by Wes Modes
Twelve years ago, I constructed my first homemade watercraft – a large raft made of truck tubes and old plywood – and launched it on the longest, fastest river on the continent, the Missouri River. I was equipped with little more than canoe paddles, life vests, a little camping gear, and a copy of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
Despite my ignorance, a janky boat, and hazardous waters we survived. Over the next few years, I invited friends and launched whole punk raft flotillas on the Sacramento and Willamette Rivers.
I envisioned a watercraft that was more substantial than our homemade rafts. I was reading a lot of historical accounts of shantyboaters on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. I pictured weeks and months floating on the river, living on the boat, talking to people in river communities and recording their stories for posterity.
My name is Wes Modes, and I’m a California sculptor and social practice artist. I also teach art and technology at SF Bay Area universities. I was looking for an artistic practice that combined my love of building things, talking to people, and adventure.
This is my project, A Secret History of American River People, a series of epic journeys in a homemade shantyboat on major American rivers to collect the stories of people living in endangered river communities.
In 2012, I began building the Secret History shantyboat, a recreated traditional wooden-hulled barge-bottom houseboat. I built a plywood hull over a simple frame and finished it with fiberglass. The cabin and all the above-deck framing was made of rustic reclaimed materials, including a hundred-year-old chicken coop. The boat came together, working nights and weekends with friends, over two years.
With the Secret History project, I spend my summers on the river doing fieldwork on the boat; then in the winter months, I return home to the mountains of coastal California to teach and to work on the Secret History archive and book projects.
In the summer of 2014 I hauled the shantyboat halfway across the country to the Mississippi River. Friends asked worriedly whether I was going to test the boat before launch, and I said, “Yes! Of course! If I have time.” I was working on the boat the day before we left. I didn’t have time. So I was going to launch my untested boat into the largest river in the country. Spoiler alert: It didn’t sink.
That summer and the next I spent on the Mississippi, a total of four months aboard the shantyboat, recording over 50 oral history interviews from residents, barkeeps, historians, scientists, researchers, artists, people living in boathouses, and people camping under bridges in small and large communities along the river. I traveled from the head of navigation in Minneapolis, through 20 locks and four states, talking to hundreds of people about the river.
Each year, I try to explore different parts of the country. The next year, I took the shantyboat on the Tennessee River. It was a summer-long research voyage that started in Knoxville, Tenn., traveling 658 river miles through northern Alabama and Mississippi, ending in Paducah, Ken., where the Tennessee meets the Ohio River.
This year, I brought the project home to California to run the historic Sacramento River, a river I am deeply familiar with after three homemade rafting trips on the river. People who knew the river told me that after last winter’s floods, the river was more changed and more treacherous than they’d seen in 30 years.
From the moment I arrived in Red Bluff at the top of the navigable portion of the river, people were saying that there is “no way” I was going to get through. There’re snags everywhere and gravel beds that spans the whole river.” Be on the lookout for my next post to find out how I fared.
For more info about the project, visit http://peoplesriverhistory.us/.