12:44 PM EDT, April 11, 2014
Our adventure began at 7:37 a.m. on a Saturday.
"Good morning, everyone!" said Capt. Alex, a fit, blue-eyed father of four who has made his career on the river.
"Good morning!" came the surprisingly chipper early morning reply from my fellow passengers on The Spirit of Peoria, a four-story paddle-wheeler that would carry us downriver for the next three days.
I glanced across the first-floor dining room, where we had gathered at long tables with plates of eggs and steaming cups of coffee. Our average age was about 70.
OK, so maybe it wasn't so early after all.
"We have a beautiful three days ahead," Capt. Alex said, explaining that after leaving this dock in Peoria we would wind 163 miles down the Illinois River, hang a left on the Mississippi, then chug another 39 miles to St. Louis' gleaming arch. We would pass through four locks.
"This is a true paddle-wheel," Capt. Alex said. "It handles just like it did 150 years ago."
We all ooohed and aaahed, and then Capt. Alex -- Alex Grieves, 44, when on land -- excused himself to get our adventure underway.
The Spirit of Peoria, which Capt. Alex has operated for 21 years (and owned for 18 years), is rented for birthday parties, wedding receptions, corporate outings and fraternity and sorority parties, and frequently putters around the Peoria area for afternoon sightseeing trips. But this weekend, the 160-foot boat, capped with a bright red paddle wheel at its back, was ours.
A rumble stirred below, and slowly we were off, gliding down the rippling Illinois River at a little less than 10 mph. On a bright, humid summer morning, it left the 85 passengers with the simple task of getting to know the boat and each other, which isn't always so easy.
"It's interesting how difficult it is for people to just watch the river go by," said Brian "Fox" Ellis, a professional storyteller who has worked on the boat as long as Capt. Alex. "You'll see for the first half-day, people pace the decks, and then they settle into it."
Indeed, the first thing I did was explore the vessel. The first floor was the dining room. The second was an air-conditioned parlor where tables lined the walls and rows of chairs faced a small stage where Ellis and a pair of musicians -- a ragtime piano player and folk-blues guitar player -- would perform every few hours. The third floor was an open-air deck for watching the world inch by. Above, in small quarters with 360-degree views, Capt. Alex piloted the boat with a 7-foot-tall wooden helm.
Evenings would be spent at hotels along the way -- one night in Springfield and one at Pere Marquette State Park -- but days would be passed on the boat. Nearly all our meals would be eaten there, the food emerging from a tiny kitchen on steaming silver trays.
"We've got a pasta buffet lunch and prime rib dinner today," chef Debbie Leas, 55, told me that first day. "I get a lot of compliments on the prime rib. Tomorrow's brisket. Yummy, yummy. You like tacos? We have a taco bar on the way to St. Louis. You eat bread pudding? You have to try my bread pudding. I make a raspberry white chocolate bread pudding."
I ate all of it. A lot of it.
True to its old-timey paddle-wheel feel, the boat is decked to evoke thoughts of yesteryear: It's long on curlicues, maroon curtains and ornate carpet with the curling shapes that would be at home in a wrought-iron fence. Combined with the storytelling and rollicking ragtime songs, it added up to a weekend that at times could just as well have been in, say, 1922.
That is exactly the point for many people who take a vacation on a paddle-wheeler. I had assumed most of the passengers were looking for an easy weekend escape close to home, but except for five women in their 50s from Ottawa, Ill., celebrating a bachelorette party -- one wore a T-shirt that said, "Tonight I'm single," which, fortunately, wasn't the bride-to-be -- most everyone had crossed some miles to be on that boat.
There were couples from north of Detroit; Paducah, Ky.; Rolla, Mo.; and a large group of mostly seniors from eastern Pennsylvania who had also stopped at President Benjamin Harrison's home in Indiana and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Pennsylvania crew all wore name tags, which made it easy to greet them by name.
"Hi, Gus!" I said to Gus Lattanze, who wore a green polo shirt, jeans, white sneakers and hearing aids. "How you doing?"
"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.
"This is in case we go down," he said, and launched into a jaunty church hymn called "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder."
It got a raucous applause.
"I would have turned to Jesus sooner if I knew it would get such a big hand," Lemen said.
"Do you know 'Stringing Wires Above the Mississippi?'" a woman called out to more laughs.
We were learning to embrace river time.
"Hum a few bars and I'll see," Lemen hollered back.
Instead, he launched into "Goodnight, Irene," which morphed into a massive singalong that went over quite well for a full-voiced audience recalling its youth atop the glassy Mississippi.
If you go
The Spirit of Peoria runs about 15 overnight trips per year from Peoria to destinations that include St. Louis; Hannibal, Mo.; Starved Rock State Park; and Alton, Ill. Prices for one- to four-night trips range from $360 to $960 per person, which includes tax, gratuity, snacks, meals and quality lodging. There is a cash bar on the boat. More information: 800-676-8988, spiritofpeoria.com.
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