CRUISE OF THE AURORA
NIPPED IN THE ICE.
AS THE sun gilded the treetops on our island it revealed
to us the deep blue sea of sky unmarked by even a single cloud,
promising us a day of comfort. Our camp had been made some distance
from and above the water, so that it was not until we were about our
preparations for breakfast that I went down to the canoes for some
article. Here my eyes rested on a scene that caused me to stand
transfixed with amazement, and, for a moment, to doubt my sanity.
From our island to the Kentucky shore, and as far up and
down the stream as the eye could reach, was one unbroken sheet of ice.
That which we had been working so long and hard to avoid had finally
overtaken us, and we were at last frozen in.
I am greatly concerned at this state of affairs, but
Barnacle takes it very coolly, and goes about his culinary operations
as though it were an everyday occurrence to be frozen in on an
uninhabited island with but two days' provisions on hand.
North Pole Expedients.
Having eaten our breakfast, Barnacle fills and
lights his pipe, and throwing himself back against the log in front of
which he had been sitting, says, in the coolest possible manner:
"Well, what are we going to do?"
I suggest that we load the canoes, and then launching them
on the ice, while one walks along the island shore and tows, the other,
with a long pole, could keep the canoe off, and in this way we could
reach the end of the island, where we could see there was open water.
But on testing the strength of the ice we found that this would not do,
as it was not sufficiently strong to bear the weight of the loaded
canoes. Another suggestion is, that we take the duffle to the open
water, and then tow the canoes, which being light would not break
through the ice. But Barnacle suggests the most feasible plan, and that
is, to load the canoes, and breaking the ice near the shore, with heavy
poles clear away enough space in which to launch them, and then, inch
by inch, foot by foot, break a channel ahead until we reach the outer
edge of the field. Although there is little current, there is enough to
carry away the cakes of ice that we break out and force beneath the
field, leaving us the clear space in which to launch.
Barnacle is the first to get to work after the launch, and
soon has a space the length of his canoe broken; he then backs out, and
the Aurora heads into the canal, driven with all the force that I am
capable of, in the hope that she will mount the ice and slide on its
smooth surface a few inches at least, and thus give me a longer reach
with my pole. But she simply cuts into the edge of the ice and there
sticks. I now beat the ice to pieces for a distance of eight or ten
feet and then back out, and the Comfort makes a dash at it and succeeds
in cutting about as far as the Aurora had done. The Comfort's last dash
shows that the ice is thinner near the center of the stream, and as the
pieces have been carried beneath the surface, our canal is clear.
Getting a good start and under strong headway, I go crashing into the
icy field and cut a passage through to open water, and with a shout of
triumph turn to witness the passage of the Comfort, which is following
me slowly, her few inches of extra beam necessitating a little trimming
of the edges of the channel; but her skipper works manfully, losing not
a moment of time, for well he knows his danger. No sooner had he got
clear of the mouth of the canal than the whole field let go its
anchorages above and came bodily down, completely closing the passage
that we had made. Had our beloved craft been within the viselike grip,
the termination of the canoe cruise might have been recorded on the 3d
of December instead of the 3d of February following.
Within a stone's throw of the camp which we had just left
there was an enormous pile of driftwood of many cords, so tumbled
together by the action of the flood that a fire once started would have
a thorough draft and consume the entire pile. As this wood is of no use
to any one, and in times of high water only adds to the dangers of
navigation, Barnacle concludes that it had better be out of the way,
Barnacle's Big Bonfire.
a brand into it, soon has the satisfaction of
seeing the flames mount higher and higher, while the black smoke
ascends in a spiral column into the pure air of this cloudless Sunday
morning. All the morning, as we looked back, we could see the cloud of
smoke rising from Barnacle's bonfire.
IN WHICH WE PADDLE INTO THE MISSISSIPPI.
At noon we made a short halt and had some coffee and a
light dinner, and then on against the cold wind that had put in an
appearance about an hour before. No sign of life had been met with
during the day; therefore it was with much pleasure that we sighted the
tall smokestacks of a steamer coming down the river, and still more
when we discovered that she was towing ahead of her the flatboat of our
friend, Capt. Trotter. Why not take a tow and get out of this icy
region? No sooner said than we prepare to attempt the hazardous feat of
catching on to the tow while under full headway. Quickly bending an
extra line on the end of the painter, in order that we might have a
greater amount of slack, it was coiled on the deck in front of me.
