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“The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book … it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.” Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi
The Mississippi River runs through ten states and has brought life to countless generations, from the first Native Americans, through to the settlers, and into the modern, industrial age. There are great cities along the river, as well as remote wilderness, and a huge variation in landscape, ecology, and culture along the way.
In this interview, Dean Klinkenberg shares his passion for the Mississippi River Valley and gives his tips on where to go, what to see, and why the river continues to be a source of endless fascination and inspiration.
Dean Klinkenberg writes mysteries and travel-guide books about life along the Mississippi River in the USA.
- Geography along the path of the Mississippi River
- The changeable nature of rivers
- Different spiritual meanings of the river
- Cities and towns of interest along the Mississippi south to New Orleans
- Areas of historical interest
- Options for activities like hiking, canoeing, and kayaking on the river
- Local specialties for food and drink
- Recommended books about Mississippi
You can find Dean Klinkenberg at MississippiValleyTraveler.com
Transcript of the interview
Joanna: Dean Klinkenberg writes mysteries and travel-guide books about life along the Mississippi river in the USA. Welcome, Dean.
Dean: Thanks, it’s a real treat to be here and to talk to you about my favorite body of water.
Joanna: I’m very excited. Obviously, to any new listeners, I’m British so I’m going to ask some basic questions. So let’s start with the geography.
Where is the Mississippi and what are some of the landscapes it cuts through?
Dean: The Mississippi runs right through the heart of the United States, cutting a north to south path, from Minnesota down to the Gulf of Mexico. So it touches 10 of the U.S. states in about 2,300 miles. States like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, my home state of Missouri, and then ending just about 100 miles south of New Orleans, at the Gulf of Mexico.
It cuts through some really diverse parts of the U.S. and some diverse landscapes. And it’s an amazingly different river, as you travel from north to south.
Up in the northern reaches of the Mississippi, it’s really a small stream, and there are a lot of places in the 400 miles or so above the Twin Cities, of Minneapolis and St. Paul, where the river has been damned a little bit or there’s some obstacles, or even a couple of places you have to dodge a beaver dam if you’re canoeing or paddling down the river.
And then, it gradually gets bigger. By the time it gets to Minneapolis, it reaches the largest set of waterfalls. They’ve been greatly altered today but, at one time, they were a pretty impressive set of waterfalls. And then, the river passes through a narrow gorge for a few miles before opening up into a valley that’s about 5-miles-wide that was carved by melting glaciers a few thousand years ago.
It’s framed by these absolutely gorgeous 500-foot-tall limestone bluffs that run for hundreds of miles south of the Twin Cities, all the way down to St. Louis. Although the further south you go, they lose some elevation.
And then, 100 miles or so south of St. Louis, the bluffs end and the river enters the wide Mississippi delta, as people know it, or what scientists call the Mississippi Embayment. Just a very very wide floodplain that’s up to 100-miles-wide that at one time was covered in swamps and forests and now has been converted mostly to agriculture.
And then, from there, the river continues to get bigger and bigger. By the time it reaches New Orleans, it’s something like the third or fourth largest river in terms of the amount of water it’s carrying in the world. And then, south of New Orleans, it splits into these different channels as it spreads out and slows down and enters the Gulf of Mexico.
So you’ve got swamps, you’ve got bogs, you’ve got floodplain forest, you’ve got tall bluffs. There’s all kinds of different landscapes you can experience along this great river.
Joanna: Wow. And I was just thinking about when, as a child, I first heard or learned about the Mississippi. Because my mom did move to America in the 90s, she moved to Oregon and then to San Diego.
I remember learning about the Mississippi and we all learned the spelling, you know, that M I double S, I double S, I double P, I, little rhyme. Is that something that is from America or is that something I just picked up along the way?
Dean: I remember learning to spell that way too, so I think, yeah, it’s something that’s taught. And there of course were some really catchy pop songs from the, I think, 40s and 50s where they spelled it out that way as well.
Joanna: Ah. Okay, so maybe that’s where it is. And then, the other one I was thinking is Paul Simon’s album Graceland where he sings about the Mississippi delta. And I was just thinking, as you were talking, I was like, ‘Wow,’ and you were bringing up all these images in my mind and thinking that it’s one of these rivers I think…well, river, the word doesn’t really do it justice, like you said, ‘Body of water,’ at the beginning there.
