Write to the River — Summer 2017 Prose & Poetry

This season's writing prompt, "Lonesome Whistle" by Tom Reiter. This photo was taken in Hastings over the Mississippi River, near several FMR habitat restoration and Vermillion Stewards volunteer sites. 

"Lonesome Whistle" inspired a surprising diversity of prose and poetry for the summer 2017 edition of Write to the River. Read on for flash tales of near-misses, tense crossings, goddesses in sandstone cliffs, fond recollections and a prayer from the Big River itself. 

Our next photo prompt and call for creative writing submissions will be in the September issue of our e-newsletter, "Mississippi Messages."


by Jim Larson 

Rail and River, each trying
to stay out of the other's way.
A bridge is their truce.

Barges and boxcars, each harnessed
in the service of commerce,
as if that were the greatest good.

You can let go of the wheel
and boxcars will follow your plans
but, don't turn your back on a river.

Waiting On A Train

by Captain Bob Deck

Who doesn’t feel the romantic pull of a train headed for someplace new? But for many years this sight caused shivers to run down my spine. See, for towboat pilots who are pushing a heavy raft of barges downstream, the vision of a closed RR bridge is the source of nightmares.

One afternoon on the Mississippi at South St. Paul I was trying to guide four loaded grain barges around the tight bend at the foot of the airport. The river was running and the "Lois E" I was piloting was struggling to control the tow with her small horsepower-to-tonnage ratio.

To make matters trickier there's the infamous Pig's Eye Rail Road Bridge smack dab in the crook of the turn. In those days of the 1980’s, the bridge operators were often coerced by the RR to override navigational priorities and shut the bridge for a train.

Headed upstream against the current: no problem, shove into the bank below and put your feet up for a half-hour break. Trying to stop in the swirling eddies above the bridge? Better have enough horsepower to stop against the current.

Lois E did not have enough h.p. for that so as the train crawled ever so slowly across the bridge our tow slipped glacially but inexorably towards the bridge and certain disaster. Finally the train was across, but, still, it took precious minutes for it to clear the signals and the nearly 400-foot long steel girder span to swing open.

By the time I could quit backing and come ahead on the engines the boat and tow were so out of shape that I knew immediately we were going to crash. Nothing to do about it but put the propellers to backing up again. In answer to the train's lonesome whistle, I blew the boat's horns five times rapidly, which to a towboat is the danger signal.

Once again Lois E strained in full reverse to try and minimize the damage. Somehow she was able to get back into good enough shape to miss the bridge. Once we were safely tied off in an off-channel slip I allowed myself a 15-minute break to reattach a few frayed nerves.

I was lucky that day. I know about four pilots whose luck back in those days was not so good.

River poem

by Winnie Martin

Let me flow.
Let me stay peaceful and true.
Let me welcome all that want to enjoy.
Let me provide the revenue and economy to all those that need.
Let me help everyone remember why we love our land.
And help me stay true to you for generations to come.

River story

by Connie Baker

One night when we were camping on an island in the Upper Mississippi River, my husband and son were checking trotlines from the boat. Their silhouettes stood out against a huge yellow-orange moon, the glistening water beneath them. I sat beside a flickering campfire with a sleeping dog at my feet. I remember thinking how lucky I was, and that I wanted to remember that moment for the rest of my life. Now, nearly 50 years later, I remember it vividly. There have been many river experiences since then. However, the sight, sounds, and smells of that huge moon framing my family provided an indelible painting for me better than any I have hanging on the walls.

Confluence of Minnehaha Creek and the Mississippi River

by Judie Erickson

The goddess, Hekate keeps watch 
Where the lovely Laughing Water
Meets the arms of the Great Mother River
This greeting is eternal
This greeting is always now.
Yet, for a blink of an eye
The waters belong to neither
The waters belong to Hekate

A high sandstone cliff
Primeval as ancient seas
Rises over this place.
If you look you may see her black dogs
Standing guard above.

The cliff wall is marked with initials of a thousand passersby.
The dark haired girl who carved
Deeply, emphatically the image of a face;
Her desire to be remembered
Etched into the soft fawn colored stone
And the wild one with fair skin
Painted crimson hearts that then bled
Like tears down the porous front.
Each image fading as grains of sand continually erode.

In summer this creek bank is hidden
By bountiful foliage that emerges on tree tops
To capture spring sunbeams.
Then flutters and frolics in the four winds,
Making moving mosaics of dappled light
On ground textured by last year’s leaves.

Who rules the invisible edge between shadow and sunshine
Between the colors of the landscape that change
Each minute, each day, each season?

I, too, long for permanence,
Wanting to write my name in indelible ink.
While life is as fleeting as the flower,
As a dewdrop, as the crimson stains on the ancient wall,
As the Warbler’s sweet love songs

And I hunger for wildness
Wanting to ride free on the currents, the breezes,
Caught by; betwixt and between
The yearning for permanence and the lust for freedom.

Tom Reiter