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Life and the River

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Hannes Zacharias, 2018
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Reading Huck Finn transported river traveler Hannes Zacharias back to one of his two kayak trips down the Mississippi

I’m Hannes Zacharias from Lenexa for High Plains Public Radio, Radio Reader’s Book Club. The book is “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, the book from which “all modern American literature comes…” said Ernest Hemingway.

The story is compelling, but I flow to the setting. The Mississippi river. The river of the 1850’s with its expanding steamboat traffic and flotilla of canoes, boats, rafts and all other manner of watercraft.

I’m Hannes Zacharias from Lenexa for High Plains Public Radio, Radio Reader’s Book Club. The book is “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, the book from which “all modern American literature comes…” said Ernest Hemingway.

The story is compelling, but I flow to the setting. The Mississippi river. The river of the 1850’s with its expanding steamboat traffic and flotilla of canoes, boats, rafts and all other manner of watercraft.

Then rivers were the major transportation routes for people and cargo as they had been for thousands of years before. Virtually everyone knew the major rivers of the continent then…the directions they flowed, where they were connected and the cities they passed.

Life…and the river, are much different today. Today I bet ‘two bits” not even one in twenty knows where the Ohio River joins the “Mighty Mississippi”…nor cares. Rivers today are, at best, purveyors of water for human consumption and commerce, or worst, drainage systems bringing pollutants and floods. A geographical nuisance to be overcome and often forgotten.

For me reading the book, again, transported my thoughts to my two kayak trips on the Mississippi, one in 1976 and the other in 2018.

I am fortunate to be part of a shrinking band of modern ‘adventures’ who know what it looks like to approach many of the major river ports from a self-propelled watercraft.

So, the phrases in the book of Huck and Jim navigating the river all ring true to me. Understanding how the swift currents go toward the inside of river’s curve, where sandbars are likely to form, how the toe of the island can be a good place to land. The way the river can rock you gently and then catch you in a whirlpool.

I remember entering the Mississippi on a hot July afternoon from the White River into the mile wide channel of brown ‘chocolate milk’ water, calm and swift, and powerful…cool, not cold, to the touch. On the leeward side, sandbars that stretched for miles…and both banks thick with all manner of trees…sycamore, walnut, hickory, and ash. My first sighting of a massive 72 barge tow plowing its way upriver creating four foot high waves in its wake and my great anxiety as I navigated the swamping potential waters as it passed. The afternoon heat made tolerable due to the light breeze that occasionally went away. The occasional column of buzzards as they pointed out were some large mammal died…and herons stuck to the shore monitoring my presence as they protected their nests. All manner of life occupying this section of the river…all except humans.

In the late afternoon I remember finding a suitable sandbar high enough to allow me to camp out of danger from the waves of passing barges. I’d set up the tent, fly, and small chair and enjoy the peace and beauty of river. No radio, no one to talk to, no desire as well…only the natural sounds of the adjacent forest and the soft flow of the water. I remember seeing the orange sunset reflected in the water spray of the passing towboat…and the seagulls plucking the fish churned up from the spinning props. I remember…peace.

I have experienced the same moon and stars reflecting off the river as Huck and Jim. The healing power of time spent watching it flow and dreaming of adventure. A memory that sticks…and gives me comfort. A comfort that comes from those who know rivers and who know where the Ohio joins the Mississippi.

From here to wherever the river takes me…this is Hannes Zacharias in Lenexa, and you are listening to the High Plains Public Radio, Reader’s Book Club.

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Fall 2021: RIVERS meandering meaning2021 Fall ReadHPPR Radio Readers Book Club
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