Why are you personally so fascinated with the river and what does it mean to you?
Dean: I got hooked on it around the time I began college. I went to high school in rural Southern Minnesota, surrounded by corn and soybean farms. And I decided to go to college a couple hours to the east, in La Crosse, which is on the Mississippi.
I can still remember that first trip when we drove from our home in Albert Lea, Minnesota, to tour the campus. And you’re driving for a couple of hours through all these agricultural fields and the land is pretty flat. And then, you get close to the state border and the road suddenly dips down and curves a little bit and opening.
Around one of these curves in front of you, you get this amazing view of the Mississippi river valley that opens up in front of you, these ribbons of green and blue. And it’s just so dramatically different from everything that we had just been seeing. It captured my imagination at that moment, that how greatly different that landscape was than what I was used to.
And then, when I was in college, the river just became a calming place for me. I was a little bit of a moody teenager and young adult and I’d spend a lot of my time along the river to brood and think about things and calm myself down.
I like hiking in the bluffs that were along the river, like riding my bike down to the riverfront just to sit and watch the water flow by and feel like I was part of something a little bit bigger.
So that was how I got its initial hooks in me. But, over time, I also drove a lot along the river, that feeling is pretty powerful, that calming feeling. So I took a lot of road trips along the river and I began to see a lot of communities, some of which had obviously seen better days and some were doing pretty well and it made me curious to figure out what happened.
And man, it was just a rabbit hole. From there, I just got deeper and deeper into learning about the history of the river and the communities along it. And I realized that basically it was kind of…I think you may appreciate this too, it was an inkblot test for people, like people saw whatever they wanted to see in this big river.
For some people like me, at times, it was this calming influence. And for others, they saw it as this great economic resource. For some, they saw it as a source of sustenance, you can get fish and other sources of food from it.
So, it became clear to me that part of what made this interesting is that we each want something a little bit different from it. So it’s an endless source of drama; it’s great for a writer. You can find all kinds of sources of conflict and drama there.
Joanna: That is true. And it is interesting, isn’t it, I also have an affinity with water. And when reflecting on why I love where I live now, there are two bodies of water, there’s the river Avon, but then there’s also the canal, which of course is man-made, but it’s still a moving body of water.
And there’s always different life on it, even though it’s not quite as dramatic as the Mississippi. But there’s some ducks and some cygnets, and the swans. And there’s always boats. And there are always things happening on a watercourse. I guess that’s why they say, ‘The water under the bridge,’ things are always moving. Is that part of the fascination?
Dean: Yes. And I think that’s part of it. And it’s also partly that it’s never quite the same when you go back. It doesn’t even matter the size of the river or watercourse, every time you go there’s something somewhat different. Maybe different birds there than the last time you went or maybe the water is a little bit higher or a little bit lower than it was before so now you see something you didn’t see before.
And the Mississippi is like that but on a bigger scale. I’ve been lucky enough to paddle along different parts of the river and to canoe on different parts of the river. I like going back to a lot of these same places because every time it looks somewhat different.
So I think that’s part of it. There’s that old cliche that you can never step in the same river twice, and there’s certainly some truth to that. The water is always changing. The water that you step in today isn’t the same water you stepped in yesterday. And yet, there’s this is a permanence to the river itself.
Joanna: Here as well, Bath, where I live, is built on an ancient spring and the pagans, before the time of the Romans, there was a goddess associated with the spring here. And that’s the waters that the people have lived here for thousands of years because of that.
I imagine the Mississippi is the same. In the vast history of the continent, people have lived, as you said, for sustenance by the river.
Is there a particular spirituality associated with the river or any ancient myths?
Dean: I think there are so many. Like let me just give you a couple of examples. I think part of this is that maybe we have this universal human characteristic where we’re drawn to water and the symbolism of water really resonates with us.
Along the Mississippi there are all kinds of different, let’s say, sacred sites or places where the river has certainly been imbued with great spiritual meaning. You go back thousands of years and a lot of the Native American communities built burial mounds on the tops of bluffs along the river.
