Riverboat Adventure, Part 1 (The River)

On April 20, 2014 · 2 Comments

12MC is back! Thank you for bearing with me while a took a brief respite from posting new articles. There were logistical reasons. Each race in the five state series took much of the morning, then we’d have to drive to the next location (stopping at geo-oddity sites along the way), arrive late each afternoon, and then start preparing for the next race the following morning. The distances were much farther than my Dust Bowl adventure, and we covered 2,700 miles (4,350 kilometres) in 9 days. Those unfamiliar with the basic outline can reacquaint themselves with our ambitious travel itinerary in The Pitch.

This was the longest break I’ve taken from 12MC in the six-plus years that I’ve been writing it. It felt weird. I had one article in the bag ready to post. It had a rushed and hurried tone without the quality normally befitting this site. So I gave myself permission to take a break. Now I’m able to look at the totality of my Riverboat adventure and organize subjects into themes rather than suffer the disjointed limitations of chronology.

I received several audience sightseeing suggestions both beforehand and along the way. Some of those made it into the narrative and will appear in articles over the next couple of weeks. Enjoy!


The Mississippi and Ohio Rivers Confluence


Fort Defiance

The Riverboat adventure focused on the Lower Mississippi River, defined as beginning at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, and extending to the Gulf of Mexico. We didn’t make it all the way to the Gulf although we started at the confluence and made it as far south as northern Louisiana.

We experienced only a single "disappointment" during the entire trip, and I’m almost embarrassed to call it a disappointment because it was so completely trivial. We planned a picnic lunch at Ft. Defiance Park located directly at the confluence. It would have been a lovely vantage point both for its scenery and its geographic significance. It would have offered Illinois’ southernmost point as well as its lowest point of elevation in addition to the awesomeness of the confluence itself. The park was closed because of recent flooding that happens frequently during springtime. Snowmelt flows down from the northern extremes of the Mississippi watershed and overruns the banks in floodplain areas. It was a mess.



Ft. Defiance Park at the Mississippi/Ohio River Confluence

Instead, under the guise of lemons vs. lemonade, we recorded one of the shortest state clips traversed by a 2-digit US Highway. Traveling this route, we crossed from Kentucky into Illinois over the Ohio River, drove through Illinois for a single mile (map) stopping briefly for a few photos — notice the water — and then crossed from Illinois into Missouri. Yes, it would have been nice to have been able to stop there for lunch. It didn’t happen. We salvaged our misfortune by having a perfectly fine picnic at an equally scenic spot a little farther downriver while waiting for the Dorena-Hickman ferry.


Kentucky Bluffs


Columbus-Belmont State Park

Much of Kentucky featured irregular borders (map) defined by rivers or mountain ridges. The Ohio River determined much of its northern and western border. A small portion, however, at the far western extreme of the commonwealth and immediately south of the confluence straddled the Mississippi River. That was our target.

High bluffs protected some of this area so that residents here remained dry while their neighbors in Illinois and Missouri flooded. We stopped at Columbus-Belmont State Park for one of the races. That was the site of a Confederate fortification during the US Civil War, perched atop the bluff in an attempt to control river access and commercial traffic during the conflict.


Memphis, Tennessee


Mud Island

Farther downstream, Memphis was undoubtedly the largest city we encountered during our journey. We blew through it on our first pass using its highways as a means cross the river and push towards our next destination in rural Arkansas. We would see Memphis again on the return path and stay for a couple of days, and in a bit of foreshadowing, yes we visited Graceland.

Barges heading up- and downstream were a frequent sighting during our journey. Here, a barge passed below the Hernando DeSoto Bridge that carried traffic on Interstate 40 between Memphis, Tennessee and West Memphis, Arkansas.


Greenville Bridge


Greenville Bridge

I’ve driven across the Mississippi River numerous times over the years. However I’ve never driven along the river this far before, not even during my Great River Road trip in Wisconsin. I gained a new appreciation for just how infrequently one can cross the river as we progressed southward down its path, jogging back-and-forth across its banks. One doesn’t comprehend that same sense of rarity on the Interstate highway system where the Mississippi River hardly seemed an obstacle at all.

We used the Greenville Bridge outside of Greenville, Mississippi a couple of times during the drive. We had one race on the immediate western side in Lake Village, Arkansas, and another race just south of Greenville, Mississippi the next day. That provided a rare respite, an uncharacteristic day that involved little driving and some needed downtime.


Lake Chicot, Arkansas


Riverboat Marathon Series - Arkansas

The Arkansas race took place at a beautiful spot along Lake Chicot, the lake for which Lake Village gained its name. Chicot was a classic oxbow lake.



The Oxbow Crescent of Lake Chicot, Arkansas, USA

Wikipedia described it as "the largest oxbow lake in North America and the largest natural lake in Arkansas, formed 600 years ago by the meandering of the Mississippi River." Astute 12MC readers know how much I love oxbows. Largest oxbow in North America! Largest natural lake in Arkansas! Sold. I experienced a genuine geo-oddity simply by watching marathoners loop through the park for a few hours while I went on a photo safari.

