In the latest issue of Big River magazine, readers will find stories about a giant moth, the pleasures of river island camping, and the blasting of limestone pinnacles on the riverbed that threaten commercial barge traffic.
The Winona-based magazine’s singular focus on all things Mississippi River has won the admiration of thousands of subscribers who turn to it for a wide array of articles about the river’s history, health and secret nooks and crannies.
“I want people to read the magazine and the next time they go out and look at the river, they’ll see something different,” said editor and publisher Reggie McLeod.
For 25 years now, that’s been the mission for McLeod, who started the magazine in 1993.
It was only afterward that he realized how tough it would be to write about a river: It’s easier to sell ads in one location, but the river’s geography demanded coverage of a thin line hundreds of miles in length.
“It’s such a bad business model,” McLeod said.
Those early years were lean, he said, and the magazine nearly folded.
Today readers can find stories on carp processors, water turbidity, a solar water taxi in Minneapolis or the history of commercial ice harvesting in the days before artificial refrigeration.
A staff of five crank out six issues a year for 5,000 subscribers.
“Instead of the river being on the edge of our coverage area, it’s in the center,” said McLeod. The magazine is sold in river towns along the Mississippi, and there’s talk of digitizing its archives with help from Winona State University.
Big River editor-at-large Pamela Eyden also publishes a book for people who want to watch towboats the way a birder looks for birds. The sixth edition of the “Little Tow-Watcher’s Guide” came out this spring with 64 pages of information on 285 towboats, paddle-wheelers and workboats one might see on the river today.
“We decided to create a new spectator sport,” said McLeod.
An earlier life as a freelance writer in and around Winona saw McLeod write about a little bit of everything, from murder trials to agriculture to river conservation.
“It’s a hustle, doing that,” he said. He found himself trying to persuade editors to let him write more stories about the river, mostly because he enjoyed being on it.
He began to see the river as the big story that wasn’t being covered. State borders sometimes define what a publication is interested in, and the river’s geographic function became a barrier to coverage. Even if a story won an editor’s interest, they sometimes misunderstood the meaning of it, or how their city readers might benefit from learning about events taking place along the river 100 miles or more downstream.
McLeod has been paddling on the river for so long now that he’s seen islands come and go, the result of the river’s lock and dam system and the way it upsets a complex relationship between river levels, local flora and erosion.
“The locks and dams have totally changed the river,” he said. “They’ve turned it into a series of lakes.”
Silt pouring into the river system is filling the backwaters. Dredging occurs nearly year-round on some stretches of the Mississippi to keep a 9-foot-deep channel open for barge traffic, McLeod said.
On many days, he added, he’d rather coax his 6-foot-4 frame into his 13-foot solo Royalex canoe, a Wenonah Fusion, and paddle the backwaters.
There’s no shortage of stories on the river if you look for them, McLeod said.
“I want the magazine to be good journalism,” he said. “I want different points of view and different ideas. And to let readers think about these things.”