This confluence is an amazing place, and merciless if you find yourself on low ground during high water. The Illinois, Mississippi and Missouri all converge nearby and once upon a time, when rivers were king, this was the place to be in North America. During our visit the weather was cheerful and sunny - the rivers were rolling tamely within their banks, the late summer sun lit up the rocky bluffs between Alton and Pere Marquette State Park. Hiking through the park the trails threaded alongside the ridges and bluff tops. From the viewpoints we’d catch a glimpse of the Illinois River and a wide low body of water called Swan Lake - where we would later see pelicans spiraling above us in lazy kettles, on their own seasonal migration.
Above the living and moving land and water birds animate the Mississippi flyway. The flocks of pelicans were dramatic, but just as memorable were a half dozen vultures roosting on a dead tree, now a huge piece of driftwood washed up alongside Route 100. Steam rose up from the slow waters of the Mississippi in cool morning air behind them. But possibly the most interesting local raptor can be seen outside of Alton, day or night, painted high up on the side of a bluff.
The Piasa bird-man has at least one or two odd histories, and could be related to Thunderbird mythology. I don’t think it’s too farfetched to wonder if there is some connection between the Piasa legend and the Teratorns - a kind of mega-vulture, now extinct - that may have found it’s way to Middle America. At the end of the day we were lured to the pleasantly crowded Piasa Winery & Pub in Grafton where the music, beer and food were all very good. There was something special about watching the sun set at the crossroads of a continent, watching the river go on it’s way.
If you could say anything is lacking here it would be middle ground. Walking along Grafton’s main street we saw a sign showing the high water mark from the flood of 1993. And closer inspection shows other clues common to life in a floodplain. Buildings on stilts, an old tree stump off by itself, tilted atop some weeds in a vacant lot - flotsam washed in from who knows where. Newer construction, is noticeably - and for good reason - higher up from the old street and the river.
No one seems to know precisely why the city of Cahokia failed. But halfway through our visit I believe E hit on a theory that makes perfect sense. Were they flooded out? Perhaps farming the rich river bottoms was a fine life, until those inevitable floods came. And you know, there just isn’t enough room on the top of those mounds to accommodate everyone. Today, the river town of Grafton is old and charming, but their population has not yet returned to levels before the 1993 flood. Bald eagles, they say, roost here in the winter months where they can feed in open water. For humanity, the future in such places is on higher ground. If we only had wings.