The Mississippi River offers this sort of amazement. The river presents so many points of fascination that it requires, I dare say, both arms to take it all in. Bald eagles grace the skies like mobiles hung from a ceiling. Bluffs rise abruptly from the waters edge, separating the broad valley from other places and other times. Tugboats ply the current, pushing Midwest commerce up and down the river.
The water holds these images on its surface, variously smooth and rippled, reflecting the world of islands, bluffs, and sky suspended above. And the river flows, which sets the scene in motion.
On this Saturday, I am here to watch and listen. I am aboard the Mississippi Explorer, heading north through tranquil backwaters to have a look at a couple of eagle’s nests and whatever else might present itself along the way. To catch an eagle at home, tending family and keeping watch, qualifies as an intimate glimpse of royalty. Trained in the social manners of heads of state, eagles do not return your gaze. They keep their eyes on things more important. I caught one in a photo, accompanying this blog, posing regally on a branch near its nest.
The river shows us stories both large and small. Chris West, the interpretive naturalist on board, showed us a mayfly larva, soon to hatch and fill the sky – and our windshields – with a black living cloud. A mayfly hatch is one of those uncelebrated Mississippi River events that while spectacular in its own right, river towns look forward to like hail storms.
Chris also displayed a sprig of wild celery (Vallisneria americana), one of nature’s hydroponic tubes, which decorate island shores. According to the Minnesota DNR, wild celery “Provides shade and shelter for bluegills, young perch, and largemouth bass; choice food of waterfowl, particularly diving ducks; attracts muskrats, marsh birds, and shore birds.” It looks fluorescent in Chris’s hand.
Captain Annie Weymiller took us on a grand tour of river scenery and wildlife, while the river told the story. Like the knowing grandfather who lived through the Great Depression, the river has lived though the great migration; of Native Americans who came to its shores, of European explorers who arrived on its tributaries, of settlers who built on its banks. And let’s not forget the migratory birds that travel its skies.
The Mississippi River cuts its way through history, moving earth, shaping stone, and fashioning scenery unmatched on earth. Every which way we look, a new scene unfolds. Just point in any direction and say, “Now would you look at that!”