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Heartland Boating: A Secret History of American River People

Heartland Boating
by Jeanne Craig

Ten years ago, Wes Modes of Santa Cruz, California, was reading about a group of kids who were making whacky, homemade boats and then cruising them down the Mississippi River. That type of adventure resonated with Modes, a computer programmer and artist with a love of the water and an appreciation for the lyrical qualities of a great river. He decided to plan his own journey, only he chose to travel with his friends on a fleet of homemade rafts powered by oars. Modes and company trailered their craft east and put in on the Missouri River, where they floated for weeks, camping along the shore each night. The trip was so successful that Modes and company met up the next year and the next, on a different waterway each time.

While he loved the experience, there was one thing that surprised Modes. “Many of the people we met along the way knew very little about the river that ran through their own town,” he said. “It seemed as if many towns had turned their backs to the rivers, even though these waterways were the reason for their existence. That disappointed me, because I had had romantic goals of floating along and connecting with people who had strong ties to the water.”

As it turns out, those raft-bound rambles became the impetus for an enterprise Modes conceptualized just a few years ago while working toward his Master of Fine Arts in Digital Art and New Media at the University of Santa Cruz. “A Secret History of American River People” began as his thesis but has evolved into a passion project of sorts. His goal: to interview people who have relationships with a river, record their personal histories and stories on video and in journals, and then create a scholarly archive that researchers can reference. “One premise of the project is that we are all good story tellers, provided we are asked the right questions,” said Modes. “I want to find people with deep ties to the water, discover their stories and use them to raise awareness about the history of rivers.”

Invested in the Waterway
Of course, he couldn’t begin work until he had a method of transportation. So, Modes built a shanty boat, a small but neatly accommodated houseboat that he says is modeled after the type of rig that Harlan and Anna Hubbard used on their journey down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in the 1940s. The boat is constructed from recycled and reclaimed materials, including a 100-year-old chicken coop. For power, he installed a 9.5-horsepower Johnson outboard (recently replaced with a 20-hp Mercury), which pushes the boat at a very leisurely pace. While the accommodations are compact, the 8-foot by 10-foot cabin does include a galley with sink and stove, a comfortable settee, a work table, a library for reference books and a berth set up in a loft.

Modes began fieldwork in July 2014, when he left Santa Cruz with his boat in tow and headed for Minneapolis, where he put in at St. Anthony Falls on the Mississippi, a river he had never cruised before. He traveled slowly, covering a dozen miles a day; he tied up at a town each night, where he’d meet up with people to interview.

He connected with these sources in various ways — by working with local newspapers to cover his arrival, using social media platforms and networking with local boating groups. “I traveled for a month, covered a few hundred miles and collected some great stories,” said Modes, who was also pleasantly surprised by the types of stories he heard on this particular river. “This experience was unlike the previous ones on other rivers,” he said. “On the Mississippi, the people I talked with were very aware of the river, of its health and of threats to its future. And they were excited and very willing to tell me all of these things. They seem more invested in the waterway. The reason could be because of the Mississippi’s legacy and the way it resonates through culture and history. This is not like the little French Broad. This is Mark Twain’s river.”

Snapshots of the River
At the time we went to press, Modes, who received his MFA in the spring of 2015, was preparing for the next leg of his trip and more fieldwork, again on the Mississippi. This summer, he’ll put in at Winnona, Minnesota, and head south toward Dubuque, then onto the Quad Cities and farther to St. Louis. “My goal is to get downriver as far as possible in the three months I have. There are so many people to talk with, as more are reaching out to me wanting to be a part of the project.”

Building a scholarly archive is one goal of this journey, but Modes is quick to note that this is an art project, too. His boat and his video library of interviews are touring as an exhibition in some locales, including the Twin Cities, just prior to his cruise this summer. “The boat is typically outside the museum. People come aboard, pet my dog, hang out and ask questions. Then they’ll head inside the museum, where a touch screen allows them to navigate the web documentary containing photos of and stories from the people I’ve met.” Visitors are also encouraged to contribute their own stories for the archives.

What type of narratives do they bring? “The recordings are like snapshots of what the river communities are dealing with now, but they also reference history, all of which I hope will become more valuable as time goes on, since these stories shed light on what it means to have a relationship with a river.”

For more information on Modes and his “A Secret History of American River People” project, visit www.peoplesriverhistory.us.

Author: Jeanne Craig is a contributor to HeartLand Boating


Shared Stories

Modes has interviewed dozens of people for his river project, yet there are a few stories that stand out in his mind, including these three from the Mississippi.

Peter Rachleff, a former Professor of History at Macalester College in St. Paul, talked eloquently about labor history in the Twin Cities, including how poor people in the area have historically used the sawn ends and off cuts from the sawmills to build shanties. “Those living in the bohemian flats of St. Paul would fish waste out of the river and use it to build shacks, lean-tos, rafts and other places to live in, as long as those places withstood Mother Nature,” said Rachleff. “Just think of the discipline of sociology, and the notion of functionalism; all of the ways that human beings adjust to horribly inequitable situations. We have this extraordinary creativity in order to survive.”

While in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Modes interviewed Ken Lubinski, a river ecologist at the USGS Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center, who talked about a moving experience he had on the river in the depths of winter. He was at a fuel station early one bitterly cold morning when he heard a crash behind him and turned to see a buck coming down the bluff. “He was magnificent,” said Lubinski, who followed the animal as it headed for the river. He watched in awe as the buck swam out. “It was dead quiet, and I was thinking how nice it was to witness the scene. But then, a tow barge came into view, and it became apparent that the deer and the barge would meet. When the barge got 30 feet from the deer, the buck understood and panicked and tried to jump out of the water. I was just beside myself; I could do nothing but watch it play out. About 30 seconds later, the deer popped up out of the water beside the tow. It walked out of the river, shook off and calmly went back into the forest. I thought, huh, here I am making a big deal out of this and the deer doesn’t care. He just moved on. Nature is a lot more resilient than we realize.”

Lauren Donovan, who kayaked the length of the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca to New Orleans, shared a story about nearly drowning in Lock 11 near Dubuque, Iowa. “A bad storm was coming before we got to the lock, but we wanted to make it through, so we kept going,” she said. “Then, the waves started to get really big. At first we thought it was fun, until we started to take on water…too much water. We were paddling and bailing at the same time. We finally made it to the lock, but by that time the storm was in full force and the water was crashing us up against the concrete wall. The kayak was about to sink, with all of our belongings on it, and we realized we had no choice but to try to jump from the kayak over to the ladder on the wall. It was terrifying.”

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