CRUISE OF THE AURORA
HOSPITALITY ASHORE AND AFLOAT.
THE meeting with negroes along the shore is now of almost
daily occurrence. We find them fishing for the finny inhabitants of the
water or for the driftwood floating on its surface. Every day we are
assailed by some such question as:
"Say, boss, why yer doan turn round and row yer
"What'll yer gimme ter tow dat little skiff?"
"Whar yer spec yer gwine, anyhow?"
These questions are never asked in an impudent tone, but
rather that of humor, and would generally be followed by a hearty yah,
yah, as though something exceedingly witty had been said.
The mornings are now cold, with the evenings little
better. A disagreeable result of the cold and continual wettings that
the hands are subjected to has caused them to be chapped at almost all
the joints, and they are consequently very sore, requiring frequent
applications of soothing compounds.
During the afternoon we passed the mouth of Salt River and
the thriving town of West Point. Our camp, a few miles below Rock
Haven, Ky., was so exposed to the penetrating northeast wind that swept
down the low shore, that it proved to be the most uncomfortable
locality we could well have selected.
A Sleeping Barnacle.
A huge flock of ducks settled on the bar a few
hundred yards above us, and went to feeding while we were getting our
breakfast. Water that had been left in cups over night to settle had
frozen solid, and all day ice would form on the decks where the strong
wind would deposit spray from the little seas. At noon we landed in a
bend of the river and built our dinner fire beneath a huge mass of
limestone rock which had attained a height of one hundred feet, and as
the sun came out from under the heavy clouds that had all the morning
obscured it, the hold of immense icicles gave way, and they fell
crashing at our feet. By the time we had finished our dinner the wind
had subsided and the surface of the river had become perfectly calm.
Owing to the cold of the last night Barnacle had had very little sleep,
consequently he was drowsy today; I was, therefore, not much surprised,
on looking back during the afternoon, to find him with head and body
bent forward, while his paddle rested with one blade in the water, and
he was sound asleep. With a jump he awakened at my hail; he overtook
me, and we made camp on the high stony shore, while the leaden sky
threatened rain before morning. All about us there was a mass of
driftwood; in fact, we were forced to clear some of it away in order to
make room for the canoes and tent. In the center of the swiftly flowing
stream opposite us lie the wrecks of several coal flats, and an iron
ore boat which had a few months ago struck on a rock and come to grief.
After a night of incessant rain, accompanied by a cold
northeast wind, we turn out at eight o'clock and built an immense fire
of logs, some of them so heavy that it required our united strength to
lift even one end. Seeing a footprint in the sand along the shore (as
did Robinson Crusoe on his island) I set out, clad in my picturesque
suit of oil skins. Striking a path a short distance off, I followed it
about three-quarters of a mile, most of the way through fields of uncut
corn stalks, frequently routing from their slumbers many gaunt hogs,
which here seemed to roam at will. The barking of a dog admonished me
to be on my guard as to how I approached the low building of logs that
now came in sight, for fear I might experience a repetition of my
encounter with the vicious brute on the Allegheny.
"Good morning, ma'am," I said, as I entered the
low ceilinged room of this dismal abode of the Kentucky corn cracker.
"My companion and I are encamped on the shore below here,
and having run out of salt, I came up to buy a little," at the same
time seating myself on the splint-bottomed chair she had placed for me
before the broad open fireplace, in which some short logs were blazing
brightly. She informed me that her man had died in the summer, and left
her with six children, five of whom were either sitting or standing
about the room. The eldest, a boy, took care of the Government lights
in the neighborhood, three in number, and the neighbors had helped her
shuck her corn, but she did not know what she would be able to do after
the corn and hogs had been eaten, as the farm was only rented and not
owned by her husband.
A Social Pipe.
I sat and smoked with her (most Cracker women
smoke) for an hour, while she plied me with questions of the manners
and customs of what she considered my "far distant Northern home." She
seemed particularly interested in the manner in which ladies of the
North wore their hair, as I described it to her. Before leaving, the
little dog, whose barking had alarmed me as I approached the cabin,
became my fast friend, and accompanied me to camp and almost insisted
on coming on board the Aurora as she spread her wings the next morning,
and swiftly cut the waters before a favorable breeze. Stopping at
Cloverport in the middle of the forenoon I was agreeably surprised to
find a knot of people assembled on the levee, who told us that they had
been watching for us for several days, having heard of our coming
through the local papers. They were particularly taken with our
double-bladed paddles, never having seen such a "trick" but once
before, and then in the hands of Paul Boyton, when he made his trip
down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in his rubber floating suit.
