Peter Lourie

After the first week on the upper river from Lake Itasca to Winona, Minnesota, my paddling partner Ernie LaPrairie left me, and I was alone. So I drove, canoed, and bicycled along shore. My little portable Korean bike fit nicely into my canoe. Often I would drive to a good paddling place, then launch the canoe with the little bike tucked inside. I'd paddle for a few miles, then pull ashore, unfold the bike, and bicycle back to the car. This way I was a self-contained unit and didn't have to rely on anyone for shuttling to and from the car.  

LeClaire, Iowa, I discovered was the birthplace of William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody. He was born in a log cabin in LeClaire in 1846. Later he moved to Kansas and was a pony express rider at age eleven. Then he became an Indian guide for the Railroad and the Army. He started the Wild West Show which he took to Europe. Among the two hundred Native Americans he brought to Paris and London, the great Sitting Bull came, too. At the Buffalo Bill Museum in LeClaire, I met Jim Bailie, whose ancestors were river pilots and captains. He told me the LeClaire cemetery is "loaded with pilots and captains" who ran the 15-mile double set of rapids that used to run from here downstream past Davenport and Rock Island, Illinois.  

The museum is home to the Lonestar, now the only wood-hull paddlewheel boat remaining intact that plied the Mississippi. As Jim and I walked around the old steamer, Jim told me how two boats worked together to drive the logs from Minnesota and Wisconsin in the late 1800s through the rapids to the mills downstream. One paddlewheeler would push, while the other, positioning itself sideways to the river in front of the logs, helped steer the load to the right or left by going forward or backing up. All communication between the steamers was done by horns and whistles. The Lonestar is a beautiful wood boat. Steamboats were always blowing up, getting stuck on sand  bars and sinking. In fact, the average life of a steamboat was only four or five years. The fact that Lonestar lasted for a hundred years with a wood hull is a testament to its longevity.  

Built in 1869, the Lonestar first worked Wisconsin and Minnesota logs downriver. Then for forty years it dredged sand for concrete. Decommissioned in 1968, the Lonestar sits nobly up on the grass at the Buffalo Bill Museum. It has not been altered in the thirty years since it became a museum piece. Because it was not a passenger boat, it has no gingerbread, no scrollwork, no frills. It is nothing like the contemporary replicas that now act as tour boats and casino boats in many river towns I visited.  

Downriver I came to Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain's boyhood hometown. I canoed out into
the strong current across the river to the Illinois side. The island just across the river from Hannibal might have been a model for Twain's "Jackson Island," the place where Huck Finn and Jim, the runaway slave, meet and begin their river adventures. I camped on the sand at the tip of the island, swam in the evening calm of the river, and lay there in my little tent listening to the big tows plying the great river. Long after the sun set, the big moon rose over the drowsing white town like a wedding cake. I felt so close to Mark Twain. Even though he was born in 1835, and even though the river he wrote about had changed in the intervening years, there in that tent with no one else on the island, I half expected Huck or Tom Sawyer to call out at midnight, beckoning me to come explore some nearby cave.  

I spent three days exploring the river in Hannibal, then moved south to the confluence of the two greatest rivers in America, the Missouri and the Mississippi. Just above St. Louis, the Mississippi turned yellow brown from the murky water of the inflowing Missouri, also called the Big Muddy. If steamboat captains thought Mississippi navigation difficult, they knew Missouri River navigation was a nightmare with all its shifting sandbars. Five years ago, with the travel writer William Least  Heat-Moon, I had fought the Missouri's massive current as far as Three Forks, Montana, on the trail of Lewis and Clark. Today I was riding the five-mile-an-hour flow of another river, in the wake of the French explorer LaSalle who traveled down the Mississippi and reached the Gulf of Mexico in 1682. Learning history, seeing new places, meeting great people like Jim Bailie, and feeling a mighty river under my canoe--these are just some of the reasons I love to travel rivers.  

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