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In spring, when the snow melts and rain falls heavy on the land, that water behaves like water does, and runs downhill. For rivers and streams in watersheds across the country, the Mississippi River is the ultimate downhill, creating the fifth largest river by volume in the world.
Here are some results of seasonal spring flooding on the Mississippi: wildfowl lose nests, people lose docks, fishermen lose that thing they’d rather do any day, compared to working. But for people who make their living on the Mississippi River, high waters don’t mean a vacation. They mean more work.
Take Don Dixon, of Bellevue, Iowa. He is boss, captain, and sole employee of Dixon Tug Service. His business operates out of Lock and Dam 11, 25 miles up-river at Dubuque. His office is the Merchant Vessel Lisa Nicole, a 50-feet long by 15-feet wide “pusher boat” designed to help other craft move cargo up and down the river.
For 10 years Dixon has been on call 24/7, nine months of the year, helping move cargo like grain and coal and highway salt. When the Mississippi River runs close to flood stage as it has the last few springs, he averages close to three “assists” per day.
An assist is what you call it when the captain of a tow boat pushing 15 barges ahead of it needs a little help threading his unwieldly 105-foot wide load into a 110-foot wide lock chamber. The barges are usually configured three across, and five deep, here on Upper Mississippi. That captain might need help because the water is high, or the current is strong, or the river is full of floating debris like trees, or docks, or the animal kingdom’s recent dead. Or could be he’s pushing empty barges, making the front end squirrely and hard to handle. Dixon jokingly calls these light loads “sailboat fuel.”
The Lower Mississippi River flows freely, but on the Upper there are 26 locks and dams between St. Paul and St. Louis. The depth of water just above or below each dam can vary greatly, because dams force water to pool above them. The locks make commercial navigation possible by allowing vessels to pass through varying water depths as they move up or down the river.
For much of this spring, the dam gates along much of the Upper Mississippi have been wide open, allowing water to flow unimpeded downstream, rather than backing up and pooling excessively, overflowing banks and fields. There aren’t many pleasure boats on the water in these conditions, although they are allowed to lock through if required to get where they are going. But pleasure boats don’t enlist the aid of people like Dixon because they aren’t pushing barges as the tow boats do.
Dixon explains that as a tow boat captain approaches the typical lock chamber, he looks for what is called the outdraft sign. It looks like a one-dimensional orange basketball attached to hinges. When the sign is swung in, getting an assist is up to the captain’s discretion. When it is swung out so it is visible to incoming traffic, Dixon says that 99 percent of captains will call for an assist.
The Lisa Nicole waits at the harbor for just such a moment. Dixon talks to the captain by cell phone or marine radio and discusses the river conditions and how to proceed. The captain then faces the barges up to thread the needle into the lock chamber as best as he can. Then Dixon maneuvers the Lisa Nicole up alongside the lead barge and faces her against that barge. Pushing with his boat they move together toward the lock entrance. Dixon is allowing the barges to continue forward, not swinging outward and risking collision with the lock wall.
Being on call means Dixon has to be on the spot when the boat captain is ready to lock through. In some cases, a tow boat captain will call the crew at the Lock and Dam and request an assist from a tug service waiting there. There is also a published list of area tugboat services like Dixon’s, although at Lock and Dam 11 Dixon has little to no competition. But thanks to smartphone technology, he can also be proactive.
The Army Corps and others keep track of where vessels are underway on the river at any time, and that information can be accessed through a phone app. Dixon can see which tow boats are a few hours away coming up or down river. He can see the name of the boat and most of the time, will know the captain personally, and have the phone number. He can simply pick up the phone and say something like, “The River’s near flood stage today, Captain, there are trees in the water, and the wind’s blowing. Do you need an assist?”
Much of the time, the answer is yes. Dixon says that 2016 was a high-water year in more ways than one. He made 687 assists that year, way above his average of around 450. This spring has proven itself to be just as busy, with the river cresting mere inches from flood stage in many areas along the Upper Mississippi.
For every figure way over average, there’s another one equally below average. In low water years, tow boat captains can get along pretty well and the barges will behave themselves along the navigation channel the Army Corps of Engineers maintains. But captains still call him anyway, Dixon says. “They tell me they don’t need an assist that day but they want to use me anyhow. They want to be sure I’m still here when they do need me.”
Dixon has made a living from the river one way or another since the 1980s. He spent some time as a deckhand, unloading liquid barges carrying chemicals or petroleum. Then he and a longtime friend opened their own tanker man and pilot license school, and he got his own pilot license at that time. After a series of ups and downs and layoffs, he and his friend decided to open a boat store in Bellevue, to bring orders of groceries and personal items to boat captains and deck hands.
The schedule for most river shipping crews is thirty days on/thirty off and it can be hard to obtain groceries, let alone personal items needed along the way, Dixon explains.
Eventually, Dixon left that business although the boat store still operates. Deciding what would come next, he realized from experience as a deck hand that working long stretches on the river was not for him.
“I like being in the harbor and coming home at night,” he said. Being on 24-hour call does wear on him, however. It makes it hard to sleep, even for a few weeks after the 240-day season ends each fall. It keeps him from staying as fit as he’d like. It means he’s missed some of his daughter’s school events. It often means going to bed at 9 p.m. and setting his alarm for 2 a.m. because he’s arranged to assist a boat in the wee hours of the starlit darkness of the Upper Mississippi River.
At age 54, Dixon has many more years to make his living off the river. One loaded barge can carry the equivalent of 40 to 45 railcars, he said, or 60 semi-trucks. As long as there is a big river and a functioning Lock and Dam system for shipping, captains will need a little help from people like Don Dixon.
Dixon says when he’s not working, he has no interest in getting out on the Mississippi, or any other body of water, for pleasure.
“Nope,” he said. “I’d rather ride my motorcycle.”
Julianne Couch is the author of The Small Town Midwest: Resilience and Hope in the Twenty-First Century.