What the River Carries: Encounters with the Mississippi, Missouri, and Platte

What the River Carries: Encounters with the Mississippi, Missouri, and Platte

by Lisa Knopp


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In this informed and lyrical collection of interwoven essays, Lisa Knopp explores the physical and cultural geography of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Platte, rivers she has come to understand and cherish. At the same time, she contemplates how people experience landscape, identifying three primary roles of environmental perception: the insider, the outsider, and the outsider seeking to become an insider. Viewing the waterways through these approaches, she searches for knowledge and meaning.

Because Knopp was born and raised just a few blocks away, she considers the Mississippi from the perspective of a native resident, a “dweller in the land.” She revisits places she has long known:  Nauvoo, Illinois, the site of two nineteenth-century utopias, one Mormon, one Icarian; Muscatine, Iowa, once the world’s largest manufacturer of pearl (mussel shell) buttons; and the mysterious prehistoric bird- and bear-shaped effigy mounds of northeastern Iowa. On a downriver trip between the Twin Cities and St. Louis, she meditates on what can be found in Mississippi river water—state lines, dissolved oxygen, smallmouth bass, corpses, family history, wrecked steamboats, mayfly nymphs, toxic perfluorinated chemicals, philosophies.

Knopp first encountered the Missouri as a tourist and became acquainted with it through literary and historical documents, as well as stories told by longtime residents. Her journey includes stops at Fort Bellefontaine, where Lewis and Clark first slept on their sojourn to the Pacific; Little Dixie, Missouri’s slaveholding, hemp-growing region, as revealed through the life of Jesse James’s mother; Fort Randall Dam and Lake Francis Case, the construction of which destroyed White Swan on the Yankton Sioux Reservation; and places that produced unique musical responses to the river, including Native American courting flutes, indie rock, Missouri River valley fiddling, Prohibition-era jazz jam sessions, and German folk music.

Knopp’s relationship with the Platte is marked by intentionality: she settled nearby and chose to develop deep and lasting connections over twenty years’ residence. On this adventure, she ponders the half-million sandhill cranes that pass through Nebraska each spring, the ancient varieties of Pawnee corn growing at the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument, a never-broken tract of tallgrass prairie, the sugar beet industry, and the changes in the river brought about by the demands of irrigation.
In the final essay, Knopp undertakes the science of river meanders, consecutive loops of water moving in opposite directions, which form around obstacles but also develop in the absence of them. What initiates the turning that results in a meander remains a mystery. Such is the subtle and interior process of knowing and loving a place. What the River Carries asks readers to consider their own relationships with landscape and how one can most meaningfully and responsibly dwell on the earth’s surface.

Winner of the 2013 Nebraska Book Award for Nonfiction

Honorable Mention for the Association for Literature and the Environment's 2013 Environmental Creative Nonfiction Award

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826219749
Publisher: University of Missouri Press
Publication date: 05/18/2012
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 3 Months to 18 Years

About the Author

Lisa Knopp, author of Bread: A Memoir of Hunger, is also the author of five collections of essays, each of which explores the concepts of place, home, nature, and spirituality. What the River Carries: Encounters with the Mississippi, Missouri, and Platte was the winner of the 2013 Nebraska Book Award in the nonfiction/essay category and tied for second place in the 2013 ALSE (Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment) book awards for environmental creative nonfiction.

Knopp’s essays have appeared in numerous literary publications including Missouri Review, Michigan Review, Iowa Review, Gettysburg Review, Northwest Review, Cream City Review, Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, Connecticut Review, Shenandoah, Creative Nonfiction, Prairie Schooner, Iowa Review, and Georgia Review.

Knopp is a Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where she teaches courses in creative nonfiction. She grew up in Burlington, Iowa, and now lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.

For further information on Lisa Knopp, visit www.lisaknopp.com.

