A few weeks ago, a flotilla of five peculiar looking, homemade boats mysteriously appeared on the stretch of the Mississippi River that lies just above St. Anthony Falls. At first, the vessels were docked at the public launch at Boom Island, where builders tweaked and modified their conspicuous, half-finished creations. After several days, the boats - cobbled variously from plywood, 55-gallon plastic barrels, tarps, screens, and, in one case, the shell of an old Volkswagen - relocated to a more private spot on an island by the Riverside power plant.
The work proceeded there at a leisurely pace. Then a week or so later, the vessels set out on a slow procession downriver. As they circled and pinwheeled around each other, it looked as if they were part of some sort of riparian Kabuki dance. So, of course, people gawked and stared and wondered. Whenever anyone got the chance, they would shout, So what are you guys doing, anyway? The answer - We're going to New Orleans - invariably produced looks of incredulity, usually followed by broad smiles. And then, more often than not, there would be the envious refrain: I've always wanted to do that.
Like most worthwhile adventures, the origins of this particular grand excursion are rooted in pure serendipity. It started five or six years back, when Evan Clark and a high school buddy from Ann Arbor, Dave Ferner, were riding freight trains in Missouri. One night, Clark was scrounging for food in a dumpster outside a college dorm when he came across an unopened envelope. Inside, there was a card, and inside that, an overlooked gift: $100 in cash.
"We said, 'Oh, we should do something cool with this,'" recalls Clark, a 25-year-old landscaper with short blond dreads and a mild, bookish manner. And then the idea hit them: Let's build a raft and head for New Orleans. So Clark and Ferner acquired some scrap plywood, Styrofoam, and a couple of lawn chairs. In short order, they launched their rickety vessel on its maiden voyage, drifting down the fast-running and flotsam-clogged Missouri River. It was harrowing - and exhilarating. "We went from Jefferson City to St. Louis before we hit a jetty, flipped the boat, and lost most of our shit. But we thought, this could be so awesome if we had a bigger boat."
So, four years ago, while wintering in Mexico, Clark found himself dreaming of another river trip and sketching out boat designs. The following summer, he and a handful of friends built a plywood boat, which they dubbed the F.N.R. Penelore. (F.N.R. stands for "Fucking Raft," while Penelore - literally "fire canoe" - is a reference to the first steamboats to travel the Mississippi.) The group then acquired a beat-up old houseboat with which to push the Penelore downriver.
That trip didn't go as planned. Starting too late in the season, they wound up stranded in Dubuque over the long winter months. But the following spring, they forged on, eventually making their way to the Ohio River, then the Tennessee, and, after the Penelore began taking water and sunk, ended up in Chattanooga.
By then, Clark and his fellow travelers (mostly veteran train hoppers) had the river bug. So they hatched a plan for another excursion. This March, Clark began scrounging materials for the construction of his new boat, a 20-foot-long, seven-foot-wide, barge-style plywood vessel with a covered wagon-style roof. Working nights and weekends, it took about two months to build. All told, Clark figures he spent less than $500 on the boat. His two motors, a used 7.5 horsepower and a 3.5 horsepower, cost just $25 apiece.
Soon afterwards, Dave Ferner and Randy "Gerty" Tonjum, a 29-year-old cabinetmaker originally from Faribault, began work on their own vessels. Both employed the same barge-style hull design as Clark, but with some notable differences. Ferner's boat, for instance, uses the shell of a Volkswagen station wagon for a cabin.
Tonjum's boat, probably the stoutest in the fleet, has a hardtop roof that serves as an extra deck. There are some lovely artistic flourishes as well: a curved, Chinese-style prow with a stenciled tricolor rooster on either side (eyes on a boat are said to bring good luck) and, on the deck, an enormous black-and-white rendering of the face of Mala Zimetbaum.
Zimetbaum, Tonjum explains, was a heroine of Auschwitz. After escaping the death camp, she was recaptured. As she was to be hanged in front of her fellow prisoners, she slit her wrists with a hidden razor and, in a dying gesture of defiance, struck her guard with a bloody fist. That really grabbed Tonjum.
There are two other boats in the fleet: an extensively modified fiberglass runabout powered by a 1959 10-horsepower Johnson, and a rickety homemade raft kept afloat by 10 plastic barrels. The latter, built by a fanciful guy from Minneapolis named Jack, looks doomed. But he doesn't betray even the barest hint of concern. A friend offers up an explanation of sorts: Rather than resisting chaos, Jack simply embraces it. Besides, Jack is a veteran river traveler, and once made it as far as Memphis on a similar raft. You can't question experience.
Not surprisingly, the sheer audacity of the group's undertaking has attracted some attention. A few years ago, Dave Eberhardt, a documentary filmmaker, met Clark and Ferner while making a movie about railroad tramps called Long Gone. After catching wind of the planned river trip, Eberhardt knew he had to be a part of it. "I just love hanging around cool people, doing cool things," he explains. So he and a fellow movie maker, Andrea Maio, acquired a houseboat and are now planning to document the quixotic venture. (Like the trip itself, the movie looks like a seat-of-the-pants operation. On August 14, Eberhardt and Maio will be hosting a fundraiser at the House of Mo at 2657 Grand St. NE in Minneapolis. You can call 612.964.2703 for more information.)
Because there is no formal itinerary or expedition leader - and because everyone has been scrambling to get their affairs in order before heading out on a trip of unknown duration - the flotilla's progress has been slow. After leaving their first camp on an island by the Riverside power plant, the group spent a night on the shores of Gluek Park in northeast Minneapolis. The next day, they moved a couple of hundred yards downriver to a blighted spit of land below the Burlington Northern bridge.
After that, the flotilla passed through the Upper and Lower St. Anthony Falls locks, where the group found a new mooring near the Franklin Avenue Bridge. That night, they held an impromptu party on the river's edge, where friends and friends of friends partied into the wee hours, drinking home-brewed orange hooch and saying farewell. And then they floated another few hundred yards downriver to a sand spit by the Lake Street Bridge, and spent a night there.
That's one virtue of a slow boat: You get a long goodbye.