Signaling to the men on the flat that we wanted to be taken in tow,
Barnacle took one side of the flat and I the other. The crew divided
into two groups, one to take the Comfort's line and the other that of
the Aurora. Slacking up with our paddling, we allowed the canoes to
drift until the bow of the flat was within a hundred feet of us, when
we paddled hard and got under good headway as the blunt bow came
abreast of us, when I dropped my paddle and gave the line a toss.
A Perilous Feat.
It was caught by those on deck, and slackened up
gradually until the Aurora was lying by the side of the flat, ahead of
the steamer Grace Morris. Mounting the deck, I found that the Comfort
had been as successful as the Aurora, and was moored alongside. We
modestly received the congratulations of the flatboat crew on the
successful issue of a hazardous experiment. Had the painter of either
canoe parted as the strain was brought on it on catching on, craft and
skipper must have gone under the guards of the steamer, and in all
probability have been ground to pieces by the huge wheel as it beat the
I learned that Capt. Trotter, fearing that the "cold snap"
would freeze his boat in and ruin his cargo of potatoes, had chartered
the steamer to tow him to Cairo, from whence, with the addition of the
current of the Mississippi, he would soon be enabled to drift out of
the reach of ice. Of course we received an invitation to remain on
board until we reached Cairo, and we needed no urging to accept the
kind hospitality. With all hands at the ropes, the canoes were soon
hauled on board out of the danger of being thrown against the side of
the flat by the swell of passing steamers. I now had a chance to
examine into the damage done by the ice in the morning's struggle, and
found that the Aurora had been cut almost through her planking at the
bow, just on the waterline. Carefully drying the parts, I filled them
with beeswax, which remained impervious to water during the remainder
of the cruise. About the middle of the afternoon we passed the mouth of
the Wabash River, and by the time the sun took his departure we were
passing Cave-in-Rock, a cavern sixty feet in diameter, which about the
year 1800 was the rendezvous of a band of outlaws who plundered the
passing boats and not unfrequently murdered the crews. Had we not been
on the boat, I would have stopped long enough to make an exploration of
this famous retreat. We still have the great State of Kentucky on our
left, while on the right the State of Illinois has its eastern boundary.
Again I spread my blankets on the same plank which a few
nights ago had served me for a couch, and was not awakened until long
after daylight, which had been retarded by the dark, leaden clouds that
overspread the sky and threatened rain before the day was far advanced.
As I went on deck to wash off some of the charcoal that had blackened
my hands through handling the potatoes that had been baked in the ashes
of the forecastle stove the evening before, I noticed that we were
passing Mound City, which derives its name from another of those relics
of a prehistoric race. Lighting the after-breakfast pipe, I ascended to
the pilothouse, from which I beheld in the distance the city of Cairo,
Ill., looking like a dot on the low level prairie. The river had
widened out so that it resembled a lake for several miles, while its
waters had lost that clearness that had characterized them for so many
Into the Mississippi.
I was told that this discoloration was caused by
the contribution of the Tennessee River. As we approached the low point
of land on which the city of Cairo is situated, I got a glimpse of the
Mississippi, which, as the pilot remarked, "was so crooked that it
would break a northern eel's back to follow its tortuous course." It
was nearly ten o'clock when the great wheel of the steamer ceased its
whirling and the lines of the flat were made fast to the trunk of a
large sycamore tree that lay stranded on the face of the levee. This
old fellow bore many scars, no doubt received on the long voyage he had
taken ere being laid at length within sight of the great "Father Of
Springing ashore I mounted the railroad track that
stretches along the levee on the city front, and while Barnacle gets
the canoes ready for the launch, I go to the post office and receive
letters from my northern home. The official here had been more
attentive to the notice on the envelope -- to be held until called for
-- than the one at Evansville, as he had held two of the letters for
more than two weeks. Laying in a stock of provisions to last two weeks
at least, we tumbled them into the Aurora. Quickly divesting myself of
my shore toggery, my wee craft is launched and we rapidly skim over the
two miles between us and the debouchure of the Ohio into the
Mississippi. The steam whistles and the ringing of bells in the
mud-imbedded city astern of us announces twelve o'clock as we shoot
from the waters of the Ohio into the rolling dark-yellow waves of the
mighty Mississippi as it sweeps off to the left with many twists and
whirls. We have now left behind us the Ohio River down which we have
paddled many hundreds of miles, but we have made but little more than
two hundred miles of southing, and of latitude but two and one-half
Heavy black clouds are rolling up from the northwest, and
I fancy now and then that I can hear the mutterings of distant thunder.
