WHEELING, W.Va. – Wes Modes was stunned by the scenic beauty of the Ohio River as he floated down the waterway in his shantyboat this week on the first leg of a 600-mile voyage from Pittsburgh to Louisville as he collects personal stories from “river people” along the way.
Modes, a college lecturer and researcher from Santa Cruz, Calif., was moored up at Heritage Port in Wheeling for a few hours Friday afternoon to grab lunch with his dog, Hazel, before traveling south to spend the weekend in Moundsville, W.Va., where he’ll speak at an event today.
He’s traveled in his shantyboat “Dotty” every year since 2014, navigating the Mississippi, Tennessee and Hudson rivers along the way. He steered clear of the Ohio until now when he left Pittsburgh on Monday for his monthlong trip to meet new friends who live or work along the river.
“Obviously, it’s fun to float down a river with a shantyboat that has everything,” Modes said of his floating home that has a full kitchen, sitting area and sleeping loft. “But really, it’s about collecting the stories of river people about river life.”
While his voyage mimics the same journey Meriwether Lewis made from Pittsburgh in 1803 to meet his counterpart, William Clark, in Louisville before their westward adventure, Modes, 53, has a different goal. In past years, he’s spoken to aquatic scientists, fishermen, barge operators and homeless people to learn about their lives as part of an art and history project he conducts every year. Conversation subjects range from how communities handle flooding to working on urban renewal.
“But it’s not looking back. It’s lived history,” he said of hearing oral history from people. “Because it tells the history that isn’t recorded. It tells a different story, not a complete story, but a collage.”
People from this area will be included in his project when he presents “A Secret History of American River People” at Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex in Moundsville at 1 p.m. today.
Earlier this month, he towed the shantyboat with his truck from his home in California across the country to Pittsburgh. He’ll meet one of his several “shipmates” along the way to eventually take the boat back home after he arrives in Louisville on Aug. 1 for his art installation being featured in the Portland Museum.
So far, Modes has been struck by the beauty of the river, especially at Heritage Port in Wheeling.
“It really is a beautiful, industrial river,” Modes said of the old mills he saw along the way. “It’s still scenic.”
For more information about Modes and his project, visit his website at peoplesriverhistory.us.