Living on 'river time'

3-day paddle-wheel voyage cruises from then to now

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PEORIA

Our adventure began at 7:37 a.m. on a Saturday.

"Good morning, everyone!" said Capt. Alex, a fit, blue-eyed father of four who has made his career on the river.

"Good morning!" came the surprisingly chipper early morning reply from my fellow passengers on The Spirit of Peoria, a four-story paddle-wheeler that would carry us downriver for the next three days.

I glanced across the first-floor dining room, where we had gathered at long tables with plates of eggs and steaming cups of coffee. Our average age was about 70.

OK, so maybe it wasn't so early after all.

"We have a beautiful three days ahead," Capt. Alex said, explaining that after leaving this dock in Peoria we would wind 163 miles down the Illinois River, hang a left on the Mississippi, then chug another 39 miles to St. Louis' gleaming arch. We would pass through four locks.

"This is a true paddle-wheel," Capt. Alex said. "It handles just like it did 150 years ago."

We all ooohed and aaahed, and then Capt. Alex -- Alex Grieves, 44, when on land -- excused himself to get our adventure underway.

The Spirit of Peoria, which Capt. Alex has operated for 21 years (and owned for 18 years), is rented for birthday parties, wedding receptions, corporate outings and fraternity and sorority parties, and frequently putters around the Peoria area for afternoon sightseeing trips. But this weekend, the 160-foot boat, capped with a bright red paddle wheel at its back, was ours.

A rumble stirred below, and slowly we were off, gliding down the rippling Illinois River at a little less than 10 mph. On a bright, humid summer morning, it left the 85 passengers with the simple task of getting to know the boat and each other, which isn't always so easy.

"It's interesting how difficult it is for people to just watch the river go by," said Brian "Fox" Ellis, a professional storyteller who has worked on the boat as long as Capt. Alex. "You'll see for the first half-day, people pace the decks, and then they settle into it."

Indeed, the first thing I did was explore the vessel. The first floor was the dining room. The second was an air-conditioned parlor where tables lined the walls and rows of chairs faced a small stage where Ellis and a pair of musicians -- a ragtime piano player and folk-blues guitar player -- would perform every few hours. The third floor was an open-air deck for watching the world inch by. Above, in small quarters with 360-degree views, Capt. Alex piloted the boat with a 7-foot-tall wooden helm.

Evenings would be spent at hotels along the way -- one night in Springfield and one at Pere Marquette State Park -- but days would be passed on the boat. Nearly all our meals would be eaten there, the food emerging from a tiny kitchen on steaming silver trays.

"We've got a pasta buffet lunch and prime rib dinner today," chef Debbie Leas, 55, told me that first day. "I get a lot of compliments on the prime rib. Tomorrow's brisket. Yummy, yummy. You like tacos? We have a taco bar on the way to St. Louis. You eat bread pudding? You have to try my bread pudding. I make a raspberry white chocolate bread pudding."

I ate all of it. A lot of it.

True to its old-timey paddle-wheel feel, the boat is decked to evoke thoughts of yesteryear: It's long on curlicues, maroon curtains and ornate carpet with the curling shapes that would be at home in a wrought-iron fence. Combined with the storytelling and rollicking ragtime songs, it added up to a weekend that at times could just as well have been in, say, 1922.

That is exactly the point for many people who take a vacation on a paddle-wheeler. I had assumed most of the passengers were looking for an easy weekend escape close to home, but except for five women in their 50s from Ottawa, Ill., celebrating a bachelorette party -- one wore a T-shirt that said, "Tonight I'm single," which, fortunately, wasn't the bride-to-be -- most everyone had crossed some miles to be on that boat.

There were couples from north of Detroit; Paducah, Ky.; Rolla, Mo.; and a large group of mostly seniors from eastern Pennsylvania who had also stopped at President Benjamin Harrison's home in Indiana and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Pennsylvania crew all wore name tags, which made it easy to greet them by name.

"Hi, Gus!" I said to Gus Lattanze, who wore a green polo shirt, jeans, white sneakers and hearing aids. "How you doing?"

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