​Sept 15 2016


LEARNING THE MISSISSIPPI

​We have just finished 122 miles on the Mississippi in three days, making that distance in just 18 hours of sailing. We didn’t see a single pleasure boat on the river the whole time, and now I understand why the Mississippi is rarely attempted by amateur boaters. The long, winding turns of the river often require dramatic changes of direction, and a single five mile stretch can involve a full circle of the compass. There are elaborate riprap dikes and underwater “revetments” stretching out into the river to both deepen and speed up the channel for the commercial barges. Immense shoals and sand bars silt up to the marked channel on every mile of the river. The flow speeds on the tricky currents often exceed six knots, and we literally flew into the Wolf River today at Memphis doing nine knots.

​Today, from Osceola, Arkansas to Memphis, was our most difficult section. About nine miles below Osceola we entered a serpentine section of river where the bends are so dramatic and sharp that we traveled almost ten river miles but progressed only 2 miles by land. The best flow of the river constantly wants to push us into the shoals and we always have to be at the top of our game to stay in the fastest, deepest water without getting beached on the low water sand. That is why I insisted today on my best navigator, Deb Satterfield, who is an ace at reading the maps and always knowing where we are. It’s a full time job just steering the boat, and I like my position on the proper “sail line” to be precise, so I never glance away from the wheel and it’s good to have a navigator as good as her.

​Good airplane pilots “scan” their instruments quickly and keep their “heads out of the cockpit.” I am aviation trained and it’s a good bias to have on the Mississippi. With Deb by my side and always on top of our position, speed, wind conditions and weather, I can “fly” the boat with my eyes where they should be.

​As we entered one of these sharp turns below Osceola, two push boats with more than 30 barges apiece were churning upriver about two miles below us. It’s important to place yourself in the mind of the tug captain, who cannot see much in front of him, and know which way he wants to take the narrow channel between the shoals. When moving upriver, the tugs will seek the slack water at the edge of the channel, to avoid pushing their immense loads against fast water. The down going tugs want the same fast water that we are in, but must swing wide at every turn to maneuver their load through the yawing effect of the current.

​The trick is to be able to forecast the tug captain’s moves long before you meet on the river, and to do so without talking to them on the radio at all. The push boat drivers don’t like pleasure boaters and they are often monitoring several frequencies at once, and so they don’t like a lot of “Nancy” chatter on their marine bands.

​I became reasonably competent at this on the Ohio. The moderate flows and gentler turns on that river prolong decision making, because you’re not going to meet the tug beam to beam for a long time. His intentions are abundantly clear long before he is a half mile away. Then I just hugged the side of the channel that he has “given” me, never let my bow deviate from my running line so he’s clear about my intentions and boatmanship. By the time we meet on the river 20 minutes later the tug captain is signaling his thanks by waving from his bridge or tooting a salute to Patience as he passes.

​But this river ballet changes dramatically on the Mississippi, and it took me three or four passing’s of tugs to understand this river. Because of the fast currents in the marked channel, closing times are much faster. The bipolar hydrology of the Mississippi means that you are either in very fast, deep water or on the shoals, with very little good water in between. The tug captains can dramatically change their position in the channel to adjust to those quickly developing conditions.

So, yesterday, I finally learned that I can’t trust the distant position of the tug and barges. The upcoming barge sticks emerge from their wide turns at the buoys and then head for the slackest water, which could be up against the levees on the shore, or up against the shoals at the other side of the channel. The downriver boat has to make a decision to “commit” his position once the tug captain has announced with the front of his barge string where he is going.
Instead of hugging the side of the channel, because I know how the tug ahead of me has committed, on the Mississippi it’s best to remain exactly on the published “sailing line” in the channel. Then, when I see where the tug is headed, I can quickly seek “my” side of the channel.

​This method, dictated by the conditions on the Mississippi, sounds more chaotic and tense. But I’ve gotten into the Zen of it. Be patient. Chill. Wait. See where he’s going. Patient, patient, patient, that’s how I named the boat, Patience, oh good, he’s headed for the Arkansas banks. I head to port and stay as close to the sailing line channel as I can for safe clearance between our vessels. The oncoming captain can see by my “bow language” that I’m out of his way.

​I can tell from listening to their radio communications, and from interviewing several tug boat captains by now, that there are tug pilots who are effusive, fun, excited to see my Irish shitrig shantyboat, American flag streaming in the breeze, pushing downriver. They leave their wheels for a minute or two, step out to their metal bridges, and wave and take iphone pictures. The grumpbudget pilots just churn relentlessly by, no salutation at all. Fine, take me either way. I just want to be safe on the river and get there to NOLA.
​This method does have one advantage, however. On the Mississippi, the push boats seem to get bunched up a lot more than on the Ohio. Sometimes two or three of them are running upriver together, separated by only a quarter mile or so. But they are all looking for the same water, the slack current where resistance is least. So, once the front boat has committed to a side of the channel, the boats behind will always follow the same route. So I am in the right place for the next 2 barge sticks too. The typical Mississippi River barge carries over 1,000 tons of cargo. Each push boat might have 30 barges in front. In the space of twenty minutes, almost 130,000 tons of cargo has passed by my beam.
​So, chill, wait, relax. Patience. Patience. Get the first boat right and then the rest of the American economy passes by effortlessly behind him. It’s fun, getting my river position right. Be in the moment and enjoy it.

​The members of my “dream crew” this week are navigator par excellence Deb Satterfield, great helmsperson and river traveler Cynthia Lee, driftwood artist and all around handyman Curtis Wasmer, and the irrepressible, maddening, adorable, renaissance man Dan Corjulo, of the Loomis Chafee School in Windsor, Connecticut.

​Cynthia Lee knows the rivers of America quite well. Every summer she takes another whitewater trip in Colorado, Montana or Wyoming. She fly fishes all the rivers and creeks of the mid South. She takes courses on river hydrology and on how to read currents. She knows the waters and what they mean. Norman Maclean might have written about her: “The river runs through her and the majesty of the water is in her and it is well that we understand women who live by the flow and come to know ourselves their wisdom.”

​When Cynthia spells Deb as navigator, or takes over the wheel while I navigate, she teachers me waters. I have already learned how to read shoals and approaching sand bars by the ways the water breaks into whitecaps over the shallows. But Cynthia taught me how to read the boils, eddies and whirlpools of the Mississippi.

​“Look at all those boils and whirlpools ahead of us,” Cynthia says, as I am navigating the middle of the current. “That’s fast water. The fast flow hits the slightly slower water from the shoals or the banks and reacts, forming all this circular activity you see. Just ride from boil to whirlpool. Steer for the most active river swirls. Most of the time that will put you right on the fastest sail line.”

​I try Cynthia’s suggestion. By visually assessing the river, I am usually within a few degrees of being on the fastest flow along the sail line. Steering a course along the unsettled water is best for us. When I follow Cynthia’s “read” of the river, which is quickly becoming mine, we are on the sail line and frequently doing 7.1, 8, even 9 knots. Relying on the published charts and the GPS signal for the sail line is fine. But with Cynthia’s read of thr river we are fine. We make speed, often up to 8 knots.

​The rivers run through it all and understanding the humanity you have on board and how you must trust man and waters together are my salvation. There is a beautiful sunset tonight on Mud Island in Memphis and we are all headed for a great Cajun restaurant and loving our Life on the Mississippi.

RINKER BUCK



Sept 8


 

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

 

         Danny Corjulo is a short, round, effervescent burst of energy, one of those people God placed in our midst to remind us of the possibilities of humanity. The son of a corporate lawyer, he grew up in Connecticut as the kid in the neighborhood who fixed everyone’s bike and built Heath Kit radios long after the official bedtime. He was a photographer at The Hartford Courant when it was known to have one of the best photography departments in the country, moved up to technology management, and is now the Director of Technology at John D.  and Winthrop Rockefeller’s old prep school, The Loomis-Chaffee School in Windsor, Connecticut.

This is an incomplete list of Danny’s accomplishments. When he was 40 and experiencing a premature mid-life crisis, he learned to fly. He is now the treasurer of the CAP Flying Club based at Brainerd Airport in Hartford, Connecticut. Two weeks ago, while rolling out after landing in Kingston, N.Y., Danny struck three Canada geese, a common airport hazard these days. When he learned that the Federal Aviation Agency was conducting a DNA study of geese threatening airport safety, he arranged for the dead birds to be shipped on ice to the proper federal official.

         “Just another day in the life of Danny,” he said. “I’ve donated their bodies to science.”

         Danny is 55, but looks 35. There is an explanation for his youthful appearance.

         “Look, I was stuck at 12 years old for 30 years. I realized last week that I have finally hit 14.”

         For the past several months Danny has served as operations base commander, first mate, chief engineer, electronics navigation officer, source of good cheer and ribald jokes, ship’s chandler, carpenter and chef nonpareil of the flatboat Patience. He rotates shifts of a week or ten days on the boat and then returns to Loomis-Chaffee to supervise his busy IT department. Watching Danny perform his diverse chores aboard the Patience provokes fierce jealousy in me. How can one guy be so damn good at so many things?

         Danny arrived at Elizabeth, Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh to join the launch crew of the Patience in early July. He took one look at my darling replica of an 1846 flatboat, built by myself and John Cooper of Gallatin, Tennessee, and quickly concluded that this would not do at all for a vessel planning a 2,000-mile voyage down the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers to New Orleans.

         “Okay,” Danny said, after an initial inspection of the boat. “Don’t touch anything until I get back, okay? I’m going to have to hit a boat store or two, Lowes, NAPA Auto Parts, an electrician’s store and Tractor Supply. This won’t take long.”

         Danny said that he might shop for food too.

         When Danny Corjulo enters shopping mode, “this won’t take long” is a considerable stretch of the English language. It is the linguistic equivalent of Donald Trump saying, “I really am a nice guy.”

         Danny arrived back at the boat a few hours later, laden down with bags of man-boy loot—electrical parts and spools of wire, chains and pulleys, battery chargers, backup batteries, a French press coffee maker, funnels, photo gear, lubricants and degreasers, new shirts and cargo shorts (“look, they were on sale at REI”), ropes, chains, and mosquito netting. He had purchased lots of hardware, hinges and eye-bolts, Gorilla tape and glue, and his kitchen utensils included a poultry thermometer, a ten-piece cook’s measuring kit and a pasta-ladle. Drink supplies consisted of Bombay Sapphire Gin, Fever Tree tonic water and several bottles of wine. He had also purchased a boat’s megaphone, solar lights and a duck call.

         “Danny,” I said, “What the hell is this?

         “It was on sale. Aren’t we going to see ducks?”

         Having shopped, Danny then became an atomic pile of work. Over the next two days, before we launched on the Monongahela River, Danny helped Brady Carr build out the kitchen (“It’s a priority, Rinker”), completely rewired both decks for 110-volt and 12-volt power, installed backup batteries and chargers, and ports for laptops, GPS, and marine band radios. He installed stands on our fans for what he calls “redneck A/C,” organized our water department for gravity feeds and designed our storage area for anchors, ropes and chains.

This is a partial list. Later, Danny also constructed a Rube Goldberg pulley system for raising and lowering our gangplank, adjusted the chain and gears on my electric bike, and helped Curtis Wasmer install a transom and a Yamaha motor for backup power. He and I toured marinas in the Pittsburgh area for a boat compass and anchors.

At the moment, Danny is obsessed with the dire information contained in Mississippi River guidebooks, especially about fuel. For a variety of reasons—mostly because the Mississippi is managed for commercial barge traffic, not pleasure boats—there are stretches of 300 miles or more without marinas or gas. But Danny has a plan. He calls me three or four times a day with the latest details on his scheme to double to fuel capacity and range of the Patience. From a giveaway inflatable boat and 5-horse motor, he will cobble together the “Corjulo Fuel Tender,” which will be towed behind the Patience. The Corjulo Fuel Tender will double as a workboat, hauling raw material from shore for driftwood artist Curtis Wasmer. All of the major parts have already been shipped to the boat. Over the weekend, when Danny returns to the Patience, he will build out the fuel tender cum driftwood barge.

But it is as a galley chef that Danny truly shines. Danny grew up with seven brothers and sisters, but he was the one most interested in food. Danny loved food so much that his friends called him “Joey Bagadonuts.” His mother was not a great cook. (“When the smoke alarm in the kitchen went off, we knew it was time for dinner.”) But Danny’s Italian grandmother in Brooklyn, N.Y. ran a truly great cucina. Young Danny spent hours in there with her, learning how to make fresh pasta, romano sauce from scratch, cacciatore, seven-layer lasagna and sun dried tomatoes with basil and garlic.

“I can’t stand people who brag,” Danny says. “I never do that. All I need is a source of heat and a pot and a pan. Three-stars, four-stars, five-stars, what do you want? Okay, maybe I need a cheese grater.”

On our third or fourth day out with the Patience, when we were stopped for the afternoon at a small river town in Ohio, Danny asked me what was on the menu tonight for dinner.

I told him: “Hormel chili no beans with onion and pepper. Minute Rice.”

Danny looked astonished, awful, a man with a hemorrhoid attack. 

“What! Captain, don’t let this boat sail. I’ll be back in an hour.”

Danny grabbed his wallet and disappeared down the marina driveway, hitched a ride out on the highway, and found a Giant Eagle supermarket a few miles away. He came back to the boat juggling several bags of groceries—it’s amazing the kinds of Alice Waters bait he can find in a small Ohio town. Danny had jars of capers and cornichons, baby carrots, watercress and kale. After we stopped that evening further down the Ohio, Danny was a flurry of chopping, marinating, and meat-massaging for an hour. The fragrance of sautéed spices and herbs filled the boat.

That night, we ate this wonderful Italian beef roasted in two bottles of Barolo wine. The crew loved Danny. Night after night we ate like that—lamb with green tomato, homemade pasta in white wine chicken and artichokes, catfish omelets, spaghetti Bolognese, all perfectly prepared. There’s just no end to the perfection Danny can achieve in a small, shanty-boat kitchen.

Envious, impressed by Danny’s prowess at the stove, I asked him about his love of cooking and we talked about it for a long time that night, with the sun setting over the Ohio forests and water lapping up against the sides of the boat. Danny told me that his personal heroes are the food writer Michael Pollan and the chef Anthony Bourdain.

“Why not be as good as them?” Danny said. “The normal guy thinks he can’t be as good as them, so he doesn’t try. I try to be modest. But I know that I can be even better than Pollan and Bourdain.”

There are other benefits for Danny. After he went through a divorce ten years ago, he dated a lot. Women swooned for him after eating one of his meals.

“If you cook her a great meal, she knows that you’re skilled at a lot of other things too,” Danny told me. “Italian guys know that. It’s in our blood. Irish guys like you don’t have a clue.”

