September 14, 2019
Dear Family & Friends:
September 12 was a melancholy day on the River as I traveled from my tent camp just South of Hamburg, Illinois to an RV trailer park in Golden Eagle, Missouri. What put me in a funk was the devastation caused by the recent flooding of the River and the decline in so many of the beautiful and historic River cities.
The flood damage is major and historic. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of homes and businesses have been wiped out by the flooding. As one resident told me “the River always wins.” So many of the cities and villages I passed are like ghost towns. On September 11, I camped in the shadow of a row of homes along the River, just below Hamburg, Illinois. There was no sign of life along the riverfront. Every home was abandoned. I wondered about better times for these families when they fished, swam, boated, water-skied, bbq’d, laughed and enjoyed the good life on the River.
On September 12, I paddled 30-miles to Golden Eagle, Missouri and stealth camped in an RV trailer park. One resident of the trailer park reported me to the owner: “I think a bunch of kids are tent camping in our Park and need to be removed!” The next morning, the owner of the Park checked on me and could not have been nicer. I told him I was glad to be described as a “kid.” Well, I guess that’s a moniker I should embrace.
I was also saddened by the economic decline in so many of these River cities, which has forced the closing of many businesses. Those who have accumulated wealth can afford to live in the beautiful homes that populate the River. Many of the rest of the residents can’t afford to own homes or educate their children in the nation’s colleges and universities. So, the children either flee to the big cities or are trapped in these River cities. Many of these cities have lost their entire middle class.My mood was not boosted by the weather. The temps on the River exceeded 103 degrees, with very high humidity. At one point, I was so dehydrated I pulled up to a towboat parked along the River bank and begged for a bottle of water.
On September 13, after just 14 miles of paddling, I pulled into Grafton, Illinois, which sits at the confluence of the Mississippi River and the Illinois River. What a great city, which stands as a testament to human determination and resiliency.
Grafton is an historic River town, which was once packed with manufacturing companies, quarries, loading docks and riverboat traffic. It also featured a button factory and boat building company. The flood of 1993 devastated the town, reaching a record of 38 feet.* But, the residents immediately rebuilt. The town was devastated again in the floods of March-July, 2019. The River crested at 36 feet, but stayed high much longer than the great flood of 1993. For months, all roads into Grafton were closed because the entire business district was under water. Once again, the residents mobilized and rebuilt their town in record time.
Grafton is now a beautiful, bustling and busy resort town. It features lots of restaurants, bars, shops, hotels, water parks, an indoor ice rink on the bank of the River and several wineries. A sky gondola is being built which will take visitors up the steep hill to Aerie’s Resort, which overlooks the River and has a first class hotel, a fantastic restaurant, a winery and even a zip line that runs down the mountain under a canopy of forest trees. As the town transitioned from manufacturing to resort services, the population decreased from over 10,000 residents to 650. But the economy is booming.
When I pulled into the Grafton Marina, Jan served me a peach, wine frosty drink and she and her colleagues went to work finding me a place to stay for the night. After lots of calls, they booked me into Aerie’s Resort for one night. I was hoping to take a zero day on September 14, but all hotels were booked for the weekend. In the evening, a hotel van took me down the hill and I visited the Grafton Winery & Brewhaus, which is famous for its award winning wines.
In the morning, I packed my gear and went for breakfast in the hotel restaurant. At breakfast, I met Jeff and Sandy Lorton. They own Aerie’s Resort. What a fantastic couple! They have been married 46 years and have four children and 14 grandchildren, just like Sharon and I. Jeff and I took turns bragging about our children and grandchildren. His son was the quarterback for the high school football team when they won back-to-back state championships. I topped that with stories about my grandsons’ multiple football championships. Then, as icing on my cake, and to remove all doubt, I recounted Simon Jr.’s National Championship in Varsity 8 Crew.
Jeff and Sandy offered me a room in their home in Grafton. Then, Sandy was able to locate a fabulous cabin at the Resort. So, I was able to take that zero day. I revisited the marina to check on my canoe and had lunch at the Loading Dock restaurant right on the River. The Loading Dock was once a boat building company. At the height of its production, it built military vessels and shipped them to Vietnam during the War.
One of the highlights of the day was a wedding at the Resort. I offered to serve as a ring bearer, but, sadly, the position was filled. If I had brought my ukulele, I am sure I would have scored an invitation. Darn!
At dinner, I met the Bosler Family. They were enjoying a girls’ family weekend. One of the Moms, Nina, lost her son, Brandon, 18 months ago. Young Sarah is a special education teacher. So, we all had a lot in common.
I truly admire the resiliency of the people of Grafton and the vision of folks like Jeff and Sandy who have made this a great tourist destination. Be sure to put a trip to this town on your to-do list.
Sharon, we need to move to Grafton. Does Illinois have an income tax? Probably. But, it can’t be as high as the California income tax.
Needless to say, the visit to Grafton has significantly boosted my spirits.
*When the water receded after the 1993 flood, they discovered a bull shark in the wave pool at the Grafton water park! So, now I need to watch out for snakes, sharks, gaters and snapping turtles.