A Day of Danger, A Time of Troubles

Warning: This post is more profane than my usual (what my mom calls “lazy language”), so as you read¬†on, visualize¬†BLEEPS in your head.

The shantyboat’s most¬†recent day of travel was one of physical and moral danger. That we survived, traumatized, shaken, and exhausted, though relatively unscathed is thanks to my excellent crew¬†Harmony Eichsteadt and Hazel Dog.


A properly executed Coast Guard-approved cleat hitch (one over, two under) with a Flemish Flake

We set out from Clinton, Iowa with an additional crew member we’d recruited for¬†the morning, Terry Krause. It didn’t take much convincing. He’d said approximately a dozen times, “Bro, I’ve totally wanted to do this.”¬†With his Navy experience and years of boating on the river (his most recent boat is 38 foot long), Terry brought much¬†more experienced to the voyage than we did. It was fun watching Terry tie¬†cleat¬†hitches¬†without bending over by whipping the rope around the horn cleat. That morning he deigned to serve as crew on the shantyboat.

Harmony and¬†Terry¬†took Terry’s small dingy to explore nearby Beaver Island. They traversed the island through brush, fallen trees, muddy¬†shallows, and narrow creeks from north to south. Meanwhile,¬†I anchored the shantyboat mid-river and took the Donboat to say goodbye to Steve and Ray camping under the bridge.


Harmony and Terry explore Beaver Island in the dingy. Photo by Harmony Echsteadt

They rejoined me downriver at Albany, and Terry dove into the river as he tended to do on almost any occasion. And though he had to get back to work, we talked him into piloting the shantyboat a few miles down to Camache, Iowa where he tore off in his dingy to work at the welding shop.

Harmony and I¬†wandered around Camanche a bit, confused. This is the tiny town that Jenna Sanders raved about from her All-American childhood, but also the one place where Terry had lived in which he experienced explicit racism, albeit decades ago. It is hard for me walking around these little town not to play the “Could I Live Here?” game. Camache had neat tidy gridded streets with neat tidy houses and abundant lawns. I couldn’t help thinking that if I lived there with my old rusty truck and piles of scrap wood, metal, and sheet tin, that I’d be the bane of the neighbors. Mostly, there was no “there” there. No charming if rundown historic downtown. Just quiet neighborhoods, a few empty parks, and a Quick Start mini market/fuel¬†station. There was a market called Food Pride, a inexplicable market with no meat, dairy, or vegetables and with more empty than populated shelves. Perhaps Pride goeth¬†before the fall.

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We did find this ancient fertility symbol in Camache, Iowa

After getting ice cream at the marina, we headed back out on the river, but while we were in town, the wind had kicked up dramatically. The swells were 2 or 3 foot with whitecaps. The shantyboat was handling it like a boss, but the rearing and diving into the waves was sweeping water across the front deck. We had to close the front door to prevent water in the cabin. In what is now a shantyboat tradition, we bravely faced adversity and possible death with cocktails.

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We didn’t have cream, so we used ice cream to make White Russians, which we dubbed a Floating Caucasian.

We pulled into Princeton on the Iowa side in pretty good spirits. There was a restaurant on the river, and as soon as we appeared, people were standing at the rails photographing us. It was pretty windy and the landing at Princeton was a bit tricky. We made one abortive docking attempt and then came in for another sweep. Two men, one of them in a neon orange shirt, ran down from the restaurant to help what they must have seen as an eminent maritime disaster.

As we approached the dock, we told them Thanks, but we got it. They physically took the hawser¬†from Harmony’s¬†hands over our objections and jumped on our boat to get the rear line. (Vocabulary word: Mansplain.) “Hey, I got it. Thanks.” we¬†said repeatedly as they tied up the boat. After they were satisfied that they’d done their duty and went back to the bar, we retied the lines and moved the boat to where we wanted it. It was a weird, but sadly not uncommon situation. We told ourselves that when we come floating down the river in our unconventional craft, some men inevitably decide that without their help things will end badly. As we left the dock, we noted a sign that said tie-ups were limited to 15 minutes, but were confused by the absurdly short limit and blew it off.

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Harmony piloting through high waves and wind.

The restaurant was Go Fish, and we went up on the deck to give postcards to the photographer ladies on the balcony. We also thought we might walk around town a bit and then get a late lunch. One of the¬†aggressively Helpful Guys, the neon orange one, was at the outdoor bar, a tanned, fit middle-aged crewcut. He rapid-fire asked, in a wave of sour boozy-smell, all the usual Five Questions. Then he commanded that I sit down and let him buy me a drink. He had a hard time hearing that I had other plans, perhaps because he was talking over me with his aggressive hospitality.¬†I begged off while he insisted several times that he’d buy us drinks and dinner. “Do you accept donations? I want to give you twenty dollars,” he said.

I understand the impulse when you see something you think is really cool. How can I help?¬†How can I get involved? I understand this and have this feelings myself. But I like to think a¬†measure of someone’s character is not how helpful they can be, but how well they listen after¬†they offer that help. In our case, the answer was, “Thank you, but we’re good.”