Heartbreaking works of staggering genius like Danny don’t need to worry about neatness. It is a virtue completely superfluous to their personalities. A nimbus of waste is left anywhere he has been on the boat. Occasionally, when we’re docked somewhere for a day, I run into town on my bike and relax in some delightful small river town like Newburgh, Indiana, drinking coffee at a waterfront café, checking out the history section in the local library, shopping for postcards or books for friends. When I get back to the Patience, I can always tell where Danny has been.

Oh! Danny’s made lunch for the crew—there are pieces of chopped tomato, mozzarella cheese, basil leaves and venison-sausage wrappers on the galley planks in the bow. The circle of olive oil on the deck where Danny prepared this looks like the floor of an auto repair shop. In the cabin, there’s a debris field of stripped wire, hardware wrappings and electrical tape. Danny has moved the charging station for the electronics gear from the aft to the fore shelves. He left the needle-nose pliers and screwdriver behind, on the floor. Danny had mentioned before I left that he didn’t like the way the gas tanks were organized in the fuel bay. There, he’s left behind wood shavings caught in the cobwebs, a drill bit and several pieces of cut hose that he used to modify the fuel lines. My wrench set and vice grips are left on the floor there too.

I find him upstairs on the roof deck, where he was at work repairing the mount for the radio antenna.

“Danny,” I said. “Do you mind if I say something?”

“I never mind when you say something!”

“Danny, when I was growing up, my father always said, ‘A job is not done until it’s cleaned up.’”

“Rinker, of course he said that. That’s why you’re so anal-compulsive!”

The slovenliness problem extends beyond areas where Danny has worked. It exists anywhere Danny has been. The trait has a lot to do with Danny’s need to always rush onto the next project, to have many balls in the air at once, and he is incapable of remembering what he has left behind when he considers the job done. Female crew members find his Jockey underwear inside the bin where we keep the paper towels. Coming in from using the megaphone to talk with a passing tug boat, Danny cleans it off with another stray set of his underwear, and we find it several days later under the megaphone. How many people manage to leave their underwear in your tool kit? How many people leave their underwear in my dirty-laundry bag? Not many. (Okay, my brother Nick does the same thing.) One evening, when he was desperate to find his fresh cilantro, we turned the boat inside out and finally found the cilantro package in the map case, used as a book mark in the “Cruising Guide to the Ohio River.”

Physical clumsiness, a comical disarticulation of limbs, is part of the Danny package. He is just too ferociously busy figuring out and executing the solution, and then racing onto the next thing, to bother with where his foot ends up. He’s perpetual distraction. Chairs crash wherever he walks. Butcher knives slice through nearby table napkins. While telling a story, he backs into a lemonade pitcher that he’s left on the gunwales, and it falls into the Ohio River.

“Damn it all, Danny,” I say. “How many times have I asked you not to put stuff on the gunwales?”

“I know, I know,” Danny says. “I’m sorry. Hey! Maybe we can build rails on those things.”

I don’t like people who are crazy but don’t know it. The narcissists, the control freaks and the self-involved are uninteresting because they so lack introspection and emotional intelligence. But I do like people like Danny. He’s crazy and he knows it.

“Oh, man,” Danny says. “If there’s twenty minutes just kicking around and I haven’t filled it with something to do, watch out. I may decide to change your brake pads. The Attention Deficit Disorder is ferocious.”

Actually, I think Danny is being too hard on himself here. The term ADD is a misnomer. (In any case, Danny has what I would call “good ADD,” just like there’s good cholesterol.) It’s not a disorder. It’s just how certain people are wired. The proper term would be “Focus Maximization.” Danny and people like him are just so determined to get that lighting fixture hung, improve the world, love that friend, improve that boat, so passionately involved in the task, the moment, the perfect chicken-skin crust, that every other concern is completely obliterated from the universe until the job is done. Then, adrift in the world for 15 or 20 minutes, until the next paroxysm of improvement presents itself, they can’t focus at all. Nothing to focus on? No obsession de l’heure? They can’t function. Danny’s life can best be described as long, intense periods of maximal focus followed by brief episodes of emptiness and despair. It’s not a disorder. It’s not a deficiency. Its Focus Maximization that the rest of us don’t have.

It is an extraordinarily beautiful evening on the Mississippi. I look out from my poplar man cave to a swirling, massive channel-flow of water, lit golden by the sun. Whirlpools and rips surround the boat. The Missouri sand bars stretch out of sight on the far side. A procession of rumbling, brawny tugs, pushing leviathan sticks of 40 barges apiece, churn by, turning up wakes with four-foot rollers that bang the Patience up and down. The pots and pans in the galley are clanging. My body pleasantly aches from scrambling over rip-rap levees every night, landing and tying up the boat.

Danny is coming back to the boat on Saturday. I miss that flippant, wiseass heartbreaking work of staggering genius and wish he were here cooking dinner for me right now. The chicken I have on the charcoal burner is going to be good. I have coated it with Kraft Zesty Italian salad dressing. My Rice-A-Roni is happy in its pot. But this is not to be compared to Danny’s Italian beef roasted in Barolo wine.

                             --RINKER BUCK





Sept 5


THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

 

         We pulled into New Madrid, Missouri, Mile 888 on the Mississippi, yesterday afternoon after a fun, challenging run down from Hickman, Kentucky. The water was running fast and down through the Chutes of the Island, and the Beckwith and Hotchkiss bends, we were running between 7 and 8 knots at low power, against a headwind. This big, horseshoe bend section of the Mississippi is breathtakingly scenic, with long sandy beaches along the Kentucky shore and sandbars that you can see a mile off by the waves breaking over their tops.

         Along this 30-mile stretch of river, we passed at least ten tugs pushing long sticks of barges filled with grain, oil and gas, and gravel. At one point, as we passed Island 8 above Kelly Landing, Kentucky, I shared the river space with five push boats and barges at once—three racing past me downstream, and two big coal sticks lumbering upstream, swinging wide to make the turns against the current. I kept just off the channel on the Kentucky side to make room for the two-way traffic, coordinating my position with the closet tug, the Caroline N.

The captain of the Caroline N told me that he would use the Patience as a “marker buoy” at the edge of the channel and then communicate with the other boats so that we all got safely through. It was all choreographed beautifully and it was thrilling to have so many big, rumbling tugs pushing past me at once.

As the Caroline slowly receded from view ahead of me, heading toward the big Hotchkiss Bend, the captain called back several times warning me off shoals. I love these tug boat fellows and its been wonderful sharing their space down the river.

         The small river town of New Madrid is famous for being the epicenter of the immense earthquakes that shook the Mississippi Valley in 1811 and 1812. The quakes along the New Madrid fault are now estimated to have been 8.6 on the Richter scale—powerful enough, according to 19th century folklore, to have broken windows in Washington, D.C. and rung church bells in Boston. The massive landslides that radiated out from New Madrid fault permanently changed the course of the Mississippi for 300 miles downstream. We don’t know how many flatboatmen lost their lives in the turbulent waters caused by the quakes because most of them were obscure Midwestern farmers heading downriver with cargoes for New Orleans and were simply never heard from again. Record-keeping was poor. But surely dozens perished in the river tsunamis that followed the quakes.

         I discovered another identity of New Madrid as soon as we pulled into the narrow harbor just below town. This must be one of happiest and gracious towns in America.

There are actually three town landings here, but the lower two are now blocked by a large dredging operation in the channel behind Madrid Bar. This forced me onto the rip-rap rock protecting the levee below the city’s waterfront park. I couldn’t get these fluke anchors I’d brought along to set in the hard Mississippi mud—they are completely the wrong anchor for these conditions—and knew that I would have to tie from land quite carefully.

But everybody from town was out in their bass boats and the whole local fleet, it seemed, raced over to help me get the Patience safely squared away. The first couple that came beside the Patience, in a camo-painted bass boat, was out fishing with their 14-year-old son. They told me that in addition to the heavy logs I could see onshore for tying up there was a cable barge line just to the west of my position. They they raced off to check the depth of the water with their fathometer.

“You’ll have 12 feet of water beneath your stern all night,” the boater yelled to me when he motored back on over. “Just go bow-in and tie off there.”

Later, when I decided that I wanted an extra line from the bow to keep the rear end from turning in the current overnight, they came back and their son jumped in the river and pulled my line to shore, and tied it to the barge cable.

Another lovely couple, Toni Lynne Phelps, a school teacher, and Derrick Lawfield, a farmer, pulled over in their pontoon boat. They liked the way I was tied up now and said that I didn’t need a rear anchor line. Derrick described for me the kind of anchor that I needed, and told me that the locals generally just fabricate them with welding torches from stock steel bar and cement rebar.

Toni called her daughter on her cell phone and told her to drive over and take my crew out shopping, and then for a shower. But my crew never left with her daughter. By then, four very fun ladies from the New Madrid Garden Club, driving around town fixing up public gardens in their shiny Kawasaki Mule, had seen the Patience from the waterfront park and driven to the bottom of the boat ranch. They assigned themselves the job of taking care of my crew.

“Whatever y’all need, you’re gettin,” one of them, Ella LaValle, said.

The rest of the afternoon more or less went like that. We were flooded with kindness, invitations to Labor Day weekend suppers, a tour of the local museum, farm tours, etc. I was particularly anxious to take a farm tour because this area of the Missouri delta country is rapidly converting over from cotton to rice fields, and I am curious about how the fields are flooded to grow rice.

The kindness assault resumed at dawn. In the confusion of getting our groceries and ice on board the night before, a crew member of the Patience left a wallet on the boat ranch. An early morning fisherman smoking a cigarette and wearing a broad brim hat hailed us from his bass boat at 5:30 a.m., while we were all still asleep.

“Hey, one of you guys left your wallet on the launch! I’m running it over.”

I scrambled down from the roof deck in my Brooks Brothers boxer shorts and accepted the wallet over the gunwales, thanking the fellow.

“You folks going to be around for a while?” the fisherman asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Till Tuesday.”

“Okay,” he said. “You’re invited to our church picnic today. Noon. Right up there over the levee. Two blocks away.”

“Which Church?” I said.

“Pentecostal,” he said. “We got the best food of all of ‘em.”

“All right,” I said. “We’ll be there.”

A few minutes later, another cool-looking geezer in waterproof camo clothing, topsiders and a brimmed hat was sliding backwards down the ramp on his jon-boat, still on its trailer, while his friend drove the pickup towing their rig. He pulled off just about the slickest boat launch I’ve seen in years. Five feet from the water, while still moving fast in reverse down the ramp, the old fellow signaled from his console for his driver to hit the brakes hard. The bass boat briefly went airborne in reverse, the motor suddenly wailed and the flat-bottom hit the water running, gracefully U-turning around in the current. The New Madrid geezer bass boat launch—very stylish and fun.

I hadn’t had my morning coffee yet and I was a little foggy. I couldn’t find my blue jeans. I was still standing beside the gunwales in my Brooks Brothers boxer shorts when the old boy powered up forward and gracefully came around to idle his boat beside Patience. He motioned with his hand up to the parking lot on the levee.

“See that gray Chevy pickup yonder? The keys are on the seat. Just take it for whatever you need. Go touring, you know? We’ve got a pretty town here. I won’t be back for five hours.”

I thanked the fellow and then stood on the deck in my Brooks Brothers boxers, chatting with him.

He wanted to know if I needed anything. I told him that I needed advice on better anchors. From the deck of his boat, he pulled up a home-made anchor welded together from steel bar stock and cement rebar. The pointed ends of the rebar were bent out below the stem of the anchor like the tentacles of an octopus. I could see right away that the splayed ends would catch in the Mississippi mud a lot better that the Danforth and fluke anchors that I had.

I asked the fellow where I could get one. Or, perhaps, was there a welding shop around that could fabricate one? I also wanted to make some new mushroom-style anchors for the bottom conditions I’d found on the Mississippi.

“Oh, hell, we just make them ourselves,” the geezer said. “You can’t find this kind of thang at the Bass Pro Shop. They don’t know nothin. Some folks call them Mis-ippi spider anchors.”

The geezer could see that I had come down with a fierce case of spider-anchor envy.

Rummaging around in the bins on the side of his boat, he pulled out another, home-made spider anchor. The ends hadn’t been bent out yet, so he took a piece of iron pipe from the same bin and bent them out for me. He handed the anchor over to me on the Patience.

“Here, it’s yours,” he said. “Just throw this baby out when you’re coming into a spot and drag it for 30 or 40 yards. Guaranteed. It’ll catch.”

I yelled thanks and the bass boat geezer motored back into the current in reverse, turned, and then picked up his friend at the bottom of the boat launch. They disappeared upriver to fish.

The Garden Club ladies were back at 8, laughing and waving as they inched down the boat launch in their shiny Kawasaki. They were taking the crew out for breakfast and showers—whatever we needed. I decided to remain on the Patience to get some emailing done. Before I turned back for the boat, however, a trim, athletic retired farmer named Bud Henry walked down the ramp while we were still talking with the garden club ladies.

“What do’ya need?” he said. “My brother and I have our shop up yonder and there’s plenty of extra pickups.”

I explained to Bud that I wanted to make some new anchors, to replace the ones I have lost. I needed better mushroom anchors too. I had a model for what I wanted to fabricate—the spider anchor—back on the boat. By this time I had arranged with Derrick Lawfield to use his farm shop to weld up the anchors.

“Oh, hell, don’t use Derrick,” Bud said. “He’s a youngin and I’ve got better welders, okay? Besides, I happen to know that Derrick is setting up to harvest his corn today. He says he ain’t busy, but he is. I’ll make up them anchors for you.”

The rest of the day was a fun, New Madrid whirl. We all met up at the Pentecostal church picnic in a lovely park across from the church and feasted on hot dogs, barbecued chicken, pork steaks, fried okra and salad. It was sunny and breezy on the hill above the river and the church members regaled me with stories about life in southeastern Missouri.

After the picnic, Bud drove me over to his capacious metal shop and, with his welder and his brother Bill Henry, we scrounged around his scrap yard and found harrow discs, bar stock and an old Ford wheel hub to make the anchors with. The sparks flew and the welding torch roared and my new mushroom anchors took shape. There’s no better smell on a hot southern afternoon, especially after a good church picnic, than welding rods fusing onto hot steel and burning acetylene gas.

Derrick Lawfield dropped over late in the afternoon and gave me a tour of his cotton, rice and cornfields. His extended family farms about 10,000 acres in the low Delta country west of New Madrid and I enjoyed learning about the local crops, where they are marketed, and how the fields are irrigated. His uncle, Tom Lawfield, who is quite a piece of work, gave me a ride in his monster Claas combine. Back at Lawfield’s shop, while the head was changed on the combine, we all sat around, shared stories, and drank beer. Back in town, Ella LaVelle threw us a pizza party at her house.

I am back on the Patience now. The lights of the big line tugs moving upriver glow off the beachy shoals across the water. An owl is hooting from the waterfront park and I can hear some tires squealing on tar as the local teenagers leave their Labor Day parties. I’m in the bosom of this great land and the heart of the Mississippi is big and kind.

