Iowa Writes

SKIP WILLITS
From "The River"


As I eased onto the water I could feel the tension flow out of me. It poured into the V wave that moved away from the point of my canoe, fanning out and finally dissipating somewhere down stream. On the big water troubling thoughts fly away in the breeze. Whatever turmoil remains from the day's work lifts out of the soul quickly and silently. In the late hours of the day the river calms itself and me. "Hello again," I spoke out loud to my river as I paddled upstream toward a familiar island.

Along both shores huge steel barges, owned by various companies, floated in long lines waiting for a tow down or upstream. Coal barges will be pushed up to northern power plants, corn barges glided down to the gulf, loaded onto ocean-going freighters and shipped out to the rest of the world. But on this evening they were floating, silent and ominous, tied to the unlucky cottonwoods growing along the shoreline….

I've heard environmentalists often complain that commercial traffic is ruining the river. They say that the huge props of the tows kick up the silt from the middle of the river and fill in the wetlands along the shore, killing the fish, diminishing wildlife habitat and increasing the risk of floods. They say the diesel and oil spills increase the chemical load in the water and that soon the river will be a barren waterway fit for nothing but barge traffic. But I'd had a long hard workday and was just out for a relaxing canoe ride, so I shook these troubling thoughts from my head….

Then, vibrating against my hull, breaking my Zen-like cadence and interrupting my thoughts came the sound of a powerboat. A man in a flatboat wove down along the left bank barge line; his 15-horse outboard created an annoying drone that belched out over the water. The man stopped the boat at the end of each barge and fiddled with the warning lights. These lights are required by law after a pleasure boat with a drunken crew whizzed along one night several years ago and smashed straight into the side of an unlit barge. All of the pleasure boaters died.

As I eased onto the water I could feel the tension flow out of me. It poured into the V wave that moved away from the point of my canoe, fanning out and finally dissipating somewhere down stream. On the big water troubling thoughts fly away in the breeze. Whatever turmoil remains from the day's work lifts out of the soul quickly and silently. In the late hours of the day the river calms itself and me. "Hello again," I spoke out loud to my river as I paddled upstream toward a familiar island.

Along both shores huge steel barges, owned by various companies, floated in long lines waiting for a tow down or upstream. Coal barges will be pushed up to northern power plants, corn barges glided down to the gulf, loaded onto ocean-going freighters and shipped out to the rest of the world. But on this evening they were floating, silent and ominous, tied to the unlucky cottonwoods growing along the shoreline….

I've heard environmentalists often complain that commercial traffic is ruining the river. They say that the huge props of the tows kick up the silt from the middle of the river and fill in the wetlands along the shore, killing the fish, diminishing wildlife habitat and increasing the risk of floods. They say the diesel and oil spills increase the chemical load in the water and that soon the river will be a barren waterway fit for nothing but barge traffic. But I'd had a long hard workday and was just out for a relaxing canoe ride, so I shook these troubling thoughts from my head….

Then, vibrating against my hull, breaking my Zen-like cadence and interrupting my thoughts came the sound of a powerboat. A man in a flatboat wove down along the left bank barge line; his 15-horse outboard created an annoying drone that belched out over the water. The man stopped the boat at the end of each barge and fiddled with the warning lights. These lights are required by law after a pleasure boat with a drunken crew whizzed along one night several years ago and smashed straight into the side of an unlit barge. All of the pleasure boaters died.

As the distance between us diminished I began to see more clearly what he was doing. The warning lights on the ends of all these barges are simply nine-volt batteries with a small bulb wired to the top. The man was changing batteries. I watched as he disconnected each bulb from its battery and replaced it with a fresh one. He took each old battery and nonchalantly plopped it into the river.

At first I couldn't believe my eyes but then realized this probably was a nightly task, one of his assigned duties. Every evening he was to go along the barge lines and replace dead batteries. When he first started the job he probably asked, "What should I do with the old batteries?" His boss probably answered, "Just heave 'em overboard, it's a big river." So nightly the worker dumps nickel acid batteries overboard where they pile up on the bottom of the river. I thought this out to its natural conclusion and startled myself with the realization that this was most certainly a common practice on all the fleeted barges up and down the entire river form Minneapolis to New Orleans.

The flatboat was now even with my canoe. The worker hadn't seen me. As he fiddled with the light I silently eased beside him. "Ahoy there," I shouted. He almost fell out of his boat, balanced himself, then swiveled around to look at me saying, "Je hi sus Christ you scared the shit out of me." After I introduced myself and told him what I thought of his operation he nervously chuckled and replied, "Listen, I'm just doing my job here and it's just a few batteries." He probably figured I was one of those crazy environmentalists.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


SKIP WILLITS

Skip Willits is a sculptor who lives with his family, happily, on the banks of the Mississippi in Camanche, IA.

"The River" appears in issue #13 of The Wapsipinicon Almanac. Since 1988 the almanac has been edited by Tim Fay and published at his Route 3 Press in rural Anamosa/Monticello. Each issue features a mix of fiction, reviews, essays, poetry, art and homey information, packaged in the format of a folksy, old-time almanac. Issue #14 is now on sale.

The Wapsipinicon Almanac

This page was first displayed
on January 11, 2008

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