Living on 'river time'

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"Pretty good for an old guy!" he said, hunched, slow moving and clutching a bag of pretzels. "I'm 87!"

It was hard not to admire his enthusiasm. He was still getting out in the world.

"He'll be 88 in November, and I'll be 80," said his wife, Joan. "I don't know how long we'll be able to do this, so we've got to get it done."

In this case, "it" was stepping into history, and history is what lured most of the passengers onto one of the nation's few operating paddle-wheelers. We were gliding through the heart of America, where millions of pounds of cargo is pushed by tugboats and where Louis Joliet, Jacques Marquette and Mark Twain had come before us. You could almost imagine Huck and Jim riding in the distance.

"It's like doing something you've heard about since elementary school," said Mara Anderson, 67, of Lancaster, Pa., as we stood on the edge of the boat's top deck watching the Illinois River's grassy shores.

"In fourth grade, at a little one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster, we exchanged names for the Christmas gifts, and one of my classmates gave me my first copy of 'Huck Finn,'" said her companion, Gerry Groff, 67. "I couldn't get into it then, but I've kept it for 40 or 50 years."

"Sixty years," Anderson said.

Just then there was an announcement of a bald eagle perched on a dead tree on the starboard side -- we all paused for a moment to consider exactly which side that was -- then spotted it. As if on cue, it took off and flew south before reversing course in our direction.

"A little show for us -- thank you!" Groff called out to the white-crowned bird.

He paused and said, "There aren't many modes of transportation that allow you to see things at this speed."

True, and that made the trick of a three-day river cruise finding a comfortable spot within the three levels, then settling in as the river rolled by. At first it was alternately peaceful and dismaying to see the industry that blights Midwestern shores. But down the river, things turned increasingly lovely and thickly green. The river winds and bends and glints in the afternoon sun as bluffs sprout on either side.

We traveled 92 miles the first day, passing almost 12 hours as the temperature crept just north of 90 degrees. That's a mighty long day on the river.

After a night in Springfield, courtesy of a 45-minute bus ride from the dock, the next day on the boat began by singing to Larry and Joyce, who were celebrating their 50th anniversary. We sang "Happy Anniversary" to the tune of "Happy Birthday" as the piano player pounded the keys. Then we learned it was Howard's 91st birthday. So we sang the tune again.

The second day quickly presented itself as prettier than the patches of river back by Peoria. There was less industry marring the shores, and the land transformed from simply tree-lined and flat to thicker, greener and lovelier as bluffs unfolded ahead and the river grew wide and placid.

Just as Ellis predicted, everyone found a rhythm. Some people spent their time on the top deck, breathing the fresh air and watching river life: fishermen in small metal boats with four or five poles dangling in the water, freighters inching down the water, and people who boated to isolated beaches for afternoons of revelry.

A band of sisters from Indiana took to shouting and waving at those party people whenever we passed. Other passengers tanned, read or passed the time in the air-conditioned parlor, watching Ellis perform his rolling, lyrical stories such as "The Two Faces of Illinois History," in which he portrayed both territorial Gov. Ninian Edwards and Potawatomi Chief Gomo, or music, be it Ted Lemen banging out some ragtime piano or Barry Cloyd picking a guitar or banjo.

I opted for fresh air and scenery. A great payoff came at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, late on the second day. As I reveled in western Illinois' limestone and sandstone cliffs, Cloyd walked onto the top deck in the late afternoon sun and plucked something pretty on his banjo. The moment seemed like the entire point of the trip.

We finished off by heading down the Mississippi to St. Louis.

We were warned on the first day of "river time," which meant schedules are partially worthless and delays are common. Locks can be backed up. Barges can stall traffic. (One had run aground a day ahead of us, but we were able to sneak past it.)

We had been lucky until that last day, when the Mississippi was shut down so that a helicopter could string wires across the river. For an hour or more, we spun in slow, lazy circles, waiting for the river to reopen. No problem; Lemen started banging away.

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