Raftsmen Playing Cards


George Caleb Bingham achieved great success with his idealized scenes of river life in Missouri.  Raftsmen Playing Cards depicts a quiet moment among six raftsmen aboard a simple flatboat.  While most of the men are preoccupied with the early morning card game, one man gently moves the boat along the calm, mirrored surface of the water, while another seems lost in thought.  Bingham aspired to paint everyday life in America, yet this romantic view of man in harmony with nature relies on a look back to earlier days, before steamboats dominated the waters.

— From the Saint Louis Art Museum, painted in 1847, as an oil on canvas

I was speaking with a friend at work today and he was telling me about some of his kayak trips with the Saint Louis Canoe and Kayak club.  Here is a link to their Yahoo group.  Anne and I have done quite a bit of canoeing in Missouri and some kayaking in Michigan.  In Michigan we do lake kayaking on Lake Superior and Missouri we do river and streams canoeing, on both secondary rivers and seasonal streams.  My co-worker described kayaking on the big rivers, the Missouri, Mississippi and Illinois.  He and his club, in groups of twenty kayaks, would do trips of fifteen to thirty miles down these rivers. 

This seems dangerous to me.  I’ve spent many an hour cycling along the banks of these rivers and have been out on the water a few times too, but never in so small a craft as a kayak.  There is commercial barge traffic on all of there rivers.  Today’s header shows a sample tug, that I took in early January, near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi.  A tug will typically push nine or more barges.  You do not want to be anywhere near one of these tugs, in a kayak.  I much prefer the relative safety of the M/V Mississippi:

The M/V Mississippi  is a Corps of Engineers towboat operating on the Mississippi River.  It is the largest towboat on the river.  The M/V Mississippi is a working towboat for the Corps’ Memphis District.  Ninety percent of the time it is moving barges, equipment and supplies in support of mat sinking operations.  It also serves as an inspection boat for the Mississippi River Commission during a high- and low-water inspection trip each year.  Commissioners hold meetings at river towns in the boat’s hearing room, which can seat 115 people.  Its dining room has a capacity of 85 people.  The boat has 22 staterooms and can handle 150 passengers.  The Corps also uses it as a “giant floating ambassador”

When Anne use to work at the Corps of Engineers, we had the opportunity to ride the Mississippi twice.  The first time, we cruised; we stayed overnight, in one of the staterooms.  The second time we cruised we just took a day trip.  The Corps would offer this perk to its employees, contractors and families as a way to show them what the  job was all about.  They did charge a fee.

When we first did this trip we did the overnight cruise.  Friday evening we launched from the COE dock, down near the brewery.  The boat headed south through the evening.  We had a splendid dinner, one that could rival any Caribbean cruise.  After a time, we turned around and headed back north.  The river seemed peaceful  at night.  We docked after we went to bed, back where we started.  Saturday morning, we picked up the day trippers.  On our second boat trip we were one of these people.  We headed north, past the Arch and through the Melvin Price lock.  The first step of many up the Corps stairway to Minneapolis.  We docked at Grafton, north of the Alton pool and were bused back to the cars.

The M/V Mississippi offered modern life on the Mississippi, with all of the modern conveniences.  My co-worker and his kayaking friends seem to be trying to re-capture the idealized times of the Raftsmen Playing Cards.  On a perfect summer afternoon, they might succeed.

2 thoughts on “Raftsmen Playing Cards

  1. I agree that kayaks do not mix well with big boats but the thing about kayaks is that they can easily go where tugs cannot. In literally inches of water. Not having a working knowledge of the geography of an average stretch of the Mississippi, not sure how this would work. But aren’t there shallows along the sides of the river?

  2. I imagine that it would be like kayaking, within a hundred yards of the shipping channels, on the lake. You could do it, but why not just play on the highway instead.

    Also these boats can move a lot faster then the lake boats do. A down bound barge on the Missouri can be doing up to twenty MPH.

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