There were special places where, sometimes the elites, but in some societies, anybody would transition to the upper world from the top of a bluff along the Mississippi or along the river. So there’s a long history of association in Native-American communities between rivers and connections to other worlds, to the upper world, to the lower world.
And that didn’t end when Europeans came here. A couple of the major sites in Nauvoo, Illinois, which is just a really small town on the Illinois bank of the Mississippi, the opposite side of the state from Chicago, it was a site of major importance for the Mormon community.
They’d been chased around the U.S. in about 1840, I guess, 40-41. They ended up settling in Nauvoo, Illinois. And actually, I think it was called Commerce, Illinois, at that point, and then Joseph Smith renamed it Nauvoo.
So that became the major site where Mormons from the U.S., and thousands from the UK, settled to create a new identity as a community of Latter-day Saints. And it was a rough period of time. There was a lot of conflict with the neighbors and they were eventually forced out and moved on to Salt Lake City.
Many died in the process. Joseph Smith was killed by a mob before the rest of the Mormons moved west. But before they left, they built a temple, a cathedral essentially, white marble or white stone, that is on top of the bluff overlooking the Mississippi.
And that site today is one of the Mormon pilgrimage sites. Mormons from around the country still, I think, have it as part of their…you know, what they have to do at some point to go and spend some time and pay homage to their ancestors who helped build their community. So Nauvoo is one of the sites of major importance.
And then you just get all kinds of communities that sprang up along the Mississippi, had these periods of boom and bust. And during the boom periods, many of them built magnificent churches. There’s one church, in particular, St. Luke’s, that has something like a hundred Tiffany windows decorating their church.
I think these communities became the focal point of a lot of religious communities in the days when a lot of the civilization was along the river. And then, as people spread out they took some of that with them.
But you have some magnificent churches and cathedrals along the Mississippi. And even there are a couple of places where there are Buddhist temples now. And I think that there’s still this strong sense of the river as an entity of like spiritual access or spiritual worship. So it’s really fascinating.
Joanna: I do think that is universal. For life we need water, so it makes sense. But that’s great to hear about that cathedral. I’m a bit of a sucker for churches and cathedrals and things and places of worship of any faith, but as you say, those burial mounds, they’re also places of spiritual importance. So that’s fascinating.
You mentioned a couple of towns there. What are the other towns along the Mississippi or cities?
If you’re traveling the river or you want to experience something that’s typical, where would you recommend?
Dean: We’ve got a handful of major cities that you could spend a lot of time exploring on their own. I’ll just quickly mention them. The Twin Cities of Minnesota, which are Minneapolis and St. Paul.
You’ve got a smaller metropolitan area called the Quad Cities that straddle the Iowa and Illinois borders.
Then St. Louis, Memphis, New Orleans. Those are the major metropolitan areas and they’re very different places. Minneapolis is a completely different world than New Orleans is. But they’re both incredibly rich cultural cities. All of the major cities share a few characteristics, probably one of the most important is that they have incredible music scenes that go back basically to the founding of each of these cities.
What I like to do is to try to scout out where some of the live music venues are when I go to those big cities. And apart from that, of course, they have incredible food scenes now.
In the past decade, all of these cities have attracted creative chefs who draw on local ingredients, and you can get some great meals there. But for me, I really really love the smaller towns. The big cities are great, I live in St. Louis, I love big cities. But when I go out along the river, I think I have the best time in some of the smaller communities.
So, let me tell you about a couple. That’s called the First City on the Mississippi, Bemidji, Minnesota, is one of my favorite places to visit. And it’s a community of maybe 15,000 people. And it’s a college town, so you’ve got some of the amenities of the energy that comes from college life.
And it’s kind of the mythic home of Paul Bunyan and the Blue Ox if you’re familiar with those stories from the logging days. You can stand next to oversized statues of both of them and get your typical tourist picture. But Bemidji is just a friendly little town with some interesting art, a little bit local art and some good places to eat and access to just about any kind of outdoor experience you want to have, short of mountain climbing because there are no mountains there. But it’s a vibrant little community that I love going to.
