Wes Modes Secret History Project Tells Untold Stories of the San Lorenzo River

By: Molly Ressler

The San Lorenzo River is going through a phase of renewal and rediscovery. As a community, we are reclaiming the river through native plant restoration, water quality monitoring, improved access and safety, and celebrations like the Ebb & Flow River Arts Festival. Part of this process also includes uncovering the diverse ways in which each of us connects with the river, so that every community member feels welcome along its semi-wild banks.

For local artist Wes Modes, this process of finding and sharing the stories of people’s relationships to rivers is a deeply powerful form of social practice—an art form that creates change through human interaction and conversation. Modes’s ongoing research project, A Secret History of American River People, is in its sixth year and includes the personal stories of people across the U.S. who live and work along American rivers. Now, it will also include the stories of people from his own community and their relationship to the San Lorenzo.

Through a partnership with the Arts Council of Santa Cruz County and the Coastal Watershed Council, Modes interviewed and filmed 20 individuals across diverse socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds about their connection to the San Lorenzo River. “My hope is always that the interviews will form a complementary and contradictory collage of narratives,” says Modes.

The San Lorenzo interviews do just that, including the voices of people both young and old, rich and poor, and from those living within the Ross camp along the levee as well as those opposed to the camp. These powerful stories will be shared with the community both online and through interactive exhibits at the Tannery Arts Center for the upcoming Ebb & Flow River Arts Festival.  

From train hopper to shanty boat captain

Before exploring the country’s rivers, Modes saw much of the U.S. as a train hopper in the 90s and early 2000s. “I really loved being on a train and watching the world flow by, looking at what I imagined were the backyards of America,” he says. When he heard about a group of people planning to float down the Mississippi River on homemade boats, Modes decided to build his own raft out of truck tubes and plywood. He took his makeshift raft down sections of the Missouri River—the longest river in America. This was the start of countless boating excursions lasting around two weeks at a time, sometimes with as many as 20 people and a dozen rafts.

It was through these trips that Modes became interested in river culture. “I imagined there would be porches on the river and people playing the banjo, but it felt like these rivers were largely forgotten,” says Modes. “Rather than being a tourist I wanted to give something back. That took the form of listening to people’s stories and recording and sharing them.”

First, Modes built a 1940s-era shantyboat out of reclaimed materials, creating for himself a permanent floating home. Then in 2014, he began collecting stories. Ever since, he has spent his summers interviewing people across the U.S. who live and work along rivers.

Revealing Santa Cruz’s secret history

Modes lives just three blocks from the San Lorenzo River in Felton. He’s both rafted and canoed down the river and regularly takes his dog for walks along the small tributary by his house. Like many community members, he has a strong personal connection with the San Lorenzo, so when the Arts Council of Santa Cruz County asked him to collect river stories for Ebb & Flow, he was excited to hear the secret history of the ‘river people’ in his own community.

In years past, Modes has brought his shantyboat to Ebb & Flow festivals, but this will be the first year he will also share the community’s stories of the river. “For six years I have been bringing this boat all over the country as far away as New York and spending months out on the river,” says Modes. “To be able to bring it home and feel the appreciation of the people in my community is pretty exciting for me.”

Giving all people a voice

At Ebb & Flow, attendees can board the shantyboat and watch excerpts from 20 interviews with San Lorenzo neighbors, including fly fisherman, environmentalists, Tannery and Ross Camp residents, and kids who regularly play along the riverbanks.

Through sharing these stories, Modes hopes to amplify the voices that are too often silenced or simply overlooked. “When we hear history, it’s a history that’s written by one historian ... it will always be biased because that person makes conscious choices about what they include and omit by necessity. I want the voices of the people who we’re interviewing to be front and center. I want those voices to speak for themselves.”

Don’t miss Wes Modes’s river story exhibit at the Tannery Arts Center on June 7 for the annual Ebb & Flow River Arts Festival. Besides watching the interviews from inside his shantyboat, teen dancers from Tannery World Dance, Motion Pacific, and Dancenter will perform a piece choreographed by Molly Katzman to an original score by musician, Nino Moscella. Each turn and leap reflects a piece of our river’s story. Poet Dina El Dessouky will also be reading an original poetry piece inspired by the voices of the San Lorenzo.