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River Fever

Katherine Fischer

Never mind that our boat is in dry dock, nor that it is shrink-wrapped, icicles hanging from the bow. Never mind that there hasn’t been fuel at the gas dock for months, nor that every slip is empty, and every launching ramp under ice. I cannot stay away from the marina any longer. If the river is so frozen I can’t dangle a toe in it, at least I can get close enough to hear the catfish feeding off the bottom—or at least to imagine that I do.

Getting past Thanksgiving is easy enough. I can usually hold off until Christmas. In a good year, I’ll make it through New Year’s and maybe right past Groundhog’s Day. But to endure through Valentine’s Day without a trip to the river’s edge? Never. Maybe it’s the frustration of stalled cars and frozen batteries during our Midwestern winters. Possibly it’s the lack of buoyancy in my step, too heavily laden with boots and two pairs of L.L. Bean socks. Perhaps the culprit is snow mounding up outside my window—snow promising to melt, snow swearing to heaven that it will trickle down the hillside, chase into storm sewers, and flow on toward the Mississippi River. Whether sleet by day or storms by night, one thing’s for sure:  It’s February and I can’t wait any longer. I’m heading across the Iowa—Illinois bridge to the river.

On the Iowa side of the Mississippi, there is only one marina within close proximity to those of us who live in town, and that Yacht Club is a bit too pricey for us. The mid‑ and low‑rent districts for boat slips are across the river on the Illinois side at marinas like Frentress, Midtown, and Bent Prop. Given that the river runs along the border of these states, the way I’ve come to feel about crossing the bridge may not be entirely accurate geographically, but metaphorically it suits me.

I leave the Iowa side, emigrating from the civilized landed part of my days—college teaching and a fairly routine family life. But in crossing this bridge to Illinois, I connect with the river and its temperament, both cantankerous and comforting. From this side comes the passion that stirs that which I write about, that which I live and breathe. Crossing this bridge, I journey deeper into my own soul where the river runs through my own canyons, clifftops, and valleys.

Down at the marina, at least, I’ll run into my own kind, women and men who stand around the boat shop salivating over steel props, inspecting lines, lamenting about how soon until we get back on the river. “We ain’t opening up until May 1,” Clete grumbles when I tell him I want the boat put in by April. But it’s this way every year. I phone Clete in the middle of hard February ice, tell him I need the boat in by April. He refuses. I bellyache. He hangs up. I deliver a case of Wild Boar to the shop. Every year our boat is in by April 1—more or less. With reports of freezing sleet for later this week, however, I am more aware than ever it’s not going to be April for a long, long time yet.

“Cabin fever,” one of my land‑lover friends claims, “you’re just feeling cooped up.” True, there is too much stillness without the river rolling against my swimming, without it rocking my boat. With cabin fever though, you’re fine once you get out and get some fresh air, once you get “un‑cooped.” But for those of us on the river, the coop is a lot more pervasive than any cabin. I could spend January, February, and March cross‑country skiing, ice skating, or running outdoors, and I’d still be counting down until the first river trip of the year. As the temperature outside plunges, my longing for muddy water rises to fever pitch. By April, my mercurial soul erupts.

When animals hibernate, their heart rate slows. They save energy. Their animation is suspended, the passion in them turning from fiery orange to cobalt blue. If bears could anticipate spring—if more than physical hunger awakened them—if they could feel the earth thawing, berries ripening, ice melting into puddles, and grass‑shoots pushing up through the soil, then, I suppose, they’d feel a lot like river people do through the crustiest months of winter. We wait. That’s the difference between the bears and us.

Unlike our grizzly friends, I know what I’m missing out on right now. And I’m not satisfied with the dried nuts stored from last fall. I wait—and not patiently so. I can’t help recalling crisp early spring before color comes to the ferns along the banks; June steaming into July when the river fills with frogs and fishers, skiers and eels; star‑lit nights camping on the islands when there’s only river, a tent, and my shadow cast on the sand by moonlight; sultry Sunday afternoons when my husband, children, and I linger longer (and longer) to avoid going back to town, to avoid the harness of the world tamed.