Further south of there, we kind of have these twin cities of Dubuque, Iowa, and Galena, Illinois, that grew around the same time based on the lead-mining industry. And they have very different histories after lead mining but they have incredible architecture.
Galena is a town of fewer than 10,000 people now but it draws a couple of million visitors a year because the main street is essentially intact. I feel a little a little awkward talking to you about old buildings because we’re not quite up to the same standards as Europe. But Galena has an amazing collection of pre-civil war architecture, which you don’t find intact in the same degree in many communities in the U.S. It’s a beautiful site and it’s almost all locally owned businesses. So you can go and you can shop and spend your money and it’s going to stay in the community. And you can get a sense of the local life in the process.
Dubuque is a bigger city, it’s 50,000 or 60,000, and it has a little more varied economic history than Galena does, which is basically a farming community now and a tourist town.
But Dubuque has some great places to eat, it’s got one of the best museums anywhere along the Mississippi, the Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium which looks at the ecology of the river from the headwaters all the way to the Gulf, and tanks so you can see what kind of fish live in the river. You’ll be surprised at how big a blue catfish, for example, can get when you look at that in the tank. So it’s a fun place to go, I really enjoy going there.
And then, you still have a few communities that have held onto their original ethnic identities. Not far from Dubuque, there’s a town called Guttenberg, Iowa, that still has a very strong German identity.
And then, if you go south of St. Louis, there’s a community called Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, that has an amazing collection of French colonial architecture that has survived for a couple hundred years. And it’s on the way to becoming a national park so that architecture is going to be protected.
You still have some French traditions that have hung on in this little town. Every New Year’s Eve, they still have the tradition where they go door-to-door and they sing a song that’s called I think La Guyane, and I’m probably butchering that, but it’s one tradition that has lasted for a couple hundred years that you can still access.
And then, when you get down into the delta region, I really like Clarksdale, Mississippi. And it’s a town that feels like the home of the blues. There’s still a couple of old-style blues clubs you can visit and listen to local musicians who play traditional blues, and some play a little more modern blues.
And it’s also the home of the only company, the only outfitter that takes people on canoe trips on the lower part of the Mississippi, the Quapaw Canoe Company. So you can go out and canoe for a day trip or go with them for a longer overnight trip. And then, you can come back into town and you can enjoy Mississippi-delta style tamale and take in some blues. So those are some of my favorite spots along the river.
Joanna: I always say it’s my biggest problem with this podcast is, whenever I talk, I’m like, ‘Oh, I want to go there. I want to go see those things.’ Because it’s so good to think about different parts of the world and how people live in different places.
You’ve mentioned canoeing a couple of times. I love canoeing, I’ve done kind of some on rivers and on the ocean and things like that, and so I really do enjoy it. But it’s kind of not something I’ve done multi-day canoeing or kayak trips.
So tell us, what are some of the experiences you can have with canoeing or kayaking.
Are we talking rapids, are we talking these big wide rivers, are we talking multi-day trips?
Dean: You can structure just about any kind of trip you want. And on my website, a few years ago, I put together a list of outfitters who can hook you up if you don’t have your own boat.
There are places where you can rent a canoe or a kayak or a stand-up paddleboard and go out for a couple of hours. Most of those outfitters I think are accustomed to doing day trips, but you can do longer. And the experience you’re going to have is going to vary depending upon which part of the river you’re on.
If you’re in that wilder part of the upper Mississippi above the Twin Cities, it’s a smaller stream, you’re not going to be dealing with any barges or industrial-boat traffic, you may occasionally have other recreational boaters, but it’s pretty wild. And you’re going to be out there among birds and fish and beavers.
I like doing that area. And it’s very well-managed, so there are campsites that are already designated that you can stay at. There are a fair number of people who live along the river in different places, especially when you get past Bemidji.
You can go out for a leisurely paddle. There might occasionally be some very light rapids, it depends on what the water level is like. But other than at St. Louis, now they’re really no rapids left on the Mississippi. Most of them have been dammed for navigation reasons.
Up in that area, you can do these quick easy little trips, you can string together multi-day trips where you’re camping in designated campsites. South of the river, what I really like is, when you get past the Twin Cities when the river is getting a lot bigger, then there are a lot of islands that open up for camping.
