By Joseph Phelan
WATERFORD, N.Y. >> Over the past five years Wes Modes has explored river life in the South, the Midwest and his resident West Coast, discovering stories that shape America.
Modes and his shipmate, Benzy, found themselves in Waterford on Saturday at the annual Steamboat Meet at the harbor, adding stories to a growing collection.
The current expedition in the Hudson River began 10 days ago in Whitehall for the UC Santa Cruz professors. The duo will be on the river until the end of July where a project, featuring photographs, video and audio from interviews with river communities will be presented in New York City.
“I had spent a lot of time making ‘Do It Yourself’ boats that were coupled together out of truck tubes and mold construction plywood and stuff. I wanted something a little more formal, and wanted to do something more that didn’t feel touristy as I floated through these river communities,” said Modes. “I wanted to give something back and help preserve river culture that I really loved.”
That’s why, seven and half years ago, Modes and Benzy built a traditional wooden-hulled barge-bottom houseboat. The cabin’s built of reclaimed and recycled materials; some of the wood comes from a disassembled hundred-year old chicken coup and metal from an old restroom. It took roughly two and half years for the boat to be finished. Since then, Modes has been to the Mississippi, Tennessee and Sacramento rivers before this year’s journey.
“Coming down the Hudson makes a lot of sense,” said Modes. “It’s historic and beautiful.”
The Steamboat Meet brings boats from throughout the Northeast. On Saturday, 12 boats docked, which the event’s organizer, and de facto harbor master, Chris Callaghan said was typical number.
“It’s a great thing to do. It brings people out to see our beautiful harbor. [A place] to support local charitable organizations that provide the food,” said Callaghan. “We’ve got a slew of vendors. It’s a beautiful day.”
At normal meets with tugboats, it’s usually enthusiasts discussing the steamboat logistics, but for Callaghan it’s essential to have a public component, which is why vendors selling food, shirts and jewelry mixed with fireworks at 9:30 Saturday night created a nice atmosphere for all to enjoy.
“This is harbor is a jewel, and we want to show it off,” said Callaghan. “We like throwing parties.”
Attendees spoke to boat owners, learned about steamboat histories and signed Modes’s guest book.
Saturday provided another opportunity for Modes and Benzy to learn something about another river community.
“Every river is very different, and every river is also very similar. We frequently hear stories that are really similar, and that’s part of our hope is that as people are able to share those stories from different rivers that they can learn something. Maybe Lansing learns something from Waterford, N.Y.,” said Modes. “That’s why I do the project, hoping that it helps a little bit preserve river culture and share those stories before they are lost.”