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“ DAY TWO of my Eight-Day Mark Twain Riverboat Trip Along the Upper Mississippi”
“Get your facts first, and then you can distort ‘em
as much as you please.” – Mark Twain
In Chapter IV of Mark Twain’s, “Life on the Mississippi,” he talks about the boyhood dream of everyone growing up in Hannibal, Missouri, his home, on the western bank of the Mississippi. Regardless of other passing interests, every boy wanted to be a steamboatman.
In Chapters V through XV, he tells how he achieved his dream and shares the remarkable way he learned to read the river.
First, Twain runs away from home. His hopes to join an expedition to explore the Amazon River are dashed when he learns the next one is not scheduled to depart for ten or twelve years. So he seizes upon the pilot of the riverboat he is riding, a Mr. Bixby, and achieves a deal where the pilot will teach him the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Louis – 1200 or 1300 miles – for $500 payable out of the first wages Twain receives after graduating.
Despite Twain’s keen desire to pilot a steamboat, he became discouraged once facing all that he had to learn. He shares, “If I had really known what I was about to require of my faculties, I should not have had the courage to begin.” He later complains to Mr. Bixby, “I haven’t got the brains enough to be a pilot; and if I had I wouldn’t have the strength enough to carry them around, unless I were on crutches.”
To which his mentor and expert pilot Mr. Bixby, replies: “Now drop that! When I say I’ll learn a man the river, I mean it. And you can depend on it, I’ll learn him or kill him.”
Would we ever know what life was like piloting a riverboat were it not for Mark Twain? He shares anecdotes such as the one about the sleep-walking pilot who masterfully guided his boat through the most dangerous river conditions on a moonless night. Once the other pilot discovered this man had been asleep the whole time, the second pilot declared:
“‘You just ought to have seen him take the boat through Helena crossing. I never saw anything so gaudy before. And if he can do such a gold-leaf, kid-glove, diamond-breastpin piloting when he is sound sleep, what couldn’t he do if he was dead!’”
We learn that, in the riverboat days, “starboard” meant “right,” as it does today; but “larboard” was the only term used to describe “left,” instead of “port” which is now used.
Twain shares the down side of becoming an excellent riverboat pilot. He lost the sense of the beauty of the scenery he had once beheld. “All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. . . . Doesn’t [one] sometimes wonder whether he has gained more or lost most by learning his trade?”
On Day 2 of the cruise, the riverboat was still docked at Red Wing for the day’s activities. I was looking forward to spectacular sunsets and sunrises over the Mississippi — framed with fall colors — the beauty Mark Twain saw before it disappeared from his ability to notice.
At 6 a.m. the temperature was 23 degrees. I remained bundled up in hat, scarf, earmuffs and gloves. Breakfast included my favorite, link sausages, along with biscuits and sausage gravy and a bowl of fresh raspberries, blueberries and strawberries.
Rather than take a local bus through Red Wing, I signed up for a drive 45 minutes south along Highway 61 to Wabasha, Minnesota, to visit the National Eagle Center, situated on the west shore of the Mississippi. Injured eagles who can no longer survive in the wild are given safe harbor here.
On the drive down, we passed a widening of the Mississippi called Lake Pepin. It has an average surface area of 40 square miles, is up to two miles wide and 22 miles long. We passed the Lake Pepin Pearl Button Company – my first hint of how important the freshwater mussel button-cutting business had been along the river until the 1960’s.
We passed Lake City, the home of waterskiing and where the Honeycrisp apple was developed, a favorite of mine that I always thought had originated in the State of Washington.
Wabasha (with accent on the first syllable) is the oldest city in Minnesota. Its population is about 2,500. Located on the Mississippi River near its confluence with the Zumbro River, it is the county seat. Wabasha is named after the Mdewakanton Dakota mixed-blood chiefs Wapi-sha, or Red Leaf, father (1718–1806), son (1768–1855), and grandson (1816–1876) of the same name. The son signed the 1830 U.S. treaty with the Confederated Tribes of the Sacs and Foxes; the Medawah-Kanton, Wahpacoota, Wahpeton and Sissetong Bands or Tribes of Sioux; and the Omahas, Ioways, Ottoes and Missourias in Prairie du Chien. The grandson, Wabasha III, signed the 1851 and 1858 treaties that ceded the southern half of what is now the state of Minnesota to the United States, beginning the removal of his band to the Minnesota River, then removal from Minnesota to Crow Creek Reservation in Dakota Territory, then to the Santee Reservation in Nebraska, where this last Chief Wabasha died.
At the Wabasha National Eagle Center, we learned about bald eagles. A raptor handler brought one of the Center’s bald eagles into a room, fed it some fresh meat as it perched on his left hand, and told us many things about this majestic bird.
Adult bald eagles have yellow beaks, white tails, and yellow legs with no feathers. Their eyesight is keen. They can spot a rabbit three miles across the river or a deer five miles away. They can exert 400 pounds of pressure per square inch per talon. Their wingspans can exceed 8 feet. Eagles mate for life and stay connected to one nest. They expand the size of the nests year over year until, sometimes, the nests become so heavy the trees collapse.
The Center has an observation deck on its second level with a great view of the Mississippi – a perfect location for bird watching. A tree between the Center and a nearby bridge had burst into red fall color.
When we returned to the riverboat, a steam-powered calliope played songs as the riverboat pulled away from the shore. At last the boat was on its way.
The calliope has 37 gold-plated brass pipes and was built especially for the American Queen. The pipes adorn the front of the fifth level of the riverboat. Right below the pipes, on the 4th level, is the keyboard where the songs are played. They can be heard across the river and no doubt for miles above and below the boat.
I walked around all the decks, taking photos. Two red gangplanks, suspended slightly above the lowest deck, pointed ahead from the front of the boat. Locals brought camp chairs and sat along the water’s edge to watch. A white trail of churning water fell away behind the paddlewheel at the back of the boat.
At the front of the paddle wheeler on the top deck are two tall black smokestacks that can be lowered until they are horizontal – parallel to the river — when the boat passes under low bridges. One of the smokestacks was down when I came aboard and then brought up again.
As we moved down the river, we passed loaded barges anchored along the banks.
Mark Twain often talked about snags (dead trees with dangerous branches) in “Life on the Mississippi.” I saw some along the opposite Wisconsin shore as we drifted by.
Today’s lunch was Natchez trout amandine, a pork rind-crusted trout fillet. Dinner in the elegant dining room began with shrimp in peanut sauce, roasted beets, a spring mix salad, followed by the entrée of a delicious slow-roast pork rack and chocolate mousse for dessert.
The number of locks and dams on the upper Mississippi seemed to change depending on who we asked, but there were at least 26 of them and we would pass through 22. We went through Lock & Dam No. 4 just south of Wabasha and were told we would be going through several later in the evening. The riverboat shifted and groaned during the night as it slowed down and navigated through Lock & Dam Nos. 5, 5A, 6 and 7. I never heard the paddlewheel itself from my stateroom, but I often knew when we were passing through the locks.
Day Two had also been a great day. I couldn’t wait for Day Three.
“Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die,
even the undertaker will be sorry.” – Mark Twain
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The National Eagle Center interpretive displays and demonstrations; https://www.nationaleaglecenter.org/; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wabasha,_Minnesota.
An 8-ft wingspan! Wow, I never knew! I would be no match for an eagle, it turns out.