Having laid in some stores we again hoisted sail, and,
although the wind was cold, the sun shed his rays upon us until we were
abreast of Hawesville, Ky., when the clouds drove up from the northwest
and the wind sent little splashy seas over us as we changed our course
to avoid the many steamers that were running in all directions. The
cold now became so severe that we were obliged to take off the sails
and use the paddle in order to keep warm. Not caring to camp near the
town we kept on until after night had shut down without finding a
landing where we could be out of the way of the wash of the steamers.
A dim light close to the water's edge decided us to hail
it, and we were received on board a shantyboat of the poorest
description. The wind howled dismally across the river and forced its
way through the cracks in the siding of the shanty, causing the flame
of the one dilapidated oil lamp to flare sickly. The water in the hold
of the scow could be seen through the cracks in the floor as it washed
from side to side with the motion of the boat. A stove, a table, and
one stool comprised the furniture. Here lived two men, two little boys
and one little girl of fourteen years, although she looked to be much
"Ha, stranger, hit is well you seed our light,
for there ain't a spot for several miles where you could have found a
place to land and be safe from the wash of the steamboats. This is a
poor place to ask a gentleman to stop, but hit is the best we have, and
you are welcome to stay as long as you like."
"My woman," our host told us, "died two years ago with
the ager, and left me the three little childer to care for, and a hard
time I have had of hit. Benny has got the ager quite bad now, and Nora
has fits every day. My pardner here is my brother, and between us we
manage to take care of the little ones. We get odd jobs along the
river, and have te leave the little pretties alone all day to shift for
theirselves. We be shucking corn now, and the job'll last two weeks
yet, and then we will let loose and go furder down to Evansville."
Life on a Shanty Boat.
Much more this rough, hard featured man told me,
while Barnacle was preparing our supper on the cracked and smoking
stove. Barnacle has a big heart, so he cooks enough bacon and cornmeal
for all hands, and borrowing a big coffeepot, makes it full of such
coffee as the poor shantymen seldom or never taste. The children were
clamorous for more coffee, and its cheering effects were visible on
them as they crawled into the cornhusk-filled bunks, and were covered
with the rags of blankets. Having smoked our pipes, Barnacle and I
spread our waterproofs on the dirty floor, and then rolled into our
blankets and soon fell into a sound sleep, the reward of a hard day's
work. Several times during the night I was awakened by rats running
about the floor, and once, at least, over my body.
The creaking and rocking of the shackly old scow awoke me
at five o'clock, as she received the swell of the New Orleans packet
puffing and snoring by. Our host and his brother left at once to get
their breakfast at the farmhouse where they were working, while
Barnacle and I prepared enough for the children as well as ourselves.
Outside the air was bright and clear, the white frost thickly coating
the decks of the canoes and all surroundings, while a thick edging of
ice marked the waterline along the shore. While the wondering children
stood about the canoes as the daylight strengthened, I noticed that the
shivering, barefooted little girl had but one thin garment, while the
eldest boy had a rag of a coat tied about his otherwise unprotected
person. Overhauling the contents of my clothes-bag, I found a warm
woolen shirt, which I soon after saw covering the shoulders of the
little boy, while Barnacle provided something for the shivering sister.
Six o'clock saw us swinging the paddles, and now and then laying them
down to beat our hands to restore circulation and warm benumbed
fingers. The wind came out dead ahead after we had been afloat about
two hours, and the sky was overspread with wavy clouds. The cold now
became so severe that on reaching Grand View, Ohio, we were glad of the
opportunity to paddle under the lee of a large produce flatboat, where
we remained some time thawing out in the sun, which occasionally broke
through the clouds. Bundling up as well as possible, we dip the paddles
and again head into the snow-flecked wind.
For some days past offers of hospitality from residents
along the river banks have been numerous, but so great is our anxiety
to reach the balmy atmosphere of the Southern States and escape an
encounter with the ice, that we have invariably declined the
invitations to stop and have a look at the town, etc. All day the wind
came up the river in a steady blow, sending spray over not only the
decks of our canoes, but over our persons; and so low was the
temperature that when the sun occasionally broke through the barriers
of clouds, its rays were reflected from the smooth coating of ice which
had formed on the floating, bobbing canoes and captains.
