Chattanooga Times Free Press: Man and dog to explore Tennessee River on self-made shantyboat

“The water you touch in a river is the last of that which has passed, and the first of that which is coming.” — Leonardo da Vinci

On July 5, Wes Modes and his dog Hazel will depart Knoxville for their first voyage along the Tennessee River aboard Modes’ self-built shantyboat.

The shantyboat — like a houseboat, but more humble — is re-created in 1940’s fashion. It features a wooden hull, pitched tin roof and barge bottom. Modes has spent the past two summers floating his vessel down the Mississippi River. Along the way, he collects oral histories from river communities — which is the foundation of his multi-year project, “The Secret History of American River People.”

A river community can be defined in different ways, says Modes. It might refer to waterfront homes, floating homes, houseboats in a bay or those who work on the water. His goal is to archive the narratives of these “river people” before their culture is lost.

As American riverfronts gentrify, says Modes, the river’s historical social ecology is being threatened.

During his time on the Mississippi River, Modes conducted over 50 interviews with river artists, boathouse residents, scientists, researchers, historians, business owners and self-proclaimed “river rats.” His interest is in unique and untold stories.

“People in power, people with money — they are the ones who get the say in what happens on the riverfront,” says Modes, adding that those people also tend to be the ones who get their stories told.

A California-based artist, Modes says the project began as an exercise of boredom. In 2005, he and some friends began building rafts from scavenged Styrofoam, plywood, the inner tubes from truck tires, etc. Then they would put them in the Sacramento River and do nothing but float for a week. “As kids, we got bored all the time. And when we got bored, we got creative,” he says.

His time on the Sacramento was fruitful. Eventually, the idea for A Secret History was born.

In 2014, he upgraded his raft to a shantyboat, on which there is a full kitchen, sleeping loft, toilet, shower and a library shelved with river-related fiction and memoirs: Mark Twain, Cormac McCarthy, Harlan Hubbard, etc. Prior to his first summer on the Mississippi, Modes imagined the project would involve lots of downtime. But between having to organize interviews, update social media and write blogs, he has little time to read.

In addition to his dog Hazel, Modes shares the boat with five different shipmates, who board at different times to help pilot the boat and organize the project. Throughout the journey, the boat docks in various cities where it becomes a touring art installation. Visitors are invited to explore the boat. They can page through Modes’ library, listen to his digital archives or read excerpts from interviews.

Location: Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin”Everywhere I went in Prairie du Chien, people told me, ‘You’ve got to talk to the Valleys. They are the real deal.’ The Valley family has been fishermen in the area for several generations. Mike Valley owns the only remaining fish market in the area and I got a chance to talk to his dad, Dallas Valley [pictured]. Dallas was a fisherman in the area starting in the ’40s. We had close to a three-hour interview. Dallas traced fishing and clamming history in the area back several generations. He had amazing stories about floods, booms, busts, boats, local people and the river.”

He says the boat helps people open up and share their own stories.

“It says to them, your experience and my experience have something in common,” says Modes.

The most difficult part of the project has been connecting with those already pushed off the water. Indigenous people, people of color and women tend to be less visible, he says. As an example, Modes points to the Dakota people, a Native American tribe that once inhabited the wooded shores of the Mississippi throughout what is now Minnesota. Beginning in the 1830s, the Dakota people were displaced from their homes as European settlers immigrated from the east. Over the past century, the fragmented tribe has been returning to the region, where they are attempting to reclaim their culture and their sacred connection to the water. Modes spent months persistently writing letters to the Tribal Council before he was granted a meeting with the elders.

In July 2015, when the shantyboat passed through Minneapolis, he sat down with tribe elder Art Owen, also called White Horse Charges, for an interview recounted in Modes’ blog entry “Two Prairie Island Indian Community Interviews.”

The following month, the boat stopped in Sabula, Iowa, where Modes met Jack Nichols, boater, farmer, campground owner and former “clammer.” Freshwater mussels were once big business along the Upper Mississippi. First, they were used for button making. Later, when pearl buttons were replaced by plastic, mussels were used to make cultured pearls, which are pearls created under controlled conditions. In the 1980s, Nichols’ job was to collect the mussels, the shells of which would be sliced, cubed, then ground into smooth spheres.

During the interview, Nichols told Modes stories about how he used to sit at the bottom of the river where it was pitch black and soundless, minus the hum of his air compressor, pulling mussels from the muck.

“He said it was the most peaceful place he’d ever been,” says Modes.

The story of that meeting is told in Modes’ blog entry titled “Twin Towns of Gritty Charm and Regret.”

While each recorded history had exceptional qualities, Modes says there was also a number of reoccurring themes. For instance, people often told stories about floods or friends they’d lost in ice crossing accidents. Many people remembered how dirty the river once was.

Throughout the Industrial Revolution, there were no regulations against dumping.

“If you’re a cheese factory, you dump whey into the river. If you’re a slaughterhouse, you dump remains,” says Modes. Waterways across America became contaminated with chemicals and heavy metals. Riverfronts, of course, were as polluted as the river, and therefore, the people who lived there tended to be poor.

Then, in the 1960s, efforts to clean up began. In 1972, the Clean Water Act was passed, which, in part, outlawed point pollution, or the direct dumping of wastes.

“Rivers are cleaner than they’ve been in 150 years, and that’s great! But it’s a complex issue,” Modes says.

As the health of rivers improve and cities invest in their riverfronts, these historical river communities are disappearing, says Modes.

“Everyone in this country — and maybe in the world — struggles with erasure of regional and local cultures. How do you prevent cultural gentrification?” he asks.

The truth is, one can’t. But one can preserve the memory of place.

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