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By Kelly Moffitt
A certain type of raw, pragmatic charm makes someone a through-and through Mississippi river rat. There’s a certain amount of muddy river-water running through their veins, too. Tightknit, in some cases close-lipped, and rooted in a connection to the swiftly moving waters of the third biggest river in the world, true river rats take pride in their moniker.
They’re scattered around Missouri; you just don’t know it yet because they’re not the kind to tell you about it.
A Mississippi river rat can be someone skiing on the surf, someone sunning on the beaches, someone fishing on the banks, someone young, or someone old.
There are many kinds of river rats, and indeed, the habits of each change depending on the geography and location.
Deep respect for the river, however, is paramount across all strains of those who make the river their part-time home.
“I know to respect the river,” says Denise Knight, secretary, daughter of co-owner, and sometimes-deckhand of the Golden Eagle Ferry. “It can be dangerous. You know to respect it ...
“The Mighty Mississippi, what else can I say? Long as you’re careful and understand that things change every day. Some days you have flooding and high water, and you’ve always got to be careful on the river. She’ll treat you good if you respect her.”
Anatomy of the River
The area of the Mississippi known colloquially as the “high-lines” is named for the large electrical lines that run high above the river from St. Charles County in Missouri to the very long peninsula of Calhoun County in Illinois.
Bounded by Lock and Dam No. 25 to the north at mile marker 241.4 at Winfield, Missouri, and Lock and Dam No. 26 at mile marker 202.5 at Alton, Illinois, this area is also known as Pool 26 to those who navigate the waters, be it by ferry, barge, fishing boat, kayak, or speed boat. It is a relatively small subsection of the Upper Mississippi River (the river north of its confluence with the Missouri River near St. Louis), which is about half of the 2,320-mile river.
The scenery ranges from white limestone bluffs to rolling farms to dense hardwood forest. Islands break up the main channel into shaded sloughs and swimming holes. Brown, coarse sand lines the banks, in some places more heavily than others, places where the Army Corps of Engineers has dredged the river channel for commercial use, incidentally creating beaches where the river community can gather on land.
The river itself is wide, almost a mile across in some places, and muddy—not muddy as in environmentally dirty, but rather imbued with natural clutter—twigs, logs, leaves. To the attuned nose, the water smells of an earthy sweetness. Depending on the day, you could jump into strong, cold currents or buttery-smooth waters.
“It has gotten better with time,” says Erin Hilligoss-Volkmann, park ranger, natural resource specialist, and environmental educator with the Army Corps of Engineers. “I wonder if we take the river for granted because it is right here in our backyard. Kids don’t even go out on it because their parents tell them it’s muddy or dirty or unsafe.”
Although this may have been the case in the early days of recreational speedboating, laws such as the Clean Water Act of 1972 protect the river. The US Coast Guard and other regulatory bodies patrol to keep the waters safe. With proper precaution (always wearing a life jacket, avoiding barge traffic, and taking classes on how to navigate the river) the Mississippi could be seen as just as safe as many of the area lakes.
The Mississippi is beautiful in her sheer power— the river’s average flow rate is five-hundred- thousand cubic feet per second. To many, trying to tame her waters seems foolhardy. This is hardly the case.
People who chart her waters have a deference to them, deference with a touch of defiance. People have enjoyed the Mississippi’s bounties for more than a thousand years.
In fact, people of the middle Mississippian era (1200-1400 AD), the same people who created Cahokia Mounds, called the highlines area home.
From canoes to Mark Twain-era steamboats, people have fished and traveled her waters. It wasn’t until the early 1940s that recreation as it is known today emerged on the Mississippi.
In a sense, the locks and dams that were constructed after 1939 tamed the river’s natural, wild course, making it more navigable for barges, and later, as the invention of the consumer motorboat advanced, for recreationists to enjoy the river.
The First Wave
Jack Backowski can’t put a finger on when his family discovered the river; it seemed to him like he always knew the river was there for the taking. As a boy growing up in St. Louis’s University City, Jack and his father would drive up to the banks of the upper Mississippi and wade along the shore.
“When my parents were married, it was hard times; they didn’t have no boats,” he says. “In fact, I remember my dad had but one old car. When I was little, my dad and I would get in the car and go fishing up on the river.”
By the 1960s, times had changed. Jack estimates that seven other families in his Florissant neighborhood had recreational boats on the Mississippi. His first boating experience out on the river was a little bumpier than most.
“Where I first started learning to ski on two skis, a guy just took me up to the river, and he pulled me around and about killed me,” he says. “‘I’m gonna teach you how to ski!’ I never did get up with him. He drug me and drug me and drug me, and I never got up. After that, we got the boat, had to. Learned to ski then.”
Jack ended up skiing into his eighties after buying his first boat for about one thousand dollars. He now owns three boats: a twenty-foot Glaspar, a sailboat, and fishing boat.
Back then, boating was a neighborhood affair. Families that didn’t mingle on the block found friendship on the neighborhood sandbar where Jack, his wife, Lorraine, and their seven children would go every weekend.
Mom would pack picnic lunches and get the kids into the car. Dad was the captain of his ship. And the kids? They were a one-family ski team. Jack recalls them all skiing slalom at once—doing tricks under the ropes, jumping over the wakes, and splashing each other.
It wasn’t uncommon to see other families out there doing the same thing, trying to outdo one another. The show was especially impressive at skier’s slough, a narrow strip of water right next to the high-lines where slalom skiers could ski through narrow waterways with an astute speedboat driver at the wheel. Jack recalls that two of his daughters could ski for eighteen miles straight.