 

                 --RINKER BUCK

  


Sept 4 2016

ISLAND IN THE STREAM

​This morning I woke to an old problem for flatboatmen.
Yesterday afternoon, Mike Binkley and I turned in from the Mississippi below Cairo toward a deep-water inlet, fighting stiff winds and current as we turned east toward the harbor. We found a beautiful cove with moody and attractive willow groves, a sandy beach, and acceptably high water about a half mile in from the Mississippi. I liked the place right away because it was a real harbor dedicated to real American work. The United States Coast Guard has a very beefy buoy-tender based there, a ferry crosses from the Kentucky to the Missouri side every few hours, and tugs push in and out staging barges for the big grain-loading facilities nearby.
We tied up to a log and a tree branch on the shore and threw anchors from the stern to hold us in place. Mike headed back for Tennessee to attend a funeral and make all the right appearances over the Labor Day weekend. I always drop a heartbeat when he leaves. Mike is great crew, great brother, great human.

But I was safely secured for the night and enjoyed the time alone in my floating man cave.
When I got off my cot an hour after dawn, The Patience was beached. There was a little waving of the stern in the higher water but the bow was aground. I’ve learned by now not to panic. The wisdom of all of the river rats I have met along the river informs me. At Rocky Point, Indiana, one of them said to me, “Don’t worry, the river that’s dropping right now will raise you six hours later.” So, I made coffee, cleaned up the cabin, and puttered around the boat, waiting to see what happened with the water level. I walked my planks to the shore and placed a log on the waterline so I could track what was happening with the water.

The flatboatmen of the 19th century were used to this, and it raises an interesting dilemma about flatboat life. The uncomplicated, broad bottoms of a flatboat—essentially it is just a barn built to float on water—can carry enormous loads while drawing very little water. (The underwater draft on the Patience is only about 14 inches.) They are ideal for working the shallow waters near sand bars and shoals, or low river channels during droughts. When they did run aground, the stable flat bottom of the boats sat evenly in the mud or on broad rock bars while the crew waited for rains to deliver high water again.

The lore of flatboating derived from this. Beached every two weeks on their way to Natchez or New Orleans, the young men traveling downriver scrambled over the rocks to neighboring boats to gamble, play violins and dance jigs and drink moonshine. In drought years, there were often 20 or 30 flatboats from upstream, beached together in a bumptious village of wooden craft. The river men also used their time aground to re-chink their boats with oakum caulking, to explore the shore, and to cut wood for their evening fires.
The situation on the Ohio and the upper Mississippi is quite different today, but often produces the same results. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now maintains more than 20 locks and dams along the Ohio, managing the river as a series of “controlled pools” to maintain water heights for barge traffic. Essentially, the Ohio is now a 1,000-mile chain of lakes. Depending on rains, pressure on the dams, or the need for more water to create navigable conditions downriver, the Corps of Engineers system is periodically either storing or releasing water. It’s a vast and complicated hydrologic wonder, with water levels in any one spot constantly changing to meet the needs of the system. A boat ramp or inlet that’s showing five feet of water tonight may be just a glistening mud pie by morning.

By nine in the morning I could see that the water was still dropping. I decided to stage the boat further out in deeper water, if I could get the bow out of the mud. I left one line still attached to a log near the shore to use as a pivot to swing the boat around to deeper water. All of the other lines and anchors I either cast off or raised.

It was pleasant work, scrambling between decks and throwing lines all by myself. Herons plucked about in the waters beside me and a juvenile golden eagle watched me cautiously from the dead trunk of a willow tree. Whenever I returned to the front deck, the strong, pleasant whiff of fresh basil leaves greeted me from Danny Corjulo’s herb garden.
When I started the motor and began maneuvering the Patience around for a better position, the quartering wind behind frustrated my plans. I kept getting pushed back to the muddy shore. The engine was raising mud no matter where I drifted, threatening me with running my prop aground. The anchor I laid behind me was useless. It didn’t set in the mud and, racing downstairs to check it, I realized that I had swing around too hard and sliced the line. An $85 anchor? Chill, babe. It’s gone. At least there was nobody around to watch me shed anchors and rope as fast as an old barn roof loosing shingles.

I raced to the bow and released the line tied to the log. I could get the line somehow in the morning when crew arrived. Billowing up great eddies of mud, I backed the Patience off the shallows and then headed out to the deeper waters of the inlet.

I had noticed when we arrived the evening before that there was a prominent log raised above the water level in the deep water of the inlet. I could see that it was the heavy leader of an oak tree, standing vertically in the water, probably still attached to a submerged trunk deep in the mud. A healthy deposit of bird guano indicated that the vertical leader had been there for a while—it was probably very stable.
I steered toward this natural tie-post and studied it carefully. Ideal, I thought. It looked as solid as the deep water moorings at my youthful Stage Harbor in Chatham, Massachusetts. Attached there, the Patience would sway bow-first in the breeze and be safe in the flow.
Twice, with the bow of the Patience, I gave the log a good poke. It gave to the weight of the boat, but just a little. This was perfect. There was enough flexibility for good sway in the current, but the leader was not pulling away from the trunk sunk in the mud. Essentially, nature had offered me a mushroom anchor of oak.

I ran upstream until the mud line told me that I was in low water. Letting the engine idle, I drifted downwind toward the vertical armature of oak. The flatboat swayed sideways. I adjusted the power a couple of times to drift onto the oak. It was joyful being adrift in the flow, judging my progress toward the tree leader. Crosswind landings in a Piper Cub. Dropping a tree. Pointing upwind with no center-board down with John King. I stepped below for more coffee. I lit my pipe. I relaxed and thought of my wonderful last months in Maine with my lovely mother, Pat Buck. Adrift in the flow, no control, just be in the moment and watch the Patience meander down and hit the oak. I ran down and laid a line off the bow cleat so I could snare the log when we got there.

The Patience hit the oak not quite where I wanted. We were sideways instead of bow-first. But I got the line around the tree, hitched to the bow cleat, played out line, and waited. You can’t hurt an 8-ton poplar leviathan like the Patience banging up against a tree.

She swung aft perfectly into the breeze. With the southwest wind billowing hard to 15 m.p.h., we swung a wide radius in the current. But with an old pulley that I had found in Wyoming years ago, and restored, I gradually inched the Patience back to within a few feet of the oak leader. This reduced my swings in the wind to just a few feet.
That was five hours ago. The breeze flowing through the cabin was refreshing while I took a nap. I made more coffee and planned dinner. (Wild turkey breasts provided by Mike Russell, and fresh okra given to me by Leon in Columbus, Kentucky.) A friend will soon be coming aboard.
Later that afternoon, I was awakened from my nap by the whine of a local tug. He was moving the barges on shore around, only about 200 yards from my position. I turned on my handheld radio and hailed the tug captain on the harbor frquency, asking if I was in his way.
“You’re good,” he radioed back. “You can stay there all night. Preciate the call.”
Now it is dusk and I have neatened up the boat and bathed on the deck from my water jugs. The breeze racing through the cabin is refreshing. A white egret on the shore, silhouetted against the willow grove, looks like a Gustave Doré etching. The cicada screech from the trees. The water is luminescent in the evening sunlight and high altostratus clouds promise a gorgeous sunset.

I am alone on an inlet of the Mississippi, an amateur sojourner on water. I’ve learned to tie up almost anywhere. The night music of water lapping on my sides and bullfrogs bassooning from shore has begun. I am feeling peaceful and appreciate that what natures puts in my way can always be used for safe mooring.

--RINKER BUCK



 
Spet 3 2016
 

ON THE MISSISSIPPI

 

         At four yesterday afternoon we finally rounded the big confluence bend at the bottom of the Ohio, at Cairo, Illinois, and entered the Mississippi. Our turn south on the mighty river signaled the halfway mark of our journey—a thousand miles of the Ohio is now behind us and we have a thousand miles to go to reach New Orleans. Our prospects feel bright. As we raced around the confluence bend the wind picked up and pushed us from behind, the flow increased by a mile or two per hour and the horizons broadened on the larger river. We raced that evening down to Columbus, Kentucky at 7 knots.

         I smile inside. People who claim to be experienced on the Mississippi, and a number who said they were too afraid to take it south, had filled me with dread about the river. They predicted that my troubles would begin as soon as we passed the big left turn at Cairo.  

The confluence below Cairo is a huge loading and trans-shipment area for grain, and most of the large commodities and barge companies have immense facilities for loading corn along both sides of the river at Cairo. There are large fleets of barges moored near the mouth of Ohio. Perhaps there were a hundred or more barges parked, waiting for loading, as we passed. The space would be so tight, I was told, that I would barely be able to squeeze the Patience through the moorings, and the mouth of the river would be busy with moving push-boats too. When we got there, five or six local push-boats were working the Cairo space, but there was plenty of room to get through and nothing approaching the “dangerous choke point” that the alleged boaters described.

My biggest problem at the confluence, I was also told, would be the long lines of massive “assist tugs,” helping the push-boats making the broad, difficult turn off the Mississippi and onto the Ohio. “Double flow,” they call it. The boats pushing upriver on the Mississippi would be fighting the current on that river, and then they would face the down flow from the Ohio as they made the turn. The boats coming south on the Mississippi would be fighting back-current as they turned onto the Ohio.

It would be particularly hazardous, they said, when I was going through. Late August is a busy time for the grain transport business because all of the Midwest and southern grain bins have to be emptied now, and the commodities sent down the Mississippi for global markets, so that there is room for this year’s harvest. I would be arriving in the middle of a tug and barge traffic jam.

Well, it’s all bunk. I’ve never heard so much nautical crying wolf. There were no assist tugs in sight, all afternoon. There was no traffic jam at Cairo, even though the port was quite active. There was always plenty of room to get by, even with two strings of barges in the channel beside me. I had an easier time swinging down through the big confluence than a Republican grandma steering her golf cart.

The crews of the immense pusher boats on the Mississippi, pressing upstream with 35 to 40 barges, seem very friendly. As long as I stay off the radio and point my bow safely away from them, hugging the buoys at the edge of the channel, they seem happy. The deck hands in yellow shirts and orange life vests wave as we pass. The captains step away from their controls and stand out on their bridges, wave, and take pictures of the Patience with their cell phones.

Turning upstream to enter an inlet on the Kentucky side for anchoring, we faced a wind from the north of perhaps 15 miles-per-hour. The river flow was also pushing against us from the north. We were just barely making headway against a large barge fleet moored just below. As we headed east for the inlet I saw the diesel smoke from the stacks of a tug, which was about to back right into our way. Persevere. Get there. The tug boat pilots are on my side. I waved my neon yellow Rural King hat to the tug captain. He stepped to his bridge, waved his orange cap back, and signaled that he’d wait by reducing power, which I could read from the amount of exhaust coming from his stacks. We inched our way in past the tug and the barge, and the wind died after we passed the tree line on the inlet. The tug captain stepped out again, waved, and gave us a thumbs up. God if you will please bless the tug boat captains of the Mississippi.

That was the worst of it. With some personal grit and the mercy of tug boat captains, we can do the Mississippi.

Oh well. I’m sure it’s just a case of all of the prophets of doom upriver on the Ohio being off their medications.

As soon as we entered the Mississippi, I noticed the change in the river environment. Broad sandy banks lined both the Kentucky and Missouri shore. They reminded me of the dunes and bars of Cape Cod. The tree life is different too. There are tall, straight willows and (I think) a cypress-type tree on the floodplain adjacent to the river. The great blue herons are here in great numbers, of course, and I saw large flocks of a brown goose that I cannot identify. The rhythmic cicada screech from the banks is audible above the engine noise. Swamps recede from the banks behind the tree stands. I am so anxious to see Louisiana and New Orleans that I imagine these as labyrinthine bayous. But I am probably wrong on that. They’re just Kentucky swamps.    

Mike Russell of Battle Town, Kentucky (see earlier blog, “Paul Bunyon Lives”) met us just below Wickliffe, Kentucky in his big, V-8 Russell airboat, whining like a big GE locomotive coming down the rails and throwing off a mist of river water behind his four-bladed prop.

“Sure is good to see you soambitches,” he yelled across the water as he approached the Patience.

Mike is planning a big alligator hunt down in the Louisiana bayous in November. He wanted to test pulling the airboat behind his RV, which he has just finished restoring, and rode across Kentucky to meet us on the Mississippi. We had a fun time goofing off all night, the two oddest craft on the river, yawing in toward a state park launch ramp in formation, anchoring in tandem off a tree, and then heading up on foot to the RV on the bluff for a barbecue dinner. The deck hands on the big Ingram Barge Company wharf there cheered as we struggled with the current to land our boats and then tied up.

I was pleased with the anchorage we made. With two lines to trees on the shore and then cement anchors off the stern, we swung back and forth in the current overnight, but held firm to our position. The Ingram tugs beside us were working all night, switching barges around and staging their fleets for the grain docks on the Ohio. Their wakes rolled us up and down quite a bit and, occasionally, their search lights swept through the cabin.

But those tug wakes are a lullaby roll and the lights just gave me a chance to look out and check my anchor lines. I slept well, very happily in my poplar man cave. At last I am on the Mississippi, floating down with Huck and Jim, and that’s always been the point.

--RINKER BUCK

 


ON THE TENNESSEE


         I’m docked at a beautiful muddy-water spot on the river, where I am staging the boat to wait for new crew members before I make the big turn south on the Mississippi. There was a big moth hatch about an hour ago and fish jump to snare the insects for their evening meal. The turtles sunning on the fallen trees in the river are slowly retreating back to the water as sunset approaches. A distant push boat with a long stick of coal barges has just turned on his running lights for his night run. As he passes, the gentle rollers from his wake push me gently onto my dock.

         The dock master in town, Jeff Wright, is concerned that a planned dropping of water tonight will beach me for a day or two. The Army Corps of Engineers has already dropped the water three feet today. I tell him that I am not worried. Heavy rains above me in Indianapolis and Louisville will probably raise water levels by early in the week, and the Patience will just float her way out. But Jeff doesn’t want to trust that.

                 “Let me just get a few things done at home, Okay?” he says. “I need to weed whack and cut my grass. Then I’ll be back to push you and the dock back to deeper water.”

         Jeff also runs the local wrecker-truck for road accidents. A couple of hours later he pulled down to the dock and launching ramp in his lime-green Chevy 3500 wrecker. It’s the ultimate macho tow vehicle and I immediately want to own it. Jeff’s wrecker has a sloping diamond-plate bed, a crane, winches galore, and enough yellow and blue roof lights to drive a police officer insane with envy about how many strobes a lawman can have going at once.

         The sloping gangway leading to the floating dock where I am tied up is hung up with several tons of large logs and driftwood. I cannot see how Jeff can push me further into the river without damaging the gangway on the logs. But he seems nonplussed.