A Kentucky Welcome.
On approaching Owensboro, Ky., the strong current
kept setting us in toward the town, but as we had no call to stop
there, we kept the middle of the stream as nearly as possible. As we
came abreast of the town, we could not help but notice the groups of
people on the levee who seemed to manifest considerable interest in
something. It soon became clear to me that the strange-looking craft in
midstream were the subject of their interest, but this idea was
dispelled when I saw a large steam scow ferryboat swing out from the
wharfboat and slowly wheel herself along in our direction. As we were
in her course, we ceased paddling in order that she might pass to
windward of us, but she seemed bent on running us down and crushing our
frail craft beneath her ponderous wheel. A moment more and she had come
so near that we could plainly hear the question addressed to us: "Ain't
you going to stop at our town? Paul Boyton did, and we cared for him
handsomely," said a gentlemanly-looking man who stood nearest to us. I
told him that we were anxious to get on as fast as possible, and asked
to be excused, promising to stop the next time I came down the river.
"Well, if you won't come ashore, come alongside
and get a drink of good Owensboro Bourbon."
Ah, it needed not a second invitation to bring us
"alongside" of the craft, where not one, but three men, produced each a
bottle of whisky, two of which were handed down to us, after no little
difficulty, owing to the bobbing movements of the canoes, which seemed
anxious to be off. I am not an advocate of the use of ardent spirits,
but that long draft from the "black bottle" sent the blood tingling
through my veins, and warmed me to the ends of my fingers and toes. As
I was about to hand the bottle back I was told to "keep it and drink to
the health of the citizens of Owensboro, as we sat about the campfire."
The holder of bottle No.3, not to be outdone by his companions, tossed
his bottle toward me, but owing to my hands being clumsy with the heavy
mittens, I missed it, and overboard it went, but Barnacle, quick as a
flash, had it by the neck and took good care to hold on to it. With a
screech from her whistle and groans from the steam pipes, the
forlorn-looking craft wheeled herself off to the opposite shore, while
her passengers gave us a hearty cheer and "bon voyage."
VOYAGING ON A FLATBOAT.
FIVE miles below the treating scene we came to a small
island, heavily wooded to the water's edge, and here we made our camp,
the great depth of fallen leaves making a bed so soft that it was long
after daylight before we awoke and gazed with astonishment on the
country covered with snow. Here was a new experience, and I seriously
thought of bringing out the little fluid stove that had all this long
cruise been stowed away in the after part of my canoe. But Barnacle
suggested, as some of the dunnage and the tent will need to be dried
before being packed, that we build a fire outside. Gathering some
slender twigs and binding them into a bundle about the end of a stout
stick, we have a substantial broom, with which we soon sweep away the
snow, leaving us a dry and clear spot on which to pursue our culinary
operations and packing. As we push off, a flock of hundreds of ducks
rose from an opposite bar and went quacking and whistling down stream
ahead of us.
By ten o'clock the wind came out dead ahead, and although
the temperature was not as low as that of the day before, we suffered
from the cold, and the chaps on hands and lips caused much discomfort.
By noon the wind had increased almost to a gale, and we were blinded by
the flying snow. The sight of a couple of flatboats moored to the
Indiana shore was greeted with no small degree of satisfaction.
"Captain, have you got a fire on board?" was my
hail to a man's head that I saw protruding from the stern window of one
of these flats.
"Yes, and a good one it is, too. Come in."
Hauling the canoes out on the gravelly shore, we were
received on board and conducted to the "galley," where the odors
arising from a "boiled dinner," which was in process of cooking,
strengthened our already ravenous appetites.
"Take off yer coats, sit up by the stove and warm
yer; dinner will soon be ready, and yer can hev a hot meal afore yer
While in conversation with this hospitable man, I learned
that he was the same who had so kindly entertained Mr. N.H. Bishop at a
Christmas dinner, while he was on his famous voyage down this river a
few years ago. (See "Four Months in a Sneakbox," by N.H. Bishop.) The
wind had dropped a little by the time we had finished the bountiful and
hot dinner set before us, but the temperature seems no milder. We
padded off from the flat as several loads of potatoes were hauled down
to the shore to be taken on board.
As we were passing Newburgh, Ind., we overtook a flatboat
in midstream, and were invited to "come on board."
It is needless to say the invitation was heartily
accepted. Tying the canoes alongside, we were soon sitting by the
cheerful fire burning in the large stove forward.
