It’s almost easy to forget about the Mississippi sometimes. Some of us cross over it without a second thought, more interested in adjusting the volume on the car stereo than contemplating how essential it is to the Twin Cities’ identity. A unique collaboration aims to change that.
Aided by the public art powerhouse Works Progress, the Mississippi River Fund invites audiences aboard an iconic Saint Paul riverboat to experience the everyday sight of the river in a new light through presentations by artists, musicians, scientists, and historians.
The parking lot on St. Paul’s scenic Harriet Island was full on the evening of August 1. A friend and I were directed to street parking on the other side of the park, and walked over a couple acres of manicured park lawn, dotted here and there with people soaking up a perfect summer evening. When we approached the boats on the shoreline, we heard something unexpected: a chorus of female voices from the Prairie Fire Lady Choir, luring us like sirens aboard the Jonathan Padelford Riverboat.
Introduced by Sarah Peters, the night’s program kicked off with a monologue by Dawn Brody, an actress and historian who has spent the better part of the last decade living on a houseboat on the Great River. Passing by disinterested boaters, fishers, and waterfowl, Brody’s ebullient storytelling traced the changing seasons on a floating residence, highlighting the romantic hyperbole of making home on a waterway. It is, she says, “at once your transport and your anchor."
A scientist from the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory then launched into a presentation about the science of floods and other disasters that have sometimes characterized the Mississippi as the “Wicked River.” Dashing through a PowerPoint presentation more entertaining than the usual college science lecture, the audience learned how the river shapes the landscape of Minnesota—and how, through centuries of human intervention in its complex biomes, we shape the river into being a more unbalanced, dangerous force of nature. A water table above deck kept the few kids on board busy with hands-on demonstrations of these principles.
As the Prairie Fire Lady Choir led a sing-along in the cabin below, and the audience fiddled around with an artist-designed hands-on crafting activity to make your own wicked river temporary tattoo, I opted to climb up a set of steep metal stairs to reveal the view: walls of trees and stony beaches lining the riverbanks, a vantage point impossible for cars and bikes, sights accessible only by floating right in it. Leaning on the railing, we saw a father and sons fishing, a serene family of deer, an older man waving to us as he dried off after a swim and wore nothing but a grin. Despite seeing the river every day, I hadn’t really looked at it like this in a long time.
The final River City Revue voyage, subtitled “The River Imagined,” departs August 15 at 7 p.m. Pre-sale reservations are sold out, but some tickets will be available at the port. More information at missriverfund.org/events.
Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.
©2012 Scott Artley (text) and Steven Lang (photos)