Waiting for April, I feel the ice of the river like the membrane of my own skin. The blood of the Mississippi courses beneath the river’s skin with the pulse of waiting. In waiting for spring, main channel arteries and back sloughs swell with the promise of new life. This waiting is so like others:  waiting for a child’s first word, waiting for a lover to return, waiting for the dry parts of our days to fill with water. How trying the last few months are. Waiting through the last month of pregnancy, the expectant mother tolerates the questioning of well‑meaning relatives, “Why haven’t you gone into labor yet?” as if there is some sensible answer. With four of our five children arriving “late,” I could nearly smell the question coming as soon as the due date arrived. “Why aren’t you in the hospital yet?” I learned to smile. And wait. Babies arrive in their own good time.

“Why haven’t you thawed yet?” I am tempted to ask the Mississippi. Instead, I watch, hoping to see the ice drop, signaling that the river will soon go into the labor of spring.

Having dropped off the latest edition of Quimby’s river charts—the first of this year’s offerings—at the feet of Clete, hopefully placating this god who holds the key to our boat, I drive across the marina parking lot to where our runabout rests along with all the other sepulchral vessels. There’s an out‑of­-placed-ness unique to runabouts, skiffs, and dinghies hoisted up on blocks and trailers. Like fish out of water, they are lifeless, fleshy, the targets of seagulls. I can almost see scales falling off them, their tarps caving in with snow. These vessels don’t belong on seas of winter. I imagine climbing into the cab of one of Clete’s cranes, picking up our 19‑foot runabout and plopping it back into open water. But only spring can be the savior of ice‑docked boats. All I can do is pat the bow, “It’s ok, baby; we’ll have you rocking again in no time.” Promising myself that this spring we’ll paint the hull, I head over to the houseboat still in the water.

Driving past row upon row of boats, I read their names aloud: “Titanic” is painted on the side of a 15-­foot aluminum runabout that we often find over in Massey Slough running skiers between the oil company dredge boat and the marina. It’s a tight channel at Massey, an odd place to come upon the Titanic. Pair a Docs, a 30-foot cabin cruiser, is owned by a couple of my colleagues from the college who prefer the backside of Minnow Island; they spend long leisurely weeks far from chalk, textbooks, and the politics of academe. Bare‑busted Godiva, the figurehead on the River Waltz, reminds me of the Rolls Royce hood soldered to the rusty old Volkswagen Beetle Clete drives. And Ike’s homemade Lily Belle, from the tip of its bow where his barge the Airport is attached, to its paddlewheel at the stern, suggests that on the river we have our own delusions. From the littlest minnow of a boat to the grandest luxury yachts—all of them hibernate here and wait.

Houseboats are only a little less sad than runabouts in February, because many of them are left in the water. At least I can unlock the door of The Enterprise, walk into the kitchen, turn on the gas, and stand over the stove pretending we’re underway and it’s my turn to cook dinner. But the hallucination evaporates in puffs of condensation coming from my breath, and the pilot light goes out in the cold.

When we took ownership of the houseboat last year, we knew it was in less‑than‑perfect condition. “Better keep ‘er running while it’s getting fixed,” Clete warned when he assessed The Enterprise‘s main needs, reconstructed gas lines for the propane leading into the kitchen and new engines. When we balked at the cost, he reiterated, “Let her sit out a summer and the muskrats will eat right through ‘er.” We were stranded only twice when those ancient twin Evinrudes refused to turn over. That was during the first two test drives.

Clete sent out one of the high‑school girls who pumps gas at the dock with a new battery to save us the first time when the electrical system fizzled on Nine‑Mile Island. The second time we were marooned on the sandbar south of town. With a kitchen full of cheese and crackers, soda and wine, and ice cream bars, and with the promise of a sunny afternoon ahead of us, we weren’t in too much of a hurry to get rescued. Soon enough, another houseboat, Our Nest Egg, dropped anchor at the sandbar alongside us. A few hours after these boaters joined us for Chardonnay, brie, and Eskimo Pies, they offered to tow us back to the marina. You get used to being rescued on the Mississippi, even if you’ve got brand‑new engines and a fresh battery. If it’s not engine trouble, it’s wingdams and stump fields messing with the motor. At least by the time we entertained my colleagues from the college and other friends, The Enterprise never failed.

I gladly volunteered to visit the houseboat during winter just to make sure nothing cracks or freezes. Besides, it provides me an excuse to come to the marina more often. In some of the fancier houseboats along the river, the kind with heaters, people keep their boats in the water and hole up for a weekend, pretending it is August. That’s not the case with The Enterprise, however; so unless I come down to check on it, it sits empty and alone.

Keeping a boat in the upper Mississippi through winter means it has to be “bubbled in” with a stream of water flowing between it and the ice; otherwise, the ice will harpoon the hull. From a distance, such a boat appears ready to head out into the main channel. It’s that close to real. No matter how real it appears, though, you can’t rev up the motor on a bubbled‑in boat, throttle down, and churn out through a foot of ice.

My thoughts wander to my niece Emily and her husband, again waiting for their son. Since his birth, there have been months, years of waiting—for blood tests and doctors’ prognoses, for treatments, for The Cure. Most of Ben’s life, his mother and father have managed to give him the appearance of these boats which look so like summer. But there’s always been that stream around his life, barely separating him from the advancing ice.

The intricate lace of last November’s spiderweb spanning the front window over The Enterprise pilot’s wheel reminds me even more that it is not yet April. Lucky spiders, at least they hole up in the crevices of a boat before dying. T.S. Eliot didn’t know everything: November is the cruelest month, not April. That’s the month we river folk keep our boats in the river as long as possible. Some of us even hold off until the last week of November before allowing the marina to pull our boats out and land them like catfish gasping for water, waiting to die. Last fall our good friend Doug waited so long to pull out the boat that he had to lean over the bow to chip away at the frozen river with a screwdriver while his wife drove the Sally Forth to the ramp.

December is fairly tolerable to river people. First snowfall, I look up at the winter sky, stick out my tongue to taste the flakes of the river floating down, the Mississippi in just another stage of its cycle. Some of us with boats in the garage—and still enough summer in our mind’s eye—find it warm enough to finally replace belts and lines, clean up hulls, fix. We have a tendency, however, to look at Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, and other winter gift‑giving holidays as opportunities to remind our relatives and friends of how flat the old boat bumpers are, or of how thrilling it would be to slalom the river next June “if only I had a good slalom ski.”

As brittle cold as January is in Iowa and Illinois, it’s hot as hell for those of us with river fever. We try. We really do. Some go ice fishing, setting up make‑shift houses and slicing holes in the ice. Others cross‑country ski. I skate. As much as this walking on water may give me delusions of the divine, it’s not the same as wallowing thigh‑deep in a warm current, my toes squishing into the soft river bottom. My husband, our kids, and I sled down the hills rising up from the river, but we know we’re only surfing on snow. I may tip a few on New Year’s Eve, but I wait for the river New Year, April 1.

People wait for the first of the year hoping that the world will be made new, that whatever was dead might be brought to life. Even in December, the heart quickens at the thought of starting again. River people await the unlocking of the river the same way. Like a child in May counting down the final days until school is out for summer, I grow more impatient the closer we get. “What’s taking so long?” I am tempted to ask the Mississippi as I peer out the houseboat kitchen window.

On the wall near the kitchen sink are photos of the “mud lads,” our son and his chums caked in clay from digging in the back of Minnow Island; of friends toasting one another on the “party barge”; of sunset through the cottonwoods at Nine‑Mile Island; and of the guests who boarded with cinched ties and pinching high heels only to emerge loose‑collared, bare‑footed, and relaxed. The images remind me even more keenly of the contrasting picture outside the boat now, the frame of ice holding still a black and white river.

Plastic lawn bags duct‑taped to the houseboat windows beg to be ripped off, and the engine battery sitting on the kitchen floor can’t wait to be charged. No swimming suits or Mississippi mud‑caked towels drape the front railings, the refrigerator is empty except for a dry Dr. Pepper can, and when I strain to hear the waves lapping against the side of the boat, I hear only the creaking of ice freezing harder by the minute. “Don’t come a-knocking if the boat’s a‑rocking,” we wink at couple friends all summer long. But today the boat does not rock. It does not even list.