         Extending a horizontal towbar behind the truck, Jeff directs his wife Lacey to back up against the end of the gangway. She pushes in reverse for several feet and both the dock and the Patience it is attached to float backwards into deeper water. I am sitting on the bow enjoying the spectacle. As the gangway starts hanging up on the driftwood trees, Jeff attaches cable from his truck to the logs, winching them out of the way. Then Lacey backs the truck up more and I enjoy the sensation of being pushed sideways into deeper water.

         Friends of Jeff, Dennis Anderson and C1ayton Leonard, show up a few minutes later and start freeing the logs underneath the gangway, adjusting the cables that hold the dock anchor in place, and then man-handling more logs under the gangway back into the current. Each time another log is removed, Jeff signals Lacey and she drops the truck further back, pushing the Patience into the stream and deeper water.

         But it is a lot of work for Jeff, Dennis and Clayton to heave the logs from underneath the gangway and push them into the river.

         I step out onto the deck with the small trimmer chainsaw that I brought on the trip to cut wood for evening fires. It has a 14-inch bar.

           “Jeff!” I call. “Want me to cut the logs and speed this up?”

         He looks at my puny chainsaw and waves from the shore.

         “No thanks!”

         Fine. He wouldn’t know that I am a logger from New England. There, macho-boys think that long bars make cutting wood better, faster. In fact, the smaller the bar the faster you go but there’s no use explaining yourself to folks who think that GTOs and ’76 Camaros with the 350cc engines are the only way to drive. Big engines and long chain saws equal macho-man power to them. But, mostly, big engines and long bars just signify low self-knowledge and low self-esteem. Small engines allow a man to effectively work. But why turn this into a meditation on the nonsensical fixations of American males?

         Jeff and his friends man-handled all of the logs underneath the gangway, and most of them were floating downstream in a few minutes. With the winches and cable on his wrecker, Jeff pulled another giant piece of driftwood out of the way in a few minutes. The dock, with Patience attached to her cleats, floated free in deep water.

         It is sunset now. Orange and purple cirrus glow J.M.W. Turner in the southern Illinois sky. The water is placid with the long-light of a push-boat beaming across the river. I am at home with myself and my life on the river and the Patience is in safe, deep water. I love this journey. I love the river men and the help they give me and, if you risk, the generosity of people you meet along the way will provide.

 

                             --RINKER BUCK

 


Aug 26 Blog 

SETTING ANCHOR

 

         I drifted alone on the Patience yesterday for several miles downriver. My friend and very able crewmate, Bob Spiering, had left his pickup behind about 50 miles upriver, and a local boater had generously offered to return it to him when we were ready. Now Bob is driving the boater back and we agreed on a spot downriver where we would reunite.

            There was no dock available and now I faced a common problem the 19th century flatboaters experienced. If I simply tied off to a tree on the shore and threw a few anchors off the stern, the river level could drop overnight and I would be beached. I’ve already done that twice and it was quite a struggle getting the bow of the Patience out of the mud.

             
          I decided that I would have to do an “in current” anchorage, even though I had never done this before and I didn’t trust my own ability. Idling the motor about 70 feet off shore, where the water would be deep enough all night, I let the Patience drift to see what the current was doing to the hull. I sat there and cogitated my situation for about ten minutes. When the hull stabilized drifting about 45 degrees against the current, I threw an anchor off the port bow and then scrambled up to the roof bridge and slightly reversed the engine to set the anchor in the mud below.

         At first the anchor wouldn’t set, so I pulled it in and threw it again. Gradually I understood that anchors don’t always set in the mud right away. The drift of the current pushing me downstream would drag the anchor and gradually set it. A loose line was fine for the anchor.

         With the bow established on the anchor line, I gently nudged the Patience’s stern around, parallel to the shore, using reverse engine power. When she was facing directly upstream, I ran down and threw the second anchor off the starboard stern.

         It was a hot day and getting all of this done alone was tiring, but fun. I could tell after an hour that the anchors were holding fine and that we were established in deep water with the Patience pointing right where I wanted her.

I had to laugh to myself about one thing. I have all of these relatives and friends who think that I don’t belong on the river because I don’t know enough knots, nautical knots. They are obsessed with knots. The way they talk about it you would think that it is illegal, unconstitutional, an egregious violation of all the world’s major religions not to be able to tie proper knots, nautical knots. They even e-mail me about it while I’m underway. Get a knot book and learn your knots. Find a young Coast Guard officer to teach you. USCG recruits know a lot of knots. You can find a knots manual on line. Knots, knots, knots, obdurate mindblock knots.

Oh, screw these dumbkofs. You get your ass out on this hot river with me and I’ll let you tie all the knots you want. Abraham Lincoln took a flatboat down the river twice before he was 21. I bet you he didn’t know any nautical knots either. The last thing I need right now, knot-fashionistas, is long-distance control freakism. Frick your knots.

So, I tied the anchors with the most reliable knot known to man. It’s called the Rinker-Irish-tinkerer’s-shithouse-knot. I’ve been tying Rinker-Irish-tinkerer’s-shithouse-knots all of my life. They always work.

I’m here to report again that the Rinker-Irish-tinkerer’s-shithouse-knot reliably provides connection to hold an eight-ton flatboat.

When I woke this morning, the Patience was aligned exactly parallel to shore the way I had organized her with the anchors yesterday afternoon. The big tugs churning by all night on the river pushed wakes to the shore which rocked the boat, constantly re-setting the anchors perfectly. The positioning lights that I placed fore and aft worked well—a couple of times overnight I saw the flashing through the cabin of the big searchlights from the tugs. They had seen my lights a mile off and panned their big beams over out of curiosity.

It’s beautiful on the river this morning. An osprey just dropped from nowhere and plucked an eight-inch fish out of the water. The herons are perched on the rocks, motionless, waiting for the frogs to wake up and move. The logs racing by tell me that we will have good flow today. The river is slightly misty, purple and opaque from the low morning sun. It is trying to decide whether or not to give fog. A few big tugs have pushed by with 15-barge strings.

All is well on the Ohio. I am satisfied with the simplicity of life here. All you need to get down the river is patience, a couple of good Rinker-Irish-tinkerer’s-shithouse-knots, and the willingness to screw up and screw up again until you finally have taught yourself how to do it right.

 

              --RINKER BUCK
 



MILE 881, OHIO RIVER, near Cave-in-Rock, Illinois

 

MAYFLY INVASION



         The beauty of a trip like mine is that all of the problems you expect to have never materialize, but problems you never anticipate bedevil our progress every day.

         I woke this morning on the Patience to what scientists call a “massive emergence” of mayflies. The insect, also known as the shadfly, is a freshwater bug familiar to fly fisherman, who carefully observe their seasonal hatches when choosing the best spots to fish. The bugs are two inches long with brown bodies, translucent wings and long twin-tails and antennae. This time of year, when they emerge nocturnally from their nymph stage in the water, mayflies swarm over shoreline areas by the millions. They are famous for coating several inches thick over flat surfaces—suburban home decks, bridges and sidewalks.

         They are everywhere on the Patience this morning, even flying through the cabin and around the roof deck. I found several on my arms and legs when I woke this morning and our red gas cans in the stern are so infested that they now appear to be black. I have a framed picture of my dear and recently deceased mother hanging above my desk in the boat. The portrait now looks like the insect display case at a children’s museum.

         When I walk around the flatboat, the mayflies swarm in the air around me like chimney swallows swirling together to descend into a house. Alfred Hitchcock, if he was aboard the Patience this morning, could not resist making a movie of this.

         My first reaction upon waking was to turn on our generator and plug in our Craftsman shop vac. But the mayflies cling so tightly to the poplar sides of Patience that I make virtually no progress. Okay, push the reset button. Accordingly, I reverse the flow on the shop vac hose to blow them off. Vacuum-cleaner engineers please note: Your devices do not blow with any force. It’s false advertising to print that claim on the outside of shop-vac boxes.

         I guesstimate that we have approximately 10,000 stowaway mayflies on board. The wooden dock nearby is also coated with mayflies. The shop-vac, the broom or bug spray are useless against this assault. My crewman Bob Spiering has called a friend back in Maryland who is a fishery biologist. He suggests that we simply wait an hour or get the boat underway. The instinct of the mayfly is to fly away once the sun comes up. However, it’s an overcast day and we may have to wait a long time for sunlight to draw the infestation away.

         Along the Mississippi and other rivers in the Midwest, mayfly infestations have caused traffic accidents on highways and bridges when tires turn the roadbed surfaces into a brown, slippery slime. On Federal Aviation Administration and National Weather Service radar, mayfly swarms are so thick that they register as “light to moderate rain.” Farmers throughout the Midwest use pressure washers to wash the mayfly tapestry off their dairy cows and barns.

         I am annoyed at myself now for listening to a friend, who advised me not to bring along my powerful Husqvarna leaf-blower. Excess equipment, he told me. But I knew there was a use for that Huskie. There’s always a need for a leaf-blower. 

         It is almost 9 o’clock now. A few of the mayflies are leaving the boat and flying out over the water. The wooden shutters on our windows now look pristine and clear—most of the mayflies have left that surface. Bob has a breakfast of eggs, pancakes and venison sausage on the camp stove. By the time breakfast is over and we’re headed downriver for the next set of locks, we’ll probably be free of the mayflies.

 

                   --RINKER BUCK

 

ADDENDA

 

           After breakfast, I decide to clear some of the mayflies off the boat with our sounding pole. As I scrape the side of the boat or the vertical supports for our rope enclosure up top, the mayflies sweep upwards and fly away--by the hundreds. Several hundred of them either can't make it to shore or decide to land on the water, and a school of longnose gar swims over and begins plucking the bugs from the surface of the water. It's a feeding frenzy for about thirty seconds and then, the bugs all consumed, the fish swim away.

 

           It has amazed me, riding down the Ohio for six weeks, how rich and variegated the wildlife and fish are. Now I know what supports so many fish--millions of flies along the river. Also, my experience today probably is something to be happy about. The Ohio is still a very polluted river, but efforts are underway to reduce effluents from municipal sewers, paper pulp and aluminum plants, and grain and gravel loading facilities.

 

            The return of the mayflies in great numbers is considered a hopeful sign. Many species of aquatic insects are acutely sensitive to water quality, and the sudden emergence events of the mayfly could be a sign that the cleanliness of the river is improving.

 
 


MILE 860 ON THE OHIO RIVER, near Old Shawneetown, Illinois

 

            Dan Lomax is a tall, thin man with Beach Boy good looks, a broad smile and a sense of humor so ready that you feel embraced by the fun of life just meeting him for the first time. He is 54. For the past 36 years he has been an employee of the Mulzer Crushed Stone Company of Newburgh, Indiana, which runs a large sand and gravel operation and grain bin facilities along the Ohio River.

For most of his career Lomax was a heavy equipment operator for Mulzer. Twelve years ago, when Mulzer suddenly lost their tugboat skipper, the company encouraged Lomax to take a captain’s course so that he could run their tugboat. Since then Lomax has worked the waters below the Newburgh Locks and Dam at Mile 776 on the Ohio, managing several dozen barges moored below the Mulzer works, ferrying sand and gravel barges, readying huge grain barges for transit to the Mississippi, and pushing around immense work barges towering with tall cranes and Caterpillar heavy-lifting vehicles.

         Lomax is captain of the Kristin J, the Mulzer Company’s local workboat-tug, often called a “switch boat,” which is painted a sprightly blue and white.

          We first met Lomax when we tied up for a week to make repairs and install a second, backup motor on the Patience before we hit the more challenging currents of the Mississippi. Our base was the comfortable private dock of contractor Dennis Gates, just a hundred yards downriver from the Mulzer works. At dawn, while we slept on the Patience as the fog rose on the river and sounds of life reached us from the shore, the Kristin J would arrive for Dan’s morning routine of splitting up long barge “sticks,” repositioning sand and grain barges for loading and unloading, and pushing the big crane-barges around for the assorted work along the river.

We were amazed at the Kristin J’s grace and precision while reorganizing barges and pushing the cranes to new locations. While we drank coffee and cooked breakfast on the bow of the Patience, we watched Dan work. We started calling his fluid movement of the 2,000-ton barges “push boat ballet.” But when crew member Danny Corjulo finished editing a film of the Kristen J’s work, he found that opera music worked better for the audio. So we called it “Tugboat Opera.” (See videos on flatboatpatience.com) It became a delightful part of our daily routine—marveling at the deft maneuvering of barges around our docking position.

          Often, the Kristin J swung the massive barges just fifty feet from our bow. We waved to Dan and he waved back.

He became our morning wake-up call. The gentle rocking of the flatboat from the Kristin J’s wake was a soothing reminder to rise, collapse our cots, and begin the day.

One morning, watching Dan pass by, 50 feet above the Patience deck in his pilot house, one of the women on board trained her binoculars on Dan. He was wearing a blue muscle shirt and jeans, and in the morning sun his firm white teeth and billowing blonde hair glowed brightly.

“Oh my God,” our crew member said. “He’s Fabio. He’s the tugboat captain from central casting.”

We started calling his Fabio. Fabio of the Kristin J.

A day or two later, as the Kristin J passed by, I motioned to the captain to pull beside us. I threw him a signed copy of one of my books and enclosed a note.

The next morning, the Kristin J pulled by, and Captain Dan hailed us from the powerful public address speakers on his bridge.

“Rinker! I love your book! I’m on Chapter Six already and can’t put it down.”

“Bly me,” I thought. “A tugboat captain on the Ohio who reads books? This has got to be a great find.”

The next morning, when the Kristin J inched in beside us, Fabio expertly held the tug off our sides with an idling thrust of his diesels. His deckhand raced down the ladders from the bridge and stood on the bow with an offering for our trip—melons and watermelons from the farmer’s market in Evansville. We took the melons aboard and then Dan called down.

“Rinker. I’ve got permission from my supervisor to give you a ride. Come aboard.”

Oh! Walt Whitman. Joseph Conrad. Erskine Childers and Joshua Slocum. A tugboat ride at 7 in the morning on the Ohio.

It was wonderful fun. I threw on a life jacket and hopped across the big, brawny bow of the Kristin J. The big rumbling diesels threw out a muscular reverse wake as I climbed the catwalks to the bridge. Dan—thin, boyish, laughing, modest—was immediately fun to be with, a stranger to no man. I was impressed by the stack of recent history titles on the bench seat on the wheelhouse. A reader. A gentle man with a great sense of humor. Being inside this ultimate man-cave, the wheelhouse of the Kristin J, was like living a chapter of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.

Dan showed me the engine controls, the four rudder tillers, and all of the instrumentation. When I sat down to take the controls, I adapted quickly to steering the tug. It was early in the morning and there was no other traffic on the river. Over the weekend, storms were expected and Dan wanted to push downriver to one of his barge fleets to adjust the lines for higher water. I let him take back the boat when we neared the moorings and carefully watched his technique in handling the boat, holding the barges in place while his deckhand scrambled on the decks below, readjusting the lines.

