KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Docked at Volunteer Landing at Knoxville's downtown waterfront this week is a 20-foot "shantyboat" that looks all the world like a backwoods cabin perched atop a barge.
The vessel was built by Wes Modes, a Santa Cruz, Calif., artist and river rat who is about to embark on a 652-mile expedition down the entire length of the Tennessee from Knoxville to Paducah, Ky. Along the way Modes will use video and audio to record the personal stories of people who live and work on the river.
Modes' shantyboat is named Dotty, after his grandmother. The boat is built largely from reclaimed material. The 10-by-8-foot cabin is illuminated with oil lamps, and there is a propane cooking stove. The bookshelves are stocked with river-related works of fiction and nonfiction, and on the table sits a manual typewriter from the 1940s.
Modes expects it will take him two months to complete his journey. He'll be accompanied by various crew members, as well as his faithful dog, Hazel. Along the way he'll stop at river towns and start asking questions. He wants to meet fishermen, community members — anyone with a strong personal connection to the Tennessee River and its associated reservoirs.
"There's a fair amount of archival history on the Tennessee River, but I want to know what is happening now, what people's concerns are today," Modes said. "I'm especially interested in people whose stories don't make traditional histories, especially African Americans, Native Americans and women."
Modes will give a talk on June 30, at the Knoxville Museum of Art. He is scheduled to give talks at other river cities along the way. The project — called "A Secret History of American River People" — will include an interactive documentary and a series of books.
Modes already floated the upper Mississippi River Huck Finn-style in the shantyboat as part of the oral history project. He said the boat, which is powered by a 15-horsepower outboard motor, handles rough water "like a champ" due to its hull design. It took him five days to trailer the shantyboat from Santa Cruz, Calif., to Knoxville. In all, the vessel has logged 6,000 miles on the water and 10,000 miles on the road.
"I'm way more terrified of what happens on the road than what happens on the water," Modes said.
Hanging on the wall inside the shantyboat's cabin are a banjo and guitar. When Modes pulls up to a dock, he invites visitors to come inside share their stories. The shantyboat is rustic and welcoming. Modes regards it as one of the project's most effective exhibits.
During his sojourn down the Tennessee River, he expects to make about 20 miles a day. He tows a johnboat behind the shantyboat — the river version of an RV towing a compact car down the interstate.
"Sometimes we'll pull up to a public dock, and other times we just drop anchor wherever we are and go to sleep," Modes said. "It's really easy to lose track of time. Sometimes I forget what day it is."
Wes Modes can be reached by email at email@example.com. The journey and the project are detailed on the project website at http://peoplesriverhistory.us/.