portfolio > gone on the river

day 48
day 48
July 16, 2022

Day 48, July 16
Measurements: turbidity at Two Branch Island: 37cm. Nitrate at the same location (just downstream of confluence with Salt River): just under 5ppm, I'd guess 4.

Today was another pretty rough one, unfortunately.

It didn't start out that way. I ate my leftover quinoa for breakfast, and it was fine, then got out on the water at around 9. One pretty intense wildlife sighting to recount before that, though: my canoe has become some sort of frog-magnet. In the night, frogs gather near it, almost under it, for some reason. This morning there were many, many frogs, like more than ten, of varying sizes. Yesterday morning, at McCoy Island, when I put the boat in I didn't think about the frogs, and one of them was smushed by the movement of the canoe as I shoved it into the water. That made me sad. So this morning I tried to give them ample warning to get out of the way. This worked, though I found that a little frog had been smushed when I pulled the boat all the way in last night. Poor thing.

The first part of today's paddle was actually quite nice. I not only had a gentle tailwind - and have been able, finally, to trim the canoe so it responds well to that - I also had a pretty significant current, which was very welcome. I felt like I was flying, past islands called things like Dardenne, Bolter, Iowa, Enterprise, and "Number 521."

It was Saturday, and I was in a dam pool, and could see a bunch of marinas on my map, so I knew to expect a lot of motorboat action, and today did not disappoint. It was like that Saturday on Fourth of July weekend up near Dubuque: everyone in the greater metro area seemed to be out on motorboats of various kinds, with various wakes, and with varying ideas of wake etiquette regarding smaller boats. A bunch of folks had pulled their boats onto a sandbar in front of Marion Island for a big party. I kept paddling.

I reached the confluence with the Illinois River before noon. More on that later.

I pulled into the small but popping tourist-trap town of Grafton, IL, and headed for the Grafton Winery and Brewhaus. I'd seen that they had a Beyond Burger on the menu, and that sounded nice, as did a rest from the sun. The burger was okay, the air conditioning was wonderful, and their beer was decent. I worke on updates from the past two days for about an hour and a half, until a live musician was about to start (I hate getting up when someone is performing, even in that sort of situation), at which point I left.

When I got outside, it was shockingly hot. It felt noticeably hotter than when I'd gone in, and the sun was out in full force. I trudged back to the boat, which I'd left near both the public boat ramp and the ferry. The ferry was interesting, by the way, for a couple of reasons. Unlike other ferry landings I've seen, which were pretty desultory affairs - maybe without a visible ferry at all, maybe with the ferry parked, waiting for customers that don't seem to exist, etc., this ferry was in constant motion, bringing cars back and forth from Missouri to Illinois and vice versa. The other interesting thing is that the ferry part swivels so the tug can face forward, and they do that swivel in a balletic little maneuver right near shore. I got to watch it twice, and it was surprisingly beautiful.

I got back out on the water and was immediately too hot. I tried putting a shirt on, then getting it wet. Putting a similarly wet towel across my thighs. Nothing helped. I was logy and listless, from the sun, the heat, food, beer, a combination of all of the above. Fortunately I still had that current, so I made relatively good progress without having to paddle very hard. I was still being periodically tossed around on other people's wakes. And on a more positive note, right next to me, just beyond the highway that hugs the coast, rose some very interesting sandstone cliffs that reminded me of Mounds Park in St. Paul, where I grew up.

I put in again after only four miles, into the little town of Elsah. It's incredibly cute, picturesque, lots of beautiful stone houses. Like some Norman Rockwell idea of a small town. I went into the general store for a soda (some caffeine and sugar, to hopefully help reverse my feeling of listlessness, and something cold), and it was similarly very cute. The proprietor told me a bit about the town. It was founded by a retired general, who gave plots away for free, but with the stipulation that one had to build their home with stone from his quarry. That explains all of the stone. He also said that the whole town, and every building in it, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

I went back to the boat, drank my soda, and lay under a tree for a little while. Some clouds had come through, mercifully, to shield me from the sun. I set back out, feeling somewhat better.

For a little while, I continued to have some good current, and make good progress. The current died at around Piasa Island. I started looking for a place to stay, but there was no sandbar of any kind at Piasa, or anywhere downstream of that. I was now in the dam pool, where the river doesn't fluctuate enough to create things like sandbars. Where the river is a lake.

I landed at an old, now defunct "motor boat landing" to see about getting out onto the road. But the landing was awful, and the shoulder on the four-lane, 55mph road was around five feet wide. I decided to continue. At that landing, a nice Black guy named Will was fishing. He'd caught a few carp. I mentioned that I've seen them jump a lot, and that one nearly jumped into the boat. He said "that would've been good eatin'!" and I laughed.

Now it was a race against the clock. I'd given up on finding any suitable place to camp. I didn't know if there were motels available in Alton, but that had become my only real option. I hated that - it really hadn't been the plan. I was one day from Juliet's house, and a shower and a bed, and had planned to camp. But if there's nowhere to camp, what do I do?

The clouds that had been so welcome earlier in the afternoon now made it feel like it was even later than it was - and it was already late enough. I was flirting with still being on the river after sunset, which I really don't like. I had to push, really hard, with no help at all from the current, and pulled into Alton feeling exhausted and demoralized.

And then the kicker: there were no motels or hotels available in the town proper. Only up the bluff, in the strip malls on the highway. Well, fuck.

I went to a bar and grill in town and got the worst salad I may ever have eaten, along with a pretty welcome Bells Two Hearted. And then I made myself push the rig up the hill. Also, on the way I passed a bunch of large, flat, mowed areas that would have been perfect places to pitch a tent, if I'd been comfortable having the cops come roust me at three in the morning.

On the way, some woman who was out with a group of friends yelled out "are you married?" I asked her to say it again, because I wasn't sure I'd heard her correctly. "Are you married!" she yelled, "because you're my dream man." I said, "no, but I am engaged!" Her friend said, "congratulations!" And then I had to get off the bike to push everything up a steep hill, feeling less dreamy by the moment.

It took the better part of an hour to navigate the "mostly flat," ha-ha, google maps route to this motel. I did manage to beat the rain, so I guess there's that.

But then there was the motel. The Super 8 in Alton. It's... the worst motel I've been to in my life, I think? I can't think of a worse one. Reader, the room was not clean. There were bags full of a previous tenant's water bottles and beer cans. A safety razor in the bathroom trash can. The beds weren't made, both of them.

I was too tired to care. I went to sleep.

Tomorrow, the goal is to make it past my LAST GODDAMNED LOCK AND DAM. And to make it into St. Louis, and find Juliet, and get to her house with the canoe and everything somehow. We'll see.