Source to Sea

Townies! Part 2
by Mark Downey -- August 6th, 2012

Vicksburg, MS.

Once again I will sing praises to the river folk. In Minnesota they were shy and rarely seen; I had to know them by the signs of their fun. Once we crossed the border, though, into Wisconsin and Iowa, the townies started coming after us, not with guns and crazy eyes but with laughter, adult beverages, and fresh-caught fish to share.

In Iowa and Illinois especially, people take to the Mississippi in all species of pleasure boats, and none are shy about puttering up to hobos on canoes. At the end of this trip’s longest day, sixty something miles in fourteen hours and no current to speak of, we paddled past a pair of fishing boats floating in Calhoun County, Illinois. The two men piloting the boats called out and we shouted a conversation across the distance as their children in bright bathing suits splashed around in the River. The conversations usually begin where you headed? and then well where’d you start? So we tell them, and most folks, such kind folks, on their boats with their coolers and motors and houses mere minutes away, feel compassion for us dumb paddlers. This particular pair of Samaritans, Steiny and Phil, gathered their respective flocks and sped over to our canoes. Ya’ll want some catfish? They asked. Phil’s boy hoisted three of them. Oh wow, ok, thank you, maybe we’ll just take one, we don’t want to steal your catch. It’s an all or nothing deal, boys! You need some beers? We gratefully accept the gifts – in fact we were low on food and not sure where dinner was coming from that night – as the dripping kids fetch us drinks from the ice chest. Phil cleaned the fish and nodded along as Steiny told us about this Calhoun County, their home, and its ups and downs, how he dove for mussels to put himself through school and how everyone here works just as hard. When they’d emptied their cooler into our hands and had nothing else to give, they told us where to find a good campsite and wished us well, zipping back up their stretch of the River.

That was a meeting of providence, but some townies we’ve actively sought, like Tim the shantyboat captain. The backstory here is complicated, but suffice it to say that Jeff got himself stranded a few miles downstream after mooching one-way jet-ski rides, and as he searched for help on the docks of McGregor, Iowa, a robust grandfather wielding a powerful white mustache entered our adventure. This Tim rescued Jeff, and after a harrowing johnboat ride through hidden islands and oxbows, he reconnected Jeff to the crew. The only payment Tim would accept was that we picnic with him and his tribe on their shaded beach downstream. You can’t miss us, he promised, and it was true – a kelly green floating shack, but “shack” is too rough, like calling a sculpture a rock. Tim had chiseled and crafted with hammers, drills, and salvaged scraps an old houseboat into an extension of his fiercely independent soul: sun-heated water, solar-powered appliances, moose antlers on the prow, Irish and pirate flags from the stern, old ocean liner portholes and paddleboat oars. Et cetera. A shantyboat, he calls it, Depression era, there were millions of folks living on these shantyboats, just floating hovels. Tim would know; he’s collected every piece of literature mentioning shantyboats that has ever been published. The craft’s name is “Driftless”, and its walls are covered with plaques praising the freedom of classic shantyboat life and decrying all who threaten it. With snowy hair and his grandkids scampering over the beach, Tim made a point of reminding us that the adventure needs never end.

And so did River Jon, near Alton, Illinois, hoary ponytail flailing behind as he approached on a jet ski. He was out cruising for pretty ladies – on a Monday afternoon – but was pleased to find four hungry kindred spirits instead. We followed him back to his provincial yacht club and ate several of their frozen pizzas as River Jon told us about the flood, about the Sabbath, Priest, and Leppard shows he’s seen, girlfriends he’s had, and the legendary Piasa bird that used to eat Indians right out of their canoes until a chief sacrificed himself to kill it. We stayed so long eating junk food with River Jon that a storm came from nowhere and went away again before we made it back on the River.

The generosity and true friendliness of river folks is as meaningful as any sandbars or clouds we experience on the Mississippi itself. Attitudes change whenever we leave the River and get into the bigger towns, but it seems that people out on the water are touched by the water; I’ve never been tossed drinks or sandwiches or catfish walking down the street, or offered so many rides, so many places to stay, even money, you sure you don’t need something more? To all the stay-at-home moms, gas station workers, pizza boys, beach bums, soybean farmers, and fish and wildlife agents out there on the Mississippi, you continue to illuminate our journey. The River is with you; may it also be with us and stay with us even when we walk on dry land once again.


  1. Tawnee
    Aug 6, 2012

    Mark, the stories you tell in your posts make me smile, this one being no exception. Thanks for so descriptively sharing the generosity and uniqueness of the river folk with us! Good luck to you gents as you continue on down the river.

  2. Paige
    Aug 7, 2012

    Mark, I’m so proud and impressed by your journey. I’m originally from Pike County, just north of Calhoun County, and I am proud to know that my neck of the woods treated you well. It has been a treat to read about your trek and I wish you safe travels as you conclude your travels down the Mighty Miss.

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