Jack’s fondest memories, however, are of romantic nights spent camping with his wife while anchored to a sandbar, watching the stars. “We would count the days until we could go back,” Jack says.
Lorraine died in 2004, and Jack still captains his boat on the Mississippi.
“I miss those days, being out on the river,” Jack says. “The river is just a friendlier place to be.”
Events like the annual Blessing of the Fleet in Portage des Sioux, Missouri, where boats are baptized for the boating season, and institutions such as Kinder’s Restaurant and the Golden Eagle Ferry tie generations of boaters together in the high-lines area of the Mississippi. Area marinas—Woodlake, Lake Center, Surfside—are also among those institutions.
Andrew (Andy) Alexander is the manager of the Yacht Club of St. Louis, one of the marinas on the Dardenne Slough, a narrower backwater bend of the Mississippi. His family has seen some of the ups and downs of the river since they bought the clubhouse and marina in 1982 from the Busch and Schnuck families.
They survived the great flood of ’93 (another great link of all river rats) when the water rose to the roof of their current clubhouse, and they thrived even as times have changed. More youth frequent the river, and smaller boats populate the river way.
“I think that boating, though, as a whole, the love of boating gets passed on from generation to generation,” Andy says.
Andy explains that there aren’t many differences between generations of boaters, but there are different kinds of boaters. For instance, he differentiates between weekend boaters, who like to party on the sandbars, and boat-lovers who venture out on the weekdays, rarely stopping on sandbars. His advice for new boaters is this: “If you don’t know what to do at a certain area of the river, wait for someone to go before you and follow his or her moves.”
One of his favorite places to boat is an area known as Tube Ranch, which has a sand bottom and is only three to four feet deep in most places. That means you can anchor your boat and walk around. “It’s like having the tropics in your backyard,” Andy says.
“A lot of people don’t know that about the river—it’s a good family thing to do,” Andy says. “There are beaches out there that people don’t know about.
“I think the whole boating lifestyle is a good family-oriented fi t. You have to have a passion for it, though, because there will be ups and downs.”
The New Breed
Sarah Pierce is an example of a newer Mississippi river rat who is still getting her bearings in the Big Muddy. She’s a member of the reinvigorated Alton Ski Club, which has been around for decades but was only recently reinstated as a competitive club.
She has been waterskiing since she was five, though not in the Mississippi for most of that time.
A member of the Holiday Shore Ski Club in Illinois, she was lured into the Mississippi’s waters when several of the team members decided they wanted more competition.
That’s when the Alton Ski Club came in, a growing competitive force with thirty-odd members, several of whom are her family members.
Her mom is a spotter for team formations, her dad drives the competition boat, and her sister competes alongside her. Sarah is the assistant show director and is in charge of the choreography for tournaments. The team’s newcomer status with many emerging talent levels can make competition difficult, but she has seen improvement during the year.
Sarah hasn’t learned all the ins-and-outs of the river yet, but she’s on her way to becoming a river rat. After all, she came out victorious after a traditional river battle.
“You do have to watch for logs,” she says. “I fell after running over one; that was a scary part.”
One of the great things about the high-lines area of the Mississippi is that differences in age, interests, and skill level can all be swept away as quickly as a sandbar can be dredged up. The most indicative place this river culture custom occurs is where Jack Backowski and his family frequented in the 1970s: the sandbar. And people say the Midwest doesn’t have beaches.
The Kastans, the Kachs, and a few acquaintances who have come along for the sit-back-and-relax atmosphere of the sandbar are unlikely friends. They have little in common outside of the river, but on the sandbar, they have a running narrative. They share easy jokes about bruises obtained from an unsuccessful fi ght with a rock hidden in the sandbar’s muddy banks and the time when they forgot the sunscreen but remembered the booze. They’re the happiest kind of sun-fried, Budweisers in hand. They’re either friends with or friendly to everyone on the beach—even intruders and curious strangers—and are ready to share the day’s vittles and tall tales.
“I’m a Pisces; I’m a water baby,” says Kevin Kastan, who has had a boat out on the river for the past three years. “It’s beautiful out here, a great party. There are beaches everywhere, it is like your own private island with really neat people. You don’t step on my boat without asking, though.”
“We call it the Riviera out here,” says Kate Quaka, a friend of Kevin’s wife, Sharon. She’s been out to the river three or four times but can’t believe that other St. Louisans know nothing about it.
“Everyone helps everyone,” Kevin says. “On busy weekends, everyone’s out here. It’ll get so crowded you can’t drive a boat. But people, they’ll see you’re stuck and want to get out, and they’ll walk you out by hand.”
One of those people is lifelong river rat, Sharon Kach, a river friend of the Kastans. She’s the one to meet, according to general consensus, and proves herself a true river rat when, after introductions go by, she says, “Now you aren’t planning to tell anyone about this little piece of paradise, now are you? I don’t want my paradise to get ruined!”
Sharon’s been coming out here since she was thirteen—when her parents had a thirty-foot cruiser named Happy Hour. She and her husband now own their own boat, aptly named Our Time.
“We’re die-hard boaters; nothing will stop us,” Sharon says. “We come out here starting on Easter and stay out until November. When boating season comes around, whatever hasn’t gotten done isn’t going to get done. Not spring cleaning. Nothing.”
Sharon loves both the uncrowded way the river used to be and also the fun inter-generational atmosphere it now boasts.
Her family had pig roasts on the beach in August. “A gazillion people would come and help bury the pig in the sand,” Sharon says.
She says you can’t really help but to meet people when you’re on the sandbar. “When you grow up here; you have a good childhood here,” she says. “You want to pass it along.”