Two Nuns, A Gambler, and an Heiress walk onto a boat…

We’ve been the talk of the town to some degree. Dozens of people have made their way to the docks at the National Mississippi River Museum to check out our shantyboat. Many of them were clutching the article that came out in the Telegraph Herald last Friday. A lot of places we go, people ask us, “Are you the folks who are going downriver in that shack boat thing?”

I’ve also been taking the opportunity to make forays into town to pick up needed supplies and materials. Monica Haller and Sebastian Muellauer joined me as ships mates a week ago in Guttenberg. Now they are being replaced by Danny Irish and her daughters who are 9 and 7. So I’ve been getting supplies in preparation for their visit.

While I was out yesterday I missed a visit by two nuns who were from a local convent. They had a book and stories of a Jesuit missionary to helped settle the area. Hopefully I can talk to them before I leave Dubuque.


George Frye told stories of his nearly 90 years in Dubuque

I also got a chance to talk to George Frye who has spent his whole 89 years in Dubuque. He was born in a boathouse. He remembered talking to hobos and squatters in the jungle camps and Hoovervilles down by the railroad yard near the river south of town when he’d go out fishing. He did a lot of things in his years, but when I asked what he did now, he told me gleefully that he was a gambler and made a pretty penny on blackjack at the local casinos.

FInally, I was getting ice at the marina store when someone greeted me enthusiastically, “Mr. Modes!” And I though, oh no, someone who knows me and I can’t remember who they are or how I know them. Carrie Stier owns the exquisite riverboat Twilight which plies the waters between the Quad Cities and Dubuque. (Carrie’s not really an heiress, but it made a good title.) She had read about our journey in the paper and wanted to track me down and offer us gifts like an old-fashioned welcoming wagon. She had stories about working on the Julia Belle where she met her husband Kevin Stier who pilots and co-owns the Twilight. The Twilight carried away Monica and Sebastian this morning for part of a cruise.


A whole bevy of children came down to check out the shantyboat. These were kids in various themed summer camps, the Mississippi River Rats and the Eco-Explorers. They were interested in the shantyboat more or less, but universally they were interested in Hazel.

These are just some of the folks who have wandered into our lives over the last few days. Who should we talk to downriver? As always, I’m interested in those who have a very different perspective on river life.

Did you know if you tag photos on social media with #shantyboat, they show up on our website? Here are some found photos.

An Unexpected Accident, Clamming Goldrush, and Bald Eagles in Lansing

Jeremiah went back to California and was tagged out by Mikey in Lansing, Iowa.


Mikey and I were at the public mooring in Lansing, Iowa when our breakfast was interrupted by disaster. It was pretty common on the main channel to be pummeled by the wake of big boats, but this must have been the Queen Mary moving at highway speeds. Suddenly the shantyboat was heaving up and down and slamming into the riverwall. Waves were crashing over the wall onto the banks. As we were bracing ourselves we could hear a crashing and rending from the rear of the shantyboat. I jumped across the heaving cabin in time to see our back porch post ripped off, our anchor dropped in the river, and the shantyboat becoming partly adrift.

But let’s take you back: Jeremiah and I had installed new cleats on the back porch of the shantyboat back in Santa Cruz. These were cute little things that recessed when they were not being used. This was an improvement over last year where mooring lines and bumpers were tied to the back porch posts. However, when we got to the river we found that the new tiny cleats held the bumpers nicely, but were too tiny to hold the hawsers. So unfortunately, we had to moor to the back porch posts anyway.

With predictable results. It turns out mooring to the porch post is a bad idea. This is what cleats are made for.


We wrestled the shantyboat back to the mooring, saved the anchor from a watery grave, and retrieved the post. The heaving shantyboat had torn out several nails and broken several screws. But happily nothing was irreparably broken. Then we spent the rest of the morning repairing the post and installing new and bigger cleats. Nice size cleats that were only $3 at the amazing Lansing farm supply store.


Later that afternoon, we were interviewing Terry Sykes who was a clammer in the area. He told us great stories about hunting clams with his bare feet and hauling in up to a quarter ton of clams a day. Later he hunted clams diving in the blackness of the river feeling with his hands with an air compressor sitting in a boat above.The 70s through the 90s were like a goldrush for clammers with many shells going to Japan turned into little beads used to seed oysters for cultured pearls. Now he grows flowers and plant starts in greenhouses he sets up.



Afterward, Terry invited us for a sunset cruise along the river. Hazel got to take a car ride with air conditioning.


Terry took the pontoon boat along the shallows of the main channel near Desoto. He was excited for us to see bald eagles and he did not disappoint. We saw eagle nests, full grown birds, and adolescents. Eagles hunting, eagles dramatically perched in sunset light, bald eagles posing like they were modeling for the silver dollar. Dozens. We lost count at some point. The Driftless Area is well populated by eagles.

It looked pretty much like this:


Mikey told us that he’d seen Bald Eagles before. When he was working at a McDonalds in Alaska, bald eagles would eat out of the dumpster like seagulls or pigeons. I imagined someday bald eagles being so populous on the Mississippi River that they were considered a nuisance.