And there’s a couple-hundred-mile stretch of the Mississippi from Wabasha, Minnesota, down to about the Quad Cities that’s part of a fish and wildlife refuge. It’s not entirely pristine by any stretch but there are a lot of areas that are managed for wilderness.
And then, the islands are really spectacular. As you’re paddling down, depending upon the water level, again, oftentimes you get these brilliant sand beaches where you can camp and spend the night or you can just stop and have lunch and swim for a little bit. And in that part of the river, you’re never very far away from a town or another person.
The islands can feel pretty isolated but you’re never really far away from a community.
If you’re worried about running out of food or running out of water, there’s always going to be something around the corner where you can resupply. And you can easily string together a multi-day trip, there are lots of areas that are signed for a couple of hours, canoe trails through backwater areas where you can do a loop, where there’s essentially no current. So you have a better chance of seeing wildlife in some of those kinds of paddles.
But man, south of St. Louis, in that area where the Quapaw Canoe Company works, and it’s isolated. And it’s a big river. I find it exhilarating and I think it’s amazingly wild. It surprised me the first time I went on a canoe trip on that part of the river because I had my own expectations about what it was going to be like. And even though it’s confined between tall levees for much of that stretch, the area between the levees is remarkably wild and you don’t get very many communities right on the river down there anymore.
The river had a habit of changing channels and stranding communities on dry land at different points in its history. So there’s a stretch of, I forget what, like 60 or 70 miles where there’s not even a river bridge and there’s not really any community of any size during that stretch. So you can feel very much like you’re out in the wilderness out there on your own.
I love those kinds of trips. It’s hard to imagine, in the middle of the United States, with all the industrialized areas we have along the river, that you can still have an experience, on the lower Mississippi, where you can feel that much wilderness and that much out there on your own.
I think that’s pretty spectacular and it’s reason enough to get down there and experience 2 or 3 days at least of paddling on that part of the river.
Joanna: It probably wasn’t exactly that area but, when I was down in New Orleans, I went kayaking out in the bayou. And it really was incredible to be so near this major city, and yet, just feel like you were in the middle of nowhere in an area I didn’t know anything about, that sort of Louisiana bayou, all the trees and the little knobbly knees that come out.
And it was probably one of my favorite things in that area was getting out there. And as you say, that sounds fantastic. But you did mention swimming there and you’ve mentioned there are some bits that are industrial.
Can you swim in the Mississippi or does it just depend on the section?
Dean: I think that’s one of the things that people misunderstand about is that the vast majority of the river is clean enough to swim in. I think people confuse the muddy color with pollution but it’s not pollution, most of that it comes from sediment.
The Missouri river that meets the Mississippi around St. Louis brings with it a lot of the Great Plains because it’s carving through the Great Plains landscape and bringing with it sand and different kinds of sediment. And that’s what gives the river that color.
On the upper part of the river, agricultural practices that increase runoff have also given the river a muddier look than it had historically. But it’s not polluted anymore to anywhere near the same degree that it was, say, back in the 70s before the Clean Water Act passed in the United States.
You’re not going to dip a glass of water in there and drink it unfiltered without treating it but it’s perfectly fine to swim in. There are only a couple places that I would not swim myself, and I’ve been in different parts of the Mississippi, even on the lower part of the Mississippi, where the swimming was fantastic and enjoyable. And I think it’s something more people need to understand is it’s perfectly okay to do.
Joanna: Yes. So ask your local guide, they will know.
Dean: Yes. Generally speaking, don’t swim downstream of where the sewers dump into the Mississippi. That’s the first tip.
Joanna: That’s a good tip. So, that’s going on the water. What about next to the water? You mentioned hiking, I mean I love hiking.
What are the areas that you can hike in view of the river?
Dean: I think the best hiking is on the upper half of the river, particularly, say, in the National Wildlife Refuge area that I’ve mentioned.
If you go from the Quad Cities up to the Twin Cities, you have the river that is defined by these tall limestone bluffs. And all kinds of places along there have trails where you can either hike down in a floodplain forest, if it’s not too muddy, or, if the river is not too high. And you can get right down there next to the river and see beaver lodges.
