Bugs churned in the beam of Caleb’s flashlight. Bats and small birds flitted above the river, feasting as the bottomlands cooled and the breeze died away. I sure hadn’t planned to be out here and under way at this hour. Two consecutive towboats had gotten star treatment from the lockmaster, and we’d had to drift on the wide pool above the dam while all of their barges stepped up the river. It had taken over two hours, and though a delicate sunset had made the wait less agitating, we were left to search for a decent beach in the darkness once we’d finally locked through. I’d never been on this stretch of water before and its banks were dense with driftwood, bushes, and rocks. I saw no signs of a stopping point.
The low-pressure sodium lights of the dam slid behind a bend and left things hushed and close all around us. My phone’s map application had put us a few miles above the small town of Fountain City, Wisconsin. There tends to be dredging and therefore more sandy banks near the small towns strung along the Mississippi, and we could expect some sort of a place to pull into. The river thrilled me, but I knew we had to get off of it. Earlier in the day, I had envisioned pitching the tent at leisure but now I’d be happy to secure the boat, eat, and then stretch out on the bench seats for the night. I wondered if Caleb shared a smidge of my anxiety as we passed the red and green strobes of channel markers, but saw no breaks in the banks. Finally came one and then another houseboat tucked in for the night, families chatting by lamplight. A hundred yards farther and there it was, a steep sand ledge about thirty feet wide and bright between the tight scrub at the water’s edge. I angled for it, raising the trim and watching the depth. No ripples to suggest a wing dam or a snag. Closer, closer, cut the wheel and gun it in at the last…got it! The bow lifted and we stopped about a third of the way out of the water. I killed the engine.
The smell of the hot Italian sausage, onions, and peppers searing on the butane stove was intoxicating, now that the tension had dissipated. An infinity of small insects hovered, a few of them sticking in the pan. The bugs didn’t bite but they tapped and tickled into us. Caleb was trying to be a good sport. He ate hungrily for a bit, noticed the extra additions to the glistening dish, and then decided to wrap himself in a blanket and try to flee into sleep. I sat back for a bit and searched the sky. It was changing, growing opaque and featureless. There was no moon or breeze and the ridgetops of the bluffs were indistinguishable in the dark. The current seemed almost loud under the clouds, but it lulled me anyway.
Sometime in the night I awoke to slap at the whine above my forehead. Mosquitoes, and I realized that rain now dimpled the river. Our blankets were damp beneath the square ceiling of the bimini top, but not soaked as the drops fell dead straight within the stillness. That was a break, but this was not an auspicious way to begin our big trip. It was a trip that required me to consider logistics. I had planned and prepared, but I lacked the funds and, more distressingly, the physical dexterity and stamina to collect and deploy every piece of gear that we might conceivably need. At some point we had to trust in luck. Please let this go well. Please, I really feel like we deserve it. I heard Caleb turning and fidgeting and I hoped that he could get beyond these discomforts. I hoped for a lot of things as I lay awake, my muscles jumping and twitching beneath the skin.
That took place precisely one year ago as I write this, and it was about five months after my diagnosis. When I had turned 40, before I knew the cause of those cramps I kept getting, I’d vowed to get big into outdoor adventure during the next decade. Mostly with, but maybe sometimes without my family. I thought about hiking in the backcountry and running whitewater. Exploring wild islands. That all came apart when I won the inverse lottery of ALS. My ambitions would need rethinking. Big time.
Danielle’s father, Mac, bought our boat back when we’d just moved to Minnesota, sometime around ’06. She was a SeaRay, a deckboat that had it all: seating, storage capacity, a powerful engine, and a shallow draft. It was all meant to bring the extended family together on the water. Mac rented a slip in a marina to make it easy. There would be beer, sandwiches, swimming, and camping on the sand dunes around the river town of Wabasha, just downstream from what Mark Twain called “the incomparable” Lake Pepin. It mostly went just as planned, but over time the groups grew smaller. Danielle and I and the boys continued to dream of our boat during the bleak winters, and we headed out in sweatshirts when snowmelt fed the headwaters and only packed up for the season once all of the leaves were down. I think that I’ve probably loved that boat more than anyone. And from the beginning, I’d been aware that she wasn’t contained within the shoreline of a lake. We had the ability to travel thousands of miles if we dared. If we truly wanted it.
That long first night of my trip with Caleb finally resolved, into a dawn stirring with church bells. It was early Sunday morning in the nearby town of Fountain City. Those bells seemed to dispel whatever bad juju I’d imagined in the dark, and I fired the ignition and pivoted into the channel, heading downriver. The rain had moved out. Caleb slept heavily and didn’t awaken until we were inside Lock and Dam #5A.
The upper Mississippi knows the hand of man, however briefly in the span of deep geological time. Dams divide it into a staircase from the Twin Cities to St. Louis as the elevation falls. These “improvements” deepen the river and permit commercial navigation, helping corn from Iowa to sweeten candy in Japan with a minimal expenditure of energy. The barges push on day and night with their hulking tonnage. But the river is vengeful, recently sweeping a state-of-the-art towboat over a spillway and extinguishing her crew in the foam below.
