I don’t wear a coonskin cap or carry a musket, but I could imagine myself on a keel boat while cruising down the Illinois River this past week.
Today boats carrying products to market aren’t narrow or made of wood. They’re covered barges pushed by powerful tugs…three across and five deep and cruisers in pleasure boats (that’s what they call us), better get out of their way.
Commerce has doubled on the rivers, according to lockmasters. With old locks that are 110 feet wide and 600 feet long, it sometimes takes two hours or more to get a 15-barge tug and tow through one lock while we PBs hang out at the edges, waiting our turn.
Guidebooks tell us the commercial boats have priority. Not true. If five or more of us are anchored at the edges of a lock, the lockmaster will sometimes let us all go through, just to get us out of the way. Our longest wait was three hours, but most of the time we get to go “next.”
What’s in those barges? We’ve seen benzene, oil, pipes, rocks, soil, fertilizer, coal…the list goes on. Clusters of industrial plants are often just around the bend and barges often line the edges of the channel, waiting for transport.
Up and down the river we passed old towns that once had docks and served as ports, but are now up on higher ground or behind tall retaining walls, having seen too many floods. Marinas are few and far between, but there are still pretty anchorages behind pristine islands full of white pelicans, bald eagles, and snowy egrets.
In a few days we start down the Mississippi River, in a place where white cliffs line the banks…a change of scenery, for sure. But the tugs and barges will still be there…some five across and seven deep, and we’ll be tucking ourselves on the edge of the channel as we pass. And around every bend will be more old towns, more history and new songs will come to mind.
Ol’ Man River, Summertime, Proud Mary…Captain Mark will have to put earplugs in.