You’re not always going to see animals on those trips but that gives you the best opportunity to see certain kinds of native wildlife. But then there are also a bunch of parks where you can hike from the river level up to the top of the bluff.
There are places you can do rock climbing too, there aren’t nearly as many of those but these are just walks up steep inclines. And the reward is you get these spectacular panoramic views looking up and down the river.
And there are a few places that I really like best, one called Rush Creek State Natural Area, near Ferryville, Wisconsin, that has three spectacular overlooks. It’s a bit of work to get there and it takes about a half hour or more of walk up an old logging road to get to these areas.
But you’re walking through the woods up this logging road and you take a turn and you exit the trees and you get into this area that, colloquially, we call a goat prairie. So it’s just this prairie on top of the bluff where there are no trees and you get these expansive views looking up and down the river and there are lots of unique and sometimes endangered kinds of plants, occasionally a rattlesnake.
There are lots of places where you can do that. The state parks offer a lot of those opportunities but don’t overlook the lesser-known areas. There are a lot of public lands that are designated as a state natural area, or a wilderness area, that are not managed nearly as heavily and they aren’t going to have the services of a state park. But I find them to offer a lot better hiking.
Joanna: No, that sounds good. Obviously, some listeners are in America.
Is there anything that would be surprising or unexpected or things they might not know about the river valley that you have found unusual?
Dean: I think one of the first things that I always encounter with people is they still assume the river is extremely dangerous. And it’s not really dangerous, I’m trying to be a little careful about how I say this because people do still drown in the river but it’s usually because they’re being careless and they’re not wearing life jackets if they’re out in boats.
The river is not nearly as dangerous as people think it is. It’s a lot safer to go out there and most of the hazards today come from the navigation structures, like wing dams, that we have put along the river to make it easier for barges to float.
And then, of course, the barges themselves require a little bit of forethought to get around when you see one coming. But it’s really not that dangerous. I think that’s one thing that people always assume it’s dangerous and it’s really not.
Then we talked about the clean water, that the water is not nearly as polluted as people think it is and it’s perfectly okay to go swimming in. But the other thing that I was thinking about is that I kind of think that the Mississippi is, in some ways, one of the most widely known but least understood cultural icons.
And that people may be drawn in by the beauty of the river valley but they don’t understand fully how much the river itself has been altered and what the consequences of that have been and how much we’ve spent to redo the river for flood protection, for navigation.
I hope that people don’t just come to the river to look at it for a few pretty sights but try to go a little bit deeper in understanding, what exactly they’re looking at and how is it different from what the river has been historically.
Joanna: I guess it reflects, because it goes through so many states, what do you say, 10 states, it has this effect on so many people and so much business and agriculture. And I guess that has to keep changing, it’s never going to stay the same.
Dean: Right, absolutely.
Joanna: I’ve got to ask about food and drink because when we travel, we like to taste some of the local stuff. And you mentioned that there is a great food scene in some of these cities.
Anything you particularly recommend from the river valley in terms of food and drink?
Dean: I’m thinking about this from two different angles. First of all, I’m thinking about, ‘What might you be able to eat that comes directly from the river?’ And let’s go there first.
We don’t have nearly as much commercial fishing as we used to along the river but there is still some and there are still places, these small family-run fish shops, where you can stop and you can buy fish that they caught that day from the Mississippi.
A lot of times it’ll be smoked and it’s almost certainly going to be fish that you aren’t especially familiar with or maybe you’re afraid to try, but just go ahead and do it. Smoked carp is amazingly delicious. My only caution with that is, if you’re going to bring some home, put it in a separate container all by itself because that carp has quite a scent and it’s not going to come out of your cooler anytime soon.
Joanna: That’s brilliant. I think of carp as sort of in ponds, like Japanese ponds.
Dean: Yeah, they are in Japanese ponds. And I think eating more people enjoy eating carp in other places than in the United States, it’s a very popular form of fish in a lot of Asian countries. We haven’t quite taken to it as much but I’d like to encourage people to try more because I think smoked carp is a really delicious fish to eat. So you gotta do that.
