Stories from the Mississippi

  • Captain Robert Vavra
    Captain Robert Vavra guides a tour on the Mississippi River near McGregger, Iowa. "I bring people out to experience the river, to honor the wisdom of those who came before me, with the belief it will help us do a better job to take care of the river," he says.

    Mississippi River Touches Many Lives

    The Mississippi River touches a variety of land and people within the borders of the United States. Like a thread woven through an elaborate tapestry, the river connects people and places that otherwise might have little in common.

    The river is the one constant.

    From environmentalists to commercial fisherman, to tugboat captains, to families on vacation, the water of the Mississippi River touches them all in its special way.

    During my travels over the last two months, I have discovered there are two types of people - those who love the Mississippi and those who are afraid of it. I've talked with people who have spent their entire lives next to the river and have never been on or in it.

    Those who love it are often referred to as river rats, a term of endearment generally declared by someone smiling from ear to ear.

    Those who love the river are always eager to share why.

    "It's always been my dream to make a living on the river," explained Captain Robert Vavra of Maiden Voyage Tours in Harpers Ferry, Iowa. Vavra grew up on the river camping on sandbars as a boy, fishing and hunting.

    "The river to me is a spiritual place. It has always been a part of me," Varva said.

    Long before Vavra was guiding a boat on the Mississippi River, he was diving to its bottom.

    For seven years he made his living harvesting freshwater clams, a profession known as clamming. Diving to depths of 12-15 feet, Vavra would spend 5-7 hours feeling his way across the river bottom looking for the prized freshwater mussels.

    Going into the river, he would wear a light attached to his head.

    "I would spend hours in water so cloudy that I could barely see my hands that were inches in front of my face," Varva said. "We had a lot of fun, even though it was a rough and rowdy job."

    The prize Vavra was looking for was a freshwater natural pearl. Before pearls were cultured, they were harvested from the wild.

    Just by feeling the shell, Vavra could tell which species of mussel he had in his hands.

    fresh water mussel
    Robert Sullivan holds a fresh water mussel picked up from the bottom of the Mississippi River.

    "This is a three-ridged mussel," Vavra said as he rubbed his hand across the top of the shell.

    North America has the highest diversity of freshwater mussels in the world. Historically, the Midwest had some of the highest numbers of mussel species.

    Currently, however, in the Midwest more than half of the 78 known species are classified as federally endangered, threatened or state species of special concern.

    No other group of animals in the Midwest is so gravely imperiled. To put this in perspective, The Nature Conservancy reports that about 70 percent of mussels in North America are extinct or imperiled, compared to 16 percent of mammalian species and 14 percent of bird species.

    The heyday of freshwater mussels was in the early 1900s around Muscatine, Iowa. As early as 1908, and continuing into the 1920s, the clamming industry averaged between 40,000 and 60,000 tons of shell annually at a value of $800,000 to over $1 million.

    John Boepple, a clever German, figured out in 1893 that the shells were perfect for creating buttons. Boepple devised a way to drill holes in the shells with a hollow bit to produce beautiful buttons. This spawned an industry and wealth in Muscatine that still can be seen today. At one time, 153 companies were making buttons.

    The prized buttons brought a demand that nature could not sustain.

    hand full of pearl buttons
    A hand full of pearl buttons made from the shells of fresh water mussels at the museum in Muscatine, Iowa.

    In 1967, the last button was drilled from a freshwater mussel. The three remaining button factories in Muscatine now make buttons from plastic.

    Whatever was left after the harvesting of freshwater mussels, the invasion of the zebra mussel was taking care of the rest. The invasive species smothers and kills native mussels, covering them so completely that they cannot feed. Zebra mussels have spread up the Mississippi River Valley and are a major reason many of the native mussels are about to disappear forever.

    "We now have generations who have lost this relationship with the river," reflected Varva. "The wisdom and information passed down from generation to generation has stopped because there's a disconnect from the young and the old."

    Vavra concluded, "That's why I bring people out to experience the river. It's to honor the wisdom of those who came before me, with the belief it will help us do a better job to take care of the river."

    sculpture of clammer
    A bronze sculpture of a clammer sits along the bank of the Mississippi River in Muscatine, Iowa. In the early 1900s, Muscatine was the heart of the clamming industry. Freshwater mussel shells were used to make pearl buttons.

    Tim Mason
    Tim Mason of McGregor, Iowa, drives his house boat up the Mississippi River to spend the weekend with his family on the river.

    Fremont Tribune

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