I wanted to use this time with a friendly tugboat captain to perfect my own handling of the Patience, especially in the busy commercial channels. I asked a lot of questions. I needed to learn to think like a tugboat captain so that I could always anticipate their needs, and stay out of their way. Now I was receiving commercial river channel dual from a pro, a solid instructor.

I’d had people on board earlier in the trip who over-controlled the Patience and used a lot of outboard power to stay away from the tugs. They were over-steering the boat with power, which caused a lot of adverse yaw, and then they had to recover their heading with rapid swings of the wheel. They didn’t seem to understand current and wind at all. But I had enough experience by now to know that this was the wrong way to go and asked Dan about it.

“You can always tell how good captain is by his wake,” Dan said. “You don’t always need a lot of power to be safe on the river. The current and the winds are always pushing you somewhere. Don’t fight nature with a lot of diesel consumption. Use nature to help you.”

Dan suggested that, once or twice a day, I wait for a moment when there’s no traffic on the river and just idle my prop and see what the current and wind is doing to the big, lumbering Patience. He called that “feeling the river.” It’s an especially good practice before I dock. I’ll sometimes float free in the deep channel for a minute or two, observing what the conditions are doing to the boat. Then I slowly motor toward the dock on the shore, using the current and winds to make a safe landing.

No drama. No raised voices or shouting at crew. No excessive use of steering or power. Tweak the boat, slowly, gracefully.

A few days later a retired tugboat captain pulled his houseboat beside me in a marina. He gave me the same advice. Every chance I get, I debrief a tug captain on docking, currents and safely riding the commercial channel.

Since then, I’ve encountered about 30 tugs with long barge sticks coming up and down the river—sometimes two or three at a time. I look at the channel, try to understand where the tug wants to be making his wide, sweeping turns on the bend. If there is more than one push boat in the channel, I listen to the captains speaking with each other on the local traffic frequency. Then I head for the buoys at the safest side of the channel, usually the far banks on the Kentucky shore.  Pointing my bow dramatically in the direction I want to go helps the tug pilots know that I intend to stay out of their way.

Several times now, as I passed oncoming tugs, remaining clear of their space by hugging the edge of the channel, the captains have stepped out to their bridges, signaled us “thumbs up,” and then stood there waving and taking pictures of the Patience. They wouldn’t be doing that if we had handled the encounter poorly.

Dan and his wife Barb came on board a couple of nights after I met him, and we all had a great time consuming another gourmet meal from Danny Corjulo—we call him “The Anthony Bourdain of the Ohio”—sampling good wines and sharing stories of the river. Dan has come back a couple of more times and given us tug rides on the Kristin J and offered me more instruction about the river. I endlessly pick his brain about river currents, water levels and the wind. Over the weekend, we’re all going to get together again and enjoy the Buffalo Trace country down on the scenic Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area.

Oh! Sweet journey. I’ve learned from Dan Lomax of the Kristin J, the Fabio of tugboatmen, how to read the river. I’m 65 years old and building a whole new skill set. It doesn’t get much better than this and I know that Dan and I will be friends for life.

                  --RINKER BUCK



​MILE 800 ON THE OHIO RIVER, Near Henderson, Kentucky

 

         A number of you have emailed or called to express your concern about this record-breaking month of storms along the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys. Climatologists quoted on news sites have said that they consider the recent rainy conditions throughout the Midwest and South to be so excessive that the severity of the storms should be classified as a “One-Thousand Year” event.

         In Louisiana, some regions along the Mississippi have received more than a foot of rain since the weekend. Areas of flood-prone New Orleans were drenched with 20 inches in a single day. So far, 11 people have been reported drowned and some estimates say that up to 40,000 homes have been inundated. The images on television evoke memories of the great Mississippi flood of 1927, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

             Our course on the Ohio downriver from Newburgh, Indiana has taken us through the southern fringes of this weather system. We’ve spent three days pushing through strong pop-up storms billowing out from the front. For two nights in a row, we’ve been pounded with rain at night. Fortunately, John Cooper knows how to build a sturdy, waterproof cabin. This morning, according to my “redneck rain gauge,” a tin coffee cup, I measured an inch and a half of rain last night. But we woke warm and dry in the cabin.

         On Sunday, when I looked at the weather radar to check our southwest route down the Ohio, I saw a storm pattern I had never seen before. A continuous line of embedded thunder cells, all moving as one front, stretched almost 2,000 miles from Brownsville, Texas on the Mexican border to Buffalo, New York at the Canadian border. The crescent-shaped monster, with ominous yellow and orange thunderstorm cells indicated on the radar, was dumping record amounts of rain on Indianapolis, Louisville and Pittsburgh. These cities are all within the drainage of the Ohio. The added flow from all of those rains was headed our way down the Wabash and Ohio rivers, which in turn would cascade onto the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois, contributing to the flooding conditions lower down on the river.    Today, as we push along the edge of this massive front between Evansville and Mount Vernon, Indiana, I have adopted a “taxi into position and hold” strategy. High water levels on the Wabash River flowing south into the Ohio will make for more turbulent currents, especially at the confluence of the two rivers above Paducah, Kentucky. Tonight, when we dock at Mount Vernon, I’m going to hitch a ride down to the confluence of the Ohio and the Wabash just to see for myself what the current looks like. In the morning, I’ll check the United States Geological Survey web site for the measured flow on both rivers. Then I’ll decide whether it’s best to continue downriver Thursday, or wait another day until the river levels drop.

          All of this living the weather because I am on the river reminds me what a passion meteorology has been in my life. I comfort myself and enjoy a Whitmanesque moment of hubris. I have been preparing for this trip my entire life.  

         I am a weather geek of the first order, probably because of my youthful flying experiences. As a teenage glider pilot, reading the cumulus clouds properly determined whether I could soar for an hour off a $15 tow aloft, or just 15 minutes. Weather—bad weather, mostly—defined my youthful flying trip coast to coast in 1966. More than 40 years ago, when I was promoted from cub reporter to political reporter at The Berkshire Eagle, I astonished my bosses by refusing to give up covering the weather.

“Rinker, you dunce,” said Tom Morton, the Eagle’s managing editor. “We’re promoting you. You’re getting a better beat—county politics. That means you give up the weather and do bigger things.”

“No dice, Tom,” I said. “I love the weather. I know the weather. I’m not giving it up.”

My cause was helped by the fact that I done a capable job covering recent flooding on the Housatonic River. My attraction to weather events was so complete that I had been at ground zero on Maple Hill when the West Stockbridge tornado, which killed four people, struck in August, 1973. Pictures I took of the tornado damage were run by newspapers all over the country.

There was another reason that Morton let me keep the weather beat. The Eagle’s “staff meteorologist” at the time was a pleasant, portly fellow named George Bulgarelli. He was known around the newsroom as “Bulger Belly.”

The weather forecasts that Bulger Belly gave me every morning to write up were ridiculously noncommittal and vague, because he hated it when he was wrong. The typical Bulger Belly forecast covered every possibility.

“Today, some clouds and some sun. Moderate winds. Chance of rain: 50 percent.”

The chance of rain in the Berkshires is always 50 percent. The mountain range in western Massachusetts is the first high elevation hit by Midwestern weather systems moving east. It is the high elevation that meets Atlantic system weather pushing north from Long Island Sound. The Midwestern systems are warm. The Atlantic systems were cooler. When the two systems collided in the Berkshires every afternoon, the temperature and moisture differences created intense pop-up storms somewhere in Berkshire County.

Bulger Belly considered his invariable “50 percent chance of rain” to be brilliant.

“Look,” he told me one day, after I had complained about the vagueness of his forecasts. “It’s summer in the Berkshires. Somebody always gets rained on. So, let’s say it’s an old lady from Cheshire. Her flowers just got watered all by themselves and so she’s happy with my forecast. But in Great Barrington, it didn’t rain. So everybody there is happy because I told them that they wouldn’t get rained on. Fifty percent, Rinker. Just call it 50 percent ever y day. Everybody’s happy.”

Bulger Belly was particularly useless when a big winter storm, or a freak spring ice storm, was on its way.

With these forecasts, his commitment-avoidance syndrome was maddening. He would write things like, “Freezing rain possible at all elevations.” Or: “Snowfall totals will vary from 4 inches to 22 inches.”

Bulger Belly would also annoy me by complaining that I had not included in my weather story the household tips that he tacked on the end of his forecasts—as a public service, he said. They were completely cornball. “Store extra batteries and candles in case of a power outage.” “Heavy rain can cause mice to migrate into your house. Buy mouse traps.” “High winds can damage unsecured patio furniture.”

Thank you, Bulger Belly. Maybe we should also tell them to stockpile extra toilet paper when the family comes for a reunion.

When I could see an interesting or inclement weather system developing and I wasn’t satisfied with Bulger Belly’s vapid forecasts, I began supplementing his reports from information I could obtain from either the Federal Aviation Administration weather-briefer service for pilots, or the regional meteorologists with the National Weather Service. If the FAA was forecasting “instrument only” conditions for the Albany or Pittsfield airports, I knew that we were getting freezing rain and a lot of fog. Northwest winds and a low dew point usually meant that a strong system was pushing up from the Atlantic. In the late winter, government flash-flood warnings meant that temperatures would be climbing for the rest of the week.

Bulger Belly was furious when I supplemented his tepid forecasts with interesting tidbits and added detail that I had gathered on my own. The next morning, he would storm into the newsroom or call me from home to complain about this.

“Hey! Rinker! How come you said ‘fog around lakes and low-lying rivers’?  I didn’t tell you to say that!”

Bulger Belly lived near Lake Ononta.

“George,” I said. “Look out the window.”

“Oh, wow, fog, “he said. “But it wasn’t in my forecast.”

“Okay, George,” I said. “I apologize. I’ll try not to do that again. Until the next fog.”

 When Bulger Belly complained to Morton about me, it just made his situation worse.

“George,” Morton would say. “Has Rinker been wrong yet?”

“No. But I’m the staff meteorologist. He’s not.”

Morton ignored his worthless, meteorological ass.

The managing editor loved the extra detail he was now getting in the Eagle’s daily weather reports. When the February thaw began, I told the weather story by interviewing local maple sugar houses, or ice-fishermen. “Flooding,” I decided, wasn’t really flooding. I told that story by describing the house-vanity of weekenders from New York, who insisted on building gaudy, architect-artiste McMansions on historic flood plains. The eutrophication of local water vistas—a good weather story in early summer—was mostly the result of high nighttime temperatures combining with excessive use of lawn fertilizers to create a broad green slime on Pontoosuc Lake or Stockbridge Bowl. Invasive species like purple loosestrife and milfoil spread quickly in New England because our plentiful rainfall and high summer temperatures create a more favorable environment for growth than the plants’ native Eurasia.

        Weather! It was so much fun. It was great to be a weather-turd on the western ramparts of New England, where there were so many great weather stories every week.

Weather—and a lot of other obsessive-compulsive disorders—launched a wonderful career for me. Over the years editors have sent me to cover the wildfires in California and Arizona. Drought in Texas required me to ride around on a quarter horse for several days in the gorgeous Canadian River country. And just pity me. My life has been so tough. Stories about record snow packs in the Rockies have requ[RB1] ired me, several times, to spend a week or ten days in Aspen or Boulder.

It is the time of the One-Thousand Year storm. Once more Rinker has picked the perfect moemnt to head for the Mississippi. Boaters slide in beside the Patience and tell me that I am going to spin out of control when I hit the Mississippi. They say that I have “big cojones” just to take this on. The raging Wabash, which I will hit tomorrow after the Uniontown Lock and Dam, is going to push me clear across the river onto the Kentucky banks.

But it’s all bull, alarmism.

A really nice roofer from Mount Vernon came down to the public dock tonight and chatted me up. He’s a fisherman who knows the local waters and the stretch of the Ohio below the Uniontown locks. I told him that when I get through the locks I’ll steer due northwest for the Illinois shore, to be ready for the Wabash current that will push me to the Kentucky banks. I had studied this problem. I knew what to do. I will power up and push myself away from the Kentucky banks.

“Don’t even worry about it,” the fishermen told me. “Just pull out of the locks and shut your engine down if you want. The Wabash is high, but it isn’t even close to flood stage now. You’re not going to have a problem.”

Tomorrow! Mile 830 on the Ohio. Six weeks out, and we can just linger all we want to the Mississippi. It’s been a life fixated on life and listening to people. I’m sure that I’ll get through the confluence with the Wabash tomorrow thoroughly enjoying myself.

--RINKER BUCK

 

 

 [RB1]E to spend 




Mile 777 Ohio River at Newburgh, Indiana.  
        THE RIVER PROVIDES
          Living for a month on one of America's largest rivers is a lesson in hydrology and the natural cleansing power of water. The Ohio, which flows 991 miles from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, is the largest single contributor to the volume of the Mississippi. It's drainage covers 15 states, and the river annually sweeps millions of board feet of fallen timber from a vast mosaic of forests upriver. The detritus of huge trees is everywhere and the largest job every spring at riverside farms, campgrounds and marinas is the clearing of log jams that have accumulated all winter, when the river rises as much as 30 feet above its summer banks. 
          Curtis Wasmer lives for this. A small contractor from Newburgh, Indiana, Wasmer spends most of his free time plying the river for massive chunks of driftwood, which he fashions into artful, visually intriguing coffee tables, chairs and benches. I have seen my share of "driftwood craftsmen" over the years, but few who work on the massive scale and attention to natural beauty as Wasmer.
         Wasmer, 51, began plying the local banks of the Ohio when he moved to Indiana from Maryland five years ago so that so that he and his wife could be closer to their grandchildren. Friends he had made in Indiana took him out in their boats to see the river and Wasmer was staggered by the size and twisted beauty of the oaks, cedar and locust jams along the shore. The artistic yearning that many carpenters feel drew him again and again to the river, and he began skidding out huge root balls and tree crowns with his pickup and trailer. 
         "Oh wow, I thought," Wasmer says. "Here is a resource free for the taking that I would love to tap. I've always searched for a way to express the creative side of the carpentry work I do. This was it."
       Wasmer carefully sorts among the wealth of driftwood along the shore for unique formations created by river erosion after a log has spent several years being tossed around and burnished into striking patinas. He looks for solid, relatively cured pieces formed by the natural process of water erosion and then bleaching by the sun once the piece has been trapped on the banks. Black walnut, cedar, locust and oak are exceptionally hard and durable species which best endure the immersion then drying process.
           His shop in a small industrial park in Newburgh is a feast for the eyes--oak so perfectly fissured by water erosion that it looks like cut marble, red cedar richly died purple and yellow, and black walnut so hard and basalt-colored that it reminds me of the fossilized stumps in the Petrified National Forest in northern Arizona. 
           "I'm looking for something that so obviously suggests a use that you almost can use it as is," Wasmer says. "You look at a stump on the banks and can instantly visualize it as a coffee table base. Other samples I may bring back to the shop and look at for months before I decide what to do with it. Old root balls are particularly challenging because they are so three-dimensional."
         Wasmer has been increasingly successful with pieces he has sold to private collectors and buyers--a coffee table sold to a New Yorker, a patio bench that now graces a garden in Florida. His largest project so far is a wondrously massive and attractive set of 17 pathway benches that will line a walking trail in a community park in nearby Warrick County. 
      Samples of his work can be found on Wasmer's Built on the Rock Facebook page. 
         But there is one other quality about Wasmer that I like quite a lot. The Ohio River Valley is a region of loud and dogmatic conservative Christians. They deliberately act out whenever a Yankee is near, rarely bothering to inquire about his views first. It's tiring. It's redundant. The chapters in the New Testament when Jesus confronts the Pharisees or the money-lenders in the temple have, seemingly, been redacted for local consumption. But Wasmer, a member of the Church of Christ, is modest and understated. He's a devout Christian, but he doesn't feel the need to apply a ball-peen to my skull to express his beliefs. 
           "The river provides," he says, sweeping his hand around his shop at his driftwood treasures.  "When I walk the banks and find the perfectly eroded tree, I am so thankful. I feel at one with nature and universal bounty. I am so blessed. The river always provides." 
        --RINKER BUCK
        



​GOING SOLO

 

 

MILE 719 ON THE OHIO RIVER, at Rocky Point, Indiana

 

         I ran into an interesting and new problem this week. On Monday we ran the lonely winding stretch of the Ohio through the Hoosier National Forest, powering through a couple of strong thunderstorms that were echoing like cannon shots through the forest hollows on the shore. At Cloverport, Kentucky, both of my crew members discovered that they had to get off the boat—one for a family medical emergency back home and the other for business. I found myself solo on the boat in Cloverport, parked bow-in at a marginal private dock on low water.