Notwithstanding we have done but little paddling the past two days, a
feeling of ennui seems to have possession of us, caused probably by the
sudden change from the severe cold to the uncomfortable warmth of
today, and we begin to look for an early camp site, but it is four
o'clock before we find one. The spot chosen was a grayish blue clay
bank, smooth and hard as a floor. As we are on the concave side of the
bend, we find but little driftwood, scarcely enough to cook our supper,
but we need little, as the meal is hardly finished ere we are driven to
the shelter of the cabins of our craft by a heavy downpour of rain,
which is so dense that we can scarcely see to the middle of the stream.
As the evening wears on the thunder and lightning gradually diminish
and pass away to the east, leaving a light pattering rain, which lulls
me into my first sleep on this great river.
WHICH FINDS US NEITHER AFLOAT NOR ASHORE.
"WELL, well, well! If this is to be the kind of
campground we are to have all the way down this river, I don't know
what we are to do."
It is morning and that's Barnacle talking out there; but
what on earth is the matter with the man? Suck slap-suck slaa-ap, "did
you ever see such mud?" I was little more than half awake when the
first words were spoken, but a moment later I am listening intently.
Again that sound, resembling that which is made by a person's foot when
it is drawn slowly from thick mud, is borne to my ears.
"Hello, Barnacle, what's up?"
"Nothing, only I guess we won't get breakfast here."
Pulling my rubber shoes on over my canvas slippers, I
throw aside the tent flap and step out hurriedly. Had the weather been
cold I could have sworn that it was ice that caused my feet to fly out
from under me so quickly and brought my helpless body into such violent
contact with the coaming of the canoe. But I learned better the moment
I attempted to gather myself up, for my feet were held so fast that
with all the force I could muster I could scarcely move them from the
tenacious clay into which they had shot. Barnacle was enjoying my
predicament; he had been in the same fix a few moments before, and now
stood about ten feet from me, his feet hidden from sight beneath the
clay and water. The rain had converted the smooth, hard clay bank into
a deep bed of a soft, mortar-like consistency, in which it was almost
impossible to move about. Everything was smeared with the vile grayish
clay. My overshoes, being a size too large for my slippers, had been
left where my feet first struck, and I was moving about in the clay up
to my ankles. By using much caution, I reached the water's edge and
succeeded in scraping off some of the slimy mud. Every time I lifted my
feet I brought up with them a great weight of the river bottom that
clung to the shoes until I set them down, when it would give me the
sensation of falling as it yielded to my weight. I managed to get the
tent unfastened from the forward part of the canoe, but was unable to
reach the stern, owing to the steep decline of the bank, a slip on
which would have shot me into the boiling waters. A short distance
below us we could make out what appeared to be a sandy point, and to
this we decided to go and prepare our morning meal. I fished my
overshoes out of the depths with the end of my paddle, and piled them,
mud and all, on deck; then getting my feet well braced, I pushed the
Aurora with all my might, but she would not budge an inch.
Mud and Mire.
I couldn't even rock her from side to side. I
looked back of me to see how Barnacle was making out. There he stood,
ankle deep in the mud, his hands and clothing smeared full of the
gritless clay. He had been no more successful than I, and protested
that he "couldn't get his canoe off, and would have to wait until a
rise in the river floated her." I prepared to make one more attempt to
float the Aurora, and placing the mainmast under my feet, I got a low
hold on the canoe, and then gave a lift that caused my back to ache for
days after. Away she went down the slippery bank and plunged into the
water. But where was I? Stretched at full length on my stomach in the
nasty, glutinous mass. Words fail me with which to describe my feelings
or appearance as I finally gave up all hope of ever appearing like
myself again. Barnacle sees me in this humiliating position, but, for a
wonder, doesn't laugh; he is too mad for that -- you couldn't provoke a
smile on his angular features at this time with one of the funniest of
funny sayings. I went to his assistance, and we seized hold of the
Comfort and swung her around so that she might be slid down the same
incline which the Aurora had left clear. As I am fishing the mast out
of the mire Barnacle takes the stern painter of his canoe in hand and
gives her a haul with all his might; but she doesn't budge -- it is her
skipper that makes a sudden move and is now in the same position in the
mud that I was a short time back. On the edge of my cockpit coaming I
laugh until my sides ache.
"Do you want any help? Shall I come to you?" I
"Help?" Thunder, no. Haven't I got all I can do to take
care of myself without hauling you around?"
"All right, old man;" and I draw the Aurora to me and
clamber on board, smearing deck, cushions and tent with the slimy river
deposit. I am now afloat, and have a chance to watch Barnacle as I
scrape the tenacious clay from my hands and clothing. He follows my
example, and soon there are two of us scraping, and thankful that there
is now a prospect of breakfast. The point to which we are bound is but
a few hundred yards below us, but it required a greater length of time
to paddle it than a like distance had ever done before. The cause is
explained as we haul out on the fair, sandy point and find not less
than one hundred and fifty pounds of clay hanging along the keel of
each canoe. Some of this remained in the joints of my boat's bottom
until after leaving Memphis; even the friction of the water over this
long distance failed to dislodge it, and many days elapsed before we
rid our clothing and impedimenta of traces of the mud; in fact, as I
write I can see some of it on the sail which is now laid by as a
souvenir of the voyage.
SOME GLIMPSES OF MISSISSIPPI RIVER LIFE.
WHILE we are eating our rather late breakfast a shantyboat
passes, on which is a sign in large letters, "Sewing Machines Repaired
and Fixtures for Sale." We afterward saw this boat moored at Mrs.
French's Landing, about three miles below Hickman, Ky. Although I had
no sewing machine to be repaired, I called at the floating shop, where
I met the wife of the itinerant, who said her "man had gone back into
the country on business and to buy some stores and a new caliker
dress." She told me that he made a good living. In the spring they
would be down on the lower Mississippi, and there would get a steamer
to tow them up to the higher settlements, where they would again
commence their floating journey downstream. "He has his regular
customers, he has, and they allers wait for him to come round," said
The current of the Mississippi here attains a speed of
about four miles per hour, and as we are quite fresh, we make a good
run under paddle until we reach a point one mile above Columbus, Ky.
Here we catch a breeze from the northwest that warrants us in making
sail, and we almost fly past the town. Following the course of the
channel, we are led to the left into a deep bend under the high chalk
bluffs and opposite Island No.5. A moment later I discover that the
current has increased almost to a millrace speed. Hello, what is this?
Over goes the boom, and the canoe gives a lurch and is almost
immediately headed up stream, then as quickly is on her downward
course, the boom just grazing the top of my head as it flies over to
port. Not more than fifty feet are run, when she goes through almost
the same maneuver again. I am thoroughly bewildered now, and lose no
time in getting the canvas off her I look inshore, and there is the
Comfort swinging round in a circle, her skipper making frantic efforts
to head her in some direction, and yet both canoes are making good time
down stream. I afterward learned that the Columbus Whirlpools had
always been considered dangerous to very small craft.
The river now broadens into lake-like proportions, and the
wind sweeps across the low Mississippi shore with such force that it
kicks up a choppy sea which is very dampening to our decks and sails.
Still we carry a full spread for a couple of miles, until the channel
takes a turn to the Missouri shore and we are compelled to run
close-hauled, when the wind comes down with such force that it can best
be described as a canoe gale. As I have no way of reefing, I am forced
to take off my mainsail, and while so engaged the Comfort passes me,
the short seas sending the spray flying all over her skipper.
The Hardest Paddle Yet.
Whew! What a blast that was! Hello! there goes
something off the Comfort's deck -- two articles, but both together.
What can they be? Ha, ha! Barnacle got a drenching that time, and his
mast bent like a reed. He has let go his halliard now, and down comes
his sail. I am chasing him with my mizzen set forward.
"Hello, Barnacle, what was that I saw fly off
your after deck?"
He looks behind him, and discovers that his rubber shoes,
which he had laid there to dry, have gone on an independent voyage
toward the great Gulf.
The gale had now become so severe and the short choppy
seas so vicious, we made a landing on a gravelly point on the Kentucky
shore, but as no driftwood was handy we made all things snug in the
canoes, and put out under paddle for the Missouri shore, where the
dense forest growth and high bank would afford us shelter from the
gale, which came in cutting blasts. I have said, somewhere in this
book, "this was the hardest paddle I ever had," but that was no
comparison to this trip across the Mississippi against a wind that
fairly picked the water up and dashed it against us in sheets. Had it
not been that the powerful current was setting us to the shore, we
would have been forced to retreat to the point from which we started.
Almost exhausted we reached a favorable point for a camp beneath a high
forest-crowned bank. All about us there was an abundance of driftwood
in the shape of fence rails, many of them of fine black walnut, slabs
and cordwood, and now and then a railroad tie. As we had not protected
ourselves with oilskins while on the river during the blow, we came
ashore in rather a moist condition; so, contrary to our custom, we
immediately built a fire and made some coffee before attending to
anything else. With the decline of the sun, the wind drops and the
temperature becomes much milder as the evening advances. The large tent
is pitched close under the bank, parallel with the river. In front of
it, not more than ten feet away, we have a roaring fire, which sends
not only light but heat through the open front of the tent, where
Barnacle is lying on his back enjoying a snoring solo.