We made a loop around town just to stretch our legs, and returned to find we were persons of interest to the local authorities. The Helpful Guy¬†was talking to a cop¬†and pointing at us. WTF? What’d we do?¬†The officer¬†beelined straight to us and firmly suggested we¬†move our boat blocking folks who were trailering their boats at the ramp. Whoops, our bad. We went to go do just that¬†and the Helpful Guy followed us.

“I’m going to buy you guys dinner.”

“Thanks, we’re good–“

“No, I’m buying you dinner¬†and¬†beer. And I’m helping you move the boat.”

“Well, hey, thanks. But we have our own–“

“No, I’m gonna help.”

He reminded me of an off-duty cop, a guy absolutely unused to hearing No or not getting things his way. Maybe a¬†local¬†deputy? In order to have him hear our No, we’d have to fairly be shouting it at him.¬†If the feel of a thing matters, this didn’t feel right.¬†We understand and love Midwest generosity. We¬†have given and received many gifts on the river. Generosity¬†feels like magic, an unexpected gift, like a form of mutual respect and admiration. But this thing with the Helpful Guy¬†felt¬†more like a show of dominance than generosity. What was going on here? I wondered what to say next and Harmony handled it beautifully:

“Hey, well, listen. It’s our boat. And our crew. And we have our own way of doing stuff and working with each other. And when we fuck it up, it will be our responsibility and our shit to deal with it. If we need your help, we can ask. So. We got this. But thanks.”

“Well, fine. But I’m buying you dinner.”

Finally, he turned back grumbling to wait for us at the bar. Harmony and I took a look at each other, taken aback by the feeling of aggression.

When¬†we got to¬†the dock, we¬†loaned a knife to¬†a¬†man who’d fouled his prop with a rope. We asked if he needed any other help, but he was good. We went to the shantyboat, briefly discussed The Plan, and then launched flawlessly from the dock despite the wind. We considered turning upriver to the suggested alternate dock, and then made an impulsive decision.

We’d been mulling our¬†prospects. We’d have to either¬†endure dinner with this agro-possibly-well-meaning a-hole, or we’d have¬†to aggressively set limits and establish boundaries with a guy who has a difficult time hearing them.¬†As soon as we made the decision to flee rather than¬†be forced into making this choice, it felt like a huge weight was lifted. Another round of cocktails! We escaped with our souls intact.¬†Hooray!

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Is this the ocean? No, just the Mississippi on a long reach on a day with 15 to 20 mph winds.

It was howling out on the river and the waves had kicked up even further. We were cruising in the lee of the Iowa shore. We were breathing sighs of relief unaware until we’d gotten away just how much this guy had affected us. We were at least a mile downriver from¬†Princeton, when we saw something we didn’t expect, but somehow did and yet dreaded. A man in a neon orange shirt on a dock along the river. He was waving frantically and gesturing wildly for us to come closer. Ah hell naw.¬†You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

We didn’t even look at him, as we turned to port and headed off across the wide windy river, a flight across state lines into Illinois. Blow ye winds blow, but¬†we are Getting¬†The Fuck Out of Dodge.

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Port Byron is the start of a significant bike race through Northern Illinois and Southern Wisconsin, therefore they have a penny farthing that is 2 stories tall.

The waves mid-river were intimidating. These were swells that tossed our bow into the air, and then plunged us straight down into the next wave. Water was roiling across our deck. We were pretty sure we might sinK and drown in the middle of the river, but were happy to be away from the Helpful Guy.

We made it across the river and hugged the shore into Port Byron on the Illinois side. We docked at the public dock and walked around town a bit. We were both a bit seasick, so we passed on eating at the fancy restaurants of Port Byron.

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We flagged down the first boat unlucky enough to come within our range. Kris Klavon and Craig Wainwright and a boatload of excited women whose names I didn’t catch, towed the stranded Shantyboat several miles to the mechanic as the opening salvo in their adventurous day.

I looked across the river and saw the Riverboat Twilight. Ah ha! We were just across the river from Le Claire, our intended destination. We decided to set out immediately and see if we might find food and friendship across the river. I started up Freddie while¬†Harmony unmoored and pushed us off. Freddie was making a funny sort of clack clack noise that I thought was just our janky tilt lock pin secured¬†with baling wire. I pushed the throttle over and the motor revved, but the clack-clack got louder and the boat didn’t go anywhere. I put it in reverse, same thing.

By this time, we were adrift! I hopped in the Donboat to pull us to shore. But when I pulled Mr. Johnson’s cord, the motor made a funny shutter and the cord didn’t recoil. I tried to work it back in, but no dice, the cord wasn’t rewinding and so Mr. Johnson, who’d been the picture of reliability on this trip, wasn’t going to start. I had to unship the oars and row us back to shore and we tied up at a nearby dock with the help of a passer-by.


Studying up on my Johnson. The manual for it came separately. Photo by Harmony Eichstaedt

We were exhausted and couldn’t help thinking, Californians that we are, that somehow the Helpful Guy’s negative energy broke our motors. We were still a little seasick, not helped by the waves from the main channel battering the shantyboat against the dock. We coughed down some grilled cheese sandwiches and went to sleep as soon as the sun went down.

We were stranded in a strange town, with no market, few services, and only expensive restaurants,¬†far from help, with none of our¬†motors working. It was a hard night and we’d face our troubles anew with the dawn.


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