Read an Excerpt


Encounters with the Mississippi, Missouri, and Platte
By Lisa Knopp

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2012 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8262-1974-9

Chapter One

Catfish Bend

As a child, I didn't know where the Mississippi River came from or where it went after it flowed past my hometown, Burlington, and my mother's hometown, Keokuk, forty miles downstream. Nor did I know that Iowa's eastern border, as drawn by the Mississippi, could be seen as a misshapen face and neck, with Clinton near the tip of the bulbous nose, the Quad Cities at the nostril, Burlington at the top of the lower lip, and Keokuk on the Adam's apple. Nor did I know anything about those who had lived at my bend of the river before my ancestors arrived there. But I did know how the river smelled, how an abundance of wriggling, gasping, flapping, or snapping creatures lived near or in it, how it shimmered in the sunlight or turned dark when the sky was overcast, how viciously it could flood, and how it oriented me in space, since the river was always east.

I know now that Burlington and Keokuk had their origins in June of 1832, when the U.S. government forced the Sauk, Meskwaki (Fox), and Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) to surrender a strip of land about forty miles wide along the west side of the Mississippi, extending from what would become the Iowa-Missouri state line almost to the Iowa-Minnesota state line. Saukenuk, on the east side of the river eighty-five miles north of Burlington, had been the principal town of the Sauk nation. The several thousand people who lived there had cultivated some eight hundred acres of corn and other vegetables and had caught an abundance of fish near the confluence of the Rock and Mississippi rivers.

In 1832, the United States opened the Black Hawk Purchase to nonnative settlement. The next year, those who settled at the lower-lip-like bend in the river named their village Flint Hills, the English translation of Sho-quo-quon, which is what the Meskwaki called the place where they gathered flint for their arrowheads. In 1834, John B. Gray, who purchased the first lot in Flint Hills, renamed the settlement after his home place, Burlington, Vermont. There were other, more evocative names for my hometown, including Porkopolis (in the mid-nineteenth century, Burlington boasted three pork-packing plants), Turd Town (so named because of the contents of the Hawk-Eye Creek, which cut across town to the river), and my favorite, Catfish Bend. The latter is still an honorable name even though in 2007 it was appropriated by a casino that floats not in the river but in a pool of water near the intersection of U.S. Highways 34 and 61.

Catfish was a staple at our house. For most Saturday suppers my mother fried catfish in a flour or cornmeal batter and tossed a salad (potato, pea, cabbage, or macaroni) in a mayonnaise dressing. Cold catfish made a good snack, though my grandfather told me that I shouldn't eat fish alone. "Have crackers or a hunk of bread with it," he advised. Sometimes we went to the Riverview Restaurant in Dallas City, Illinois, a smorgasbord with heaps of fried catfish, or the Eagles Club in Burlington, which my mother judged to have the best catfish that she'd ever eaten and so big that the fish hung over the edge of your plate. Though my father fished, my parents also bought fish at Vice's Fish Market upriver in Oquawka, Illinois. Once, they were there early enough to see the commercial fishermen bring in their catch, quickly kill and clean the fish, and load them onto a truck headed for Chicago, some two hundred miles away. "They'll be served this evening in Chicago's finest restaurants," my mother marveled. Chicago!

When I came home from college for weekend visits and wanted to create distance between myself and a place once called Turd Town, rather than eating my mother's fried catfish, I baked or poached mine, as if it were salmon or halibut—anything but a fish pulled from the old, dirty, and familiar Mississippi.

Nature's wonder: a fish like a cat that sports gracefully sweeping, whiskerlike barbels around its mouth, that rests by day and prowls by night, that gets in brawls with other cats, that slips, felinelike, past obstacles in logjammed water.