I threw a broad board down in front of a large log beside
the fire, and on it spread my rug and cushions. On this comfortable
seat I reclined and made up my log for the day, and then enjoyed the
pipe of kinnickinnic as I built castles in the bed of glowing coals
before me. The cracking of a stick and rustling of the dry leaves on
the bank above startled me from my reverie. Instinctively I reached in
the tent for my revolver and carried my hand to my right hip to make
sure that my stout belt knife was in its accustomed place. Instantly I
was hailed from above with:
"Fo' de Lawd, massa, doan ye shoot! we jiss wants
to git warm by de fiah."
Looking up to the top of the bank, I could now make out
the forms of four darkies. I immediately invited them to come down.
Their story was that they had been employed as roustabouts on one of
the St. Louis and New Orleans packets, and one of them, having had a
dispute with the mate of the boat, was receiving a sound thrashing,
when the other three pitched in and turned the tide of battle.
The captain ran the steamer ashore, drove the
quartet up the bank, and left them to shift for themselves, supperless
and penniless. Seeing the light of our fire, they had made their way
cautiously to it, and now begged that they might be allowed to remain
until daylight, when they would continue their difficult tramp through
the cane and brier thickets until they could find some one who would
set them across the river to the Kentucky shore, whence they would work
their way to Columbus. Notwithstanding their penniless condition, they
seemed to be in a merry mood, and spent the hours until long past
midnight in singing plantation melodies and cracking jokes at one
another's expense. The bass and tenor were excellent, but the rich
falsetto of the largest fellow of the party astonished me with its
softness. Two of them had made a sort of bunk out of rails beside the
fire, where they were stretched at full length, while the other two had
perched themselves among the branching roots of a large stump that
projected from the bank almost over the fire. They were a fine,
hardy-looking set of fellows, and from their youthful appearance I
judged that they were all born free, but on questioning them they
assured me that they had been born in slavery. Many were the laughable
stories they told of plantation life, especially those that occurred
during the war. On viewing the canoes, one of them observed that the
Aurora, with hatches covering the cockpit, looked "jis like dat ar
coffin ole massa war toted to de burin'-groun' in." The big darky
"Golly, guess it wouldn't pay for nigger to steal
dat ar little boat; she'd dun roll ober an' drown him sartin sho."
His remark about stealing reminded me that it would be
well for us to keep a close eye on our guests, or on their departure we
might miss some article of which we stood most in need. At one o'clock
I step into the tent and awaken Barnacle, telling him that it is now
his watch. The "darks" have not seen Barnacle, and as his six feet two
inches are at length revealed, I can see their white eyeballs roll from
one to the other. Daybreak sees all hands at work, the negroes piling
wood on the fire, while Barnacle finds a piece of bacon for each of my
dark-skinned guests, to which we add a half dozen crackers each and a
cup of coffee. They seem very grateful for the light breakfast, and
with a shake of the hand all around they disappear into the dense
thicket, while we clean up and pack the canoes for an early start.
After being out but a short time we sighted an upriver
bound passenger steamer. I had on one occasion, while on the Ohio
River, witnessed the manner in which flatboatmen procure papers from
the steamers; and as we have been without the morning paper at the
breakfast table for some time, I determine to attempt getting one,
flatboatman fashion. Paddling directly for the steamer, I came within
hailing distance, and began calling out at the top of my voice,
"Plee-a-s-e th-r-o-w me a pa-a-a-per," drawling the words out in a
sing-song sort of manner.
News from the World.
When this had been repeated and I had gone through
the pantomime of reading a paper, both the officers and passengers
seemed to vie with one another to see who would be first to get a paper
into my hands. I paddled close to the steamer's guards and caught two
folded papers, while Barnacle picked up a third that had gone
overboard. We swung our caps in response to the waving of handkerchiefs
from the deck of the City of Natchez and paddled on, I with a copy of
the New Orleans Times-Democrat twelve days old, spread out on the hatch
before me, while Barnacle had a Vicksburg daily four days old. We had
time simply to glance at the contents and learn of the terrible storm
on the Atlantic coast, the heavy snow storms in the Northern and
Eastern States and the intensely cold weather throughout the entire
country, when the wind came off the Missouri shore and gave us a
favorable breeze, under which we ran until about mid-day, when it left
us as suddenly as it had come. The atmosphere is unusually mild, and I
paddle with my head, arms and chest bare, and have concluded that we
are out of the region of chilling blasts. The thought of entering the
sunny South was indeed welcome to men who had fought wind and wave,
amid snow and ice, for so many days.
© 2000 Craig O'Donnell
May not be reproduced without my permission.