"Though there are many, you mean always the same one, the great river, the shifting unappeasable god of the country, feared and loved, the Mississippi . . . " --William A. Percy, "Lanterns on the Levee."

Father of waters, the Indians named it in awe, and so it is, this roistering, scouring, cantankerous, life-giving and life-taking stream called the Mississippi. The Nile and the Amazon are longer and more powerful, yes, but this is the Great River.

Up and down its ganglion tributaries, reaching out like nerve endings, this is the river on which the nation was built and still endures. It begins, technically speaking, at Lake Itasca in upper Minnesota and meanders south toward the Gulf of Mexico, challenged and taunted but never dominated by man.

Meanders is the word. Fly with a crow from the Gulf to Cairo, Ill., where the Mississippi sucks up the Ohio, and you fly a bit over 500 miles. Travel by water and you go about 950 miles, guided by navigation lights and buoys through countless turns and bends where the chocolate river loops back on itself.

The river lumbers down the spine of the North American continent, built from droplets in 41 states from the Rockies to the Adirondacks, and several Canadian provinces, to become the most dominating natural force of the land.

And it is enigmatic, always enigmatic. It flows north and it flows south. Its channel shifts constantly, from east to west and back again, building then tearing out its deltas and islands as it seeks the shortest route to freedom. Yet it meanders.

On its way toward the Gulf, carrying food and goods to the world, the Mississippi becomes the amalgam of America. Wars were fought on its banks, great cities grew up along its course, romance and tradition were burnished to idylls by its waters. Its contributing parts excite memory and emotion: Monongahela, Allegheny, Kanawha, Obion, Yazoo, Styx, Wolf, Missouri, Kentucky, Illinois, Fox, Green, Miami, Big Sandy, Arkansas. On and on the rivers.

And we even have imbued the great river with human qualities. Along its waters, there are those who call the Mississippi "her" and "she." Yet the terms used to describe it always connote masculine, macho, male character. Whitman called it the force that concentrated our political union. Twain's love affair with it and his literary inventions turned generations of men to addled romantics. On and on, the great river.

On its way south, draining the heartland, the Mississippi means business. More Interstate Highway than Main Street. Today it carries products to the world, brought down on barges by powerful towboats to be cached in the ocean-going ships that ply as far north as Baton Rouge. The river has spawned great industry and hustle, created ports and opened a path to the granary of the Midwest.

Between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, one of the globe's great trade and industrial complexes, valued in the billions of dollars, has taken root along its banks. Numberless grain terminals, standing tall like sentinels, spew soybeans and wheat and corn into the holds of foreign freighters.

At the big petrochemical plants, spooky refinery towers stretch skyward. Flames and spotlights singe the night. The smell of industrial offal changes every few miles, denoting a different product, another process. The people of New Orleans, who drink the Mississippi's water, worry that they are drinking poison from the plants.

To keep the traffic moving, protect the rich delta farmlands and keep the cities intact, the federal government's Army Corps of Engineers does constant battle with the river. They try to hold it in its banks, guide its waters, anticipate its vagaries and keep it from running amok. They line imperiled banks with boulders to avert erosion. They hide long cement dikes on the river bottom to direct the current. Most of the battle is man versus natbeing paid now at Angola, La., where the engineers are in hand-to-hand combat with the Mississippi. In the 1800s, man carved a canal and linked the Mississippi with the nearby Atchafalaya. Now the Mississippi has decided it wants to go that way permanently and it threatens to dramatically change course by joining the south-flowing Atchafalaya. Such a change, shortening the Mississippi's path to the Gulf by 170 miles, would devastate Baton Rouge and New Orleans. They could be left high and dry. It wouldn't do much good either for Morgan City, La., which would become the main end-point on a new father of waters. There's no way Morgan City could fend off that much water.

So the engineers have mounted an emergency, multi-million-dollar effort to keep Ole Miss on course. Academics at Louisiana State University say it is a fight that cannot be won. The engineers refuse to call it a no-win proposition, but the best they can do is cajole the river. "You don't force the Mississippi," says Herbert A. Kassner, a corps official at Vicksburg. "You find out what it wants to do and you try to manage it."

This is all very complicated, but in another time, life along the Mississippi was simpler and the river was truly the Main Street of a nation. Before they were cut off by levees and floodwalls, towns and cities faced the river. Today, they turn away. Before the locomotive, one traveled and traded by river. That was the time of the steamboat, the chuffing, paddlewheeling, graceful, palatial, ornate workhorse that whistled its way up to every town and plantation landing with its passengers and merchandise. The tales of their occasional races (remember the Robert E. Lee and the Natchez?) are part of the legend and tradition.