My father ran basket traps on the stretch of river between Memorial Auditorium and the railroad bridge. A catfish was lured into one of his baskets by a smelly morsel broken off a cheese brick; wooden slats kept it from swimming back out. To anchor a basket, my father tied a cinderblock to it with about fifty feet of old telephone cord. He marked the locations of his baskets by tying them in his memory to something stable on shore—a dock, tree, or cabin—so he would know where to drag the hook from the boat to snag the baskets and haul them up, hopefully full of slapping, writhing catfish. If my father brought up empty baskets, it may have been because the fish found tastier fare elsewhere. But, too, the baskets may have been vandalized. "Not all folks on the river are honest," my mother says. But often, my dad brought home a mess of flatheads. With its mottled yellow-brown skin, bad underbite, flattened skull between its tiny eyes, and squared-off tail, the flathead was, to my eyes, the ugliest of the catfish.

If my father wanted channel catfish, he went south of town and approached the river from a beach owned by the electric company. There the river bottom was more gravelly than muddy and the water clearer—just the way channel cat like it. My maternal grandparents were also avid fishers, though they preferred ponds and lakes, where they caught perch and crappie. It was with them that I caught my first fish, a bluegill. But in later years, after my grandparents moved to Burlington from Keokuk, my grandfather walked down the hill from his Main Street apartment with his fishing pole and the bait balls that he made from cornmeal and limburger cheese, and he, too, angled for channel catfish. With its streamlined form, deeply forked and pointy-tipped tail, curved and rayed anal fin, and dark freckles on its silvery sides, it was the most beautiful of the catfish.

A survey conducted in 1968 revealed that if there was to be a state fish, most Iowans favored the channel catfish, Ictalurus punctatus. The late George L. Marzeck Sr. of West Burlington, a former writer, photographer, and illustrator for Midwest Outdoors, Field and Stream, and Fur, Fish and Game, spent decades campaigning to get the channel cat officially declared the Iowa state fish. After all, Iowa has a state rock (the geode), a state tree (the oak), a state flower (the wild rose), and a state bird (the eastern goldfinch). Why not a state fish? Marzeck, who signed the lowercase letter g in his first name as a stylized fishhook with a small barb on the end, preferred the bass, but because of the catfish's abundance in Iowa's waterways and the desires of the majority, it was the channel catfish that he promoted for the position of honor. "I've had outdoor writers from all over the country tell me, 'I never go through Iowa without stopping for one of your delicious catfish dinners,'" Marzeck told Radio Iowa. "So I says, 'Hey, let's ballyhoo this thing and maybe bring in some more revenue from people passing through.'" Marzeck always said catfish is the tastiest fish you can poke a fork into. "I don't think there's a place in Iowa that serves food that doesn't have catfish on the menu. "When you have a church social or any kind of a gathering, what do you serve? Catfish and hush puppies, and coleslaw, maybe."

A joint resolution seeking to designate the catfish as the state fish offered several other reasons why this would be the most logical choice for the position of honor. The catfish not only is native and abundant, but also is found in all ninety-nine Iowa counties and is, in the words of the resolution, "easily recognizable by its slender scale-less body, deeply forked tail, fleshy whiskers, and sharp spines." It's easily and cheaply caught, excellent table fare, the state's most consumed fish, lucrative (Iowa's catfishers spend about $400 million a year in the pursuit), and the most preferred fish among Iowa anglers, reaching trophy size above thirty pounds and providing pole-bending action.

Not all Iowans approved of the idea of making this species a state symbol. In February 2001, the Burlington Hawk Eye reported that Garry Thomas, a member of the Burlington City Council and a friend of mine in high school, contended that because the catfish eats dead things, it would damage the state's reputation if it were chosen as state fish. "We should not be portrayed as a scavenger state," Thomas said. "We should not be linked to a fish like this when we're trying to build our image up." Some feel that the bass, with its fierce strikes, its aerial leaps and twists, its top-of-the-food-chain diet, and the specialized equipment that people invest in to catch it, is a more glamorous piscine river dweller. But Marzeck believed that it's the catfish that represents the character of Iowans. "The channel catfish prefers clean, clear water," he pointed out, "but it's tough enough to put up with a lot of crap."

