Mississippi Journey Part Two: The fog was down. Lee talked about his iddy-biddy home

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The Independent Online
2am in Dresbach Slough, on the Upper Mississippi, riding the towboat JoAnne Stegbauer, river pilot Mike Pope at the helm. Thick fog had forced us to slow the 3,200hp engines to a crawl. Ahead of us the three giant anhydrous ammonia barges we were pushing were hardly visible even with our spotlights full on. If there was a Mississippi moon shining on me I couldn't see it.

Mike knew the fog would be down until dawn. It had been that way both nights since the JoAnne puffed out of St Paul, Minnesota, two days ago with Captain Al Hicks, Mike, three bargemen, two deckhands, one cook and an English trainee boatman on board. I had got used to sitting out my 11pm to 5am watch enveloped in cold, damp Mississippi mist.

On our first night out from St Paul, Mike had been willing to keep the boat out in the 9ft channel, using the reverse engines to hold her gently against the current. But tonight he wanted her tied off on the bank to give the horsepower a rest. Bargeman Lee Courville (the Crazy Cajun) from the Louisiana bayous, Deckhand Steve Shiver (called Screech for reasons no one on board could remember) and I were shoulder-to-shoulder in the wheelhouse behind Mike, waiting for orders.

The fog continued to tumble down the bluffs along the shore and visibility worsened. "That's it," said Mike. "Ain't no way I'm running in this shit no more. It's time guys."

Outside, the night was all around us. A blue heron swooped out of the mist past my head, the cicadas hissed from the grass and river vapours clung to my face.

Lee led me down the wheelhouse steps and we hopped on to the first barge, picking our way along its edge. Fifteen feet below me swirled the black, silent waters of the Mississippi. We could not have been more than 20ft from the shore but the river was dangerously deep and the current strong.

I remembered Mike's first lesson on how to be a riverboat pilot. "The current comes out from the bank into the river. Don't forget that. Your lead barge will get pushed out if you get too close." I could see the current running offshore as we stood on the barge rail, huddled in our lifejackets.

The JoAnne's engines roared as she tried to get close enough for me to leap off and tie her up but the river was teasing her. We did get in close enough once. Lee and I were at the very nose of the lead barge, caught by the spotlight. As we slid up the bank we were engulfed by foliage. I was ready to leap ashore and choke a rope (catch a line) from Lee but over the walkie-talkies Mike told us to wait awhile to see if she would hold on her own.

Lee and I fell to talking. He told me about his home town and seemed glad of the chance to remind himself of it.

"It's just an iddy-biddy li'l place, 'bout 2,000 people. Kinder's its name. It's real nice. That's real Cajun Country out there. We're country people, most of us never been to a city. I ain't even been to New Orleans and that's just up the road. I like the outdoors, crabbing, fishing, hunting turtles. And good cooking!"

His great-grandfather had migrated from Nova Scotia, so Lee grew up speaking equal amounts of Cajun French and English. "But now the young 'uns they don't want to learn Cajun French so it's going to die out, I reckon in the next 50 years or so."

It was time to tie-off but to which tree? At last I could be of some use as the JoAnne's official arborealist. Hanging on to each other's lifejackets, Lee and I squinted at the options. A hazel. Too weak. A double-trunked elm. Too far from the shore. An oak. Perfect, apart from the fact that we had just dug out 2ft of bank from under it when we hit the shore, exposing its roots and rendering it much less stable.

It wasn't going to work. Mike would have another night holding her steady in mid-river. I walked back along the barges, choking on the ammonia stench and sheepishly hid in the galley. All I had to do was tie-off and I couldn't even manage that.

I immersed myself in the charts of the Upper Mississippi, learning the names of each stretch of river. Dresbach Slough was at Mile 704, measured from the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers just north of St Louis. Below us eight miles through the fog was Broken Arrow Slough, then Diamond Jo Daymark, Coon, Deadman and Catfish Sloughs, Sweezy Island, Hurricane Chute, Steamboat Hollow, Fever River, and Hanging Dog Bluff. It was as if Mark Twain had named them.

As I sank into my bunk at dawn I counted the miles I had covered so far - roughly 600. By the time we dock at Dubuque, Iowa, in another 36 hours, that will have increased to more than 700. I suddenly realised I was way behind schedule. I was due to meet the mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, on September 19 to attend the big Blues festival there as his guest. Missing it would be snubbing Southern hospitality - it's just not done. But Dubuque, Iowa, to Greenville, Mississippi, in a week? The success of the journey was now in the hands of the towboat pilots and reliant on the fickle moods of the river. I prayed it would treat me well.

Part 3 appears next Wednesday.