         When I woke in the morning, I could see that the Patience’s bow was almost resting in the mud. Water levels are constantly changing on the river, as the lock and dam managers release water to accommodate heavy rains upriver, or lower river levels to reduce pressures on the dams. On the Ohio River, the depth near the shore is constantly changing. You can go to bed on your boat with 5 feet of water under your hull, and then wake the next morning beached on a sand bar.

         I got out of bed that morning somewhat discombobulated by my situation. As I made coffee, I realized that I had less than two feet of water under the bow. I had to release my bow lines on the dock and pull back and reset my anchors behind me, to hold me further out in the stream in deeper water.

         This annoyed me. I had a really nice panful of bacon cooking on the stove, Betty Crocker Biscuits frying in the other pan, and a nice scrambled omelet all set up in a bowl. But when I walked around the boat with a wooden pole to establish my depth, I could see that I was not making progress. The water level was still dropping. I had to get out of Cloverport, and right away, to avoid being beached.

           I spent a lot of time with river people, pushboat captains, coast guard officers, and this merry crew of reenactors, preparing for this trip. And they all told me one thing. Do not push off solo in that boat. You’ll need at least two crew members to get through the locks. When storms blow up, they told me, that is too heavy and complicated a boat to handle alone.

         But there were countervailing thoughts as I scrambled about the boat readying to cast off. So far on this trip, the vast majority of advice I’ve received has been wrong. People who claimed to “know” the river and its busy commercial traffic told me to always communicate with the push boats. In fact, the tug captains don’t want to hear from you at all and are just looking for you to noiselessly stay out of their way. I was told the locks would be difficult. They are not. I was told to tie up at the first sign of a storm. Bull. The peak winds of a storm only last 10 or 12 minutes and I have plenty of power to steer through them. I am much safer underway than attempting some cobbled-together tie-up to a rock or tree on the banks.

         Mostly, I’ve concluded, I’ve been too polite and too attentive to people who exaggerate the dangers of river navigation to inflate their own importance. It’s spooky, it’s dangerous out there. Only I know. “Experienced” sailors are the worst. There’s that former in-law of mine who refused to listen to common sense about trimming sails in high winds. He’s dismasted his boat twice. Oh and that wonderful other bonehead of a New York lawyer in my extended clan who considered his $85,000 sloop a fiberglass polishing device for rocks. As a boy, on Cape Cod, there was no man I loved more than Ted King. But I swear I spent more time pushing his Wianno Senior off the shoals of Chatham than actually sailing the damn thing.

         My friend Nate Wilson, an esteemed sailmaker in East Boothbay, Maine, puts it another way.

         “The smaller the boat, the more the owner knows.”

         So, screw it. The knowledge and experience I didn’t have wasn’t going to hurt me right now because I was about to get a lot more. Patience, here we go. We’re launching for my first solo, flatboat.

I turned the propane stove low, in the hopes that my bacon and eggs would cook by themselves. Scurrying around the boat to perform the work of three or four crewmen, I released all the lines from the shore, arduously pulled these 60-pound anchors of cement that John Cooper had built, started the Mercury motor, and floated into the stream all by myself. I was alone with Patience on the Ohio.  

          Oh, liberation! Oh, breakthrough moments in life! Walt Whitman! Wilfred Thesiger! Steinbeck in the bean fields! I was alone on the Ohio in a big 8-ton boat with calm waters at dawn and good flow. It was beautiful to be floating downriver all by myself. With the flow, we were doing better than 5 miles per hour against the shore.

         It was a nice stretch of river—mile 711 to mile 719. There were spectacularly scenic S-bends, with the terrain leveling out now to fertile bottomland crop fields, replacing the hilly hollows upriver. Morning mist rose over the cornfields. I passed a Great Blue Heron rookery and the adults were all racing toward the river to find food for their young. Faucett Creek and the Hudson Hill Light went by.

         I was alone in the flow, the wind was directly from the west, but light, so it was no problem negotiating the Patience toward the dock at the Rocky Point marina on the Indiana side. While we drifted in I left the wheel and set up a line on the starboard bow. The geezer on the dock caught my line and cleated us up as the heavy square boat kissed the wood.

         What I thought about then was that I have to email my old sailing companion John King and tell him about this. I also thought that the light that morning in Indiana was almost perfect, with soft pastels against the hard green of the hardwood forests. The Wabash country is just two hundred miles away now. I love the Wabash space more than anywhere else in the country and I knew now that it wasn’t going to be much a fret getting there.

                      --RINKER BUCK


Aug 4



PAUL BUNYON LIVES

MILE 719 OHIO RIVER, at Rocky Point, Indiana

A few days ago, while we were tied up at the docks at Brandenburg, Kentucky, the loudest contraption on the river roared out of the bend to the west, spewing a giant rooster tail of water vapor and skittering around in the tugboat channel like a giant waterbug. The matt-black craft was obviously some kind of a wildass, homebuilt airboat, and the driver on the console was a burly Paul Bunyon wearing bib overalls and a camo hunting cap.
He pulled up beside the Patience and shut off his pusher motor, which I recognized as the eight-cylinder engine from a Chevy one-ton truck, and drifted over against our bumpers.
“Hey,” the man said with a deep baritone drawl, “What kinder getup do we have here? This soambitch looks even crazier than my rig.”
His name is Mike Russell and we got to know each other pretty well over the next few days. To say that Mike Russell is a piece of work is like saying that Donald Trump is a sweet man with nice hair who occasionally suffers mild personality disorders. The situation requires more hyperbole than that. Mike Russell is a giant piece of work, a mountain of personality straight out of the Ohio River’s legendary and antic past. He’s a pirate and a logger and a tall-talker on steroids. The fact that he’s made a lot of money and lived some big adventures shows us how much room there still is in America for the larger-than-life.
Mike began life on Okinawa in Japan as an Army brat, and then followed his family around the world as his father accepted each new assignment in the military. Changing schools every two years disrupted Mike’s academic career, but this didn’t really matter. He was uneducable to begin with.
“Them teachers took one look at a soambitch like me and just plum gave up right there,” Mike says. “’Sides, either the stuff they were tryin to teach me I already knew or I could tell I was never goin to need that shit. The only book I’d read by then was ‘Old Yeller’ and perty much that was all I needed.”
By this time, Mike’s family had moved back to Flaherty, Kentucky, and he dropped out of school after the eighth grade. With no money of his own and no expectations of help from his family, he started small, splitting firewood by hand and finding stands of locust in the woods that he could cut into fencing for people. When he had accumulated enough money from that work, Mike went out and bought a draft mule to help him skid bigger hardwood trees out of the forest. That went well enough for Mike to buy a second mule the next year. For the next ten years he lumbered exclusively with mules, at a time when horse-logging was gaining in popularity and the market for trained mules was expanding.
“I was just learning then what making money is all about,” Mike says. “It ain’t the business you think you’re in that counts. It’s the business it’s leading you to.”
Russell mules were what is called in the trade “dead ass broke.” He could work with them without holding driving lines because they were so used to following his voice commands. He was married by then and a father and would walk into the forests every day with a mesh play pen, toys, and a bag of diapers for his young boys. They watched him work all day and crawled over to him in the woods, begging to drive the mules. By the time they were six they were driving his teams.
At the end of the logging season every year Mike usually had several mule teams that would command top dollar at auctions and mule meets. Then he bought new colts to train for the spring. Russell’s timing was fortuitous. The Ohio River Valley was exploding with new Amish and Mennonite settlements. Mule ownership had become a status symbol for the new-rich in Tennessee and Kentucky. In this rapidly expanding market, Mike became known as one of the busiest mule trainers and brokers in the South and regularly won driving contests and breeding awards at mule events.  
Russell made so much money breaking colts that he was finally able to afford a modern, diesel-powered log skidder. This allowed him to take on larger forest contracts and he was soon the biggest logging operation in northern Kentucky. Russell branched off into veneer-cutting just as the market for North American hardwood veneers for furniture took off in China and Japan.
Whenever Russell gets bored with what he’s doing, he branches off again into a new business or hobby—buying and selling logging equipment, or “rock-climbing” four-wheel drive vehicles. He’s developed a beautiful stretch of Ohio River waterfront in Battle Town, Kentucky. When he wanted to learn to fly, he bought an old helicopter stored in a barn, fixed it up, and took flying lessons. For several years he bought and sold helicopters and planes as a side career.
“You could buy some old shitbox copter for $50,000, fix the soambitch up, and sell it two months later for $150,000. I loved the work.”
Russell built his 20-foot “Russell Longhorn” airboat a few years ago, after he became interested in alligator hunting in Louisiana and Florida. A specialty boat-builder fabricated the hull and Russell designed and installed the controls, air fins, Chevy truck engine and four-bladed prop himself. He uses it now to tend his catfish lines on the Ohio and tells many tall tales about his alligator-wrastlin’ and hunting junkets in the Florida Everglades and the bayous of Louisiana. 
Russell has come on board the Patience a few nights. We drink bourbon and talk under the soft light of lanterns glowing against my poplar walls. The rollers from the big push boats working the Ohio gently rock the Patience and she melodiously groans and creaks from the movement.
I’ve learned something important from Russell. With a grand storyteller like him, it doesn’t matter whether the content is total bullshit or the absolute God’s truth. It’s the act of storytelling that matters. After a while with Russell you learn to appreciate that accuracy or falsehood doesn’t matter. They are really just the same thing. The storytelling is all and in Russellworld the talk all metabolizes into one grand truth.
Every winter, Russell and his sons and friends trailer the airboat down to Florida or Louisiana. They wander deep into the Everglades and take as many gators as they want to eat right there, or to haul home to freeze for the winter. They troll quietly into the swamps and shine a flashlight down into the cypress groves until they see the pink from the alligators’ eyes. They pick what they think is the largest gator. Then they pounce, shooting the alligator on the top of his head, and either skin him there or back at their campsite. 
His tales are a work of performance art and I love listening to them.
“Okay so one time in the Everglades a couple of years ago we hook into a big, frickin mamma of a 13-foot gator, see?” Russell says. “That soambitch must have weighed 800 pounds. Well when we landed that dang thing in the boat it got to kicking around and wrastlin with us so hard he got his jaws around a metal seat in the boat and dented it. My boys finally got him hog tied and we skinned him right there. There was a fire waiting for us back in camp. God, I am goin to tell you. There’s h’aint nothing better than fresh alligator meat cooked in corn meal.”
Long into the night Russell entertains me with alligator-hunting tales and really good boasting about record catfish hauls. There have been many scary takeoffs in bush planes from rivers in Alaska. At his camp sites in the bayous of Lousiana, there are feral bulls and hogs that have escaped from local farms. He shoots them too.  
“Doesn’t sound like very good meat to me,” I say.
“Oh, any old meat is good in sausage, you know? Or you can cook it in a lot of wine.”
During one of the nights while we were in Brandenburg, Russell took a few of us from the Patience on a moonlight airboat ride. We ran downriver on the Ohio and then Russell careened the airboat into Buck Creek. We raced down through the zig-zag turns with the airboat yawing wide when Russell pushed the steering fins under the low-hanging trees. Dark, spectral shapes lurked in the forests whipping by, as spooky as the Spanish moss hanging from the trees in the sea islands of South Carolina.
After we left Brandenburg, I ran the Patience down the Ohio to Mike’s waterworld at Battle Town. He’s got a muddy but scenic landing area, a huge open-air pavilion up on the bluffs with picnic tables, outdoor fire pits and a full bar. The Russell mansion up on the hill has a 2,000 square-foot shop, meticulously swept and full of tools, with an immense flat-screen TV mounted in the bar. It’s the best man cave I’ve ever seen. Mike Russell is one kickass hillbilly millionaire with taste.
When I parked the Patience bow-in that night at Mike’s, I was worried about the water level on the sandy shore. If the Army Corps of Engineers dropped the river overnight, I would be beached on the shoals. I asked Mike about that.
“Stop being Nancy on me, k?” Russell said. “If the soambitch is grounded in the morning, I’ll push you out with my tractor.”
The soambitch was grounded in the morning. Russell drove down to the banks with his big John Deere and pushed us into deep water.
As I drifted off in the current, I waved and yelled thanks to Mike. In his booming, Radio Free Europe voice, he called back.
“I’m follerin your soambitch ass downriver, you hear? I’m buying you wings for dinner at the Rocky Point Café Wednesday night!”
Now it’s Wednesday night, late. Mike showed up at Rocky Point, just as promised. We drank bourbon on the boat and then we walked across the lane for wings.

--RINKER BUCK

                     

Aug 1 2016


 RIVER RATS

 

                  MILE 658 ON THE OHIO RIVER, below Battle Town, Kentucky

 

         We are now traveling remote river country, following a long inverted U north and then almost due south, where the Ohio River forms the border of the Hoosier National Forest. We will not find a convenience store, a gas station or even a small settlement for 75 miles. Our riverscape this morning is placid and subdued. Under a low, hazy overcast, the water surface is still, the winds light. Along the serpentine course of the river thousands of acres of hardwood forests climb the Indiana banks to our right, and the Kentucky banks on our left. A series of strong thunderstorm systems have moved through the Ohio River Valley in the last three days and the increased flow on the river has pushed our speed to 5 miles per hour.

