portfolio > gone on the river

day 35
day 35
July 03, 2022

Day 35, July 3.
Measurements: turbidity just below Bellevue, IA: 45.5cm. Nitrate below the confluence with the Maquoketa River: 2ppm. Miles today: around 25.

I woke on an island just downriver of Bellevue, IA, to a surprisingly hot sun (for 6am) and the sound of barges. Two towboats, each with at least three columns (rows?) of barges, were treading water on the left bank, across from me, presumably waiting for something at the lock. It was beautiful out - a thick mist was still clinging to the river.

I made a leisurely and very nice breakfast (grits and the last of the eggs, fried, with tea) and got out on the water at around 9am. There was a slight headwind, but it was manageable, and then dropped to basically nothing, and I made good progress. I also encountered far fewer motorboats than I did yesterday, until later in the afternoon. (It's interesting to me to theorize: is this a time of day thing? A geographic thing, where the density picks up near towns, a combination, or...?)

I put in at a small town called Savanna, on the left bank, so the Illinois side. It's one of those strange little towns that was clearly born as a river town, then had the railroad come through right on the waterfront and cut the town off from the water, and then clearly reorient itself towards highways. To get to the main street I had to walk across a no man's land near the river, then the railroad tracks, then another no man's land of empty lots, looking at the back of the buildings crowding the main street. When I reached that street, it was lined with motorcycles, and a band was playing what I think of as "nostalgic motorcycle-person rock/country." I ate a passable black bean burger at a place called Circa 1888, refilled one of my water bottles, and then made the little trek back to the river to continue on.

After Savanna, on the other side of the river (Iowa side, right bank) there's a small, strange town called Sebula. It's an island. It wasn't always an island, but was made such by the construction of the locks and dams, which flooded the farms to the west of the town.

For awhile, to get away from both the wind and the wakes of motorboats, I ducked into some sloughs between islands, some named the "Savanna Islands" and some named the "Dixie Islands," on my map. I emerged back out onto the main river and pushed on until I reached a large beach with a number of boats of different kinds - houseboats, smaller craft, but no people-powered boats. I decided to stop, at the far downstream edge.

This may be surprising, but tonight I swam for the first time on this trip. I floated, really, with my life preserver inverted so my legs were through the arm-holes (what was introduced to me as "water-diapering" and which I will always call that). I've seen many people swimming in the river upstream, but only today did it seem like something I wanted to do. It felt great.

I interacted quite a bit with some of the other folks whose boats are pulled up next to this beach, including the couple who helped create this beach. They convinced the Army Corps of Engineers to dump dredged sand here, rather than back into the water in a different location, in order to build this beach up to support more use by people.

It's an odd thing for me, interacting with people in this way. I haven't done it much, so far. There are clear obstacles, like the fact that their boats are flying clearly pro-Trump flags like "Don't Tread on Me" and "Let's Go Brandon." When the guy with the next houseboat down introduced himself, it took him only a few words to unironically use the word "treehugger," and I was tempted to say, "oh, I'm one of those! That's me!" But I kept my mouth shut.

They were very gracious, as it turns out. They invited me to share their fire, to boil water for tomorrow morning's tea on it. I sat and chatted with them and their fellow river-people friends for a long time, and it was quite pleasant.

I'm not sure what to think, exactly. A certain New York Times, "what do people in Middle America think?" part of me thinks it's good. I get to talk to Trump voters, they get to talk to me, we can connect about the river, if on few other subjects. Another part of me objects: sure, it's easy for me to have a humane interaction with these folks. I'm white. I'm male. I'm cisgender. I can mostly follow their modes of speech, obey the code of conduct.

It's interesting, because I am flying a number of what in my dad's generation would have been deemed "freak flags." I have a long beard, long-ish hair. I look like your stereotypical hippie. But in the Age of Trump, so many of those old countercultural symbols have been seized by the right. Tattoos and weird hair don't necessarily mean "left" anymore. The Trumpers are the ones flying pirate flags from their expensive boats. I can fly my freak flag with impunity, knowing that folks in this part of the world don't automatically know what kind of freak I am. The whole thing makes me somewhat uncomfortable, both like I'm not being fully honest and like I'm - yet again - receiving benefits that I haven't earned except through the accident of my race and gender.

Anyway. After a very interesting and unironically pretty fantastic conversation around the fire, I retreated to my tent, to write this.

Tomorrow it is supposed to storm, and that has me somewhat concerned. I'll play it by ear, but may skip the next bit of water in favor of some biking.