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Leaving the Mississippi

It was nearly that quick. Turning up into the Ohio we could see our hands dangling beneath the water's surface, water scooped up was clear and clean. The second day past Paducah a gray heron stood on a dead log a single eye turned to watch until we slid too close and it lifted broad wings and flew. For days the shore we so slowly edged by had a sameness: late summer grasses and trees, brown sand beaches, fallen logs, short banks leading to the unharvested lands of Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky farms. Then an eagle would soar, turkey buzzards flap at our approach, cows appear to water in the river, and once a large black pig thrashed in the thick mud. Nothing changed, nothing the same. The endless hum of our diesel each day. The endless stillness each night broken only by the hard waves of barges and towboats, rocking us awake, asleep. The pure rural beauty marred at intervals by locks and dams, inevitable power plants their lights like the eyes of dragons blinking. Still, it was our quest. An odyssey clear as the river, as the white heron who heralded our return. COMMENT:

POETRY on the page comes from the poetry of our lives. When ordinary details begin to turn in one's mind to image and metaphor, when words take on rhythm and place and line, when each sound demands attention, when everything one sees takes on language, when words begin to form endlessly in thought and flow as if having their own life, then there is the beginning of a poem.

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Instead of explaining this poem, I share with you the derivative of early journal entries from my first days on the Mississippi River. These speak of the beginnings that led to a great love for the quiet contrast of the Ohio, for its clarity and calm. Goose Island Light and Daymark

The Mississippi is a strange, inexplicable river: pure ambiguity to the uninitiated. A Northwesterner, I know oceans, tides, Dungeness crab, Coho and Silver Salmon, how to dig razor clams from deep in the heavy sand, know starfish and pebbles on Puget Sound, and the sight of the western sun setting richly over the Olympic's white peaks.

Here the muddy beaches are thick with clay. It is a river of jazz club night-bugs; of day-birds chattering like a waking city street; turtles and catfish glide past like so much drift. Wild river, undammed below St. Louis, submerged rock jetties and wing dams fan outward to channel the current, making beaching a dangerous impossibility. Towboats push coal-laden barges the size of football stadiums, leaving narrow margins as we hug the green buoys, too near the rocks for comfort.

Docks are scarce, fuel and marinas scarcer on this long stretch of barely inhabited shore. Yesterday the Delta Queen gracefully paddled by, though we haven't seen a small pleasure craft since Cape Girardeau. Our fuel tank filters are clogged with old rust. We free-float a dozen times a day in the wake of the pushers.

Built in Grafton, Illinois, in 1910, the William L. Huse, our 9-by-50-foot steel-hull houseboat, was once a sternwheeler carrying sightseers near Chicago. Later owners variously converted it to its present 1960s ambiance: plywood and paneling, whitewashed exterior, a blue-and-white-striped canopy over the rear deck, flat roof to sunbathe and to store our bicycles, lashed firmly to the rails, all modestly powered by a Grey Marine 25 horsepower diesel of World War II vintage.

``It's not quick,'' the three of us mumble at frequent intervals. ``At this rate, we could walk the 700 miles to Ohio faster!'' Even the ponderous barges pass us by. I suspect a good kayak could win in a race.

But as on a leisurely bike trip along country roads, we have begun to see and smell details. The 15 shore birds standing as still as decoys on the rocks; the rhythmic thump, thump of cars as they passed above on the I-70 bridge into St. Louis.

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Two days ago when we left Venetian Harbor in Portage des Sioux, Missouri, high limestone bluffs across the river reddened in the reflected glow of a setting sun. The colors on the river can nearly rival those on the sea at dusk. The spire of a college chapel of Bernard Maybeck design reached beyond treetops. From river level, it seemed to pierce even the top of the sky.

Dark mooring just above Lock and Dam 26, we ground our rudders in the soft mud. The next morning, I woke to the engine being turned on. And off. Backing out, we'd wrapped the dinghy's tow rope around the propeller shaft. Warmly clothed, I watched: six dives into the early morning chill of the Mississippi, so dense with mud and silt you couldn't see the diver's head just beneath the surface.

Soon free, we locked through the Alton dam, passed the mouth of the Missouri, site of Lewis and Clark's departure west, and headed down the Chain of Rocks canal. The current, now faster than our boat's best speed, carried us along. We could no longer turn back. Dogtooth Bend Light and Daymark Tonight the cool breezes brought a sudden, wild wind. We threw both anchors out between Brown's Bar and Dogtooth Island, staying up in shifts to keep from drifting into the channel or shore. High waves, black moonless night, the only light the Light and Daymark blinking, the barges' searchlights beaming as they pass us by. America Bar Light and Daymark

Three days downriver from St. Louis, we have turned up into the mouth of the Ohio River. It is wide, calm, and clear in the early morning light. I dip my hand into the water. It comes up clean. A turning. We head east. A new home for the William L. And for me.


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