DUBUQUE, Iowa — While America has grown up around it, many parts of the upper Mississippi River still look very much as they did hundreds of years ago. This out-of-time quality makes it easy to play Huck Finn for a day, as we did on a catfishin’, steamboatin’ Day 3 of our trip down the river.
We started our day in La Crosse, Wis., only to discover that due to a trip-planning blunder we were going to have to log about 120 additional miles by driving south to Prairie du Chien, Wis., to spend the morning fishing, then doubling back to La Crosse for an excursion on the historic Julia Belle Swain steamboat.
Undaunted, we set out southward in a light rain and an hour later found ourselves at Valley’s Fish Shop, advertised as being “recommended by the sturgeon general.”
Despite being in the middle of a construction project, owner Mike Valley put down his tools, hitched up his boat and snagged his dad, Dallas, for a quick fishing trip with his visitors.
Within minutes we were buzzing down a slough in Valley’s 25-foot flat-bottom aluminum skiff, passing the sort of “towheads” — small timber-filled islands that separate the sloughs from the main river channel — that Huck and the runaway slave Jim hid out on during their flight.
While not quite from Twain’s era, our captain and first mate were both holdovers from a time when fishing on the river wasn’t just recreation.
In addition to being an experienced fisherman, Mike, 43, runs one of the last remaining shops on the river specializing in fish caught locally by the handful of commercial operators in the area, turning the catch into such unusual treats as snapping turtle beer sticks, catfish bologna and hickory-smoked carp.
If Mike is a rare breed, his father is endangered.
The 68-year-old Dallas earned his living full-time off the river for better than 45 years, fishing, hunting, trapping and clamming. In a land of abundance, he was a killing machine, trapping 7,500 muskrats, catching tons of fish and bagging untold numbers of clams in a single year. He recalls pulling in single nets with 1,000 pounds of writhing catfish on days when he would have up to 35 nets placed in the river.
Dallas, whose French-Canadian great-grandfather arrived in Prairie du Chien before 1840, also fished during the winter, using seine and gill nets and a variety of augers and ice-cutting tools to catch the wintering fish. In addition to temperatures as low as minus 20 degrees, the other biggest concern was the nets freezing to the ice when they were pulled up.
As a kid, Dallas remembers spending summers with his uncle camped on an island about five miles north of Prairie du Chien, clamming each day and then rowing into town on the weekend to sell the shells to the button companies.
They were responsible for a lot of buttons, using their boat to drag a bar festooned with dozens of crude hooks across the clam beds, causing the clams to snap shut just when the hooks were within reach.
The roaring '80s
Dallas and his wife, Nancy, also found the occasional freshwater pearl, one time selling a single pearl for $2,000, but they made their biggest money in the 1980s, when Japanese companies began buying clam shells for use in their cultured pearl industry because small “blanks” cut from the shells were the only substance that the finicky oysters wouldn’t reject. That set off a virtual Gold Rush for clams that severely depleted the native populations.
“At one point, the companies had to hire kids to load the trucks because all the adults were out wading around looking for clams,” he recalled.
While Dallas was reminiscing, Mike was pulling up the first set of hoop nets he had laid four days earlier in a 60-foot deep rocky section near the bank of the main channel. Though the catch was small by his standards, he still pulled in several dozen catfish, sheephead fish, buffalo fish, carp and one sturgeon, minus its tail.
We could almost hear the steamboat whistle calling us back to La Crosse by this time, but Mike insisted we stay for lunch. An hour later, we were seated at his dining room table, eating fried catfish that he had just caught, as well as bluegill perch from an earlier trip. Both were fabulous, possibly enhanced by the great fish stories we’d been hearing throughout the morning.
We retraced our steps in the early afternoon and arrived in La Crosse just in time to board the Julia Belle Swain, which was huffing and puffing impatiently at her dock.
'Getting a feel for what it was like'
Our minds were quickly jerked out of the 20th century and into the 19th as we strolled the decks of the 150-foot rear-paddle steamboat, which is an almost perfect replica of the “packet boats” that plied the river in Twain’s time.
Capt. Eric Dykman was quick to agree that navigating the river is nowhere near as treacherous as it was in the golden era of steamboating. But that doesn’t mean he can relax in the pilothouse, which is on the fourth and uppermost deck.
“There’s quite a bit of commercial traffic around here and you’ve got to talk to them, and the wind can really take you, since the boat is so tall and has just a 3-foot draft,” he said. “There have been times when the engines are giving you everything and she’s still not wanting to move.”
Though the boat mimics the steamboats of yesteryear, she has plenty of history of her own. Built in 1971, she was the last boat constructed by the Dubuque Boat and Boiler Co. before that historic shipyard was closed down. She also carries the engines and ship’s bell of the City of Baton Rouge car ferry, which operated on the river from 1915 to 1969.
The engines, built by Gillett and Eaton, are particularly impressive, as they have now been shoving boats up and down the Mississippi for nearly 90 years while logging well over 1 million miles.
‘They’ll probably last another 100 years if we take good care of them,” said Neil Conklin, the boat’s engineer.
We weren’t the only passengers closing our eyes and dreaming of long-ago river vistas.
Gary Meyer of Milwaukee, on vacation with his wife, Anne, and sons Max, 8, and Charlie, 6, had a faraway look in his eye as he stood at the rail of the promenade deck.
“We’re kind of getting a feel for what it was like, just imagining what it was like to travel this way and what it would be like to make your living on the river,” he said.
The hour-long excursion passed all too quickly and the boat was soon pulling into the dock. But as the other passengers were disembarking, my adventure was only beginning.
When media editor Jim Seida asked the crew if they would take the boat out again so that he could film it from the shore, they graciously agreed. Then, they stunned me by asking me if I would like to pilot her for the curtain call.
Though my boating skills are limited to sailing very small boats and a bit of canoeing, how could I resist? With Dykman and Conklin coaching me, I eased the boat away from the dock, took her down river about half a mile, then spun the big wooden wheel hard left and came about to return to the dock.
I assumed one of the pros would take command before we got to the point where the historic vessel was in any danger of damaging impact, but they insisted I get Ms. Julia put to bed. With their guidance, I was able to ease her back alongside the pier, sending only a slight shiver up her timbers when I tapped her bow against the dock.
As thrilling as the experience was, I was even more excited by the thought that struck me as I was walking up the dock: I can now say that Mark Twain and I have at least one thing in common — we both had brief careers as riverboat pilots on the Mississippi.
We returned from the river’s past by the time we reached our van, and made the three-hour drive to Dubuque without incident but with dramatic accompaniment from a violent thunderstorm.
On Wednesday, Day 4 of our 14 day journey from the river’s headwaters to its mouth, we will join environmentalist Jon Stravers for a tour of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge to examine damage done to the bird habitat along the river and find out what’s being done to halt the loss. We'll tell you about that tomorrow. After that, it’s on to the Quad Cities.