Ski Bellevue: Watch Out for That Barge!

[imgbelt img=bellpyramid.jpg]Glitter and human pyramids grace the Big Muddy another summer. Julianne Couch and photographer Jeremy Willia follow in the wake of Bellevue, Iowa’s ski team.


Along the upper Mississippi River, large logs and railroad ties bob along after heavy rainfall. Tug-and-barge tandems push cargo with right-of-way swagger. Islands and beaches disappear and resurface depending on water flow through the lock and dam system. In spite of obstacles, recreational boating is a popular pastime on these waters.

I hadn’t realized the extent of this activity on the river until I moved to Iowa, within a block of the Mississippi, last summer. I quickly learned that just about everyone in the area has a pontoon or a fishing boat, or even a kayak or canoe — some way to get out onto the water that walls us from that vast territory known as “East of the Mississippi.”

In spite of all the boating, I somehow wasn’t expecting water skiing on the busy Big Muddy. And I sure wasn’t expecting a water ski show team based here in Bellevue. I’d always assumed ski shows took place on lakes where waters basically slosh back and forth within a mostly closed system (a river is anything but closed). And in fact, although Iowa has four ski show teams, only one – our own Ski Bellevue Waterski Show Team —  operates on the Mississippi. Its 42 or so members will put on six shows this summer.

Bellevue’s team stages its performances about a hundred yards downstream of Lock and Dam 12. Working off a narrow strip of beach that may or not be present depending on Corps of Engineers decisions about river depths, the skiers execute their moves off a dock they converted from a pontoon boat.

The afternoon of their inaugural show this summer, May 26,  a tug boat pushing nine barges paused in its “locking through” until the program ended. Otherwise those south-bound barges might have disrupted the performance. Which is what happened during the team’s second show. Not only had high water removed any trace of the beach where the team had staged two weeks earlier, the captain of this tug didn’t seem interested in watching the ski show and forced skiers and boats to stand down while it passed. The audience was encouraged to visit the concession table for homemade baked goods and bottled water paired with “Ski Bellevue” bottle koozies during the interlude.


The Ski Bellevue Waterski Show Team executed a pyramid, flags waving, on July 4, 2011.

The Bellevue team travels to the Waterski Show Convention and Expo held in the Wisconsin Dells each February; like all of the team’s events, this one is for for entertainment rather than competition. Their team being fairly small, Valant says, the Bellevue skiers get pointers from larger teams on everything from costumes and choreography to methods of enhancing water safety that make the show team experience “a positive one for everyone.”

The Bellevue team works to spread its name and reputation in the region so that it can continue to recruit new members, encourage sponsorship, and provide family-oriented entertainment along the river. Naturally, you can follow them on Twitter and Facebook, and even visit their channel on YouTube. You’ll see there that not every routine ends with a perfectly executed pyramid or smooth landing. If a performer “gets wet,” he or she waves high to alert the boat and make his or her position known; then Valant points in the direction he wants the skier to swim. That skier might not be the only thing floating along the surface of the Mississippi at the moment, but he’ll get the loudest cheer from those of us watching high and dry from the bank.

Julianne Couch moved to Bellevue, Iowa, a year ago. Her book Traveling the Power Line: From the Mojave Desert to the Bay of Fundy is due from University of Nebraska Press in 2013. Photographer Jeremy Willia operates WilliaStudios in Anamosa, Iowa.