Authors: William Least Heat-Moon
Tags: #Essays & Travelogues, #Nonfiction, #Retail, #Travel
Copyright © 1999 by William Least Heat-Moon
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
Heat-Moon, William Least.
River-Horse : the logbook of a boat across America /
William Least Heat-Moon.
“A Peter Davison book.”
1. United States—Description and travel. 2. Heat-Moon, William Least—Journeys—United States. 3. Inland navigation—United States. 4. Boats and boating—United States. 5. Dories (Boats)—United States. I. Title.
Text maps by Ray Sterner and Stephen M. Archer.
A landform atlas of the United States is available at
Title page lettering and endpaper map by Ed Richardson.
Endpaper drawing and painting on page
of Nikawa by Rod Guthrie.
My Lotic Mates
Without a copilot, there would have been no voyage, and so this book is for Pilotis who was these seven: Motier Duquince Davis, Robert McClure Lindholm, Linda Jane Barton, Jack David LaZebnik, Peter King Lourie, Robert Scott Buchanan, Steven Edward Ratiner.
If you want the specifications: she was made of fiberglass laminate over an end-grain balsa core two inches thick, with a flat hull aft a V-shaped bow; just under twenty-two feet long and about eight in beam, approximately seventeen hundred pounds empty, with an eight-inch minimum draft and about thirty inches when motored and loaded; called a C-Dory and built near Seattle in January 1995. The boat readily fit onto a small trailer.
She had only essentials: a compass, a depth finder, paired tachometers, and gauges for each of the two fifty-eight-gallon tanks that fueled the twin forty-five-horsepower, four-stroke Honda engines (efficient and environmentally advanced). The single window-wiper worked by hand-crank. Our radio was an Apelco marine-band pocket model. To save weight and increase range, we did not fill the freshwater reservoir, and to avoid head duty and have another reason to stop in river towns when we came across them, we left behind the chemical toilet.
Forward in the cuddy was a cramped V-berth, and in the pilothouse (headroom, six feet two inches) we could make a second, if narrow, bunk by lowering the small navigation table. Aft the pilothouse was an open cockpit or welldeck covered with a blowsy canopy, a nice place for sitting, sipping, and watching when we moored.
The hull, with molded lapstrakes to throw off spray, derived from the classic American dory perfected in the eighteenth century to carry fishermen into the rough coastal waters of the northeast Atlantic. Our C-Dory was not fast, but she was stable, sturdy, maneuverable, re-sponsive, and yare. The fusion of her fiberglass upper and lower parts in effect made the boat a single unit. (Atop the pilothouse we carried a nine-foot, one-person Keowee kayak for places even the flat-hulled dory couldn’t enter. For the shallowest rivers, we had a square-stern, seventeen-foot aluminum Grumman canoe and a tiny four-horsepower Evinrude motor which, when off the water, traveled with the trailer.
If you imagine a Maine lobster boat crossed with a turn-of-the-century harbor tug, you have our C-Dory, Nikawa, a name I coined from the Osage words ni, river, and kawa, horse, and pronounced Nee-
-wah. Indeed, she was a tough but sweet little river horse.
On the forward bulkhead, near the helm, I attached a wooden plaque, a proverb from the Quakers:
PROCEED AS THE WAY OPENS
. Aft, above the door to the welldeck and motors, I put up another, this one from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the advice Marlow receives before ascending the Congo River:
. I have spent my life trying to practice such simplicities, and when I fail, paying the costs; in April of 1995, we, my copilot and I, set out to test those admonitions in a venture of some moment and considerable chance.
The bulk of the water in New York Harbor is oily, dirty, and germy. Men on the mud suckers, the big harbor dredges, like to say that you could bottle it and sell it for poison. The bottom of the harbor is dirtier than the water. In most places, it is covered with a blanket of sludge that is composed of silt, sewage, industrial wastes, and clotted oil. The sludge is thickest in the slips along the Hudson, in the flats on the Jersey side of the Upper Bay, and in backwaters such as Newtown Creek, Wallabout Bay, and the Gowanus Canal. In such areas, where it isn’t exposed to the full sweep of the tides, it accumulates rapidly. In Wallabout Bay, a nook in the East River that is part of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, it accumulates at the rate of a foot and a half a year. The sludge rots in warm weather and from it gas-filled bubbles as big as basketballs continually surge to the surface. Dredgemen call them “sludge bubbles.” Occasionally, a bubble upsurges so furiously that it brings a mass of sludge along with it. In midsummer, here and there in the harbor, the rising and breaking of sludge bubbles makes the water seethe and spit. People sometimes stand on the coal and lumber quays that line the Gowanus Canal and stare at the black, bubbly water.
The Bottom of the Harbor
OR ABOUT HALF A LEAGUE
after we came out of the little harbor on Newark Bay at Elizabeth, New Jersey—with its strewn alleys and broken buildings, its pervading aura of collapse, where the mayor himself had met us at the dock and stood before a podium his staff fetched up for him to set his speech on, words to launch us on that Earth Day across the continent as he reminded us of history here, of George Washington on nearly the same date being rowed across to New York City on the last leg of his inaugural journey—and for the half league down the Kill Van Kull (there Henry Hudson lost a sailor to an arrow through the neck), we had to lay in behind a rusting Norwegian freighter heading out to sea with so little cargo that her massive props were no more than half in the water and slapping up a thunderous wake and thrashing such a roil it sent our little teakettle of a boat rolling fore and aft. I quickly throttled back, and the following sea picked up our stern and threatened to ride over the low transom into the welldeck. We had no bilge pump to empty it, and the cabin door stood hooked open to the bright blue April morning and the sea air of New York Bay.