And if you’re really adventurous, you might even find a place that’s serving turtle. There’s still occasionally restaurants I go in that might be doing a turtle soup or some kind of fried turtle. And it’s worth trying at least once, I’m not going to say it’s the best food you’re ever going to eat…
Joanna: Is that not protected in any way?
Dean: It depends on the species. There are certain species of turtle that are endangered and you won’t be seeing those on the menu. But there are others that are not and they’re perfectly okay to catch and serve. So those are probably like the two kinds of foods you’re going to get from the river.
And then, you have some regional variations in food. In the northern Minnesota area, there’s a crop called wild rice, which is actually a grain. But it’s been a food staple for Native Americans for centuries. And it’s still harvested in traditional ways where they go out in canoes with wood knockers and help loosen the grains from the stocks themselves.
You can buy wild rice from all kinds of stores in Minnesota, especially in Northern Minnesota, and you’ll see it on a lot of venues as a side dish or in a soup, chicken and wild rice is a real common soup. And of course, walleye is in all the lakes up there, so you see a lot of walleye in venues up there as well.
As you travel along the river, you get some of those kinds of regional foods where things vary a little bit. So, rather than going into all that the couple of things that I really like to do myself, I like to look for a restaurant that’s on the river. And there are lots of places where you can get a table with a riverside view, and sometimes out on a patio or deck, and just enjoy a meal next to the water.
Or you can go to a local meat market or deli or grocery store and put together a picnic basket for yourself and go find a sandy or a grassy bank next to the river and enjoy the meal that way.
I think are kinds of prototypical river kinds of experiences. And there are certain restaurants that also have become pretty well-known for their food. I’m going to be a little reluctant to recommend specific places right now because I’m not sure how well all these places are doing, given the pandemic that we’re in.
But I would say like, if you just search around Yelp. I don’t really like Yelp that much. But if you just talk to the local folks about where they like to go eat and find out what some of the best places are, that’s usually what my approach is. I just ask around where people like to go.
Joanna: I do think, as you say, it’s asking where the locals go rather than the place that are the main tourist spots. I think that’s true anywhere in the world.
In terms of alcohol — because I do like a drink! — I wondered whether there are vineyards or whether it’s sort of more of a sort of craft-beer area?
I don’t know whether this is just a sort of stereotype but I tend to think that there must be bourbon or some kind of whiskey further south.
Dean: Absolutely. I think the distillery part of things, that’s really starting to take off. So we have a lot of craft beer along the river.
One place that I really like is called the Potosi Brewery. It’s got a long history and there’s a fascinating story about how after it had closed, it had been closed for years, how the local community pooled their resources essentially and created a not-for-profit to bring it back. And they make really good beer. So, and that’s near Dubuque but it’s in Potosi, Wisconsin.
The Twin Cities area must have a hundred craft breweries, I’ve been to a handful. I would say probably you’re going to be fine no matter where you go. And then, near the Quad Cities also, there’s a place called the Mississippi River Distillery that sources most of their materials from local farmers. And they do have a whiskey and vodka, and I’m blanking on what else they do. I don’t know if they’re making a gin, I know you like your gin and tonic.
Joanna: I do!
Dean: They might have a gin as well. So there are more distilleries along the river than there were 5 years ago, but honestly, beer is where you’re going to have the highest most consistent quality. There are a lot of wineries.
You’re not going to confuse them with something you would get from Napa Valley or from France but many of them do have some fine drinkable wines of their own. And half the fun of just going to the tasting rooms and sampling what they have to offer anyway.
There are dozens of wineries along the Mississippi and you could spend weeks just going from place to place and sampling what they have to offer.
Joanna: Sounds like fun because of course all of this is to do with the ‘terroir,’ the land where things come from. And I like that, in this modern-day, we’re kind of going back to brewing locally and local food and local stuff so that it all just becomes much more localized, instead of, ‘This is what America is,’ it’s very specific. Which I guess is what you write about and talk about on your site.
We’re almost at the end of this, but you write mysteries and travel-guide books about life along the river.
Tell us what’s behind your mysteries? What inspires your books?
Dean: There are just too many stories to tell I think is the bottom line. I wasn’t sure if this was really something I was going to enjoy doing when I wrote the first one. I wasn’t sure if I’d really be any good at writing fiction. And it turned out it’s really fun.