Then it started raining like crazy, with thunder and lightning and torrential downpours and the whole deal. This was our day without driving and we knew we were fortunate. I wasn’t disappointed by a rainy day. We were lucky even though the weather sucked, using it as an excuse to hole-up in a warm hotel room for an afternoon to relax.


Mud Island


Mud Island

At this point a special shout-out goes to reader "Bill C." for suggesting the Riverwalk at Mud Island. As the park site explained, "The Riverwalk is an exact scale model of the Lower Mississippi River flowing from its confluence with the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois 954 miles south to the Gulf of Mexico." I didn’t know about this place in advance and I would have missed it without Bill C.’s suggestion. It was geo-geek paradise, so thanks Bill C.

The Riverwalk represented the entire Lower Mississippi in miniature, everything we’d just spent a full week driving, at a scale where every footstep representing about a mile. I was giddy as I hopped back and forth across the model, pointing out each spot we’d visited during our journey while my wife rolled her eyes and pretended to be amused. This photo captured the Kentucky Bend (aka "Bubbleland") portion, which gave an indication of the model’s colossal scale.

The entire Riverwalk stretched about a half-mile with each concrete layer representing a five-foot elevation change. Notice the color changes, too. The light-tan coloration represented the floodplain. Thus, much of Kentucky Bend would be subject to periodic flooding while the darker-colored area remained dry. Not surprisingly, I noticed that was where the farmers concentrated their homes when we’d visited the Bend earlier in the week.

Signage at the park indicated that the model held about 1.2 million gallons (4.5 million litres) of water at any given time. It was interactive too. Lots of children splashed around in the river and that was perfectly fine. The gift shop even sold T-shirts to that effect.

Named for Schoolcraft

On April 8, 2014 · 2 Comments

I’ve been following Every County lately while the author winds his way virtually through, well, every county. He was at the northern end of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula at the time of publication, typing his was down from the Straits of Mackinac. The name Schoolcraft(¹) kept recurring as I read through new installments, a frequent geographic designation in Michigan.

Schoolcraft, for those unfamiliar with Michigan’s history, was Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793-1864), a jack-of-all-trades, a geologist, explorer, geographer, politician, ethnologist, writer, publisher, you name it. He wandered within and around many parts of the American Frontier as it was defined in early 19th Century, particularly the Upper-Midwest in Michigan and Minnesota. Consequently, a lot of places in both states bear the Schoolcraft name.

Schoolcraft County, Michigan



Schoolcraft County, Michigan, USA

Schoolcraft County was the largest geographic namesake, an area familiar to Henry Schoolcraft during his lifetime. Michigan established the original Schoolcraft County in 1843, reorganized it in 1871 and established the current boundaries in 1885 as noted in the Newberry Library’s Atlas of Historical County Boundaries for Michigan. The Schoolcraft Chamber of Commerce explained,

In 1832, the "Snowshoe Bishop" Frederic Baraga established a Catholic mission on the eastern shore of Indian Lake. It was also during this time that Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Michigan’s first Indian Agent and the county’s namesake, was mapping the area, documenting the lives of tribal residence and negotiate treaties. Schoolcraft County was officially organized in 1871, with Manistique designated as the county seat.

I drove through this area a number of years ago on a trip around and across Lake Michigan. I’d love to return someday.


Village of Schoolcraft, Michigan


L S & M S Station, Schoolcraft, Michigan, rppc. postmarked August 31, 1908.
L S & M S Station, Schoolcraft, Michigan, rppc. postmarked August 31, 1908. by Wystan, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license

Paradoxically the Village of Schoolcraft wasn’t founded in Schoolcraft County, rather it appeared on Michigan’s Lower Peninsula south of Kalamazoo (map).

The Village of Schoolcraft was the first settlement established in Kalamazoo County. In fact, the original Village was platted in 1831, six years before Michigan became a state… Lucius Lyon, who had settled in the area and who had… been a member of the Cass expedition, as well as a friend of Schoolcraft, decided to name to Village in his honor.

Schoolcraft had also been a member of the 1820 Cass Expedition, named for its leader Lewis Cass who was the Territorial Governor of Michigan. Schoolcraft served as the expedition’s geologist. Think about that for a moment. The governor led an expedition through the wilderness. Imagine the governor of any state today with enough courage and leadership to do something physically demanding, dirty, and even a little dangerous.


Schoolcraft Lake and River



Schoolcraft Lake and River

The Cass Expedition focused on several objectives and motivations, including some scientific. One involved a search for the true source of the Mississippi River in Minnesota. The explorers trekked as far inland as Cass Lake then turned back because water levels were too low for their canoes to paddle any farther in July. The expedition named the lake for its leader, declared Lake Cass the Mississippi source and called it a day.

However that differs from what people understand today, that Lake Itasca was the source. Indeed Cass Lake was many miles downstream from Itasca (map). Schoolcraft suspected the true source laid beyond Lake Cass so he returned in 1832 to finish the job, and then identified Lake Itasca as the headwaters of the mighty river.



