The massive fish swims straight toward us. It's not pretty, and its slow, undulating sashay makes it even scarier. Closer, closer - my two boys, ages 5 and 7, take three steps backward, just as the fish rolls its dead-white eye at them and turns, pursing flabby pink lips as though pondering dinner. Away it glides along a glass wall so pristine, we could imagine reaching our hands right through to stroke the pocked gray hide. Not that we'd want to. Who knew Mississippi River catfish grew this big?
The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium is full of such wonders, natural and manmade. Listed as Iowa's number one attraction by the state's Department of Tourism, the Smithsonian-affiliated museum aims to deepen your understanding of and appreciation for the river that shaped, and continues to influence, America's cultural and economic landscape. It's reason enough to visit Dubuque, a quintessential river town just 90 miles from Madison.
Most museums require a mustering of interest in cultures or artifacts that are, well, musty. This one is different. It's about us - the collective, Midwestern us, I mean - and not just our past, but our present and our future. It's about our boats, songs, authors, explorers, farmers and fishermen. It's a paean to our native plants, birds, mammals, and fish - which are every bit as interesting, if not as colorful, as their saltwater cousins.
You must cross the Big Muddy and Dubuque's Ice Harbor in order to arrive at the museum, which sits at the foot of the Third Street bridge, in three buildings: a flawlessly restored brick warehouse and train depot, and a brand-new aquarium that blends seamlessly with the older structures. Dubuque itself is picturesque, with stately Queen Anne homes clinging to limestone bluffs, a quaint downtown with shops and eateries, and piers lined with tugs and riverboats. The museum fits right in. Its historic bones lend it a weathered authority, reminding us of the vital role the Mississippi played, and continues to play, in the nation's economic prosperity. A boardwalk through a restored wetland preserves the human connection to the river flowing just a few hundred yards away.
Plan on spending the day. With five large aquariums, more than 20 interactive displays, a "wetlab," two films, an outdoor boardwalk trail, a boat-building workshop, and a tour of a real steamboat, the NMRMA reflects the Smithsonian's sterling reputation for top-notch exhibits and breathtaking physical spaces. I guarantee you'll glance at your watch only to make sure you still have time to skedaddle upstairs for the barge-pilot simulation, or into the boatshop for a glimpse of birchbark being bent for canoe hulls.
"First time here?" asks a boy of 9 or so, as we peer over the side of the Backwater Marsh located in a soaring, two-story atrium just inside the entrance to the museum. "I've been here lots of times. Sometimes, outside, it smells like it does in here."
The boy's right: It smells like a spring day at the UW Arboretum in here. The indoor "marsh" is like a giant, waist-high aquarium (if you're tall enough, you can dabble your fingers in the water). Tiny black-and-white ducks paddle around islands planted with river sedges and wild irises. Kids kneel, noses to the glass, peering at graceful turtles and fat bluegill swimming through logs. The only thing unrealistic about this little slice of marsh is how Brita-clear the water is.
Poured into the concrete floor, a winding replica of Old Man River leads out of the atrium, down a long hall depicting the cultures of the Upper, Middle and Lower Mississippi regions. We start out staring at old wooden skates, sap buckets and beaver pelts, and wind up gawking at a 300-pound live alligator in Bayou Country. The gator is motionless - unlike the cownose rays, fellow denizens of the bayou. They swoop in their tank of (intentionally) brackish water like gray kites through a cloudy sky.
"Would you like to touch the rays?" asks a cheerful docent. "Just wash your hands first. The sink is in the Wetlab." We got sidetracked in the Wetlab, where it's all about yanking open "mystery drawers" and peering through microscopes. We gaze into a tank of crayfish.
"Crayfish are very territorial. Sometimes they rip off each other's pincers," the docent announces. She whips a couple of pincers out of her pocket. "Luckily, they can regenerate." A crowd of boys and their fathers stare down through crystal water at the dueling crawdads.
"Look at 'em going at it," somebody says, admiringly.
The Mississippi is the largest river in North America, with the third-largest drainage basin in the world. Flooding is a fact of life, and in an interactive exhibit called "River of Choices," families get to make the decisions that are routinely shoved onto farmers, engineers and the federal government. Should we strengthen the levees? Preserve wetlands? Move people and entire towns and let the floodwaters have their way? Each choice has consequences. It's a thoughtful way to show the delicate balance needed to preserve both ecological diversity and economic prosperity along the Mississippi.
We fly upstairs, with only 20 minutes remaining till closing time. We've saved the best fun for last. In the barge-pilot simulation, kids take the helm, trying to maneuver past piers, locks, bridges and rogue barges going all of five miles per hour. If that sounds easy, well, you don't know the river's wily ways. A friendly old voice gives advice: "That current's pushing you prrretty fast. Better pull hard on the starboard side." Two giggling girls at the control panel do not grasp the urgency. Current, wind and other variables combine to make a slow collision agonizingly inevitable. The words "PILOT ERROR" blink in red on the screen. The kind old voice turns rough. "Now get out of here, and let somebody else take over."
Tramping along the boardwalk, we wish we had time to dash into the Ojibwe storytelling hut. On the way out, we pass a life-size bronze Mark Twain with his arm draped invitingly across the back of a bench. The boys scramble into place and I snap a photo. Twain gazes impassively across the marshy wetland toward the William M. Black steamboat moored in the harbor. Under his prodigious bronze mustache, I glimpse the faintest hint of a smile.
Mississippi River Museum
350 E. 3rd St., Dubuque, IA 52001. 800-226-3369. mississippirivermuseum.com. Summer hours: 10 am-6 pm daily through Labor Day. Adults: $9.95; Seniors: $8.95; Youth (7-17): $7.50; Kids (3-6): $4.
While you're there, check out:
The Depot Café
Burgers, grilled cheese, fries and the like are served at the museum's food and beverage station, located in the beautifully refurbished Chicago Burlington & Quincy Train Depot built in 1891. While you're slurping your Icee, count the cars on the real freight trains as they rumble past outside the windows.
William M. Black Steamboat
Walk the deck of this national landmark, a working dredge boat from the 1930s that's now part of the museum. You can even arrange to spend an "adventuresome" night in a stateroom, with breakfast in the galley come morning. Contact Melissa at 800-226-3369, ext. 213
River Wildlife Cruise
Museum visitors can buy tickets for a 90-minute cruise from the backwaters to Catfish Creek on a pontoon-style boat. Adults: $16.50; Seniors: $15.50; Youth (7-17): $13.50; Kids (3-6): $9.