Third generation river-boat captain Mike Blitgen knows his way around the Mississippi River in Iowa. He can identify boats by their shape, navigate a tugboat into a lock, and knows how to find the best watering hole for a summer day. He takes writer Julianne Couch for a ride.
Living as I do a block off the Mississippi River, specifically Lock & Dam 12 at Bellevue, Iowa, I see a lot of barges locking through. In fact, had I never gone to sleep in 2011, I could have witnessed 14,326,574 tons of cargo pushed by towboats through the lock gates carrying agricultural products, coal, fracking sand and scrap metal.
Many a summer evening has found me watching the lock-through process, peering through the chain link fence built for security after 9/11 . The 600-foot lock is too short to allow the tows to push their full complement of barges through at once. That means I can spend a couple hours watching deckhands unlink the barges and float them through one section at a time. That gives me time to think.
I’ve entertained fantasies of stowing away, or volunteering, or embedding myself as a journalist aboard one of these towboats. I haven’t given up on that plan, but almost by accident I made a connection with a fellow who lives in Bellevue but spends most of his time piloting commercial boats, including towboats like these.
Mike Blitgen has been a pilot of tugboats pushing barges, a casino boat captain, a water taxi captain and a steam powered paddle-wheel boat captain, sometimes concurrently, for more than 25 years. He now works for Magnolia Marine, based in Vicksburg, Mississippi. He was in the wheelhouse piloting one of these towboats, pushing barges full of asphalt up the Illinois River, when I reached him by phone. We decided it would be better to talk in person once he returned home from this hitch on the river.
One day he called and proposed we take a ride on his 20-foot pleasure boat to a downhill ski resort across the river in Illinois. In the summer after the artificial snow melts off the 450-foot high hill, one can simply boat up to a dock, tie up, ride the lift chairs to the top of the “hill” and relax over food and beverages on the patio of Chestnut Mountain Resort. That sounded like a remarkably fine plan.
I located Captain Mike at the Spruce Harbor marina a few miles north of Bellevue. He was tidying up the interior of the 4 Winns closed-bow boat when I arrived. In his best professional captain manner, he helped me aboard, showed me where the life preserver was nestled near my feet, handed me an ice-cold bottle of water and jabbed an American flag in the flag holder in the stern. Then we were off.
We cruised for a few minutes among the islands and backwaters of Pool 12. We could see in the distance the form of a towboat pushing 12 barges down the main channel. Captain Mike said, “I bet that’s the Andrea Leigh. I can tell every commercial boat out here by its shape.” So we whipped around a sandbar and came back to intercept the tow, passing on the correct side so as not to get too close to her wheel wash, what we amateurs refer to as a “wake.” Sure enough, it was the Andrea Leigh.
Captain Mike told me he started as a deckhand on towboat that pushed barges carrying gasoline and crude oil. He recounted conditions endured by his father, Richard, who also worked on the river. Even though workers then didn’t need a license to be a boat pilot, Captain Mike says their job was more difficult than today, in many ways.
“We have so many more technological advances to take load off that weren’t there in those days. The channel is well marked, the river is tamed, it doesn’t change like it used to. It used to be that islands would literally disappear over the course of one 30-day hitch on a rising river. Now they have AIS (automatic identification system) receivers and transmitters. Your boat gets dialed in, linked to an electronic charting system that shows the river, you, and your barges in the 9-foot channel line. There are indicators for bow and stern to see if your tow is sliding.”
We made a turn past a sandbar known locally as Bellevue beach, and waved to boaters spending their Friday afternoon picnicking and playing beach volleyball there. Captain Mike mentioned a “tradition” involving female beach revelers flashing tow captains. I pretended I couldn’t quite make out what he said over the wind and boat motor.
Leaving the beach behind, Captain Mike continued schooling me in the ways of the river mariner. “The charting system also shows other traffic and has a circle where you’ll meet the boats at your present course and speed. You can communicate to check the traffic and avoid meeting each other in tight spots. It used to be they’d mislead about their location in order to get ahead of you in line to lock through. Now they can’t do that because everyone knows where they are.”
My water bottle was close to empty, and I was starting to hear the siren call of Chestnut Mountain. Just when I thought we were headed in, Captain Mike pointed at a small vessel along our stern. “Kayak!” he shouted. “Let’ check it out!”
That wouldn’t have been my first impulse, content as I usually am to give a casual wave to passing boaters. We pulled around and headed straight for the one-person kayak, paddled by a woman who looked very comfortable in a small craft on the barge-infested Mississippi.
