October 17th started out a bright sunny day. Lola, Erika’s dog, met us the night before at a town outside of Alma, WI, bringing with her both Erika’s parents and plentiful food to keep us company. We sang by campfire, swapped river stories, and enjoyed our last night in Wisconsin before setting off the next day, fully satiated.
After only a short day of paddling we arrived in Dubuque, Iowa. At the end of the Dubuque harbor, we saw our end goal: the William M. Black, a historic paddleboat dredger from the 1930’s. Recently revitalized as an interactive history exhibit for the National Mississippi River Museum, we were invited to stay overnight on the dredger to experience the river as many before us had, too. Nathaniel met us by the boat and showed us around our home for the night. All eleven of us were put in in the bunk room which housed twenty-four bunk beds and hot showers. This was deluxe living! In its heyday, the William M. Black removed sediment from channels on the Missouri River until 1973 but was retired because of its 7,000 gallon a day diet of heavy oil. What is the difference between a “boat” and a “ship”? Why is the William M. Black a boat instead of a ship? Why are dredgers important? What is a paddleboat?
When we awoke on the morning of October 18, we travelled across the harbor to the National Mississippi River Museum. The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, a syndicate of the Smithsonian Institute, is one of a kind. The exhibits range from the river’s headwaters in Itasca, Minnesota to its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico. Each exhibit includes a wealth of information about how humans use the river, both historically and presently. The scope encompasses topics such as the lock and dams systems, resource management, and the types of industry and transportation found along the river. For example, we learned that each individual barge we’ve been passing carries roughly the equivalent of 1000 semi-trailer trucks. We’ve seen towboats push as many as 15 barges in one stretch! How many semi’s is that?
The museum encourages a broader awareness of the river in totality. For example, the hypoxic zone, an area of low dissolved oxygen, in the Gulf of Mexico is not necessarily something that persons living in Illinois and Iowa think much about. However, as the museum rightly points out, nutrient run-off in the Upper Mississippi watershed is a major source of nitrogen and phosphorous, both of which contribute to the depletion of oxygen in the waters near the river’s mouth. What problems might arise from oxygen depletion? What do we encounter in our daily lives that are rich in nitrogen and phosphorus? How can we mitigate runoff?
Lee left us that afternoon, beginning her two-week departure from our group. She is escorting diplomats from Southeast Asia as they tour water treatment facilities in Chicago and Toronto. We are all very proud of Lee’s work on this project and miss her very much!
The ten of us started our afternoon paddle later in the day but still managed to travel around 25 miles before the sun set on Bellevue, IA. Though it had not been our intention to stop in Bellevue, Erika and Martha spotted a fish fry sign on the roadway above us. Sarah, Anna, and John had never experienced a fish fry so the group decided to spend dinner in town at the local American Legion. At the hall, the crew met a number of wonderful, welcoming people. Acknowledging the oncoming cold front, Jim and Rita Ruesse offered us a place in their beautiful home by the river. We heard about their lives in Bellevue, a place they noted with pride as being incredibly special. We also learned that the river has grown increasingly polluted and overfished. Jim and Rita, lifelong Iowans, noted that the winters are no longer as cold and rivers no longer freeze quite like they used to. The change in weather and water quality created a drastic decrease in tourism and recreation in Bellevue. What makes where you live special? What parts of your town or city would you share with travelers like us? Why would water pollution and water temperature impact tourism? Who and what are affected by these changes? Why is tourism important for this river community?
The next day we paddled early in the morning until just before sundown, finally ending at a Lock 13. There, we asked one of the lock workers where a good place to camp around the lock was, and he told us that we would be welcome to camp just outside the lock and he would provide us with warm firewood and we could use the public restrooms- another rare trail luxury! We spent awhile talking with Max, the lock worker, and he immediately expressed his love for the river. He loves the river because he gets to work creating infrastructure that helps river industries. Additionally it’s a place for him to bond with his family and even met his daughter Jocelyn, and his dog, Roxy, who were visiting him for the night. In the morning he woke us up with hot chocolate and sausage biscuit sandwiches. Thank you so much, Max! We loved meeting you! What are some river industries we have encountered throughout our trip? What are some recreational activities we have discussed on our trip that Max and his family might like to do together?
The next day was a long, hard paddle to Davenport, Iowa. To maximize weather conditions, we paddled until around 9 pm and landed at a boat launch just outside of Moline, Illinois.
In the morning, the group split up into two. Sami, Sarah, Anna, and Eric paddled across the river to the Moline Water Treatment Plant. There, Greg Swanson met us and taught us about the importance of water and water treatment plants. He explained that water treatment plants are necessary to safely extract water borne diseases and harmful chemicals from drinking water. He worried that people in the U.S. are so far removed from their water sources that they only worry about water if it does not come out of the tap or if it smells or looks funny. In addition, there are policies, such as the Clean Water Act, that protect the public from contaminated drinking water; if we do not continue to update and reexamine these policies, the U.S. may face serious health and quality of life risks. In countries where drinking water is not regulated, this is true. 1.2 billion people in the world lack safe drinking water and 2.5 billion people lack safe toilets, causing 1 child every 20 seconds to die of waterborne diseases like Typhoid and Cholera. While most Americans have access to safe drinking water and use an average of 100 gallons of water every day, the American Society of Civil Engineers gives our water and waste water systems a grade of “D.” What problems could arise from our D grade water infrastructure? Why is water important? Jacque Cousteau once said, “We forget that the water cycle and life cycle are one.” What does this quotation mean to you, given what we learned at the water treatment plant?
**Greg will be sending us his powerpoint, soon. Stay tuned!
The rest of the gang paddled to Davenport to tour the River Music Experience. Ellis, one of the educators at RME, met us downstairs with a banjo and a smile. The River Music Experience is a non-profit organization that educates people, especially youth, about the roots of American music including blues, country, and, well, just about every genre! We toured their interpretive center and convinced Ellis and Brett, another RME educator, to play songs for us. After our impromptu concert, we toured the sound lab, practice studios, and concert venues. New Orleans is said to be the birthplace of jazz and blues. It was interesting to learn about the migration of music and how the river acted as a form of transportation for more than just people and goods – it spread the blues up into the North Country. Why is music important? What music is important to your community?
Today we paddled from just outside of Dubuque to Muscatine, IA in our first snowfall. We were held up at Lock 15 by a barrage of barges and were given refuge by the Lil Red Tug, manned by husband and wife duo Mike and Becky who are doing the “Great Loop,” until called by for lockage. After the lock we hunkered down in Muscatine Iowa to wait out the storm, finding friendship with locals Glenda and James. Send us warm, dry thoughts!