The first steamboat to reach New Orleans was a contraption built by Nicholas Roosevelt, who called it, appropriately enough, the New Orleans. The small paddlewheeler reached its destination in 1812 and immediately a new era of American life began. A parade, a profusion of steamboats followed and opened the country to commerce and easy interstate travel. By the turn of the century, the steamboat era had ended for all practical purposes. More efficient ways had been found to carry people and cargo.

A few of the boats survived, however, tramping their way from town to town as excursion boats. But when television and air conditioning came along in a big way after World War II, the paddlewheelers were doomed forever, it seemed. Folks in the river towns had better ways to stay cool and be entertained. The last time a steam-powered excursion boat made regular Mississippi trips was 1961. The last time one of these boats left New Orleans was 1942.

Now, only a handful of the boats are left and even at that most are replicas. Yet they are the link to that era of grandeur real and imagined, the small flame of the romance, the connecting rod to our wish for a simpler, easier time.

"We're tinsel. Thi s is all tinsel. A floating carnival . . . " -- Capt. Clarke (Doc) Hawley, master of the Natchez

Doc Hawley is an improbable man in a lot of ways, but in his heart he cannot believe the tinsel remark. He sees himself as an entertainer of sorts, but he is one of the keepers of the flame of steamboat romance. Mark Twain, should he return, would be perfectly happy talking shop with Doc Hawley. Scratch him and a river story gushes forth.

Hawley is only in his mid-forties, but it seems he's been on this river for ages. There are five passenger-carrying paddlewheel steamboats left in the country and he has been captain of three of them. At 16, he took a summer job playing calliope on the Avalon, the last of the regular excursion steamboats. A week after he turned 21 he had a pilot's license. At 24 he was master of the boat, tramping it up and down the inland rivers.

When the Avalon went broke in 1961, Hawley hired onto the Delta Queen, the only overnight passenger paddlewheeler on the rivers, and rose to captain. But in 1970 he went back to captain his first love, the Avalon, which had been resurrected in Kentucky as the Belle of Louisville, a city/county- owned excursion vessel.

Hawley's path crossed in 1975 with another improbable fellow, Wilbur Dow of Lake George, N.Y. Dow was a well-to-do maritime lawyer, ocean-going pilot and entrepreneur who owned the New Orleans Steamboat Co. Dow wanted to build -- from scratch -- an oldtime sternwheel steamboat and he wanted Hawley to be his captain.

Dow studied antique photographs until he found the boat he liked. Then he called in a third improbability, a crusty steamboat fanatic named Alan Bates. Bates, a Louisville architect, designed Dow's new boat, a gem of a thing which was built for something over $4 million. He called it the Natchez, the ninth in a line of paddlewheelers bearing the legendary name.

Hawley took command of the Natchez in 1976, running the big boat on excursions around the New Orleans harbor and making a mint for Wilbur Dow. But there was always a wild idea in the back of Hawley's mind. He wanted to take the Natchez north, show it off along the river, maybe revive the old tramping tradition. Nobody took him very seriously.

Last year the promoters of the annual race between the Belle of Louisville and the Delta Queen invited the Natchez to compete in their extravaganza at Louisville. Damn, or something like that, Dow said, and he told his captain to take the Natchez north and beat the pants off those boats. It would be 10 days, some 1,240 miles up the Mississippi and Ohio, with excursion stops along the way.

Mississippi River Radio Conversation,

April 1982: Pilot Joe Gale: Steamer Natchez to the southbound tow in Willow Bend.

Towboat: Yeah, cap, come on in.

Gale: Yeah. You want me to hug this bank and give you one whistle?

Towboat: Sounds mighty fine, cap. We be seein' you on the one . . . Say, what you doin' up this far?

Gale: Well, cap, we goin' up to Louisville for the steamboat race with the Delta Queen and the Belle of Louisville.

Towboat: 'Zat right, cap? Good luck to you and have a safe trip.

Second Towboat (interrupting): Hey, cap, whose turn is it to win? Heh, heh.

"I thought I heard that Natchez whistle blow . . . " -- Song by John Hartford, singer, river pilot

Straight through from New Orleans, it was 30 hours to Natchez, a painfully storied town up on a bluff above the east bank of the Mississippi.

Natchez is enamored of its past. Its antebellum homes are open to the public. The Natchez Democrat, the local daily, has a steamboat silhouette on its masthead. When Hollywood wants to film its Old South epics, it goes to Natchez.

As in olden days, Capt. Hawley ordered his pilot to whistle for the landing at Natchez. When steamboats stopped here regularly, there was a brawling vice district called Natchez-under-the-Hill right near the landing. Proper Natchez was above it all. Now they're trying to make a buck off the reputation. Where trollops used to romp, tourists and drinkers live it up in artsy shops and bars. The mournful blast of the steam whistle echoed off the bluff and heads popped out of the bars to see the spectacle edge to the shore.

Mayor Tony Byrne was at the dock, accompanied by a daughter in hoopskirt, to welcome the namesake boat. The Democrat was full of controversy -- and taking it very seriously. A visiting writer had accused the town of living in the past, which ranks with calumny in Mississippi. A local editor gamely tried to debunk the critique in his column.

Folks in these river towns don't take kindly to outside criticism. The talk of the Mississippi Valley still is a book called "Old Glory," written a couple years ago by Jonathan Raban, an Englishman who traveled the entire river in a small boat. Raban seemed not a generous visitor. He found warts and eyesores. He was offended by many of the people he met. He finally flushed them away in a wave of condescension. He's not welcome back most places.

Mayor Byrne took wheelthat, as well as the latest blast, quite in his stride. "You've got to live in the past to see where you're going," the mayor told a curious visitor. What about the writer's mild cry that he had been ripped off to the tune of some $80 to stay overnight in Byrne's 1832 guest house? The mayor chuckled. "He was wrong by 20 cents," he said.

That night, musician John Hartford, along on the trip as a watchman, counted 950 passengers coming on for a two-hour reverie into the past out on their river. They drank a lot of Dixie beer (the Natchez took 1,500 cases of it north) and thanked Capt. Hawley as they trundled off the boat and headed up the hill. The air was redolent with honeysuckle and it wasn't a bad night.

"Alexander Graham Bell has just begun to make a dent in Greenville . . . " -- Capt. Roddy Hammett, alternate master of the Natchez.

At eight miles an hour, fighting the massive current and groping through nighttime fog, it was almost another full day to Greenville and the Natchez was running behind. Roddy Hammett was in the pilothouse, trying to make radio connections to Greenville through a marine telephone operator.

The operator couldn't understand what a steamboat was doing around these parts. Finally, she gave up. "It's been unusual," she said.

Well, Greenville is unusual. River navigation companies are centered here, but the town's biggest claim to fame is the newspaper that the late Hodding Carter edited as a beacon of reason in a land of unreason. The paper is different now, owned by a chain. Capt. Hawley cautioned the black members of his crew, most of them untraveled young New Orleanians, to keep a low profile because, well, because Greenville had this reputation.

In any case, Greenville was glad to see the Natchez. All along the channel into town, people in pickups and camper vans waved at the Natchez. The boat was 90 minutes late, but the calliope was chortling "Dixie" and there were no hard feelings. The Natchez made two boisterous trips out into the river.

The evening passengers waited in the dark cold for their turn to board. Out of the bank were several dozen coeds from nearby Delta State University, wearing pastel hoopskirts. Their beaus, members of Robert E. Lee's fraternity, wore gray Confederate army uniforms with golden sashes. Calliopist Kenny Butler stoked up "Dixie" once again and about 900 people broke into an interminable singalong.

Many of the Greenville cruisers got roaringly polluted. "Hey," said one of them, "the cream of Greenville is here tonight. This is the biggest social event they've had in years." The light brigade's commandant kept trying to flip off a Natchez watchman's cap with the tip of his saber. The watchman, Bob Heyn, who was an all-state football player in Kentucky, never lost his cool. "He's just trying to have fun," said Heyn.

The evening crowd, somewhat impatient, had been delayed in boarding because an elderly black man had a seizure during the first trip. He lay immobile on the steel deck while ambulance paramedics tried to revive him. He had traveled that afternoon with another wizened old black man who asked only one question all day: "Where is the bath for coloreds?"

"I have known pilots to whom the river, year in and year out, seemed more than a wife, home or child . . . " -- Charles E. Russell, "A-Raftin' on the Mississippi"

It is a fact that there's nobody here or anyplace else today quite like the steamboat pilot. Mark Twain was, of course, a pilot and his Capt. Horace Bixby in "Life on the Mississippi" serves as the archetypal pilot for most readers: knowledgeable, worldly, mysterious, tough.

There's only a few of these steamboat pilots around anymore and their specialty fits in the rare-job category. They have to know how to handle the big boats, they have to know by heart every light, every navigation signal, every inch, bend and quirk of the rivers they travel. Their common ground is that they're all obsessed with love for the rivers.

Capeelt. Hawley, a pilot himself, got a rare bunch together for his sentimental journey up the river. He had Capt. Roddy Hammett, who dropped out of college when the lure of the water overtook him. He had Capt. Joseph Van Gale, a stoic fellow who piloted towboats between New Orleans and Louisville for 30 years. He had Capt. Lexie Palmore, a regular pilot on the Delta Queen and one of the few women ever licensed. There was Capt. C.W. Stoll, a retired oil executive from Louisville who probably knows as much about steamboat history as anyone alive. And once in a while, entertainer Hartford, licensed to pilot on the Illinois River, would get to steer the Natchez.

Everyone is called captain, as in Capt. Joe, Capt. Lexie and so on. Theirs is a lonely job, often solo up there in the pilothouse, with only the river and the radios from passing tows to talk to. So they're usually glad to have visitors in their conning tower and when they do, the yarns flow.

But much of the talk is about the changes in the river, where the channel is shifting, where the obstructions are hidden, where the current has become treacherous overnight. River depths, always rising or falling, must be known for clearing bridges and sandbars. The monster has to be watched and studied constantly.

Above Memphis, when the river turned fast and the water roiled with whitecaps, Stoll announced that it was because of heavy runoff from the Illinois and the Upper Mississippi. At Barfield Light in Tennessee, an eddy was forcing the current to run upstream and it was chewing mighty chunks from the bank. The Corps' stone revetment was torn apart -- it looked like the work of man -- and Gale said, "Somebody's been paid off." Near Roosevelt Light, Hawley told how in just one month the force of the river had shifted the boat channel from one shore to the other. All along the way there was talk about the silt, the soil washing from farms in the Mississippi watershed, and collective wonder about farmers' failure to do more about their erosion problems. At some points, the soupy river was thick with floating dead trees and junk. "Somewhere out there in the Gulf there's an island of driftwood and an island of styrofoam and Clorox bottles . . . They never, never disappear," Hawley said, "but where do they go?"

The bends, the lights and the islands all have names. Most of them conjure the mystery of the river: Morganza Bend light, Fancy Point, Longwood Plantation, Bayou Sara Bend, Ben Hur light, Cerro Gordo, Destruction, Joe Pierce. There's even a Bixby Towhead, named for the captain. As the pilot bears up on each of these, it's as though he is passing a familiar street corner and it reminds him of a story. Above Baton Rouge, when the Natchez steamed around a long island called St. Maurice Towhead it reminded Doc Hawley of a tidbit. "This was named for the steamer St. Maurice, which wrecked right here in 1830," he said. "An island formed on her bones . . and the J. M. White burned here, also." When Hawley mentioned that, it set off a flood of stories and speculation about the J. M. White, a cotton packet that most historians regard as the most elegant riverboat ever built.

"On the Mississippi and Ohio between New Orleans, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh, there's about 3,500 navigation lights," Gale said. "You have to name every one of them on your pilot's examination. Plus you've got about 150 other questions you have to answer. The Coast Guard makes it tougher all the time. Even boys with a college education have trouble."

Like the pilots in Charles Russell's book, Capt. Gale put the river ahead of all else. He spent all those years on towboats and then on the steamer Mississippi Queen, when finally his wife said he had to stay home. "Wife doesn't want to stay home alone. Can't much blame her, I guess," he said one afternoon. So he took a job piloting the excursion boats around New Orleans and sleeping at home each night.

He wouldn't say so out loud, but he was overjoyed to be back out on his open peelriver. Whenever the Natchez put into a landing and he wasn't on watch, Gale would go out on the deck and quietly observe how the boat, as lumbering as a sleepy elephant, was guided to the bank. There was wonderment in his eyes every time.

"That's steamboatin' . . . " -- Eddie Bayard, riverboat musician

New Orleans jazz went north by river, mostly on steamboats operated by the Streckfus family. In the early part of this century, such figures as Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Fate Marable and Baby Dodds were playing regularly on the tramping Streckfus boats. They were black and in that era of segregated entertainment, their life on the boats never was easy. Dodds once wrote that one of his great musical joys was performing for an occasional black excursion.

Per force, an excursion boat has to have a band. Hawley asked Eddie Bayard, a cornet player who had spent a lot of time on the boats, to put together a band. He called it Eddie Bayard and His Bourbon Street Five.

The Bourbon Street Five didn't know what it was in for. The Natchez wasn't built for overnight passengers, so Bayard's group took up residence around the bandstand, where they slept in sleeping bags. They had to wait in line to take showers and get their food. One of the musicians complained to Bayard about the accommodations. All he said was, "That's steamboatin'."

But the band played hot and hard and between towns, Bayard would call his people together for practice. John Hartford would unsheath his famous fiddle and sit in with the band from time to time. They produced sensational music and the crowds loved it.

That atmosphere also produced a catchy new song. Jim Duggan, a trombonist who spent years with Pete Fountain, got an inspiration. He called it "Chuffin' on the Natchez" and it was very much riverboat Dixie. A couple of days after he wrote it, Duggan's melody was being played regularly for dancers. Duggan was a little abashed by his success. "That's what boredom will do for you," he shrugged.

Bayard's musicians were bemused by Hawley's deckhands. Some of them were into punk rock and Hartford playfully tried to organize them into a band, which they called The Dead Deckhands. Some nights, the deckhands would take off their shoes and hold a slam dance, sort of like rugby without a ball. "It helps take out aggressions," said Tommy Keel, a decker. "Some people beat their wives or kick their dogs. We do the slam dance."

Keel and his deckhands wrote a song that went this way: My tail's on fire, My head's in the can. Can't find my lifejacket, Too drunk to land. 'Cause I'm a dead deckhand.

"I have haunted the river every night lately, where I could get a look at the bridge by moonlight . . . " -- Walt Whitman, "Specimen Days"

The Mississippi's character comes clear at the bridges of Cairo. There, where Illinois tails out to the sharp end of a point, the Ohio joins the Mississippi and turns it to a force so mighty that the engineers do not attempt to dam it.

Facing upstream, the Mississippi and the Missouri shore are on the left; the Ohio River and Kentucky are on the right. The water on the left, coming down from the great Upper Mississippi watershed, is molasses-brown proof certain that Iowa is washing away. On the right, the water flow is clear, coming down 981 miles from Pittsburgh, through a series of high dams built by the engineers.

The differing current lines are visible here at the Cairo point, but within a mile the blending has become complete. The Mississippi has dominated the Ohio and it all runs dark and muddy from there on south. Behind its protective floodwall, Cairo seems semi- derelict: faded facades, boarded-up buildings, isolation. Cairo, Hawley noted, still has a dreamy old-time bar where a gallon of beer sells for $1.50. Or used to.

Up toward the first of the dams on the Ohio, heading for Paducah, Ky., Capt. Stoll reached up and pulled the brass whistle ring, his signal for permission to be lifted through Lock 52. The voice of a federal locktender creelackled on the radio.

"That sounds pretty," the lockman said. "Been a long time since I heard a steam whistle."

"Thank you, sir," Stoll answered. "We did it just for you."

Paducah, an old river town, was waiting for the Natchez. Both excursions had been sold out in advance. Dozens of townsmen lounged on the landing, watching the big boat pull in to tie up.

Like Natchez, Paducah feels strongly about its past. Historical markers dot the neat downtown area. One denotes the office of former vice president Alben Barkley. Another quotes hometowner Irwin S. Cobb, the humorist. The old slave market has become a nifty gallery.

And like Natchez, Paducah had its Mark Twain. Strolling the landing was a man with powder-white hair, Mark Twain mustache, vanilla suit, watch fob, curved pipe. His twin had worked the crowd in Natchez, moving all around the boat to make certain he was seen by all. Capt. Hammett watched the Sunday scene and shook his head. "There's one of these characters in every river town," he said. "Oh, wouldn't Twain scorch them if he saw this?"

Probably would.

"The sound of the riverboats hangs inside your heart like a star . . . " -- William A. Percy, "Lanterns on the Levee"

Here on the Ohio, with its long, controlled pools of dammed water, the Natchez moved differently. The boat didn't buck against the current, as it had done on the rugged Mississippi. It moved at 11 miles an hour, instead of 8, which wasn't fast but quite adequate to outrace the Delta Queen and the Belle of Louisville, as eventually occurred. Even its whistle sounded different, echoing longer and more mournfully, intent apparently on summoning every river ghost of yesterday.

But again, man's proclivity for tampering and subduing the river shows up. The banks of the Ohio are toppling in huge chunks into the water, cut down by the higher pool levels of the new dams and the erosive force of towboat wakes. Trees that took 50 years to grow fall like toothpicks. Rich Kentucky and Indiana farm fields are eaten away, bit by bit.

Farmers move slowly on their tractors, putting in the soybeans and corn, seemingly oblivious to the enemy. They look up from their work, startled at the distant sight of the feathered smokestacks of the Natchez. Some stop their tractors. Others wave or wait for a salute from the whistle.

On one of these afternoons, Rodney Richardson, the young mate of the Natchez, was sitting in the sun on the front of the boat, looking back at this foreign wonderland. He grew up in the tough, black Desire housing project in New Orleans and never had ventured beyond home until now. He learned all he knows about riverboats from Hawley and he could not help but be smitten.

The whistle blew again and he looked over. "You know, she sounds like she belongs up in these waters," he said. "This is music I dream about."