Legislation promoting the catfish was introduced in the Iowa House and Senate several times between 1972 and 2011. Each time it failed. My suspicion is that there are too many men and women in the statehouse who don't spend enough time sitting on a riverbank holding a fishing pole. Despite the defeats, Marzeck continued campaigning with gusto on behalf of the catfish, writing hundreds of letters to state and local officials and giving school presentations at his own expense. Marzeck had been part of a group of six promoting the catfish, but as the fight dragged on, he was the only one left. Even after Marzeck was diagnosed with cancer, he continued his crusade. In a letter to a state senator, Marzeck wrote that "three of my doctors believe my continuing determination to get the channel catfish named the official state fish of Iowa is helping me put on a pretty good battle against my third bout of cancer." Marzeck died September 17, 2006, at age eighty-two without seeing the channel cat receive its due. Though the Iowa Senate passed the proposal in 2008, the demands of other legislation kept the House from voting on it that session.

In a logjam at the bottom of the river near Burlington lives a giant catfish. In the stories we told about the monster, we usually compared him (it was always a "him") to mammals (as big as a dog, sheep, or grizzly bear) or vehicles (as big as a Volkswagen or school bus). Many of the tales about this mossy-backed behemoth were stories of loss or near loss: the disappearance of dogs, pigs, and other domestic animals; broken or lost tackle, arms, and legs; and near drownings. In some stories, the titan fish threatened the lives of those who worked on the bridges. Close encounters with the lunker so spooked the workers that they turned white-headed overnight and found safer jobs away from the river—like on the assembly line at the nuclear-weapons plant west of town. "Maybe every river town has one of these," my mother mused about the giant catfish.

An article in the June 23, 1998, Hawk Eye gives the authority of the printed word to the legends. Gene Murray reports that some claim that "Old Moe" is a two to three hundred-pound flathead, though "the wide-eyed commercial fisherman with the huge hole in his trammel net swears to have had him up once and his head would weigh more than that." Murray tells of the time when two young men, one from Iowa, one from Illinois, were determined to pull Old Moe from the river. Since flatheads love carp minnows, the fishers kept "a couple of 25 pounders ... in the horse tank behind the barn." Since the challengers knew that their regular equipment wasn't worthy of the task at hand, they mail ordered a huge, stainless-steel shark hook with a chain leader. For the mainline, they used two hundred yards of one-thousand-pound-test nylon rappelling rope. "Fearing that no manageable rod would handle the legendary might of Moe," explains Murray, "our heroes opted for a direct connection to the hitch on a four wheel drive pick-up." A crowd gathered; people placed their bets; an announcer narrated the action. Old Moe was fierce. The truck threw sand and gravel into the air as the tires spun. Eventually, Old Moe broke loose and got away. But the pursuit wasn't for naught: the two fishers reeled in a sixty-pound lower jaw.

River people have long been captivated by rumors of leviathan catfish. Perhaps the first written account of a monster catfish was that of the fur trader and explorer Louis Jolliet, who, with Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit missionary, paddled down the Mississippi in 1673 in search of the fabled Northwest Passage to the Orient for the governor of New France. Just north of what is now Alton, Illinois, Jolliet recorded in his journal: "We met from time to time these monstrous fish which struck so violently against our canoes that we took them to be large trees, which threatened to upset us." In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain says that Indians had warned the two travelers that "the river contained a demon 'whose roar could be heard at a great distance, and who would engulf them in the abyss where he dwelt.'" Twain reports that he had himself seen a Mississippi catfish that weighed 250 pounds and was more than 6 feet long. "If Marquette's fish was the fellow to that one, he had a fair right to think the river's roaring demon was come."