"All hands go to supper. Come, strangers, turn to and help
eat," was the kindly invitation of the hearty skipper of the
potato-laden flatboat Trotter. As the river is so low, the pilot
decided not to risk running aground in the darkness, and a few moments
after supper ordered the boat tied up. Two of the crew, springing into
one of the skiffs that lay alongside and taking with them the end of a
two-inch rope, rowed rapidly ashore, and whipping the hawser around a
tree, "snubbed" the craft until she came to a standstill, when another
line was put out, also to a tree. Stout poles were then put out, one
end resting against the bank, while the other was placed against the
snubbing posts of the boat as a safeguard against her being washed
ashore by the swell from passing steamers. The pilot of a produce
flatboat has supreme command of the craft from the time she starts on
her voyage until it is finished. It is he who says when she shall start
and when come to anchor. The crew of this boat consists of ten men, all
on duty when the boat is under way, but at other times one man only is
on the watch, and when he has stood his trick of two hours he is
relieved by the next, and so on in rotation until all have done duty in
order. A large space in the forward end is given up to the crew. Here
they have their bedding and blankets spread over planks laid on the
potato-filled barrels, while the valises containing their clothing are
hung on nails driven into the siding near the roof or deck. A large box
stove is placed in the center of the space, and a lantern is hung on
one of the posts supporting the roof. A very pleasant evening was spent
here among the jolly flatboatmen, listening to their yarns of life on
the river and the many dangers to which they have been subjected. Of
course some of these tales were taken cum grano salis. A member of this
crew, a lighthearted, jovial fellow, told me that he was the son of a
professor in a Western college, but preferred the roving life to one
among "musty books and under home restraints." I have since learned
that his story was substantially correct. As the nine o'clock watch was
set I rolled into my blankets on a couch constructed of a board laid
between two rows of barrels, and slept the sleep of the weary.
The announcement of breakfast caused me to spring up with
such alacrity that I bumped my head against one of the roof timbers
with such force as to cause a walnut-sized bunch to remain there for
several days thereafter. As soon as breakfast was over, the pilot gave
orders to cast off, and with the loosening of the lines the boat swung
off into the current. A second order, "Oars," was now given, and the
entire crew, together with the two strangers, sprang to the thirty feet
oars or sweeps, six in number, four on the sides and one at either end.
When dipping the huge blades in the water they walk along to the end of
the stroke, thus rowing the craft out into the strength of the current.
"That'll do," relieves the crew from further duty
until "Oars" is called again, when the same operation is gone through.
Now and then "Gouger" will be the order from the pilot, when the oar at
the bow is swung athwartships, to right or left, as the motion of his
hand indicates. The oar at the stern is called the "steering" oar, and
that at the bow the "gouger," but why the latter should be so called I
am at a loss to understand; in its workings it is as much a steering
oar as that at the stern.
We are now on the most shallow reach of the Ohio River,
extending from Troy to Evansville, Ind. The sun took a peep at us
through the clouds a few moments after seven o'clock, but retired in
disgust as the wind came up the river with the same gusts and snow
squalls that had characterized it the day before. So strong is the
wind, the flat cannot make headway, and she is again tied up to the
bank. With an all-round shake of the hand, we start on our Thanksgiving
Day paddle, very anxious to reach Evansville, where I am to receive
news from the friends who are watching with much anxiety my daily
progress. By twelve o'clock canoes and captains have again become cased
in ice, and the stomach is growling for more fuel. Finding a sheltered
spot beneath the high bank, we land where there is an abundance of
drift wood, and soon have a roaring fire going which warms us and dries
Since leaving Lake George I have had stowed away in my
canoe a can of roast turkey; this I have zealously guarded in order
that the national feast day might not pass without our having a dinner
of the national bird. It is for warming this and baking a hoe cake that
Barnacle builds the little cook fire a short distance from the roarer,
by which we have been warmed and dried. As we sit on the pile of
driftwood before the fire on this sunless day, the snow flakes circle
about us as we eat our Thanksgiving Day dinner, the while our thoughts
fly to the friends and relatives in the distant homes, gathering round
the bountifully spread tables, thinking of the canoe cruisers on the
far distant Ohio.