This stillness has me picturing my father a few years ago. With a winter of cancer advancing in upon him, he was bubbled in with chemotherapy and radiation. Avid to return to the boardroom and the golf course, he seemed ready to sail again, too. He would chug right through the front doors of the hospital, down to his runabout on Lake Michigan, and cut through the wake of those tiny aberrant cells, I thought. He loved to rock the boat better than anything, both on the lake and in our lives. A man so full of dune grass, high‑water, and constant motion should be unstoppable, I remember hoping.

After locking up The Enterprise, I head over to the Midtown Marina Dive In. “Fried mushrooms and a Wild Boar,” I chant to Sandy while sidling up to a barstool to talk with the regulars. Before I was on the river, I used to think the regulars were a bunch of drunks who couldn’t stay away from the bar all winter long. But since I’ve been on the river, I know better. It’s not the alcohol that they can’t wait for. The conversation today is exactly the same as it was yesterday and as it will undoubtedly be tomorrow. It’s an orchestra of topics with Sandy as conductor bringing them together from behind the bar. Think it’ll flood this spring (the cellos)? Wonder if Nine‑Mile Island will still be above water (the violins). Heard they’re putting in a gas dock at Finley’s Landing (the cymbals).

Rivertalk. By July 4 fireworks, there will be luscious gossip about who crossed boats and slept with whom, about the bass runner that got snarled in the lily pads over in Menominee Slough, and worst of all, about that greenhorn who hit a wingdam, underwater stone wall ripping into the hull of his boat. But for now, the talk is all flood predictions, all mechanical nightmares, all wait.

The yearly wait is bad enough, but in a flood year it’s worse. Just about the time we could be full throttle through Dead Man’s Slough, the Coast Guard closes down the river. Afterward, folks mark orange slashes on the blacktop, showing how high the water rose on the road up to the Catfish Bar and Gill at Massey. Before the crest passes though, there isn’t much to do—unless it’s to evacuate. I join friends sandbagging and squeegee‑ing the river into drains. Then we wait it out.

That’s the difference. In a flood year, we wait out instead of waiting for. We hold our breath, never sure what the river has left behind, never sure what the river has taken away, never quite sure we want the waiting to end. This past week, Emily and her husband waited out Ben’s fourth birthday, mindful of how their son’s disease progresses.

When my father’s breathing grew erratic that April, I waited it out, too. Finally late one May afternoon, I leaned over his bed, “It’s ok, Dad, just calm your breathing . . . in . . . out.” I spoke slowly, rhythmically, attempting to calibrate his pattern of breathing. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the directions I gave him were the same that nurses had given me in labor and delivery: “In, one‑two-­three; out, one‑two‑three; take a cleansing breath.” But those breaths of labor and delivery—unlike my father’s—were waiting for, not waiting out.

As painful as that waiting out is, however, it prepares us, softens the blow somehow. When my sister-­in‑law’s plane pierced the Pentagon in September, we were not granted the benefit of waiting for. One minute Dora was at a Washington Senate hearing testifying on behalf of drugs to cure prostate cancer and the next she was dead. Gone without the warnings of illness or high‑water.

For months afterward, I dreamt of searching through rooms for her, opening door after door throughout the house. I’d open the same closet doors over and over and call for her, but she never answered. Like so many people who survived that day realizing the loss of lovers and family members, I felt as though Dora’s life had passed through my fingers like water. No matter how hard I tried to hold onto her, she just slipped through. Had there been some warning, some hint to prepare me, I suppose, her death would have been no less hard. But at least the loss of her could have been cushioned by waiting out the inevitable. I could have bided my time, marked Dora’s leaving by the clock instead of by some horrific vanishing trick.

Waiting out: it’s a kind of waiting that makes me turn my attention back to the Mississippi, back to deep anticipation for spring, to the luxury of waiting for a river to thaw.