“Where you going? Where’d you put in? Where you from?” Captain Mike asked. The woman said she’d started out from the same dock as we had, paddled across to Bellevue beach, and was headed back. Noticing the kayaker wasn’t especially curious about our doings, we said farewell and commenced our approach to Chestnut Mountain. We had to navigate very shallow waters as we neared its small dock. A path of white buoys painted with red or green stripes marked the route through the deepest part of the waters. Standing to peer over the windshield, we both looked for obstructions ahead, especially hidden logs. Captain Mike explained the way to remember the markers’ meaning. Returning from sea, the red markers are on your right (Red, Right, Returning) and the green are on your left. He called out readings from his depth finder. “Three feet, two feet.” At one foot the depth finder quit displaying readings and simply flashed. We were at that stage for only a few seconds before we were back up to a luxurious two feet of water.
We tied off the boat and hiked 40 yards or so to the chairlift. To get there we had to be sure to stop, look and listen before crossing the railroad tracks that carry freight trains traveling around 50 miles per hour. Safely across, we settled into an upward-bound chair and gripped our flip-flops tightly with our toes. As the lift stopped momentarily to let people ahead of us get off at the top of the hill, Captain Mike took the opportunity to talk to the people headed down. “Where you from? How was lunch? What brings you to Iowa?”
We found seats on the crowded outdoor patio with views overlooking the Mississippi and the limestone bluff scenery of the “Driftless Area.” The area is so-named because it was not flattened by drifting glaciers. Captain Mike ordered a pina colada, thinking it evoked the Caribbean. He seemed a bit disappointed it did not come with an umbrella, but after all, this is the Midwest. Comfortably situated, he was ready to answer my questions with the garrulousness of someone who spends most days and nights in the wheelhouse of a towboat in the company of a small crew of men.
Blitgen was born on a farm about 10 miles from Bellevue. He recalls walking across field to neighbors’ places a few times a month for barn dances and other get-togethers. “It was a real Mayberry RFD feeling. We swam in the creeks, fished in the ponds, made forts in the corn fields. It was pure wholesome country living.”
Blitgen was in fifth grade when his dad started working on the river and the family moved into town. He spent many summers taking his dad’s flat bottom boat and exploring the islands just south of Bellevue. He’d pack a lunch, leave early in the morning and return at dark. He and a close childhood friend pledged they weren’t going to get jobs working the river, the way their fathers did. “It is no life for a family man,” they asserted. Yet the minute they finished high school, that friend took a job on the river. Meantime, Blitgen simultaneously worked part time jobs in Bellevue, like delivering newspapers, unloading grocery store trucks and working on the grease rack at local garage.
For three years Blitgen worked for the Ingram Barge company, on the river 30 days, then 30 days off. He took some time away from the river and did factory work and other jobs that didn’t pay what he needed to support a growing family. Eventually he went back to the river and got his license to pilot boats. Since then he’s worked for a variety of companies and been on rivers from the Mississippi to the Alleghany, the Illinois, the Intracoastal Canal and more. He’s always called Bellevue home. People have asked him why he doesn’t move somewhere south, where winters are warmer, since the company arranges to get him to the boat from wherever he is.
“I do think about places to live, but Bellevue has everything I need. There are lots of great places, and I can visit them any time I want to. All of my roots are here, my family has been here for generations and I know everybody.”
Blitgen says he doesn’t mind a slow steady increase in outsiders like myself moving in to Bellevue because he realizes the same people and families don’t last forever. But over the years he’s heard some talk that what Bellevue needs is industry. We tried to picture how smokestacks would affect our view of those limestone bluffs across from our position on the hill. We both agreed Bellevue’s growth would be better connected to tourism and agriculture, as has traditionally been the case.
We were directly across the Mississippi from the boat dock where we started our trip. Had it been dark, we could have seen the lights of Bellevue twinkling modestly across the water. But the chair lift stops running before dark, so we had to get moving. As we rode back down the lift we greeted other travelers, learning a remarkable amount about them in the few seconds we spent chatting. Once back on the boat and underway, Captain Mike asked me to help spot the red and green striped Clorox bottles-cum-buoys as we headed out through two feet of water to the main channel. He was going to temporarily “borrow” someone else’s boat slip at the marina when he dropped me off and drive back into town. He wanted to see if any of his family would head back out on the river with him, while the daylight lasted.
Julianne Couch is the author of Traveling the Power Line: From the Mojave Desert to the Bay of Fundy. She lives in Bellevue, Iowa.