Within the lock, a walled rectangle as long as two football fields, I kept the boat centered while hydraulic motors sealed the upstream gate. Water raged through drains beneath us and we fell nine feet in minutes. Once the turbulence was over the lower gate parted, exposing a fresh vista. The signal light blinked green, there was a sharp blast from a horn, and we were heading out.
The current measured about three miles per hour. I set our throttle by imagining how the surface would look if I was jogging on top of the water, like people do on those moving sidewalks at the airport. That meant that while the banks were clipping past us, we could relax. With breaks for meals and passing through dams, we would average about seventy river miles per day. A perfect pace for the valley to unspool before us. We entered the outskirts of Winona, Minnesota. A new highway bridge was under construction, its ramps rising from both banks. Barges sat ladened with machinery and scaffolding, unmanned on this holiday weekend. Labor Day. What I would’ve given to be able to labor again, and specifically there in that setting. To climb and hoist things and to swing a hammer against steel; to laugh and swear in the sun and to watch the clerks scurry through their lunch hours. I wondered if those guys knew how lucky they were.
Watching over all of it was Sugar Loaf, an iconic bluff with a spire of bare limestone. The site of a quarry in the nineteenth century, its mass had become the foundations of the town. The bluffs had seen much. They were part of the driftless area, a region that escaped the scraping of glaciers but was deeply carved in the outflow following the last ice age. There were rocky fins and cliffs atop green flanks waving with trees. Lower elevations held a few buildings and industrial installations. The town tapered off and we were again alone on the water, the sky clean and pure and a breeze building out of the south. The channel hugged the steep base of the western bluffs, where railroad tracks ran on a terrace just a few yards away. An orange locomotive bore down on us. Caleb stood and tugged the invisible cord of an air horn and the engineer obliged, goosebumps chilling us as our souls sang in unison. Wow!
Caleb took the helm as I went forward. I rigged a windshield for the stove with the top of a storage bin and started crisping some thick-cut bacon. My son’s head was tilted back, his nostrils flaring with pleasure. Behind him, our wake played upon the water and all was right with the world. This was what I would give to him. This moment and this feeling to revisit time and again.
Time, and it seemed I had a short supply of it. I wanted my boys to know the natural world with me, and while I urged them to appreciate the complex logic of its systems, I also hoped they’d notice that its moods scaled to their own. I hoped they might relate to the ancients who worshipped the storms and seasons. They certainly knew its power, because lately nature had been intimately cruel and personal. “Dad, why do you have ALS?” young Hollis had asked me. I started to talk about biochemistry, and finally tied it to random misfortune. He seemed accepting. But, would he try to personify the monster in one of his vivid drawings? Would he ponder it’s appetite for me?
The sheer momentum of my disease suggested the supernatural. At times I wondered if I’d conjured it, or whether it was my destiny. Had I overdrawn an account when I’d thrown in with strangers to tour in a rock band, at the same time that Danielle and I were feeling our way into a relationship? When both of those things had actually turned out well? When my wife and I then conceived two kids without guarantees of anything? When the career I’d simply fallen into had satisfied me and more? Or had my lack of initiative at pivotal times during the last decade–even though I knew I’d been blessed to get away with airy carelessness in my youth–quickened a beast that would demand I submit to its grip, if I wouldn’t drive my own life?
Surely this was madness. I pushed these musings out of my mind as Caleb moved the throttle to neutral and we ate our bacon and fried eggs in gratitude. The boat twirled in the current, waves thunking on her hull. “What do you think, guy?” I inquired, gesturing from our plates to the lordly scene around us. “This is the life for me, Dad,” he said. Good. So very good.
Before long we were coming up on La Crosse, Wisconsin. It had the nicest and most developed waterfront that I’d seen on the river. People held hands on benches in grassy parks, and there was a nice promenade with strollers and dogs upon it. The wakes from dozens of pleasure craft intermingled as we passed beneath a graceful and modern-looking bridge. During my preparations for the trip, I had noted the locations of marinas and gas docks. We would fill our tank here.
Easing up to a dock and tying off, we surveyed the scene. A knoll rose above us with a restaurant on top. The diners looked relaxed and sporty, and we felt like bums with our storage bins and blankets and my sunscreened stubble. The young man at the pumps eyed my hat emblazoned with “Wabasha Marina”. He wanted to know where we were heading. “Probably Dubuque,” I said. “Why stop there? New Orleans or bust, baby!” he exclaimed. “I’d love to, man. But I probably oughta get this guy back home someday,” I said, nodding at Caleb. “Naw! This is the education he needs, right here.” He looked over the water. “I say keep going.”
We re-entered the channel, one boat among many now. Where were they headed and what were their stories? Was life all good for them? I knew that we were probably alone in our sense of mission. Should we extend it, keep on going like the man had said? It was tempting.
To be continued…