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, and throwing


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.




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 waters.

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 miles.


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 Waters."

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 degrees.

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.




"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 ask.

"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.




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 she.

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.


Castaway Roustabouts.

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 exclaimed:
"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.