Even waiting for hell to freeze over seems fleeting compared to waiting out winter on the Mississippi. I check the calendar on the wall above the bar at the Dive In. Still not April. I linger with my compatriots hoping to soak up enough of these river people before having to return up the bluffs. “There’s a fella up near Prairie Du Chien who’ll raise a house up as high as five feet. Heard he’s real reasonable,” Jack offers to comfort Wanda who is still recuperating from last spring’s flood. In addition to making payments on a new furnace, she’s facing replacing nearly the entire first floor. “Don’t know that I can afford it even if it is reasonable,” Wanda manages to smile at him. There is a lull in the conversation out of reverence for Wanda’s hard times. Nearly all the regulars at the Dive In have been through the same thing at one time or another. When she’s ready to renovate, many of these regulars will show up to tear out her mud‑ruined walls and floors. They’ll cut into their own leisure and family time and some will even take off from work in order to help her put the place back together again, too. And afterward, they’ll hold a party at the Dive In to toast Wanda. “Community” along the river is an active noun.

Clete comes in for his afternoon break from the shop down below. Waiting for Sandy to draw his Miller, he points his finger at the city council news playing on the television over the bar, “Tell ya one thing. They shoulda asked the towboat pilots and marinas before planning that new bridge.” He crunches down hard on a breadstick and then points the stick at the mayor just now appearing on the screen, “Durn landlubber city fools building a bridge so low no decent sized boat can get under it!” We all laugh because we know Clete is right. Indeed, planners asked everyone but those who knew best—the hired hands and pilots who work the big boats—before spending thousands on blueprints for designs that prove useless. As if to show that even the experts can make mistakes, too, Wanda tells one of her deckhand stories from the years she worked for the commercial barge lines. She was standing on the corner of the front barge when it slammed right into the lock and dam, “Thought I was a goner.” Lunch slides into late afternoon coffee as we spin more tales, until reluctantly I ask Sandy for the tab.

We’re due to go cross‑country skiing with friends back over in Iowa, but my heart won’t be in it. What kind of substitute is snow flying in my face freezing my cheekbones compared with warm water spraying gently against my knees as I cut through a perfect wake, the sun on my back, the fingers of the wind in my hair? I check my watch calendar. Still February, but at least it’s a few hours closer to river time. I say so‑long to the regulars at the Dive In, head out to my car, and push the button to open the moon roof, hoping the February sun might have melted the crust of snow on top of the car. No luck.

As I head back over the bridge, I think of how close death seems just before spring, of how dark night must become before stars can appear visible, of my father, of Dora, of Emily’s waiting. Having been to the winter river, I’m finding new ways to come to terms with these losses. In the rhythm of a river turning to ice and in the talk of the regulars at the Dive In, I find a comforting steadiness. Hitting a pothole halfway across the bridge, I am jarred out of my ruminations back into the present moment.

The news that came this morning is so fresh I have nearly forgotten about it. I catch my breath recalling our oldest daughter’s voice on the phone, “Jerod and I are expecting!” Our first grandchild, due in fall, I plan, will join us for future seasons on the river. I imagine a small lawn chair on the beach with bucket and shovel next to it. I see Rebekah and her husband whooshing their life‑jacketed, inner‑tubed toddler back and forth between them in the shoal water near the shore. My waiting out shifts to waiting for, growing even more impatient than waiting for April as I let my imagination run crazy as the river.

In the middle of my reverie, I look out across the bridge onto the river below as I drive back to Iowa. There is a thin, barely discernable line cutting across the river south of the dam like the linea nigra bisecting a pregnant woman’s stomach just weeks before giving birth. They’ve been ice fishing down there for two months now, but this line in the ice is new. This line signals that the ice’s thickening is over. This line holds the promise of thaw, of a beginning. It may be months away, but nature is drawing a line in the ice. And as I reach the other side of the bridge, I hear the river—stretching, yawning, and cracking open its backbone.

 

* Excerpted from Dreaming the Mississippi by Katherine Fischer, published by the University of Missouri Press, October 2006. To order this book, please call (800)-828-1894.

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