October 19, 2013 8:00 pm • By JOE GISONDI – For the Herald & Review
EDITOR’S NOTE: Joe Gisondi and Brian Poulter, journalism professors at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, traveled Illinois 1 this summer and recorded their journey. For our purposes, their journey started in Danville, but the six-part series will cover the length of the road from its origin near Cave in Rock and its end at the south side of Chicago. On the Illinois 1 project, under a grant from Verizon, Poulter used an iPhone 5 and a Nokia Lumia 928 cellphone.
CAVE-IN-ROCK — Chris Berton was more concerned about the blood stains than anything.
Blood, Berton said, is difficult to clean off a deck on this ferry, now churning the three-quarter mile expanse across the Ohio River back toward Illinois.
So Berton tossed the body into the green, sediment-rich waters, where the carcass would either decompose, or, more likely, float along the river until it wedged against an embankment or among some weeds, a possible dinner for a raccoon or turtle.
Fortunately, Berton did not get hurt this morning by the 15-pound Asian silver carp that leaped more than 10 feet over the Loni Jo, the 350-horsepower diesel tug that powers this ferry across the river between Cave-In-Rock, where Illinois 1 ends (or begins, depending on your perspective) and Kentucky State Road 91. Like most silver carp, the fish bounced and tap danced across the deck in rapid-fire gyrations before leaving several red splotches on the crimson deck.
Berton, the boat’s deckhand, has been hit several times by these fish, which can grow to 70 pounds, although state biologists say they encounter very few heavier than 30. But even at that weight, Berton says, they pack a lot of power, making him feel as though he’d been smacked with a Louisville Slugger.
Berton looks like he can take a hit, though. He has wide shoulders and strong forearms, probably strengthened from hooking ropes around the metal cleats to connect the ferry to the tug each time it docks on either side as well as from scrubbing elements such as fish blood and scales from the deck. He walks among the cars he navigated onto the ferry’s three lanes in white New Balance sneakers, saying that arranging cars on board is sort of like playing Tetris, the tile-matching puzzle video game. Chris wears an untucked tan shirt that falls over a slightly growing waist and brown pants, a camouflage-green ball cap, and reflective sunglasses, certainly a necessity when riding over the river for at least eight hours a day.
Several silver carp jump aboard each day, usually when the tug turns around before heading across the river with a new load of cars, trucks and semitrucks. On departure, the tug floats away from shore for a few seconds before Captain Jim Littrell turns on the engine and redirects the boat, pivoting in sort of a three-point turn. The rumbling engine often startles the carp, which begin their wild, airborne dance.
Berton has seen several impressive acrobatics from these fish. He grabs a yellow bucket of water and a brush broom to scrub away the blood before it bakes into the paint. These silver carp, he says, have leaped high enough to fly through open car windows, landing on drivers’ laps. They’ve also jumped out of the water so explosively that they have dented car doors and hoods, and one carp even reached a car on top of a semi’s flat bed. It’s the ones that clandestinely flop inside the engine room that worry Berton the most. “If they sit there long enough,” he said, “they can really stink up the place.”
It’s not clear why silver carp react in this manner, unlike their cousin, the bighead carp, although state biologists like Kevin Irons believe this is a survival instinct. “By doing this, they confuse predators,” says Irons, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ aquatic nuisance species program manager, “and, hopefully, they won’t get eaten.”
Conversely, the larger bighead carp, which frequently grow to 70-plus pounds, say fisheries ex-perts, dive down when threatened.
“It’s just a flight mechanism,” says Paul Rister, a biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife.
These carp were originally brought over to the United States from China to help control algae in catfish ponds, primarily in Arkansas. Over the years, the fish escaped, spawned and moved out across the region’s main waterways. Now, they far outnumber native species in the Illinois, Mis-souri and parts of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers — as much as 70 percent in some areas, says Irons.
These carp can eat 20 percent of the body weight each day, produce 700,000 eggs a year, and within a few months are too large for predator fish. As a result, they are eating so much plankton that other species, like shad and cuttlefish, are getting starved out, Irons said.
“We haven’t lost a species yet,” Irons says, “but the native species are not doing as well. The in-vasive process is not over. I’m sure they’re (bighead and silver carp) still reaching out to other watersheds.”
Rister recently watched 100 to 150 silver carp leap in the air almost instantaneously while he drove his boat through a large school on Lake Barkley, a 58,000-mile reservoir located about 60 miles south of Cave-In-Rock in the Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area. Like Berton, Rister has been hit a few times, which he says is something that “definitely gets your attention.” He says he’s also heard of leaping silver carp breaking one woman’s jaw and bruising the ribs of oth-ers.
Clearly, Brian Poulter and I should carefully scan the water for emerging, flying objects each time we depart these docks on this early August morning, although at six-feet-five, Brian remains both a larger target and a shield. So, I have little to fear, unlike the thousands of people who regu-larly drive boats, fish, and water ski among these large, skittish missiles.
JOSH FANN digs through the rubble of a demolished bank building on a ridge that overlooks the ferry crossing, his blue-and-white Ford Motor Co. ballcap pulled down far over a face that belies his youth. He’s no more than 18, wearing a cut-off gray T-shirt, jeans with a large, torn hole in his right knee, and brown boots. At noon, Josh is worn from bending, picking and stacking unbroken bricks worth reusing by his employer, a local construction company. The back-breaking work and sun are clearly sapping his youthful energy. He’s one of four people on this crew, whose mission is to collect and recycle 6,000 bricks. So far today, they’ve stacked several palettes four to five layers high. But piles of bricks still cover this lot.
Little else is going on at Cave-In-Rock on a Friday afternoon, besides folks filtering into Rose’s Kountry Kitchen around the corner, walking into the newly constructed Area Bank next door, or driving another 200 yards down a declining Illinois 1 to the ferry ramp. The city hall building across the street is empty, as are most of the structures in a town that is tiny both in size at 0.43 square miles and in population with about 318 residents.