Peter Lourie

Below St. Louis after the last dam on the Mississippi, the river opened up to towboats pushing as many as forty-five barges at once.  On the Madoc Ferry crossing over to Illinois, the captain said pushing the little ferry "on the hip" could be tricky in the fast Mississippi current.  At Thebes, I watched a tow slowly work itself around one of the many wide bends in the lower river. Downstream tows have right of way, and this process of "backing down" can take as much as 3 or 4 hours, during which time the upstream boats must wait.  I found wrecks of tows that didn't make it.  Also in Thebes I came across an 1848 courthouse on a bluff above the river.  The  fugitive slave Dred Scott had been imprisoned here.  The bars were still on the windows. 

At Cairo, Illinois, the Ohio contributes more water to the Mississippi than the main stem coming from the north.  In fact, it seemed that all America washes past Cairo--so many rivers from all parts of America had fed the flow--the Minnesota, the Wisconsin, the Illinois, the Missouri, and now the Ohio, to name just a few. At Cairo, I stood on the spit of land where the two great rivers  meet.  The Mississippi from my right added all the mud it had gained from  the Missouri.  The Ohio was a deeper black.  I watched as they mingled and boiled together.  The towboat Arnold Sobel came down from the Mississippi and turned to go up the Ohio, but it halted while a river supply boat brought on supplies.  A few hours before I had taken pictures of the Sobel from high up on the Chester bridge. 
I crossed over into Kentucky seeking out a river supply company and discovered it in Wycliffe.  The men there told me that tows can be out for weeks.  They don't stop. They depend on the river supply companies to bring anything they need--"from fuel to water, from a toothbrush to toenail clippers."  The river supply companies are open 24 hours a day, 12 months a year.  In the winter the coast guard keeps the ice broken so the tows can move.  In late September, activity on the river was picking up, as harvest season was approaching. 

One of the oldest Mississippi towns, New Madrid, Missouri, sits on top of a giant loop in the river. A terrible earthquake hit New Madrid in 1811.  The river foamed.  Trees came cracking 
down.  Fissures gaped open. Water and steam and sulfur and sand rose out of the earth.  It was  like the end of the world.  Shock waves were felt as far away as Montana and Washington, D.C. 

During the Civil War, the Union wanted to take control of the Mississippi from Cairo down to the Gulf, nearly a 1000 miles of meandering river.  New Madrid was especially important. Confederates tried to hold on to a heavily fortified island upriver called Island Number 10 (the tenth island below the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi), but Union forces built a six-mile-long canal in 19 days through a swamp.  The canal essentially cut off the wide bend in the river and allowed Federal forces to supply troops to the north so the island was vulnerable from both sides. The Rebels finally gave up in 1862, and when Island Number 10 fell, the river was open to Union forces all the way to Vicksburg. 
Hunting for a few hours, I actually found the Union canal more or less intact.  And when I threw my canoe into the forgotten waterway, I felt I was paddling into history.  There was no one around, which made the day seem eerie and timeless. 
I stopped for a few days in Memphis, one of the biggest cities I'd passed along the river, which  were few and far between.  I rode my Dahon in the beautiful riverfront parks on Mud Island.  Soon after Memphis I entered the Delta region.  What I didn't know as I paddled my first days  past Vicksburg was that Hurricane Georges and I were heading for New Orleans at the exact same time.

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