Between Memphis and Vicksburg, the Mississippi snakes fiercely, doubling back on itself for 300 miles of tight river bends that pilots call "the wiggles." Day and night, the banks play tricks on the eye: looming out of nowhere, promising disaster, then rearranging themselves at the last second to allow a safe passage.
A 52-year veteran of these bluffs, Capt. Robert Byrd steers the towboat Patricia Gail and her 70,000-ton load of grain, coal, soy, slag, and lime through their narrows without evident dismay. But for a novice pilot, this passage is a nail-biting example of how dangerous and artful river work is, even in an age of high-tech navigational aids.
Keith Trout, a bright-eyed 30-something who today begins a month-long apprenticeship with Captain Byrd, is such a pilot. "This ain't fair, man," Mr. Trout says admiringly as Byrd swings the boat around a bend. "I work my tail off right here. You make it look too easy."
Barge accidents don't happen today nearly as often as they did when Mark Twain piloted these waters 150 years ago, or even as frequently as they did in Byrd's early career. But the challenges of driving a river tow - especially on the powerful lower Mississippi - are still considerable. Though the US Coast Guard reports improvement in riverboat safety over the past 10 years, nearly 200 severe accidents occur annually on US waterways, including sinkings, groundings, crashes, explosions, and fires. On average, 16 people die each year working the rivers.
"And you don't never want your men to be one of them," says Trout. "Whatever it takes."
At 5 o'clock this morning, the Patricia Gail's kitchen was the brightest spot on a sleepy river: griddle hot, oatmeal ready, and a slab of bologna frying. By lunchtime, new faces ring its family-style table, enjoying the coming-aboard spread left by outgoing cook Ken Floyd: roast beef, red beans, potato salad, collard greens, stewed tomatoes, corn, and three kinds of biscuits.
New crew members joke and feast, trading news of mutual friends. Nearly all worked recent shifts down South in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The storms that cost many Gulf Coast residents their homes and livelihoods were felt along the river, too: the Port of New Orleans closed for a fortnight, losing an estimated $11 million in revenues. Winds and flooding kicked hundreds of barges and their cargoes onto riverbanks.
But even such sobering news can't quell the playful mood in the Patricia Gail's kitchen today. Engineer Eddie Owen tells of a factory that had a load of sugar ready to be shipped when Katrina hit. Its owners returned, he says, to find four feet of molasses. "They probably put that on a barge and sent it upriver," jokes watchman Kevin Harrington.
Mr. Owen cocks an eyebrow. "They probably put it back in Lake Pontchartrain, the way they put everything else," he says.
When the meal breaks up, some crew members make their way upstairs to sleep before the evening watch. Others head off to relieve their crewmates: Owen to the engine room, Mr. Harrington out to the tow. There, he and a partner will spend the next six hours checking the steel cables that hold the boat's 35 barges together in a raft bigger than an aircraft carrier. They will listen closely, deckhand Mike Evans explains: Just before the 40-pound wires snap, they make a sound like bacon frying.
Everyone is fresh-faced the first day of a new shift, but none more so than Trout. The young pilot, captain of a smaller Mississippi towboat, will spend this trip at the elbow of Byrd, whose five decades on the river make him one of the most experienced pilots on the Mississippi.
Though Trout has driven lighter craft on this stretch of river, he aspires to captain a big boat like the Patricia Gail.
That dream has cost him much, including his marriage. Four years ago his wife divorced him, saying his work kept him away from home too much. In essence, he says, she asked him to choose, and he chose the river.
"She was a pretty girl, don't get me wrong," he says. "But this is my life, here."
After an afternoon spent napping and unpacking, Trout follows Byrd to the pilothouse, where they will drive the boat until midnight. Trout, it turns out, is a talker. Born in southern Illinois, he started out delivering express packages after high school. But the job wasn't for him. "I just don't feel comfortable on land, 'less I'm hunting or fishing," he says.
An avid small-game hunter, he has inherited more than one beloved family recipe for squirrel gravy. Between shifts on the river, Trout leads turkey hunting trips. He can imitate a turkey call with remarkable accuracy; once, he inadvertently fooled his employer, an incident that left 18 BBs embedded in his hand, arm, and neck.
As the boat slips over the dark water, Trout points out the features of the nighttime riverscape: the red left-hand buoys, called "nuns" for their pointy tops, and the "cans," or flat-topped, green right-handers. Before these buoys were set and channels dug in the 1960s, Byrd adds, the Mississippi was a different river - a lot more barges ran aground.
This is Byrd's final year on the river; he has promised his wife of 43 years so. Actually, he confides, she wants him to retire now, but he's not ready to leave the river. The couple plans to spend their retirement touring national parks in a new camper. "Forty-three years," Trout marvels. "Now she knows what river life is about."
As the Patricia Gail approaches a corner called Point Lookout, Trout's eyes widen. The boat and its cumbersome tow are now less than 60 feet from the right bank and the same distance from shallows to the left. "See, we're taking it right in on the bank," Trout says. "Now here, where I might back up..." he trails off suggestively.
Byrd shuts off the engines and lets the 10-m.p.h. current carry the boat - seemingly, to the untrained eye, directly into a bluff. "He'll steer this here on experience," Trout continues uncertainly. In moments, the solid bank has melted away, and the boat glides into the next stretch of the channel. "See, you let Mother Nature help you all you can," Trout says, recovered. "You don't want to fight her, do you, Robert?"
"It's a hard fight," the captain says, smiling. He throttles up again, pulling the head of the tow around to shoot across a dark stretch of river where all the buoys are missing.
He speeds the boat up to 10 m.p.h., approaching her maximum speed of 12 m.p.h. Heading downstream like this, it would take three-quarters of a mile to bring the load to a halt. Across the river, towboats heading upstream pull over in acknowledgment of how quickly a tow pushed by the current can get out of control.
"I spent over an hour here," Trout whispers. "That be me, my hands would be sweating. Him, he just knows, and what he knows, he goes."
They drive in silence for awhile, until the red and green buoys reappear. "We made it," says Byrd.
"We made it," agrees Trout - and, for once, he has nothing to add.