In 1765, over four hundred miles upriver from where Marquette and Jolliet were frightened by monster catfish, Peter Pond, a soldier, fur trader, explorer, and mapmaker in the Old Northwest and the Upper Mississippi, and his crew caught giant catfish. "We put our Hoock and Lines into the Water and Leat them Ly all nite. In the Morning we Perseaved there was fish at the Hoocks," Pond noted in his journal. "They Came Heavey. At Length we hald one ashore that wade a Hundred and four Pounds—a Second that was One Hundred Wate—a third of Seventy-five Pounds." Pond asked his men how many of them it would take to eat the largest fish, the 104-pounder, with "a large flat Head Sixteen Inches Betwene the Eise." Twelve men skinned it, cut it up, boiled it "in large Coppers," and "Sawed it up." They ate the entire fish, and "Sum of them Drank of the Licker it was Boild in."

My parents' friend Sam catfishes at Lock and Dam No. 18, north of Burlington; the drainage ditch near Iowa Highway 99; the Port of Burlington, a former barge-loading station that is now a State of Iowa Welcome Center; and the beach owned by the electric company. It was at the last that her five-foot, six-inch sister-in-law caught a catfish as tall as she is. Sam's brother waded into the water and wrestled the fish to the bank. A big fish fry followed.

Like Old Moe, these catfish swim in the murky area between fact and legend. But now there are monster catfish whose sizes have been verified with newspaper photographs and documentation through the International Game Fish Association. On May 22, 2005, Tim Pruitt, a factory worker from Fosterburg, Illinois, near Alton, pulled a 124-pound blue catfish, 58 inches long and 44 inches around, from the Mississippi below the Melvin Price Lock and Dam. Pruitt and the fish struggled for more than half an hour. At one point the fish was actually dragging Pruitt's boat. In a widely published photograph, Pruitt, a burly guy, holds a catfish the size of a thirty-four-gallon garbage can across his chest and abdomen. The fish is rather porpoiselike, with its smooth, blue-gray skin, blunt, round nose, slightly humped back, and forked tail. Pruitt donated his catch to the Cabela's store in Kansas City, where it would have lived in a giant aquarium if it hadn't died en route. A fisheries biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources estimated that Pruitt's catch was at least thirty years old. I suspect that this fish inspired river-town legends about a fish as big as an SUV, bridge workers who now drive trucks, and some old fisher who claims to possess a lower jawbone too heavy to lift without help.

It was during the Flood of 2008 that I realized that stories of giant catfish are more than just fish stories. At five o'clock in the morning on June 17, the Mississippi tore a hole more than three hundred yards long in the levee on the Illinois side of the river across from Burlington. The river, carrying cornstalks and other debris, poured into the Gulfport bottoms, moving at about a foot and a half per second. The force of the water pushed the village hall five feet off its foundation. The fast water trapped a man and two dogs in their vehicle on Highway 34. They were rescued by helicopter. Larry Gapen, the Carthage Lake Drainage District pump plant operator, and his dog, Molly, were still at the pump station when the Mississippi burst through the levee. "They came inside and got me and said the levee broke," Gapen told the Hawk Eye. "I tried to go out to the road but the water was covering the road so fast there [was] only one way. I told everyone to go to the levee." From that vantage point, Gapen watched the river swallow his house. He left the area by boat.


Excerpted from WHAT THE RIVER CARRIES by Lisa Knopp Copyright © 2012 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Part I The Mississippi

1 Catfish Bend 3

2 Painting the River 14

3 Mississippi Harvest 29

4 Nauvoo, the Beautiful Place 43

5 Mound Builders 58

6 What the River Carries 73

Part II The Missouri

7 Point of Departure 87

8 Little Dixie 99

9 The Overlook 111

10 Missouri River Music 117

11 The Taking 129

12 Restorations 141

Part III The Platte

13 The Middle Ground 153

14 No Other River 163

15 Nine-Mile Prairie 173

16 Pawnee Homecoming 187

17 Gone to the Beets 195

18 Meanderings 208

Works Cited and Consulted 213

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