I don’t have to do nearly as much research to write a mystery. I do some, obviously, but it takes a lot less research to do that than to do a travel book or a history book or something like that. And it feels more creative to me.
I took a character that’s, let’s say, very loosely based on my experiences. I decided to create a travel-writer protagonist who has a habit for getting in trouble, who’s much less functional and happy than me, so people shouldn’t confuse his troubles with mine. And I send him to different places, different communities where bodies turn up, he gets in trouble. And he’s got a friend who’s a homicide detective named Brian Jefferson who helps bail him out sometimes.
So I’m just having a good time writing those books. When I write the mysteries, I try to give you a feel for each of the communities too, so it’s another way to do some subtle underhanded marketing about Mississippi, so you can get a sense for these communities and you may want to go visit one yourself after reading the mysteries.
Joanna: I must say it’s one of my favorite things too. It’s like, ‘My character Morgan Sierra needs to go to Lisbon this weekend, so I guess I’ll have to go too and write about it.’
Dean: I love it.
Joanna: Tax-deductible travel, one of the perks of being a writer!
Apart from your own books, which are obviously fantastic, what are some other books, a couple that you recommend about or set on the Mississippi?
Dean: This was really hard to narrow down. There are probably hundreds of books about the Mississippi. I ended up, I think, with five. And I’ll just give you a quick little summary of each.
Obviously everybody knows about Mark Twain. I think my favorite book that I go to over and over is Life of the Mississippi, which is partly biographical, his history, learning how to become a riverboat pilot, and partly nostalgic. The second half of the book he relates his experiences traveling as a tourist back to places along the upper Mississippi that he visited when he was younger. I find that’s one of my favorite Mark Twain books that I go back to over and over.
But there’s this interesting dynamic. Every year we get several dozen people who decide to paddle the Mississippi from the headwaters to the Gulf, and many of them end up writing books based on their experiences. The best book in that genre is called Mississippi Solo by Eddy Harris.
What I like about his book is that, for one thing, he started the trip with no experience in a canoe. So you get this sort of drama from the beginning, like, ‘What’s going to go wrong for this poor guy?’ But on top of that, he’s a gifted African-American writer who I think brings a little different perspective to the experience in almost every other book in that genre.
If you want to go deeper into the history and some of the politics, the river politics, John Barry’s book Rising Tide about the 1927 flood is an epic story of heartbreak and death and abuse and politics. And there are some fascinating stories in there and some interesting observations about how that 1927 flood changed so much in the way that we look to the federal government for different kinds of assistance.
If you’re interested in the environment, learning more about the details of the river’s ecosystem and environment, there’s a book called Immortal River by Calvin Fremling, that is a fantastic book. He was a biologist but he writes in a pretty accessible way. And I think he covers a lot of important issues. It tends to be more about the upper half of the river than the lower half, but it’s a fascinating read to help you understand more about what a river is and what the ecosystems are.
And then, last is a book called The Last River Rat by Kenny Salwey which will take you even deeper into that world. He spent a good part of his life making a subsistence living from the backwaters of the Mississippi in Wisconsin. And his book takes you on a month-by-month look at what he did every single month of the year. So it’s an interesting read.
Joanna: Wow, I appreciate you narrowing down your vast knowledge of the area. And of course, people can find more details, lots of details, lots of books and things on your website.
Tell us where can people find you and your books online.
Dean: For the mysteries go to deanklinkenberg.com, that’s where I maintain information on those books. And then, for travel and history and the nonfiction about the Mississippi, it’s mississippivalleytraveler.com. And it’s one L in traveler, I think in the UK it’s a habit to use two Ls for traveler, but…
Joanna: Of course, that’s the way it’s spelled. You all spell it wrong over there!
Dean: We spell a lot of things wrong.
Joanna: You do. Well, lovely to talk to you, Dean, that was fantastic.
Dean: That was really fun. Thank you so much.
I thoroughly enjoyed the interview. Particularly interesting was Dean’s discussion of the river’s complexities and ever-changing meaning and symbolism. His knowledge of the Mississippi is unequaled in today’s world. Kudos.
Jo Frances Penn
So glad you enjoyed it, Gregg!