Mississippi Drifting

Twenty-eight straight days pushing freight up and down the Big Muddy -- and oh-so-slowly

Davison and Sacra are out checking the tow. Each shift starts with the ritual of walking the gunwale -- the natural walkways created by the collection of barges -- to look for barge leaks. On each of the barges' four sides are two manholes covered with hatches. The men walk the expanse of the load, a 35-rectangle grid, lift each hatch with a T-shape tool that Davison calls the "backsaver" and peer down into what in barge terminology is called "the void" -- the space between the outer hull and the cargo box. The void creates the buoyancy that makes the steel barge float; it's like two shoeboxes, one inside of the other.

If Davison spies a leak, he'll drop a pump. If it proves to be a big leak, he'll climb down and wade around until he finds the hole, then use a hammer to bang in some shingles -- wooden wedges that he'll use to plug the hole. "You take a knife down there, and a hammer. Sometimes you can put a half a bundle of shingles in it and still not stop it. After a time, they'll swell up, and it acts like a cork."

Finally, after checking all the hatches, Davison is at the towhead, nearly a quarter-mile from the boat. Out here, he has an unimpeded view of the river. It's stumbling-distance away and there are no safety railings. In front of him, the river washes beneath the barge and a breeze hits his face.

Jennifer Silverberg
At any given time nine crew members are on board the 
Christopher M. Parsonage. Mate Scott Davison (top); 
cook Peggy Rowberry.
Jennifer Silverberg
At any given time nine crew members are on board the Christopher M. Parsonage. Mate Scott Davison (top); cook Peggy Rowberry.

"I like it out here," says Davison, looking out over the water plateau and the tunnel of trees in front of him. "You can't hear no boat noises, no engines -- especially in the summertime. It just makes it all worthwhile, right here." He pauses. "It gets eerie out here sometimes. Like that stick out there. You'll be walking by and something will jump up at you." Entire trees buried in the current get swept up by the barges, and roar out of the river like serpents. A few weeks back, one pushed up and out and scraped along the length of the Parsonage. "If someone would have been out there when it happened, he would have been dragged off the boat," says Davison.

At 3:30 a.m. in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, both engines abruptly stop. The silence is deafening. From outside the guest quarters on deck, you can't see anything along the river except for fog and night. It's like the surrounding world is an isolation booth. Time seems like it has vanished, and you're in the exact place where Walt Whitman wrote "Nights on the Mississippi."

"I hear the slight ripples, the air is fresh and cool....in the moonlight. I am out pretty late: it is so fascinating, dreamy. The cool night-air, all the influences, the silence, with those far-off eternal stars, do me good. I have been quite ill of late. And so, well-near the centre of our national demesne, these night views of the Mississippi."

All you can hear is the sloshing of water. In the wheelhouse, Henry Kelley is relaxing. Down below, Rowberry is fixing to start breakfast. Raderstorf and Davison are mopping the floors.

Dawn arrives, and with it a clear day and a big sky. Russell Sacra and Randy Green start hand-washing the upper decks. They scrub for the entire morning as Doug Wise watches in the wheelhouse. When noon arrives, Henry Kelley relieves him.

Kelley has been on the river since 1949, when he was thirteen, and has been piloting since 1960. He's bald, wears big, thick, wire-framed glasses, has an impressive belly that he'll rub after dinner, and always wears snug Dickies coveralls.

"You couldn't see," he explains of last night's pause, "and it's against the law to run in the fog." He's guiding the boat around a bend and heading toward the Greenville Bridge in Mississippi. Some pilots skirt the regulations and keep moving through the haze. "When you're southbound, you don't need to be doing it at all, because it's very unsafe," says Kelley. "You have to see what you're doing. If you happen to miscalculate, you done bought the farm. If you keep moving in the fog, there's always a chance of running aground. Of course, most of the bad wrecks are with the bridges, hitting bridges."

In his 44 years of piloting the Mississippi, Kelley brags that he's never hit a bridge. He taps his head with his fist. "Knock wood." Kelley sizes up what's in front of him and lines up the boat by looking at a marker behind him. The Greenville Bridge is at the foot of a river bend, so Kelley must simultaneously navigate the bend and the bridge supports.

Pilots are used to this, says Mel Adams, pilot of the Harry Waddington. "Every guy that ever built a bridge, the towboat captain must have been having an affair with his wife. They never put them on a straightaway."

The boat's flanking a little bit port-side, but the current pushes it back until it's aimed at the green light that hangs dead center from every bridge on the river system. "What makes this bridge so bad is you've got this real hard bend," explains Kelley, "and then when you get going down there, well, that current runs across the point and starts hitting you on the side and wants to put you down on the bank."

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