approaching the town of Grand Tower I came across a flight of what appeared to be geese.  One finds flocks of Canadian geese further up in Minnesota.  Their flight pattern was so incredibly intricate I wanted to shoot but as luck would have it, a barge had just passed and the river was topsy turvy.  Later on I saw where the group had landed.  I started to count but lost my count after three hundred.  At first I thought they might be simple seagulls but then I noticed the flapping – and the bills.  As the crowd stood, they flapped their wings, like unto a plane winding its propeller down.  Not sure if it was a sort of a dance or a mating ritual.  My canoe spooked them and again they took to the air.  Which is when I shot this short piece.  I laid right back in my canoe and pointed my camera at the sky.  Am not sure if this video connects the sheer excitement of the moment.  This was the very first time in my life I have seen an actual flock of pelicans.  Normally you see them one by one at the seashore.  But here they were wild.  I latched onto their wildness, for only that moment, and with them, for a little spell, felt absolutely free.  


I met the Mayor of Grand Tower, Ill, without knowing it.  He was the manager of the RV campsite perched over the Mississippi River.  A nice older feller in overalls.  He shook my hand and I asked if I could camp down on the sand by the river.  He said yes and asked if I needed anything to eat.  An SUV he had been deep in discussion with volunteered to take me to dinner.  All I had said was that I was canoeing the river.  Randy Ellet was in the passenger seat and his wife, Linda, was at the wheel.  Together we drove thru the sleepy little town of Grand Tower, population 750.  Randy spoke of his work at the plant and how the old folks of the town were quite busy dying off.  He told me he’d lived in this town for 51 years, and that this was how old he was.  He said he loved the river more than anything, and then he told me he used to be the mayor.  Directly thereafter sharing the secret that I had already shaken hands with the sitting mayor – the gent at the camp.  Small world, this Grand Tower.  Pointing across the river, Randy asked if I’d noticed Tower Rock – a solitary steep rock lording over the ebb and flow of the Mississippi – complete with old growth trees up top.  I said I had and that it looked both old and mysterious.  “It’s both,” replied Randy.  “Loads of stories about that island.”  

The following morning I awoke early to get out on the water – but couldn’t – due to dense fog.  Which was exciting in a literary sense – considering I’m headed for Cairo, Illinois.  Got myself packed and ready and as soon as it lifted, I set out, taking one long glance at Tower Rock – which was when I heard the train coming.  Grabbed my camera – and this was the shot.  Note: Tower Rock is the round island the train passes – in time.


Back on the Minnesota-Iowa boarder when I filed the story “Islands in the Stream” I thought that one barge pushed by a giant tow boat was exciting.  Down here it’s a different story.  This one was five barges wide and six barges long – note: you’ll count four across from the video but there was a sixth row hiding behind the furthest one.  A lot of barges.  Only one thing to do when the river is as narrow as it was when this tow passed.  Get off the water.  Hard to describe the power of such a machine unless you see it first hand, knowing full well it has within it the power to flip my canoe silly.  Later in the day I’d pass an even bigger haulb by the name of “E. Robinson Ingram” – seven barges wide x seven barges deep.  That’s 49 times larger than my friend’s operation outside of Brownsville.  After such a beast passes, the river becomes a giant roller coaster of non-stop waves.  Takes me back to being a kid learning how to surf in Hawaii.  Nothing to be afraid of – you just roll with it.


Filed under On the Mississippi, Wanderlust

Status Update: Beaver Island


Spent a scenic night on Beaver Island.  My tent was positioned on a sand dune overlooking the river as well as the ascent of the moon.  Was sure it was a full moon, but alas, no.   Shot this video just before taking off the following morning.

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Filed under On the Mississippi, Status Update

st louis safari


It’s the middle of the night and I’m writing to you from the deck of the sailboat “Adventure”.  The wind has been gusting as of late – which is why I’m not further down river.  Launched out Friday at approximately 4pm but was forced back to Hoppie’s Marina due to high waves – coming the wrong way.  Almost swamped the canoe in the process.  A fellow traveler and owner of said “Adventure”, Tug Buce, who was heading into town for the night with friends, was kind enough to offer me use of his deck for the night.  First night out under the stars on this entire trip. Stars so clear.  Moon appearing full.  Lull of the water, for once sleeping directly over the water, a dream.  

Many thanks to Darla and Lloyd, of St Louis, for joining in on the spirit of “safari” – complete with pith helmet and raccoon hat – launching me out in fine fashion via a moving serenade of “Old Man River”.  I sincerely appreciate your assistance and well wishes…  Am safe and sound and come the morn, will be ready to set out yet again.


Filed under On the Mississippi, Status Update

found: one red kayak


UPDATE: Writes Eve, “miraculous recovery of EVERYTHING: bike, kayak, accessories: your dreaming WORKED! and was accurate even down to the reeds!”

Great to hear it, Eve!

Previous story, from this morning…

Fellow Mississippi River traveler Eve Beglarian has been traversing the Mississippi River in a tag-team effort of kayak and bicycle, moving herself forward time-wise very close to myself, having launched out from Lake Itasca July 20th.

Eve is a sincerely nice woman – she contacted me some two weeks back to say hello and to try to plan a meetup – a meeting I was eagerly looking forward to. A NYC-based artist-composer of note, Eve has already had her adventure chronicled by the New York Times.

Eve needs our help… In today’s blog report, she tells us of two major setbacks.

Reports Eva: “When we went out to Green Bay landing this morning, the kayak was gone. Simply gone, no trace. The last time I saw it was Sunday around noon, when I was about to paddle down to Ortho landing where the bike was locked up. The wind was too strong, so I decided not to paddle, and I thought it was a bad idea to try to put the kayak back up on the car, partially because I was alone, partially because I needed to drive up to the Quad Cities to pick up Rafaela at the airport Monday and the wind was strong enough that highway driving with the kayak seemed dangerous. I had already left the kayak there overnight with no trouble, so I thought it would be okay.”

But the story gets worse… while Eve was investigating the missing kayak, her bicycle was stolen – meaning she is now contemplating moving forward down the river on foot…

If you’re local — anywhere near Fort Madison, IA or Nauvoo, IL, or have any friends in the area — please help!

For more details please visit Eva Beglarian’s River Project as well as the Fort Madison Democrat: Thieves taint woman’s visit to Lee County, a story featured in today’s edition.





Filed under On the Mississippi