Each fall and spring since 1996 we’ve loaded students aboard one of the Padelford Packet boats at Harriet Island. Their mission is to learn about how they are connected to this amazing body of water. The joint project between the Padelford Company, the DNR, and the Science Museum of Minnesota is called the Big River Journey. Six times a day we squeeze fifteen to twenty fifth and sixth graders into the wheelhouse to talk about the school subjects that help a person become a riverboat pilot. Anyone who thinks smaller classroom size has no impact on the quality of education can come spend a day of Big River Journey with me.
A grizzled old towboat mate of twenty-six named Steamboat Bill explained the dangers of working in high water to me in very simple, very direct terms. “Rule number-one is: Don’t fall in! If you fall in, you’re dead. It’s that simple. The current will drag you under and you’ll drown!” He told me this from the deck of a barge moored in South Saint Paul in the spring of 1975, when the Mississippi River was rising fast. Years later I watched as another young deckhand learned this lesson.