WAFF 48/Fox News
by Jake Berent
NORTH ALABAMA (WAFF) – Get close enough to the Tennessee river, you can hear it’s story. But you can only learn so much, standing on the shore.
If you’ve been on the banks the past week in North Alabama, you may have noticed a tiny shack floating down the river. No matter what you may think about the odd sight, the boat’s crew is gathering their own perspective.
“You really see, these places that are nearly untouched and those that are unseen typically,” said Wes Modes. “They’re not the front yard of America.”
Wes has been fascinated by America’s rivers, and how they attract civilization.
“A river is a nexus of energy. It’s a place where all these people, transportation, water agriculture comes together,” said Modes.
You could say he’s a modern-day Mark Twain.
“I’m a college professor, an artist, a museum curator,” said Modes. “I’m not a master boat builder, but I built a boat and it works, and we float down the river.”
Modes is from California, and is compiling a history of American rivers. He’s taken floats down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in the past three years.
But he might resemble one of Twain’s characters a little more closely, like Huckleberry Finn.
“For decades I’ve been a train hopper,” said Modes. “One of my hobo friends, says that ‘Hey, we’re going to be doing this punk rafting trip!’ So I said, ‘I don’t even know what that means.’ So I built this boat out of trash.”
You might think he’s floating on trash, but he and his crew are really in search of treasure.
“We’re a little more serious than those young men were,” said Jeremiah Daniels, a shipmate who’s been moseying down rivers with Modes since the beginning of his quest. “We’re on a mission.”
“Our goal is to really try to tell these untold stories that don’t make the dominant historical narrative,” said Modes. “We’ve interviewed scientists and archaeologists and river rats and people that live along the river.”
This 21st-century shack, is helping Wes Modes barge into history.
“We run a blog and we update the blog with photos several times a day,” said Modes. “It’s the process, the exploration, the discovery that’s part of the art project. Out of that will be coming some books, some collaborations with other artists, some short documentaries.”
Starting in Knoxville, Wes and his crew have spent the last few weeks floating and listening. Stopping every few miles for supplies. He uses the boat’s gas motor and dock outlets for power, keeps food in coolers, and buys foods every time he comes ashore. He spends most of his other time, talking to locals.
“When we arrived in Guntersville the chief of police came out and was excited about the project and gave us a bunch of contacts and ran us around,” said Modes. “We wound up talking to a woman in her 80s who’s dad was a steam boat pilot who use to push barges that pushed train cars down river to Huntsville. And she was great. She was funny, she was charming, and self-effacing, and she just said, “Well, I’m just a lil’ old country gal!”
“Well, you can’t move 65 miles per hour on a river,” said Daniels. “We move more about 6 miles an hour.”
Going with the flow, helps the mind wander.
“Sometimes it takes a lot longer to get places. It allows you to reflect and to think about things, to take in the scenery and really appreciate what we’ve been given,” said Daniels.
Things aren’t always at they seem for the crew. They’re interested in stories that may have been swept under the rug, including rural histories, the struggle of minorities, and river pollution.
“Some of the little towns are really excited, and some of the other towns are just like… ‘Meh’,” said Modes. “We met an archaeologist on the Arsenal in Huntsville. He told us about the history of this area, going back 13,000 years.”
“The Tennessee is very different than what I expected,” said Daniels. “The Tennessee is a lot more disconnected from the people than my experience on the Mississippi. The Mississippi was a major source of community, the Tennessee so far the towns are a little bit further from the river.”
“We saw an African American Slave Cemetery in Huntsville, and it is now the site of a really ugly medical building,” said Modes. “Those are important stories, that I think are really part of river life and river communities.”
In the digital age, it may seem easy to wash away parts of history.
“I want people to feel a sense of wonder when they look at our project, what they’re doing,” said Modes.
“But I also hope that people, as they read about people that are different from them, or the same as them, and who have experiences, maybe a different point of view than them, but have shared experiences as river people.”
Wes says his project doesn’t have an end date. He’ll keep traveling rivers as long as there’s stories to tell.
“A river is a place where if you sit by a river and throw a stick into it, that stick could go down the river to anyplace in the world,” said Modes.
Across rivers, across America, keeping imagination and wonder from going under.