Out in the middle of the Mississippi River at St. Louis, on one of the supports of the historic Eads Bridge, there is a marker that simply indicates zero (0). This is the arbitrarily designated water level that serves as the benchmark for water stages on the St. Louis riverfront. Flood stage is 30 feet and The Great Flood of ’93 (1993) marked the highest water level since 1927, nearly 50 feet over flood stage.
Almost directly across from that pier supporting the Eads Bridge, rising from the old cobblestone levee below the national park that is home to the St. Louis Gateway Arch, the Lewis and Clark statue serves as my own, personal marker for water levels at St. Louis. “The Captains Return” by sculptor Harry Weber was dedicated in 2006, and since that time, it seems to me that at least part of that statue has always been under water. One of the captains stands with his hat in his hand, arm fully extended over his head. And, when the water is at 32 feet, the hat is not visible. At this stage it is not even possible to drive on the street that runs along the top of the levee above the statue, but from other vantage points, one can still see and marvel at the surging water that is the Mississippi River.
The Mississippi River has always held great fascination for me – no doubt set firmly in my imagination from an early age by the appearance of this legendary body of water in so much of American history and fiction. She attracts me to her in my thoughts and I often reflect on the twists of fate that have resulted in the good fortune of me living in such close proximity to her. But, my pilgrimages to take in her beauty are usually precipitated by the surges brought about by the annual flooding, when melting snows and spring rains from the north flow southward and swell her banks on their way to the Gulf of Mexico. The River is an attraction all her own. But with the Arch and the statue and the bridges and casinos and other amusements and businesses and historic sites that accompany her as she makes her way past St. Louis, this major body of water can be easily overshadowed by all that is there simply because she is. She is great, and so is everything built around her, so that everything seems to be competing for attention. Only when she swells and subsides, when she is changing, threatening, does she command our full respect. Then, we have to admit that what we have here is not a tourist attraction but a force of nature, our close brush with an element of life on our planet that we can neither live without nor control.
This summer, I have watched her at her lowest ebb. The great drought that parched corn and soybean fields all over the Midwest, that fueled fires, dried up gardens, and brought barge traffic on the water to a halt has kept the Mississippi River at record lows, down to -2 feet. Accustomed as I am to seeing the River so much higher, it was quite a new experience to make regular visits this summer to the levee to experience the water at these historic low stages and to find her no less mighty, no less enchanting for her diminished flow. Walking the 30 or so feet from the base of the Lewis and Clark statue to the foot of the cobblestone paved banks at the water’s edge, standing there and seeing the silt of the riverbed that I do not recall ever seeing at this point, I had to fight away the nightmarish daydream of a sudden surge that would restore the River to what I would consider a normal stage and sweep me along in one swift, dreadful undercurrent.
But, nothing like that happened. Even at 20 or 25 feet, it is easy to snap a photo of the Lewis & Clark statue and fully comprehend that water stage. But, this summer I discovered that it is virtually impossible to capture in a single frame a picture of this low-water event that so easily illustrates the water level. It is not nearly as dramatic in a photograph to see a statue on a levee with a river running alongside as it is to see only parts of a statue visible above a swelled river.
The drought has been long and the water level low, but, thanks to another force of nature – Hurricane Isaac – it’s raining again; and, as it is with the cycle of natural things, before long the River will again rise up to the feet of the captains and eventually overtop the hat held permanently in place over their heads. And, as important as it is to me now, after awhile, I will not be among the enchanted souls making the pilgrimage to her shores, but others will come, and others will go. She will ebb and flow. Droughts will come and then it will be raining again.