There will be few dry eyes this week as the last passenger steps ashore in Memphis from the deck of that great lady of the river -- the Delta Queen.

This grande dame of the steam-driven paddle wheelers is on what appears to be her final voyage. For almost 70 years, she has plied the rivers of America, from St. Paul to New Orleans, from Cincinnati to Nashville and beyond.

Thanks to her, thousands of former passengers treasure memories of a week when life's cares were suspended and replaced by the Mark Twain-like world of giant smokestacks, a surprise around every river bend, and the peace of a moonlit night on deck.

Dick Karnath, too, is pondering the last days of the Delta Queen. But his connection with America's steamboat history stretches back beyond her maiden Mississippi River voyage in 1948, and even her construction in 1926. Karnath, of Winona, is a third-generation river man, whose family has logged more than 128 years on Mississippi steamboats.

In 1890, his grandfather -- Rudolph (Red) Karnath -- quit school at age 14 to work on the Army Corps of Engineers steamboats that kept the Mississippi channel open through constant maintenance and dredging. Already a pilot in his 20s, he plied the river for 50 years, retiring in 1940.

Karnath's father, Capt. Walter Karnath, also followed the river's lure. He, too, left school at 14, becoming the youngest pilot on the Mississippi in 1929 at age 21. With his legendary skills, he was known as "King of the River." In 1958, he became the Delta Queen's pilot, and served for 20 years before retiring in 1978 after 55 years on the river.

Dick Karnath grew up hearing tales of the river at every family gathering. At age 14, he also began work as a deckhand -- on his father's towboat. But he found nothing glamorous in being wakened at 3 o'clock on a frosty morning to warm up the tug or move barges, he says.

"We were on call 24 hours a day," he said. "Rain, snow, sleet, wind -- I couldn't wait to get back to the engine room to take off my sopping wet clothes and put my leather gloves on the engine to dry."

Karnath vowed to work with his head, not his hands. At age 18, he headed off to college to earn a degree in math and physics. In 1969, he started a career as a math teacher at Winona Junior High.

Yet his thoughts kept straying to the river. He watched with pride as his father landed the Delta Queen at the Winona levy, and he often took his school classes on tours of the elegant craft.

"Whenever I could, I'd grab a bunk or a sofa on the boat and ride with my dad," Karnath recalled. "I'd say, 'Dad, can I steer?' and he'd let me take the wheel across Lake Pepin, where I couldn't hit anything."

Finally, the lure of the river proved too strong. In 1982, at age 37, Karnath took a leave from teaching and signed on as a deckhand with the Delta Queen Steamboat Co.

"I never dreamed I'd make a career of it," he said. "I thought I'd just take a couple years off and have some fun." But five years later, he earned his pilot and master's license. Eventually, he took the helm of the Delta Queen himself.

Karnath finished his 23-year career as the master of the American Queen, the largest of the great river steamboats. "I prided myself on the fact that I could go out on deck anywhere between New Orleans and St. Paul and tell where we were," he said.

His adventures as a pilot included steaming into an 80 mile-an-hour straight-line wind near Natchez, Miss., where he called for goggles because he feared the windows would shatter. In 2003, the Ohio River was so high that he cleared the Illinois Central railroad bridge near Cairo, Ill., by a scant one inch.

Karnath retired in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.

The way he sees it, we probably won't see the like of the magnificent Delta Queen again. And I suspect that we won't see the likes of the boys who became men working the river from age 14 -- and who grew up to pilot these great ladies of the Mississippi.

Katherine Kersten • 612-673-1774 Join the conversation at my blog,