Book Review: River Horse
River Horse: The Logbook of a Boat Across America
By William Least Heat-Moon
Houghton Mifflin Company, 502 pp., $26.
People in the dredging industry will identify with this book. The author took a small boat from Atlantic Ocean just outside the Kill van Kull across the United States on the river system to the Pacific Ocean. He sees the same scenery dredge crews see as they work on the rivers; he encounters Corps of Engineers personnel and bureaucracy, transits the navigation locks and tells the history, past and present, of almost every mile of the way. As I read the book I wondered, did he pass the Luhr Brothers dredge as they worked their annual contract on the Ohio River; did he know about the Corps of Engineers Dredge Thompson, which navigated the Ohio River 60 years before?
Heat-Moon’s craft is Nikawa, a 22-foot flat-bottom boat with twin Honda outboard engines, a model called a C-Dory by its manufacturer. It was designed for the shallow draft he expects to encounter in portions of the waterways not officially “navigable.” A motorized canoe goes along for the stretches too shallow for the Nikawa, for Heat-Moon’s goal is to float every possible inch of the way.
The journey begins in the Atlantic Ocean, where he dips a bottle of water before entering the Kill the Van Kull, then on to the Hudson River. Sailing north, he shouts to a workman on the Harlem Bridge that he is bound for Oregon. Up the Hudson he goes, turns west and sails the Erie Canal. A short stretch in Lake Erie takes a whole day and sounds like the ultimate dark and stormy night, and he recalls Mark Twain’s words “Travelling by boat is the best way to travel, unless one can stay at home,” then into the river system at Dunkirk, New York.
In 1937, the Corps of Engineers Dredge Thompson left Pittsburgh and sailed unremarkably down the Ohio River then up the Mississippi to Fountain City, Wisconsin. The logbook entries for that first Thompson voyage said essentially that nothing happened, day after day. The Ohio River section of Nikawa’s journey is more harrowing. Heat-Moon makes the trip in the flood year of 1995, and encounters high water, large, fast-moving debris, and problems obtaining fuel along the way.
The book is also about the river and the surrounding country, complete with interesting historical notes. The reader’s eyes turn toward Big Bone Creek as the Nikawa passes it in Boone County, Kentucky. In the early 1700’s, prehistoric bones were discovered around a historic salt lick. Treasure seekers from around the world stripped the area of the skeletons of Arctic elephants, three-toed sloths and mastodons by 1800. Heat-Moon mentions that among the adventurers was Thomas Jefferson, who wanted the bones for his private collection. In 1999, the Corps of Engineers Dredge Potter dug up a mastodon skull near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, a fascinating dredging postscript to that story.
The Ohio River spews Nikawa and her crew of three into the Mississippi, and they dodge logs and other, scarier chunks of things in the fast current as they push through the Mississippi River bends above the Ohio River confluence. Bendway weirs were built in the first tortuous bends – Greenfield Bend, Beech Ridge Bend, Dogtooth Bend and Prices Bend – from 1990 to 1994, to prevent point bars from constricting the channel. But Heat-Moon could not have been aware of these in the high water as he and his companions dodged the blizzard of tree trunks and watched their declining gas gauges while hopefully searching the engulfed banks for a source of gas. They find a port, but no fuel, at Commerce, Missouri, and continue on to Cape Girardeau the next day. Tying up to a drydock, Heat-Moon seeks permission to stay there for an hour while looking for gas, but they are ordered away by the surly man in charge, despite Heat-Moon’s explanation of the emergency. He describes this as a Corps of Engineers drydock, but a Corps representative has stated that all the facilities at Cape Girardeau are privately owned.
In his progress up the Missouri, he encounters little commercial traffic, and speculates about the wisdom of maintaining a commercial channel in that river. Farther up the river the crew switches boats several times: to the canoe when the depth will not float the Nikawa, and then to a government jetboat where private motorized craft are forbidden. At Fort Benton, Montana, 4000 miles above the confluence, they are told “That river’s more likely to kill you than an old grizzly bear,” because of the high water. But they are undaunted, and work their way by boat and even by foot to where the Nikawa is moored and waiting for them on the Lemhi River across the Continental Divide. From there the route is downhill to the Pacific, with more adventures on the wild western rivers, the Salmon, the Snake and the Columbia. Throughout this stretch where they are following the route of Lewis and Clarke’s Corps of Discovery, Heat Moon draws comparisons and quotes the journals of those early explorers.
The day Heat Moon chooses to sail out the mouth of the Columbia River to empty his bottle of Atlantic Ocean water, is a “good” day, with only 12-foot swells. Dredge crew members who have worked the Columbia River bar channel know those seas.
“No other place I recall in 18 years can equal it in terms of size of swells,” said George T. “Bubba” Strawn, operations manager for the Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company hopper division. In that area the swell compensators on a hopper dredge come into play constantly. These are rams that keep the line on the dragarm taut, taking and giving with the rise and fall of the sea so the draghead will stay on the bottom. Strawn remembers breaking dragarms at the Columbia River Bar in years past, and said that that project is hard on the crew, who find it difficult to sleep in the constant heave, pitch and roll. He spoke to IDR from San Juan, Puerto Rico on June 8, where the hopper dredge Dodge Island was preparing to leave for the fiscal year 2000 Columbia Bar project.
A Coast Guard Auxiliary boat leads the Nikawa into the Pacific Ocean.
The swells “were not the short-spaced bangers of Lake Erie,” Heat-Moon says, “but Pacific giants that let us ascend and descend as if we were crossing a great rolling meadow…” And then the Coast Guard boat radios “Nikawa, this is the Pacific.” He had come 5,288 miles from the Kill van Kull. He empties the bottle of Atlantic Ocean water over the side then heads for home
William Least Heat-Moon has published two other books about discovering America. "Blue Highways" is the story of travelling the back roads that are colored blue on maps. It inspired me to leave the freeway once when driving from Minneapolis to Hastings, Nebraska, leading to my discovery of the stunning hill country of northeastern Iowa. His other major book is PrairyErth, about the midwestern prairies.
It took Heat Moon two years to write the first draft of “River Horse” after the voyage, and in an interview he stated that he re-wrote it 10 times. His research is thorough, on the areas he visits, on the history, and on the laws governing land use, especially in the West. This is an important book, and will afford anyone with an interest in the rivers many fascinating hours to read and re-read.