There was a tiny Schoolcraft Island on Lake Itasca named in his honor (map)


Mississippi Crossing
12MC Walked Across the Mississippi River

It wasn’t very far away from the spot where one could Walk Across the Mississippi River as Twelve Mile Circle did a few years ago. However there was a more significant accolade nearby than the tiny island within Itasca, namely Schoolcraft Lake and River, the first significant tributary of the Mississippi River.


Schoolcraft College


Kite Over Schoolcraft College [3789]
Kite Over Schoolcraft College [3789] by Juan N Only, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license

There were several more Schoolcraft tributes although I’ll feature only one more. Schoolcraft College was established in Livonia, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. I thought it was creative of them to name their dining hall "Henry’s Food Court," a fitting memorial to Henry Schoolcraft.


(¹) I think the name grabbed my attention because it sounded like a version of Minecraft that might be created by an educational institution. Minecraft has become frequent and ubiquitous in our household with our two young boys. It’s all Minecraft all the time in our home.

Farthest Inland Port

On March 20, 2014 · 4 Comments

I’ve discussed the port at Duluth, Minnesota before and even created a travel page for it. I was particularly fascinated with the bit of trivia that Duluth was a significant seaport even though it was located 2,342 miles (3,770 kilometres) from its eventual outlet to the Atlantic Ocean.



Port of Duluth
My Own Photo

The Duluth Seaway Port Authority described itself as "the largest, farthest-inland freshwater port." Maybe that was the case and maybe that was hyperbole. Claims are cheap. Either way I though I should check into this a little further and see what other candidates might exist. I discovered a very useful website in the process, the World Port Source, which provided interactive maps by inland waterway.

Like all my geo-oddity searches, I establish some ground rules. I was looking for a port, most importantly. That was far different than the longest navigable river. Anyone could take a canoe farther upstream. I was looking for recognized port facilities that supported commercial shipping. That was also different than the farthest point upriver negotiable by an oceangoing deep-draft ship. One simply won’t be able to get a large oil tanker hundreds of miles upstream. So those were the general parameters.



Duluth, Minnesota, USA

Duluth would be tough to beat. It definitely held the record for North America. Canada did well also with the Port of Thunder Bay — like Duluth, on Lake Superior — although Duluth was at the farthest extreme of the lake so that increased its distance from the Atlantic.



Port of Lewiston, Idaho, USA

The Port of Lewiston, Idaho was the farthest U.S. inland port from the Pacific Ocean via the Columbia and Snake Rivers, some 465 river miles (750 km) upstream. It also had the distinction of being the only port city in the state of Idaho, which was an interesting bit of trivia worth filing away and retrieving at a strategic time. Maybe I’ll use that one on my wife some day just to watch her eyes roll.

For the Mississippi River watershed and the Gulf of Mexico though, the farthest inland port was either Minneapolis or St. Paul. The Port of Minneapolis might not exist anymore because city officials were eager to get rid of it as recently as 2012. That would hand the honor over to the nearby Port of St. Paul about 1,670 miles (2,690 km) upriver from the Gulf.

I then turned to the aforementioned World Port Source to examine additional extremities outside of North America.


Amazon River – Iquitos, Peru



Port of Iquitos, Peru

The vastness of the Amazon River truly amazed me. Notice the placement of Iquitos, Peru, and specifically how far west it fell on the South American continent. Ponder for a moment that the waterway it sits upon drains to the east.



Belèn, Iquitos. Stilted burrow by Stefe on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license

The Port of Iquitos, Peru can be accessed after traveling upriver some 2,300 miles (3,700 km) which put it in the same ballpark as Duluth. One location might be slightly farther inland than the other, or not, although either way they were essentially analogous for practical purposes. World Port Source noted:

The Port of Iquitos became important to the country in the late 19th Century with the rubber boom. The Port of Iquitos is the biggest city in Peru’s rainforest and the capital of the large Department of Loreto. Many think that the Port of Iquitos is the biggest city in the world that roads do not reach. In 2005, almost 154 thousand people lived in the Port of Iquitos

"The biggest city in the world that roads do not reach!" — more fascinating trivia. Is someone writing these down?


Yangtze River – Yibin, Sichuan, China



Yibin, Sichuan, China

Once again, ponder the distance the Yangtze River penetrates inland to the Port of Yibin. It was hard for me to find an exact figure on the river miles between Yibin and the East China Sea. By extrapolation it seemed to be about 1,750 miles (2,800 km).



huge cities, huge rivers by joan vila on flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license

Certainly one could travel much farther upriver although Yibin seemed to be the final commercial port, and it’s become quite active. I found a recent article in SeaNews that described how train locomotives made in Sichuan were being shipped internationally from the Yibin port. The article also said that as of January 2014, "Cargo vessels of 1,000 tonnes can sail between the port and the sea year round."

I didn’t have time to consider every possibility for farthest inland port. Additional candidates could include the Port of Tver, Russia on the Volga River system or the Port of Kelheim, Germany on the Danube River system. Still it satisfied my curiosity. It confirmed that freighters could sail mighty far inland on multiple continents.

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12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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