Tow Watchers Make New Friends
by Pamela Eyden

Like a lot of hobbies, towboat watching has a way of expanding to fill the time available. What begins as a simple curiosity about the big boats that churn by carrying who-knows-what and going who-knows-where, often becomes a serious and engaging pursuit. Towboat watchers end up learning a lot about the river.

Take Larry and Carol Bay, for instance. After traveling up and down the Mississippi from the headwaters to the Gulf, they chose Bellevue, Iowa, as their post-retirement home. No railroad separates them from the river. They can sit on their second floor balcony, watch the moon rise over the water and keep an eye on towboats locking through Lock 12.

“I especially enjoy it in the summer when the shadflies are out, covering everything. They turn the street lights out in town, and they turn off all the lights on the lock. The towboats have to come in by flashlight! It’s so eerie to watch them floating along in the dark.”

What’s so interesting about towboat watching?

“I enjoy watching the different kinds of boats,” Carol said. “Some are sleek, some are not so sleek, and then there are the retractable ones, which are adorable. I like to see what they’re carrying, and I like seeing how skillfully they go in and out of that lock.”

The outdraft at Lock 12 makes it tricky business sometimes. “Pilots often have trouble here, even with helper boats. They can be going straight in, all lined up, and then suddenly the head of the tow heads for Illinois,” Larry said.

Some mishaps have tied up tow traffic at the lock for quite a while. Carol bought a scanner to listen to towboat pilots on the river nearby.
“We get to know them from their talk. It’s silly sometimes and sort of redneck sometimes, but always interesting.”

Listening to the scanner late one night, Carol heard that a deckhand had a famly emergency and needed to get to Dubuque and catch a bus home, but there’s no transportation at night from Bellevue. The Bays called and volunteered to drive him the 25 miles to Dubuque. In doing that they made a few new friends on the river. New friends make towboat watching even more interesting.

Like many people who use The Little Tow-Watcher’s Guide to track the big boats, the Bays have a lot of other interests on the river. They have trekked through the mud to check out the dredging on Green Island, the spoils of which were used to build up a levee damaged in the flood. They’ve dashed down to Sabula to see tows that ran aground there.

They also like history, birdwatching, hiking and picnicking. They sometimes combine all their interests in the same outing. Carol downloads a list of the towboats in the pool, they pack the scanner and a picnic lunch, and take off.

Pamela Eyden is the author of The Little Tow-Watcher’s Guide, which is in its fourth edition.