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South to Alaska

Father, dreamer, voyager

The story is simple: A 10-year-old Oklahoma farm boy dreams of a great adventure. Fifty years later, after carving out a career and raising a family, Melvin Owens builds a 47-foot boat in his backyard and launches it on the Arkansas River, setting off on a 10,000-mile voyage to Alaska via the Panama Canal.

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He had not been south of the U.S. border or on a boat on the ocean. “Learn by doing” was his mantra.

In “South to Alaska,” Nancy Owens Barnes (2009, Rushing River Press, $15.95 paperback, $5.99 e-book, 256 pages) tells the story of her father. Culled from interviews with her parents and Melvin’s logbook, the author details an adventure delayed but finally fulfilled.

Owens Barnes accompanied her father on the first leg, a 1973 river passage to the Gulf of Mexico, where Melvin’s solo voyage began. It ended on an island in southeast Alaska. Plagued by mechanical problems, storms, threats of foreign jail, illness and loneliness, Melvin fears the worst but reaches the place of his dreams before returning to the family he loves.

This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue.