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Courtesy of Joe Angert
Old Man RiverA barge pushes up the Mississippi River near the Trail of Tears State Park. Joe and Isaac Angert boated this portion of the river in 2002.
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Courtesy of Joe Angert
Joe and Isaac Angert
When it’s time for Isaac Angert to go home after his first year at Truman State University, he won’t be driving to his parents’ home in downtown St. Louis.
Instead, one morning in May, someone will take Isaac, his canoe, and several dozen pounds of gear to the bank of the Chariton River that runs close to the college town of Kirksville. There, the tall and stocky college freshman will begin a nearly three-hundred-mile river journey back home — down the Chariton, into the Missouri River, and finally into the waterway that, along with his father, has nurtured his boyhood addiction to rivers, fishing, and meteorology: the Mighty Mississippi. At least, that’s the plan.
Waiting on the banks when Isaac is ready to be picked up near the Chain of Rocks in Granite City, Illinois, will be Joe Angert. In the last decade, the father and son have explored every inch of the Mississippi River, from source to mouth, in summer trips and weekend outings. If prompted, both of them can rattle off the river’s vital statistics without pause: The Mississippi drains 41 percent of North America. It’s the fourth longest river in the world and tracks 2,325 miles from its source in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Its elevation changes 1,475 feet from the headwaters to where it meets the ocean, the shortest fall of any major river on earth.
They know of its deceptive power. The current passing under a barge’s slanted bow can submerge a pontoon boat. Then there are its quirks. Although most rivers assume a feminine orientation, the mighty Mississippi has always been referred to as “Old Man River.”
“The Mississippi’s story is one contrary happening after another,” Joe once wrote on the website he started in 1998 to document his and Isaac’s river adventures. The father-son project started about nine years ago when Isaacs’s grandfather suggested they explore the locks and dams around their hometown in St. Louis. Then the project grew. Exploring one lock prompted Joe and Isaac to drive to another. The drive turned into weekend trips along the Great River Road. Road trips led to river trips, and the Angerts navigated the Mississippi by boat in three segments during the summers of 2001, 2002, and 2003.
“We wanted to explore every place on the river,” says Joe, a photographer and professor at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. The web site is an outlet for his photography and a way to document and connect each town that touches the Mississippi through narrative history, pictures, and interviews with residents.
For Isaac, who’s spent half his life and thousands of miles on this river, it’s not so much about the web site. It’s about everything else the river represents: movement, mystery, science, fishing, escape.
And now, independence. The trip back to St. Louis will be Isaac’s first major river journey without his father. The last time he canoed the Mississippi waters, it was with Joe in the summer of 2005, the last summer before college took priority. They both remember the intense seven weeks, when the river affirmed its presence as a force that even the most knowledgeable researchers can’t control or understand. And they both understand that physically and emotionally, it was one of the most defining moments of their relationship.
Where the Mississippi River begins in Lake Itasca, Minnesota, Joe and Isaac dropped their canoe and about 164 pounds of gear into the water. It was the beginning of the summer in 2005.
Isaac and Joe had canoed the river’s headwaters once already.
They’d also driven a pontoon boat down the more dangerous second and third sections of the Mississippi: the upper river (from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Cairo, Illinois) and the lower river (from Cairo to the Gulf of Mexico).
The plan was to take the canoe back to the headwaters, Joe recalls.
He is a natural talker with eyes twinkling behind his glasses. “It always bugged Isaac that we skipped a couple of spots along the river during that first trip.”
For inexperienced canoeists, the Mississippi headwaters are unpredictable. Too much spring runoff capsizes canoes as they careen over sweepers, which are trees lying across the river. Too little rain and runoff means the sweepers are just annoyances; but getting stuck in the mud becomes the hazard.
Back at the launch, the river was high, but Joe’s concerns ebbed as they paddled easily to the first campsite at Wanagan Landing. The following morning, however, the current was swift, and the Angerts began to bounce into the rocks. Joe and Isaac, like others who have tackled this difficult section of the river, had to start making “portages,” a process that involves walking the canoe and gear around obstructions in the river.
Joe had forgotten the physical demands of this kind of canoeing. Controlling his body in the boat, hiking through reeds and marshes, and feeling the strain of extra pounds he’d gained since the last canoe trip, Joe, in his mid-fifties, was in pain. His leg was cut and bleeding from a brush with a sweeper. His confidence in his ability was dissipating.
Then came more sweepers.
Four years ago, one of these trees had knocked Joe clean out of the boat. The canoe capsized, and the Angerts lost all their belongings in the river. It took days to recover. Isaac was prepared this time.
When the canoe lodged against the tree, Isaac, then a strapping seventeen-year-old who could bench press 240 pounds, hauled out a saw, plunged his arm into the cold water, and began hacking at the unwieldy log.
While Isaac sawed, he thought about his dad. His father knew better than to fight the natural rocking of the canoe, yet Isaac could feel Joe battling to steady himself, which only sapped his strength
and made paddling more difficult.
When Isaac’s saw cut through the log and the canoe rejoined the current, a bend in the river presented the next obstruction. Joe heard the whooshing water before he saw its cause. The impending sweeper had formed a four-foot waterfall across the river. No way could the canoe make it over the top. Not in one piece.
“I want out,” Joe said.
In the best of times, it’s common for Joe and Isaac to spend hours on the river without speaking. Traditionally, fishermen don’t talk much, and Joe finds peace gazing at the shoreline or snapping
But as Joe clambered up the steep muddy bank in Minnesota to get cell phone service, after the discouragement of a second sweeper injury, the silence was anything but comfortable.
I failed my son, Joe thought as he walked away from the river and flagged down two men on ATVs. “You’re not far from the highway,” one of them said.
Isaac, who had completed the portage while Joe sought help, realized it was the first time he had seen his father panic. He would later liken it to one of those moments when a child finds out his parent is not God, but is, in fact, human — and fallible.
As Joe returned with the news about the highway, Isaac stepped back into the canoe. But not Joe. Without a word, Isaac paddled as Joe walked along the riverbank. Soon they came to a bridge where the highway crossed the river. Joe gave directions to his wife, Clare, who had stayed a few days after dropping them off.
It was going to be an awkward night at the hotel in Bemidji, Minnesota. Isaac was disappointed. He understood his father’s physical limitations, but failing to accomplish their first goal bothered him.
It wasn’t just a compulsive tendency; Isaac was accustomed to succeeding. The land-locked side of his life revolved around computers, and at Bishop DuBourg, his high school in St. Louis, he had been revered for his technological aptitude. He had free range of the teacher’s lounge, had come late to class, and had made house calls to teachers with crashed hard drives. In his free time, he had built computers and entire networks from spare parts the school had thrown away.
Originally, the Angerts hadn’t planned how long to stay on the river in 2005. Joe figured three weeks would cover previously missed ground.
“Well, we’ve got the whole summer,” Isaac joked. “Why don’t we just quit when we’re tired?”
“We could paddle all the way back to St. Louis,” Joe joked back. Their longest canoe trip to date was their first when they paddled from Bemidji to Lake Pepin, Minnesota, a distance of about 600 miles. This trip, it was 1,100 miles back to St. Louis.
Now, the proposition was beginning to look less like a joke to Isaac. He had to have another goal.
Joe suggested they put the canoe back in the water below Bemidji, in calmer waters, and Isaac agreed. He looked forward to the next task: canoeing Lake Winnibigoshish. The Mississippi River enters and exits several northern lakes, but Lake Winnie is no pond. Canoeists have died in its turbulent waters, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources warns all to stay away. Joe and Isaac planned to paddle the long way around the perimeter, rather than the short route through the middle, but they could only do so if the weather cooperated. As the wind howled, Isaac was prepared to wait as long as necessary at the West Winnie campground.
The next morning, Joe crawled out of the tent and looked grimly at the tempestuous waters. The weather forecast predicted more gray skies and rain. Isaac would have camped patiently for another week, but he could tell Joe wouldn’t.
That bleak afternoon, Joe and Isaac bounced along twenty miles of Minnesota back roads as the West Winnie campground manager drove them around the lake in his pickup truck. Lake Winnie had won again.
By the time the Angerts were paddling toward Grand Rapids, Minnesota, Isaac had traded in his rain gear for his broad-brimmed straw hat.
There was no definitive conversation about the new goal of the trip. Joe knew, however, that Isaac wasn’t going to leave the river until they reached St. Louis.
They had failed to accomplish their two main goals for this journey, and Isaac responded tenaciously. The pair usually covered between eighteen and twenty-five miles per day when paddling through Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. This pace allowed Joe freedom to stop and take pictures, explore local greasy spoon cafes, and converse with residents.
This time, the straw hat ahead of him was relentless. Over the next few weeks, Isaac pushed to cover forty miles on some days, through Minnesota towns like Aitkin, Brainerd, and Little Falls — all places where Isaac, on earlier visits, had eagerly left the boat for his favorite northern delicacies: hash browns, sauerkraut, bratwurst.
“We were at odds with goals,” Joe says. “I wanted an easier trip. I had the money; I wanted to get a hotel, take a shower, go in, and say hi to the people. But Isaac was a driven man. He only wanted to eat canned chili and sleep on the islands.”
Joe preferred not to argue, though his muscles screamed and joints ached. He still held parental authority and insisted they portage around the Sartel dam in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Isaac, strong and self-confident, was ready to go through the dam. Joe didn’t relent; the water beyond the dam was too turbulent.
Isaac can tell the region he’s in by looking at the geography along the shores. The northern states — Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin — are lush and green. The river is smaller and uninterrupted by the barge traffic that dominates the channel in Illinois and Missouri.
But by the time they reached the dam pools in the north, the vast recreational areas had removed the friendly current. Temperatures were nearing the triple digits, and the July 2005 heat wave was about to hit. Camping grew increasingly uncomfortable.
“We can’t do this anymore,” Joe said when they reached Fort Madison, Iowa. Their only alternative, Isaac knew, was to canoe at night and rest during the day. A giant twenty-two-mile dam pool
separates Fort Madison and Keokuk, Iowa, which is on the Missouri state line. It’s impossible to get lost; bright city lights flank the pool on both shores.
A few miles down from Keokuk, the Angerts made landfall at Warsaw, Illinois, and slept on shaded picnic tables. They were on a mission, but even Isaac needed a reprieve. Covering the canoe and their gear with a tarp, the pair went in search of air conditioning.
They found it in a biker bar in downtown Warsaw, where Isaac and Joe spent their Sunday afternoon watching the leather-clad patrons and NASCAR. They regrouped, planned to paddle to an island that evening, and travel the next day to Quincy, Illinois.
The weather broke a bit in the morning. After Quincy, Hannibal, and finally, Louisiana, Missouri, Isaac succumbed to a real bed at the Riverview Hotel, high on a bluff overlooking the river.
Fifty miles separated them from John’s Boat Harbor in St. Peters, their last stop.
The next day, they made the twenty-five miles to Hamburg, Illinois, where father and son butted heads again.
“I want to rest at Hamburg,” Joe said. Over the past seven weeks he’d lost weight, recovered the muscles in his arms and back, and met Isaac’s mileage quota on most days. But he was tired.
“I don’t,” Isaac countered. After many years of rightly conceding to dad’s caution, this time Isaac wasn’t going to budge. For one, the task wasn’t risky; they weren’t going through a lock and dam or getting too close to a barge. They were battling mental and physical stamina in the home stretch of a long journey, and Isaac wasn’t about to lose.
They compromised and rested on a sandbar while Joe weighed the options. The heat was unbearable, and he knew canoeing at night would get them home most efficiently. The difference was, in this heavily forested area, no ambient light would guide them, and it would be easy to turn down one of the offshoot channels.
Then there were the fish. Three species of carp overrun the area of the river dividing Missouri and Illinois, and they feed on the surface at night. In strange and dangerous fish theatrics, the carp are startled by boat engines and can rocket up to twelve feet out of water. Joe had seen it happen — a thirty-pound fish had once knocked his colleague, Kurt Kellner, in the back of the head as Isaac was driving all of them in the johnboat to their favorite fishing spot.
But Isaac and Joe weren’t in a motorized vessel this time, and when the moon rose over Old Man River and illuminated the dark expanse of nothingness, the pair dipped their paddles carefully through the bustling schools of carp. By 2:30 am, they reached Lock and Dam 25 at Winfield, Illinois, and rested for a few minutes.
We’re almost to where we fish every weekend, thought Isaac.
Nine miles to go.
At 4:30 am, on a darkened Missouri shoreline, Joe and Isaac paddled into the opening of John’s Boat Harbor. They drifted past docked vessels and found their army green johnboat. Exhausted, they secured the canoe and tumbled onto the johnboat’s nubbly, gray carpet. In those few blissful moments before sleep, both had the same thought: Thank God. It’s over.
This year, when Isaac and Joe meet on the banks of the Mississippi, it will be a different experience. Joe, who has moved the family’s johnboat to a small marina along an empty stretch of the
river in Elsberry, is attuned to the transition that’s taking place. But reserved and thoughtful, Isaac has never been forthcoming about his double life as a river fanatic. Before he left for Truman last year, he was characteristically detached about what his new life would be like away from the Mississippi.
“It’s not sad, it’s just a fact,” Isaac says. “It’s something you have to think about now and then. I mean, if I have free time in college, then it will definitely be a priority.” It’s not the same for Joe.
“I miss him terribly,” Joe says, adding that he knew their last summer trip was a sign that Isaac was ready to be out on his own. “Even if I wanted to canoe with him from Kirksville this year, I don’t think he’d let me. The 2005 summer was a good trip and all, but I’m old and broken, and he’s at the peak of his adult strength. I think I’d be a burden to him now.”
But Joe also knows that their years on the river have helped shape Isaac into who he is: a physics major with interests in meteorology and environmental engineering who now has the river “in his blood.” Out here, on the water, Joe taught Isaac to catch only the catfish that he could eat. On its banks, father and son listened to members of the Army Corps of Engineers talk about their most pressing conservation issues.
“Isaac would be a very different person if he hadn’t had the river,” Joe says. “He’s not real social. He’s not real popular. He’s definitely a nerd. But he has something you don’t always see in an individual like that; he’s satisfied with who he is, and he’s extremely confident in his abilities.” Joe pauses, lifts his eyebrows, then continues. “I mean, he has piloted a boat on his own for nearly twenty-five hundred miles on the Mississippi River, and he’s canoed sixteen hundred miles of it. He’s pretty much ready to take on the world.”