Because the Upper Mississippi River includes a series of locks and dams, it is hard to tell how much the water levels are natural and how much they are controlled by the lock masters. In the spring, it is obvious the river is high due to snow melt, but otherwise the reasons for an almost weekly fluctuation elude me. In the past month, shallow water has kept both barges and the Viking Mississippi cruise ship from setting out for their various destinations, and as a result, the historically low Mississippi River is national news. Even so, I don’t know if the levels on my particular section of river are a result of dry weather or wide open dam gates.
For whatever the reason, water levels on Pool 8 are unusually low right now – and to say Pool 8 is low is saying a lot. For several years, Pool 8 has been kept intentionally lower than other pools in the system as a way to promote the growth of aquatic vegetation. This month Pool 8 is low even for Pool 8. Part of me worries that a shallow Mississippi River (and a shallow Yangtze and a shallow Rhine) are indicators of the entire planet going to hell in a hand-basket. Another part of me really likes the shallow water, and I am ashamed for having such thoughts.
I personally benefit from low water levels in two ways. First, they congregate the fish, which ought to make them easier to catch. Secondly, they expose sandbars at the entrances of many of the backwater channels, so miles of narrow waterways easily accessible by kayak or canoe can no longer be reached by motorboat. Both my catch and my solitude are enhanced.
I like to think that catching fish is not the primary reason I fish. I tell myself I fish for a sense of peace, for a oneness with nature, and for a way to draw other people (especially children) into the natural world. And while all of this may be true, I also find myself going to extreme measures to catch more fish. Last week a friend and I paddled my canoe to a special backwater spot where we usually have fishing success. This productive fishing hole is across the main navigation channel from where we normally put in, so we have to paddle across a wide expanse of open water to get there. Sometimes the river is fairly calm, and the only hazard in the main channel is the wake caused by motorboaters who fly by us as if we are not there. That day a fifteen mile an hour wind out of the south made for some serious whitecaps. To keep from capsizing, we had to direct our bow into the waves – so a crossing that should have been a half mile heading due west became a full mile at an angle of south southwest.
Sometimes nature creates the ideal situation for someone looking for a challenge. This is when a person’s skills are slightly better than those required for the task at hand. I thought the choppy water that day was a perfect test for Buzz and me. I never felt we were in any danger, but we might have been had we not stayed focused during the entire crossing. We both felt a sense of accomplishment (and relief) once the most difficult stretch of open water was behind us. My need for adventure has waned with age, but it is good to check in occasionally to make sure it still exists.
Plus we caught fish. After a summer where I brought fish home only one time, it was good to put fresh fillets in the freezer.