           I welcome the desolation and the time away from civilization. While we were parked at the public ramp in Brandenburg, Kentucky for two days, the Patience attracted a lot of attention, and people stroll over almost constantly to chat. Southerners are admirably hospitable and friendly, but their push-to-talk button has no “off.” They are epic, Olympic-class talkers. During the weekend, the boat ramp was busy with activity almost 24 hours a day—bass fishermen launching by the dozens at dawn, Asian carp hunters launching after dark, the owners of cruising pontoons and cigarette boats putting in at all times of the day. Everyone wants to talk about the Patience and our journey and share stories about life on the river. It’s been entertaining but wearying and now I welcome this passage through Deliverance country absent of people and talk.

             I did particularly enjoy, however, the older men along the river who almost invariably describe themselves as “river rats.” River rats are fellows who grew up along the river when it was much busier commercially than it is today and whose life patterns and income derived from the Ohio. They are mostly retired now but they just can’t resist coming down to the banks every morning with a cup of coffee, chatting with each other, seeing if anything is going on, helping to throw or catch lines for the pleasure boaters. The big Ohio River push boats that many of them used to work on whine by, day and night, and they wave from the shore to old friends on the Donna York or the Eleanor B. MacDonald.

         At Brandenburg, I enjoyed meeting Ron Richardson, 71, a river rat with a rakish handlebar moustache and a lanyard dangling from his neck holding his car fob and keys, his cell phone, his watch and a pen knife. He wandered down every morning just to check on us and to share advice on the river below us. His story is a portrait of river life over the past century.

            Richardson grew up in Brandenburg, the son of a car mechanic with his own small garage. His mother stayed at home. The river was in his blood not only because, as a boy, he would wander down to the banks with his friends after school to fish, skip rocks or run errands for the crews of local work boats who needed something in tow++n. By the time he was 12 he knew every tug on the river by sight from a mile or two away. His family’s life had always been on the river.

           From the turn of the 20th century until World War II, Richardson’s grandfather, Allen Richardson, ran a small packet boat on the Ohio, the “Daisy.” It was a low-draft wooden boat powered by a Neptune engine. The Daisy performed a function completely forgotten about in today’s America. In those days the consumer society, especially in rural areas, was largely served by traveling salesmen—the Fuller Brush Man, dry goods sellers, men selling shoes, pre-cut suits, life insurance, hardware and even car parts. There were garden seed salesmen and traveling knife and ax sharpeners. When the machinery at saw mills or quarries along the river broke, specialized mechanics traveled by boat to overhaul engines and gears boxes. These itinerant salesmen and service workers were called “drummers.”

              The main transportation provider serving middle Kentucky, the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, had a spur that ran freight and passengers into Brandenburg. But most of the towns down around the “Great Bend” of the river to the south—Wolf Creek, Alton, Derby and Stephensport—didn’t have railroad service. They were small logging or quarry towns, prosperous but remote, and the drive on back country roads to shop at a bigger town could take all day. River access along this stretch of the Ohio was much better. Once or twice a week, to reach these towns, the drummers would take the L&N to Brandenburg and then pay Allen Richardson to take them to travel their sales route on the Daisy.

            “Even little towns in those days had accommodations for traveling salesmen,” Richardson says. “The drummers would stay at a boarding house or a small inn, rent a horse and buggy in the morning, and work their sales route all day. My grandfather waited on the Daisy at the town docks, and slept on his boat. The next morning the drummers would board again and sail downriver for the next small town. Sometimes Granddaddy was gone for the whole week. When they got back to Brandenburg, the drummers would take the L&N back out of town and spend the next week on another river.”

            Richardson still marvels at how primitive yet efficient this economy was.

             “I can’t imagine how these salesmen made any money,” he says. “They had their L&N ticket to buy. Then they paid my grandfather to ferry them around on the Daisy to all of these towns. They rented a horse and buggy from the local livery or a farmer. But things were so different then. People didn’t have all this stuff, like cell phones and laptops, that they have today. You had a party line telephone, maybe. Nobody you knew had money, but we all lived well. Mostly on nothing. All I know is that my Dad didn’t grow up poor.”  

          The river drew Richardson, and brought in touches of the outside world.  Right up through the late 1950s, there were still showboats plying the river all summer. These were large barges with built-in amphitheaters that toured the river towns with troupes of actors and singers. Some of them carried vaudeville players and bands. Some of them staged rotating Broadway musicals. The big event of the summer arrived when the riverboat the Delta Queen docked at the town wharf for the night. Large crowds from Brandenburg would step on board for dinner and then listen to the Delta Queen band play Dixieland music.

              “It annoys me now that I can’t remember most of those plays from the showboats,” Richardson says. “I think I was too young and unsophisticated for culture to sink in. I only remember the play ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ probably because it was all about a stretch of the river near us. The showboats sold boxes of taffy wrapped in wax paper. It was a big deal for me when my parents bought me the taffy on the showboat.”

            Richardson’s father loved steam organ music, and many of the showboats offered that.

            Richardson was ambitious. When he graduated from Brandenburg High School in 1963, he wanted to go to college. He dreamed of matriculating at Western Kentucky University and studying either engineering or industrial arts. But he would be the first in his family to attend college and the Richardsons’ didn’t have the money to pay his tuition and room and board.

             “We were raised in a generation that believed that you worked for what you wanted,” Richardson says. “You weren’t given everything.”

            Once more, Richardson looked to the river. In 1965 he took his first river rat job—as a deckhand on the Raymond E. Salvetti push boat. He worked all summer making one-week coal runs to a large power plant in Madison, Indiana, jumping from barge to barge to manage the ropes, helping the captain “split” the barge load when they went through locks. It was a summer of hot, hard work. He manned the motor room helping the engineers, sanded and painted the boat and swept the coal dust from the barges when they were empty. Occasionally, he was assigned “galley hoss” duty, carrying dinner to the deckhands, or coffee up to the pilothouse. The captains were benevolent and liked this ambitious, river-rat lad. They often invited Richardson to take over as helmsman for an hour or two. They loved showing their rookie river rat how to manage the boat and steer wide around the bends in the river, to account for current and wind.

            By working all summer with almost no days off, Richardson had accumulated 45 extra “days off” pay. When he left the boat on Labor Day, he was able to sell those days back to the barge company at their cash value.

          “I made enough money that summer to pay for a whole year at Western Kentucky University,” Richardson says. “My life was pretty much set after that. Every summer and Christmas vacation I worked on the river. Then I spent the rest of the year studying industrial arts at the university. The Ohio River gave me my college education.”

          Richardson spent his first five years out of college working as the shop teacher at the high school in New Albany, Indiana. But he missed the more active life of an industrial setting and worked for several years on machinery at local factories, and then spent 20 years as a design draftsman at the nearby U.S. Army base, Fort Knox.

           But the river continued to call him. Many nights and weekends, he moonlighted as a deckhand on the Belle of Louisville, an evening excursion boat.

         Now he’s retired, and he walks down early every morning just to see what’s happening on the Brandenburg landing. He comes down to the river banks, too, after a big storm has blown through, just in case someone’s boat is loose or a pleasure boater needs some help. He loves to run errands in town for boaters in need. He dispenses a lot of advice on what boaters can expect up and down the river. He’s the geezer on the dock who helps everyone out.

              Because of its position on the river between Louisville and Owensboro, Brandenburg is often called “the crew change capitol of the Ohio.” The big muscular tugs pushing 15 barges of coal up and down river often slow to a crawl beside the town dock, lower a 16-foot skiff, and rotate out their crews after their 23-day stay. Richardson can usually sense when a push boat is about to exchange crews, and he comes down to the docks to watch the skiffs or toss them lines. I saw him last on Sunday afternoon, when an Ingram tug was idling in the channel while the crew exchanged.

           “The river has been good to me,” Richardson says. “It provided my income. I’ve worked with a great mix of people. The life I was living was the life I read about in Mark Twain books. This in my world. I come down here every day to be a part of the river. I’m a river rat.”

 

                     --RINKER BUCK

 
​July 29


            MILE 646 on the Ohio River at Brandenburg, Kentucky

 
         A river journey is an immersion in simplicity, the elements you can see or feel just by your senses.

           This morning I woke along the Kentucky banks to another island of tree snags, floating plastic jugs and cut firewood and board lumber jammed in the small inlet where we are docked. The water level along the rip-rap banks of the riverfront park in Brandenburg was two feet higher than when I went to sleep last night. I knew from listening to the NOAA weather reports last night that there were heavy storms well north of us. Overnight, as these torrents filled the pool of water at Louisville held back by the McAlpin Dam, the floodgates were opened and the flow of the river increased. It would take until almost noon for this flow to cleanse the inlet of its nocturnal deposit of driftwood.

              As I made coffee, a couple of large, cut logs bobbed by in the current. They were making very good time against the banks, I thought, maybe four of five miles an hour. Boy, that’s good flow, I thought, perhaps the strongest I’d seen on the trip. Too bad we weren’t underway today. With the two or three miles per hour we gain from running our engine, we might have been going past land at 7 m.p.h.—great speed for us.

            Rain, tree snags, water level. Reading the river tells me so much. A log bobbing by tells me the speed I can expect for the day and allows me to plan a little about destinations. This will be particularly important once we shove off with
Billy Richards aboard on Sunday or Monday. Downriver from Brandenburg we face an 80-mile stretch of wilderness with virtually no settled habitation. The Ohio juts abruptly north and then southwest through the Hoosier National Forest in Indiana. We will find no gas, no food, no ice to buy.

            If there is flow from rains upriver, we will probably be able to make 30 miles on a single portable tank of gas. If the rains abate, we will make only 20 miles on that tank. With flow, we can probably make Cloverport below in three days. Without flow, it might take four or five days. All of this has to be factored into how much gas we carry, getting by without ice, and what provisions we load.

            With more Midwestern rains over the weekend, and thus greater speed, we’ll push downriver quickly enough for Billy to enjoy a steak and fresh chicken every night. No flow? No ice for four days. Welcome to my world Billybabe. I hope you like Hormel chili no beans. But thank God Billy is a teetotaler. We don’t have to worry about cold drinks.

         I notice as well, in the greater flow, the tugs pushing barges downriver swing much tighter in the channel underneath the Welsh Bridge at Brandenburg. Coming upriver, the push boats and their sticks of barges are crabbed into the current more, to compensate for the flow. Against the current they seem to make painfully slow progress toward us.

             The creeks are full from the local rains and they gush down the hillsides toward the river in a linear geyser of white foam. The rocks below the bluffs were exposed yesterday. With the higher river level today, they are invisible.

              There are other indicators of life to read on the river. At night, river beavers furiously paddle upstream with meshes of branches, leaves and bark in their teeth. Catfish jump so high over the water at dawn that their noisy splash back into the river acts as my alarm clock. I calculate that since Pittsburgh I have seen nesting pairs of osprey and bald eagle at least every ten river miles. They are lovely to watch as they dive for the water, slow and extend their legs and then pluck out a fish, struggling for altitude with the weight. For a lad who grew up reading the great Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” and worrying about the survival of these raptor birds, its inspiring to see how man can work to help noble species return.

            A flag on the lawn of the white mansion up on the bluffs is pointing sharply east, pushed by strong winds from the west. But the diesel exhaust from a push boat underneath the bridge is billowing straight up, meaning less wind 300 feet below on the river. Not much crabbing of the bow to do today. Better boat speed.

           All of these things can be read for what they mean and what kind of a day we’re going to have and my immersion in these elements is a baptism of understanding and joy.

                       --RINKER BUCK

 



​July 28


THE LIFE OF A RIVERMAN
Mile 643 on the Ohio River, just above Brandenburg, Kentucky: 
           I am beginning to enjoy the life cycles of a riverman. In the morning when I wake my sleeping bag and everything else on the boat is coated with a slippery, deep dew. There are wispy vapors rising from the Ohio, straining to climb high and form enough mass for river fog. A pair of bald eagles are diving for fish down at the big horseshoe bend. 
           It rained hard last night and there were considerable winds. But I wake joyful about that because the lines we secured to the Kentucky banks held perfectly, and by staging anchors at the stern we kept the Patience safely off the rocks. Each day there is the satisfaction of learning something new. How to secure lines at night. No radio communications with the push-boats is usually better than communications because a lot of useless chitchat just identifies us as pleasure boaters. I signal instead with my bow that we are staying out of their way. Following a compass course to correct for wind drift is more consistent and saves time than pointing for a waypoint on the shore.
               I like the companionability, the shared effort, of working with a competent crew. Mike Binkley, a ruggedly handsome retired furniture store owner from Gallatin, Tennessee, is a joy to be with. He can do or fix anything and has always enjoyed an adventuresome life--traveling on $10 a day in Europe when he was in his early twenties, biking and motorcycling in the south and west, hiking the Grand Canyon and boating on the Cumberland River in Tennessee. There are no crises with Mike. He understands the value of speaking softly on a boat. We're moving slowly down the river, rarely at more than four miles per hour. Nothing happens quickly as long as we are always well ahead of the boat. We dock this whale of a flat-bottom gently, inching toward our tie down slowly, almost motionless, like a cat stalking a song bird.
              I have also been greatly aided by the addition of Clay Davis, a conscientious teenager from New Hampshire who cooks, tidies lines, steers the boat and is more or less our Eddie Haskell stowaway. It's a joy being with a young man who knows that good manners speak volumes. His Dad, Porter Davis, an experienced ocean sailor, has been excellent help as well. I am looking forward to the addition of the inimitable Billy Richards over the weekend.
             In the mornings we get the Patience underway as early as possible and I manage things from our rooftop bridge for a while. But then I turn navigation and running the boat over to Mike or Porter and go below to help Clay ready breakfast for the crew. Tugboat captains know that their most important crew member is the chef. That's what keeps good hands coming back to your boat. I follow this rule scrupulously. My men eat well. For breakfast they feast on Aunt Jemima pancakes shaken out of a plastic jug, chicken sausage with Velveeta cheese and scrambled eggs. If there are leftovers from the night before I use them to make an omelet. Yesterday I fed the boys a "Cheese Club" macaroni and cheese omelet. Tomorrow they're getting a beef hash omelet. The peanut butter and pimento cheese sandwiches I serve for lunch are the best in the country. It just doesn't get any better than this for cuisine and after word gets around there's going to be a long line of sailors begging to come on board.
            Now we are docked at the historic river town of Brandenburg, Kentucky. The waterfront park a short walk away has clean bathrooms and there's a nice cove for bathing. We're in the Ohio River bluff country now and the attractive antebellum town sits handsomely high above the river. Stately mansions bookend broad green lawns. There are old Shawnee and Cherokee arrowhead mounds, a Civil War battle site, a restored log cabin where John James Audubon slept on his birding wanders, mansion tours and caves galore. The town prospered in the 19th century as a flatboat landing and trading center and I will enjoy gathering material for my book. 
              Altogether finishing a long day on the river at historic Brandenburg is a book turd's dream. Tomorrow will be my favorite kind of day, biking around a lovely southern town, my brakes automatically deploying at every historical marker, library and restored house.