After landing at the float of the St. Johns Rowing Club,
at Evansville, Ind., while Barnacle remains in charge of the canoes, I
make a hurried trip to the post office, where I meet with a
disappointment at finding that, as this is a legal holiday, the post
office is closed. By dint of much inquiry I finally prevailed on the
delivery clerk to look over his bundle of letters, but there are none
for me. I cannot understand this, but afterward learned that my letters
had been returned to the writers on the morning of the very day on
which I had called for them. I returned to the water's edge with
disappointment so plainly marked on my countenance that Barnacle at
once calls out, "Needn't say so, I know you have no letters." "Well, if
I haven't any letters I have some choice tobacco and a loaf of fine
bread," said I. A thicket of willows, four miles below the city,
offering us a shelter from the bleak winds, we concluded to go no
further. All night I tossed about in my narrow quarters suffering
intense pain, no doubt the result of eating the canned turkey, which
doubtless had been so long in the can as to be unfit for use.
Capt. Nate Smith.
When the time for launching arrived I felt more
like going to a house and to bed than paddling against the strong wind
that was blowing.
On reaching Henderson, Ky., a distance of eight miles from
our last night's camp, I went on shore for the purpose of mailing
letters in answer to those that I didn't get at Evansville. On my
return to the wharfboat I was accosted by a gentleman, who said, "Well,
you have come a long distance, ain't you hungry?" He then introduced
himself as Capt. Nate Smith, of the steamer Iron Cliff, which was lying
at the levee.
"Dinner is just about ready; bring your companion
and come on board."
As it is my rule never to refuse an invitation to dine, we
were soon seated at the table in the comfortable saloon. A chat and
cigar after dinner, and we put off, this time with the wind and
temperature slightly moderated. From Henderson the river takes a sharp
bend off to the right and almost doubles back upon itself within a
distance of about eighteen miles, and thus it was that, although the
wind continued from the same quarter as in the morning we could use our
sails for a few miles in the afternoon. As the sun was nearing the
western horizon, we spied a flatboat tied up to the shore, and, of
course, received an invitation to "come aboard." It was gladly
accepted, and after supper I went down into my canoe, which was moored
alongside the flat, and passed up my blankets, pipe and tobacco. Said
the pleasant captain,
"The whole boat is at your disposal to sleep in,
but we have but one blanket apiece."
As we sat about the cabin fire smoking, singing and
spinning yarns, a New Orleans packet came down, and as her ugly swell
came in it caught the Aurora and flung her under the fantail of the
flat -- a sort of after deck -- where I could both hear and feel her as
she pounded against the guards. Anxiously I awaited the coming of the
dawn, that I might examine into the damages that she had sustained, but
much to my joy she was not injured beyond a few slight cuts in her
deck, and some superficial chafing along her gunwale.
At seven o'clock the wind was still blowing up stream and
the flat was forced to remain at her moorings, for although the wind
was light, she, being without a load, would have drifted up stream,
instead of with the current. Bidding adieu to the jolly crew with whom
we had spent a pleasant night, we cast off and headed into the wind.
Scarcely had we left the boat when the wind began to rise, blowing off
the Kentucky shore and causing us some hard work to avoid being driven
on to the opposite shore. We were just about to give up and take what
shelter there might be for us wherever we drifted, when an island came
into view not more than a mile distant. To this we determined to
paddle, if possible, and there find shelter. It was as hard a piece of
paddling as I had ever undertaken, but the fine sand beach on which we
landed was sufficient reward for the hard work to reach it. Although
the day was not half spent, we made ourselves as comfortable as
possible in anticipation of being forced to remain here overnight; and
well it was that we did so, for the wind continued to blow with
increasing fury until the sun went down, and then the mercury took a
drop that was decidedly chilling to our sensibilities.
A Fire of Driftwood.
More than a hundred cords of driftwood were all
about us, and with this we built and kept up all night a glorious fire
that warmed the whole island. Before turning in, I stepped out from the
influences of the fire, and saw that this was to be the coldest night
of the season. With my head propped up on a log and my blankets drawn
snugly about me, I lay for a couple of hours, reading, the bright
flames of the fire affording me sufficient light. But tired nature
triumphed at last, and I fell off into an untroubled sleep. Force of
habit is strongly illustrated in Barnacle; he wakes up regularly at the
time of turning out of the different watches on shipboard, and seizes
on these moments to replenish the fire. In this way I account for the
fact that at daylight the fire is still brightly burning over a large
body of glowing coals.
© 2000 Craig O'Donnell
May not be reproduced without my permission.