by Christian Snyder
When Wes Modes arrived in Pittsburgh, it had been raining nearly every day. But by the time Modes’ homemade shantyboat dips into the water Tuesday, the summer sun shines with a blinding glare.
Dotty, as the shantyboat is called, is parked at the Brilliant Boat Club on the Allegheny River in Highland Park. She’s made of mostly reclaimed materials, from the wood walls to the tin roof. Inside is a complete living space, filled to the brim with books, posters, antique signs and mementos of the five previous expeditions of an archival art project called “A Secret History of American River People.”
The Ohio River is No. 6. Modes is setting off on a 600-mile journey to Louisville, Ky., with plans to meet and talk with people who live along the Ohio’s banks. But first, Modes wants to interview Evan Clark, a river conservation educator with Allegheny Cleanways who lives in a houseboat on the Allegheny River.
Interviews like this are at the core of “Secret History,” which began as Modes’ master’s thesis at the University of California Santa Cruz. Over the past five years, Modes has completed more than 150 interviews on the Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Sacramento and Hudson rivers.
“My best hope for ‘A Secret History’ is that people can look back on this archive and see what life in the early 21st century was like for river people.”
Modes, who prefers to be referred to by the gender-neutral pronouns they and them, sits behind the camera as Clark talks, checking audio levels and taking copious notes. When the interview is over, Modes packs up the camera, calls for their service dog Hazel and prepares to start the next expedition.
There are five of us aboard — me, a photographer, Modes, Hazel and Josh Moses, one of Modes’ friends. The first step is to go over the ground rules, which Modes has been updating throughout the morning in a leather journal.
“No. 1. Don’t assume the captain knows anything.”
This one is important, Modes says. No one wants to be in a sinking shantyboat, hearing a shipmate say: “I was wondering if you saw that.”
“No. 2. Keep the middle aisle clear.
“No. 3. A place for everything, everything has its place.”
Ensuring a smooth passage on a wide river like the Ohio is a complicated process. If the shiphands can’t move freely, they may miss obstacles or river signs, and since the boat is packed it’s crucial that everything has a place.
“No. 4. If you see something that needs doing, do it.
“No. 5. ‘How can I help?’ is the best question.”
Prioritizing communication and asking lots of questions are the sixth and seventh rules, all designed to safely travel on a busy river filled with speedboats, towboats, barges, debris and locks.
With Modes at the helm, Moses grabs the pull cord and starts the 30-horsepower Mercury motor. We untie the boat, and Moses and I push off the dock and other docked vessels to ensure we don’t crash into anything.
Minutes later, we approach Lock 2, directly under the Highland Park Bridge. Locks are built to accommodate tugboats and barges, so Dotty looks tiny as the lock operator yells down: “Do you have a 75-foot rope?”
“No, do you?” Modes shouts back, noting that lock operators usually toss a line to boat operators, not the other way around.
“Have you ever locked before?” the operator shouts.
“I have locked through just about every major lock in the country, including all the locks on the Mississippi, and this is not normal!” comes the answer.
After Dotty is safely secured to hooks at the top of the lock, the water level begins to drop. Within minutes, we are 10 feet lower than we started, evident by the water lines on the walls. Modes says on other expeditions they have gone through much larger locks, with up to 90 feet in elevation change.
Dotty passes under the William Flinn Highway (62nd Street Bridge) and then the 40th Street Bridge. We float past Washington’s Landing and cross under the William R. Prom Memorial Bridge (31st Street Bridge). The city skyline is in sight, and we pass under three more bridges before we are in front of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Downtown.
Near Point State Park, a Pittsburgh Public Safety river officer pulls his inflatable dinghy to the side of the shantyboat, intrigued. He wishes Modes a safe journey and gives valuable advice about conditions downriver. Not everyone has been so kind, Modes says.
“That’s an enduring mystery to me. Why some towns are so welcoming and some don’t seem to care about us.”
High winds and recent rain have made the long, straight section of the Allegheny before the Point choppy and rough. But beyond the first curve in the Ohio the water is calmer. It’s early afternoon and the sun is on the port, or left, side of the boat.
Moses, the guest shipmate, sits on the rear deck and absorbs the sights. He met Modes through a mutual artist friend who also works with water-related themes, and wanted to come for a few days on this expedition to experience life aboard the shantyboat.
“Wes is kind of a mad genius with a vision,” Moses says.
Up front, Modes is at the helm. They ask me to take the wheel, and I’m surprised at how much steering it takes to stay the course in a boat that doesn’t require a license to drive. We’re traveling north, and Modes takes a moment to update the “Secret History” blog, peoplesriverhistory.us.
“I’m not trying to tell the history of the region,” Modes says. “I’m trying to tell the stories of the people who interact with it.”
Modes has interviewed everyone from anglers and recreational boaters to homeless people to the residents of the few remaining riverside Chinatowns.
“Other historians have said to me that my process is different from theirs. But I don’t know if that’s a knock or just an observation.”
As Dotty floats along, Modes films b-roll for a “Secret History” documentary and take notes about the journey. Modes pulls out a cigar and puffs on it with the windows open, enjoying the setting sun. At around 5:30 p.m., after two more locks, we look for a place to dock for the night.
We settle on a marina just off the Ohio on the Beaver River. It’s shallow, testing Dotty’s mettle when the prop gets caught in the mud. Modes steers her free and guides the shantyboat toward the first open space on the dock, wondering if it’s a public marina where they can stay the night.
A couple sitting on their docked boat help guide the vessel to tie-off points on the dock. Leslie King, 46, of Rochester and Bob Hiltz, 56, of Chippewa grab the lines and beckon the marina owner.
The owner, a man named Mike, is weathered, warm and welcoming. The empty spot belongs to somebody, he says, but their boat is out for repairs so it’s available. Within minutes, a small crowd gathers to see the shantyboat and sign the ship’s log.
“I think they’ll be OK here,” King says. “Everybody’s nosy, clearly, but everybody’s friendly.”
After Modes closes up the boat and plugs into the dock’s electric outlet, we look to our phones to find a place for dinner. The plan is to “eat like kings,” Modes says, and we settle on Plated and Poured, a small restaurant in Beaver.
As we enter, heads turn to watch the crew walking in on wobbly sea legs, Hazel included. We find a table in the back of the restaurant and make a toast to a safe day on the water. With our hunger satisfied and night falling, we part ways.
Modes heads back to the marina to rest, recover and prepare Dotty for the next of many days ahead.