 A JUMP IN THE RIVER
          MILE 606 BELOW LOUISEVILLE, KENTUCKY

             We live in an age of such extravagance and excess, with so many thousands of dollars spent by each of us every year on comforts, that we've completely lost sense of nature's simple gifts. I love these long, grungy excursions of mine for the reality check they deliver on the theme of simplicity. Love life. Love adventuring. Love beauty. Love the romance of typing this from my crude poplar cabin floating on the Ohio River, with the view out the side hatch to the green Kentucky shore. I look right. The view over the bow is a big, muscular Ingram tug boat pushing a stick of 15 coal barges upriver.
               It also helps to love filth. A wooden flatboat underway with crew is just a big vacuum  cleaner bag collecting all the river, airborne and human refuse in its way. Now that the deck planking has dried out there are large gaps in the floor, compacted with dust, food particles and bits of dental floss and snipped electrical wire in a kind of linear garbage pail. When I wash pots and pans black with the soot of a white gas stove, most of the grime ends up on my shorts. I haven't shaved now for several days because the electric razor I bought for the trip fell overboard the first time I used it.
             For the past couple of days, we were docked at the lovely riverside facilities of the Juniper Beach Docks, about 8 miles north of Louisville. The grounds manager there invited us into his apartment for showers. But I didn't want to abuse his generosity by asking for a second shower. Yesterday, after a busy day running around in a heat wave buying ice, provisions and gas tank fittings, I walked down to the end of our wooden slip, carefully organizing a bar of soap, shampoo and shaving cream on the last board before the water. Then I stripped to my bathing suit and dove into the Ohio River.
              The water was refreshing and cool. As I lathered up with soap and then washed my hair, the wake from a passing tugboat pushed my soapy rings shoreward, under the docks. I dove low in the water for a final rinse and came up to the view of a woman in a hot turquoise tank suit racing by on a ski jet. I could hear the rumble of cars on a nearby bridge and a Cessna 185 on floats growled overhead. Two dogs playing together on the Juniper Beach lawn ran down to the end of the slip, curious about this swimmer in the water.
               I lay on my back for a while and let the river current turn me in lazy circles. The view of hazy blue sky against green river banks, and the boats in the marina gently bobbing against the wooden dock pilings, was mesmerizing, dizzying. I felt that I could nap right here, on mile 597 of the Ohio River. The feelings of satisfaction and refreshment were complete. I was enjoying the perfect bath. It cost nothing--no pumped water, no gas expended for hot water, no exquisitely-laid tile on the walls.
               I swam over to the fuel dock and pulled myself up by grabbing a rusty bollard. I felt cleansed, revived. Walking back to the boat I marveled at how simple and elemental pleasure can be. Pleasure doesn't have to be elaborate or acquired at high cost. Direct from Nature, pleasure is gratis.
          


​​​​July 24th

​PLEASURE CRAFT: Aurora, Indiana is a picturesque village that drops down to the water at Mile 498, where the Ohio River turns southeast in a giant bend. A Piper Super Cub on floats climbs from the water as we approach the natural harbor formed by the S-curve of the river. The brick facades and Italianate porches gleam in the afternoon sun, testament to Aurora's past as a prosperous river port during the 19th century Flatboat era. 



After the big Aurora bend the river opens wide to drop down through the level farm country north of Louisville. The expanse of water is now more of a lake, with the ends of the pool formed by the bends of the river. There are islands in the middle of the flow and inviting, sandy beaches along the shore. Altogether it's an open, watery space that calls out to a motor boater to open up the throttle. 



As we entered the "river lake" area below the bend, I marvel at the prosperity, the excess, the joy, the sheer adrenaline thrill of such American viewscapes today. There are pleasure boats everywhere, churning up a hundred wakes and white rooster tails of spray. Teenage girls in bikinis skitter around on their jet skis like mayfly nymphs. Bronze Adonis boys lean into their water-ski turns, their shoulders almost parallel to the water. Pontoon boats loaded with well fed retirees bubble by. The big growth industry in America right now is plastic inflatable rafts of every kind--tubes, love seats, flat water-toboggans with handles on them-- and these are yanked around behind the boats on nylon ropes. Below the Aurora bend, there must be 25 of these fun-buckets caterwauling around per river mile. Children squeal as they are thrown wide in the turns. Millennial lads guzzle beer while riding backwards on the tubes. As we float by a young father is in the water trying to position his daughter for her first solo on water skis. Holding her by the back, he yells to his wife ahead in the boat. "Giver her the gas, baby!"

 The water is choppy from all this displacement activity in one place. Patience gently rocks back and forth over the rollers. Two or three boats at a time wander over to check out this curiosity on the river. Boaters cheer and tell us that they are following Patience on Facebook. They wave again and call out support when we tell them that we are headed for New Orleans. We are briefly upstaged by a small harbor tug, restored by a private owner to look like Tommy the Tug, rumbling by in a cloud of diesel vapor. 

There is evidence, too, of the occasional buffoonery of the American boater. As we pass the big Rising Sun casino, a sailboater calls out a Mayday, Mayday! His fuel line has broken and he is now adrift in the middle of the channel, with a large Ingram push boat with barges coming upriver. The sailboater who has panicked (this was not, by any definition of the term, a "Mayday") gives his position as Aurora, ten miles away. We are between the upcoming barges and the sailboat in distress. I advise the tug captain that the sailboat is pointed toward the Kentucky shore and probably drifting in that direction. Fifteen minutes later a Boone County rescue boat reaches the sailboat, and the Ingram push boat rumbles by, with plenty of room to clear the drifting sailboat. 

Mayday. That knucklehead in the plastic hull has been reading too many Nelson DeMille books. 

There is still very much a thought abroad in this land that government spends too much, and regulates too much, regarding water and air quality , protecting river environments and the like. But I wonder what the boaters and skiers below Aurora would think if there weekend waterworld was unsafe for health. RINKER BUCK



CIVILIZATION AGAIN.  Mile Marker 467, Cincinnati. July 23 2016

      We have spent the past two weeks negotiating the lazy bends of the Ohio, enjoying the sensation of escape that a river journey provides. On the West Virginia and Kentucky side, we are passing through dying coal country, with sad, rundown villages and trailer parks rusting along the riverbanks. Occasionally we pass lovely gentrified towns, where weekenders or retirees have meticulously scrubbed the old Victorian gingerbread lattices, painted the clapboard and porch railings so that little Augusta, KY, or Marietta, Ohio gleam from the banks, as idyllic Mayberry Other stretches of the river are vast and uninhabited forests. Generally, the mood created by this riverscape is peaceful, remote and rural.              Last night, however, we briefly returned to civilization in Cincinnati at the worst possible time– evening on a Friday– just as the weekend boat'n and boozing fest began. Teenagers in swimming suits buzzed by on jet skis, while grandparents in big gaudy houseboats and cruisers (“SPOILED ROTTEN,” or “GOLDEN HANDSHAKE”) plodded by with boatloads of kids. All of the folly and joy and excess of America was out on the Ohio for the night. As a strong east wind behind us kicked up, Brady Carr was having s hard time steering around these fiberglass hazards, and the rollers kicked up by all of the boat wakes rocked Patience side to side so hard that the timber beams in the cabin groaned. Our plan was to get off the river as soon as possible so we could wake early and blow past Cincinnati before the boat traffic began. But most of the marinas were full and I looked like a real wharf monkey jumping from Patience to the docks, inquiring about space, and then leaping back onto the boat with bad news about docking. In the mayhem of boats and wakes and drunken bozos in cigarette boats out in the channel, with the wind catching our broad sides and pushing us leeward, Brady could just barely maintain control. “This beast handles like a hog hooked to a roto-tiller in conditions like this,” he fumed, “We’ve got to get out of this stuff.” Finally, and with great difficulty bearing against the winds, Brady guided us into the a muddy slip at the Manhattan Harbour Marina and we tied down, safe. I have never enjoyed a shower so much.              This morning we were back in the channel of the Ohio by 7, and there were only a few workboats pushing barges on the river. The wind was calm and the water glassine, and we were way from the congestion of the city in less than an hour. In the bow, as I cooked breakfast for the crew, I looked south and then west downriver. Tidy white houses with groomed lawns, and then farms, appeared on the Kentucky banks. The industrial terminals and cement plants on the Ohio side began to thin out. Patience glided evenly on the still morning waters, plodding south by southwest. I sighed with relief as I carried plates with scrambled eggs and chicken sausage up to the crew on the roof. I had my old river, and its remote stretches of trees, back beside me, and that’s all I wanted for the next few days. 
             –Rinker Buck



CIVILIZATION AGAIN.  Mile Marker 467, Cincinnati. July 23 2016

      We have spent the past two weeks negotiating the lazy bends of the Ohio, enjoying the sensation of escape that a river journey provides. On the West Virginia and Kentucky side, we are passing through dying coal country, with sad, rundown villages and trailer parks rusting along the riverbanks. Occasionally we pass lovely gentrified towns, where weekenders or retirees have meticulously scrubbed the old Victorian gingerbread lattices, painted the clapboard and porch railings so that little Augusta, KY, or Marietta, Ohio gleam from the banks, as idyllic Mayberry Other stretches of the river are vast and uninhabited forests. Generally, the mood created by this riverscape is peaceful, remote and rural.              Last night, however, we briefly returned to civilization in Cincinnati at the worst possible time– evening on a Friday– just as the weekend boat'n and boozing fest began. Teenagers in swimming suits buzzed by on jet skis, while grandparents in big gaudy houseboats and cruisers (“SPOILED ROTTEN,” or “GOLDEN HANDSHAKE”) plodded by with boatloads of kids. All of the folly and joy and excess of America was out on the Ohio for the night. As a strong east wind behind us kicked up, Brady Carr was having s hard time steering around these fiberglass hazards, and the rollers kicked up by all of the boat wakes rocked Patience side to side so hard that the timber beams in the cabin groaned. Our plan was to get off the river as soon as possible so we could wake early and blow past Cincinnati before the boat traffic began. But most of the marinas were full and I looked like a real wharf monkey jumping from Patience to the docks, inquiring about space, and then leaping back onto the boat with bad news about docking. In the mayhem of boats and wakes and drunken bozos in cigarette boats out in the channel, with the wind catching our broad sides and pushing us leeward, Brady could just barely maintain control. “This beast handles like a hog hooked to a roto-tiller in conditions like this,” he fumed, “We’ve got to get out of this stuff.” Finally, and with great difficulty bearing against the winds, Brady guided us into the a muddy slip at the Manhattan Harbour Marina and we tied down, safe. I have never enjoyed a shower so much.              This morning we were back in the channel of the Ohio by 7, and there were only a few workboats pushing barges on the river. The wind was calm and the water glassine, and we were way from the congestion of the city in less than an hour. In the bow, as I cooked breakfast for the crew, I looked south and then west downriver. Tidy white houses with groomed lawns, and then farms, appeared on the Kentucky banks. The industrial terminals and cement plants on the Ohio side began to thin out. Patience glided evenly on the still morning waters, plodding south by southwest. I sighed with relief as I carried plates with scrambled eggs and chicken sausage up to the crew on the roof. I had my old river, and its remote stretches of trees, back beside me, and that’s all I wanted for the next few days. 
             –Rinker Buck



​Mile 439 Ohio River near Opossum Run, Ohio.  July 22 2016

          When I wake on my cot on the bow deck of the Patience, gentle bumping noises sound against our poplar hull. I stand and look over the freeboard to the river. We are floating in a horizontal forest of logs, an archipelago of driftwood. Our position just above the Meldahl Locks and Dam means that we are at a weak point of flow at the end of this contained “pool,” and all of the floating logs from above us on the river are becoming condensed in the slower flow. I make coffee and we prepare Patience for casting off. Brady Carr is at the helm and he pushes a bow wave of logs out from our hull as we move west on the river. Then he steers a lazy meandering path through the log jams out in the channel. As we avoid the log jams and call the lock master at Meldahl to lock through, I notice that a lot of the logs have the telltale pointed shape of stumps cut by beavers. Their dams were washed away by spring rains and floated 500 miles downstream from the Pennsylvania and pennsyltucky forests. Thousands of board feet surround me on the Ohio     , maybe a third of it beaver-cut. So I think differently about rivers this morning. They are nature’s cleanser, carrying down the deadfall of Appalachian forests. Also a river is not just a river or water just water or Gertrude Stein a poet. A river is the flow of water and all of the life that it passes. RINKER



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Mile marker 427  July 20 2016

           Mile 427 Ohio River. Augusta, Kentucky. Yesterday we docked at 2 p. M. at Augusta, Kentucky, the birthplace of Rosemary Clooney and her famous nephew, George. It’s a lovely antebellum town unpretentiously facing the river with a long, proud row of brick Georgian homes, lovely old clapboard salt boxes, and a waterfront park that invites the river traveler to pull in, dock, and take a nap underneath the tall shade trees. A wonderful lady from the tourism  bureau pulled up as soon as we were tied up and offered to Drive us to the IGA for groceries. While Brady Carr shopped for provisions I toured the town on my electric bike. Just a wonderful place with old brick facades and log cabin homes, circa 1850, the whole prospect of the place facing the silver waters of the Ohio. Gorgeous. Makes me feel the possibilities of America again. Then we threw away our lines and ran another six miles downriver to Felicity, where we are now docked for the night at Fatboy’s Dream floating restaurant. (It’s a fun place built on an old river barge, so that you eat with this wonderful sense of floating on the river. The giant oaks and cottonwoods along the banks rise across the Ohio.       Rinker






Our First Blog Post

Thursday 9:30 a. M. Mile marker 412 on the Ohio, two miles downriver from Aberdeen, Ohio. Spent a reasonably peaceful night at the Lively Lady Marina after a pleasant dinner of Armor Chili no beans cooked by Rinker. Yesterday marked a significant, unexpected milestone of trip. To let a push boat with ten coal barges through, we pulled to the Kentucky side of the channel and reduced power. I had just rugged my pickup GPS up on the pilot’s bridge and noticed, ten minutes later, that we were still maintaining 4.5 mph at greatly reduced power. We had flow! Plus, we had a light trailing wind. At our previous power setting we were only doing 5.5 mph. Great fuel savings at the lower throttle setting and we idled 22 more miles downriver on a single tank of gas. This will cut our fuel costs by more than 50 percent and the ride at reduced power is much more pleasant and quiet– what river travel
should be. Now we’re headed to reprovison at Ripley downriver and later enjoy ourselves at the Poor Boy Marina, which is known along the river as a boater and biker bar. Hillbilly R & R. The hills of Kentucky and southern Ohio rise majestically above the river banks as we meander south in still water. Cruising the great bends of the river is pleasant, scenic and peaceful. RINKER

Rinker Buck's Patience logs.