I was roaming around the Midwest recently and decided to stop at a small, Mississippi River town in Illinois called Oquawka, a place I had been once before.
Its name makes it memorable enough, but for me it was a return to a spot that will always stick in my mind because of what happened there before daybreak on September 20, 2003.
I had arrived the previous day by canoe, on my way from Minnesota to New Orleans. I paddled into the town’s small marina. It was very welcoming, a set of public docks and a boat ramp protected from the wind and waves by small breakwaters. The perfect spot to leave the canoe for the night. And I was happy to find a small grassy area nearby to set up my tent.
It was my 54th day on the river, so I quickly and easily settled into what had become a comfortable routine for me: Set up the tent and scout out the town for a nice place to stop for a few beers and a huge dinner. And keep an eye out for someplace to have breakfast in the morning. In Oquawka everything I needed was within easy walking distance of the river.
My first stop was at The Fisherman’s Bar and Grill, a nice unpretentious place on Schuyler Street a couple blocks from my tent. It was a Friday night so the place was busy. The owner let me use his electricity to charge up my cell phone and he gave me a beer cosy with the bar’s name on it as a souvenir of my visit.
After that I walked a block or so for dinner at what is today called Ye Old Fish House, at the foot of Schuyler right by the river. When I stopped there in 2003 it was called the Oquawka Diner.
Full and content I ambled back to the tent for a good night’s sleep.
That’s when the memorable happened. Just before first light I woke up to a huge racket. It sounded like every guy for miles around with a pickup truck and a boat and a dog had descended on the town boat ramp, a mere couple hundred feet from me, intent upon making as much noise as possible. I peered out of the tent. The place was mobbed with folks launching their boats. Boat engines raced, dogs barked, and doors slammed.
In a half hour or so the hubbub ended. Everyone had sped off by boat and I got back to sleep. Then, at the crack of six am all hell broke loose again. This time in the form of continuous loud gun volleys out on the river. I finally gave up on sleep and dragged myself out of the tent. I packed everything back into the canoe and headed down the street to the diner for breakfast.
And I asked the waiter what all the early morning activity was. First day of duck hunting season, he replied, started at six. And it was the opening of the season over in Iowa, way across the river, not on the Illinois side, where I was. I was glad I hadn’t camped in Iowa for the night!
I’m happy to report that Oquawka, at least the small bit that I am familiar with, is much the same as it was when I first visited it 14 years ago. The restaurant is still there, the bar and grill is still there, and the waterfront remains the same quiet laid back place I found it to be years ago.
Here’s the view from my tent of the town marina back in 2003:
And the same view in 2017:
And below are 2017 shots of The Fisherman’s Bar and Grill and Ye Old Fish House: