Skip to main content

Rollin’ on the river ... again

Three rafters resume their voyage down the Mississippi after being stopped by the Coast Guard

Three rafters resume their voyage down the Mississippi after being stopped by the Coast Guard

After being “beached” by the Coast Guard in Vicksburg, Miss., for almost two months, three rafters who had traveled 1,100 miles down the Mississippi River to reach the Gulf of Mexico are back on track.

“We are definitely excited to be back on our journey, although it’s very cold now,” says Laura Mattingly, 25, of Santa Cruz, Calif. “Even with our winter gear it’s very cold, but it’s great to be on the river again.”

At 2:15 p.m. Nov. 5 — after the Coast Guard had inspected their raft and given its approval — the trio, which also includes Libby Hendon, 24 and Jamie Burkart, 24, both of Kansas City, Mo., waved goodbye to the friends they had made during their extended stay in Vicksburg.

The rafters were ordered off the river Sept. 18 by Rear Adm. Joel R. Whitehead, commander of the New Orleans-based Eighth Coast Guard District, about 15 miles north of Vicksburg. They initially were ordered off for registration violations, but the Coast Guard became concerned over whether they could safely navigate the busy lower Mississippi in the raft with its limited propulsion and steering “system.” The crew fixed its sagging “bow” and had hoped to restart the voyage Oct. 20, but officials still were unconvinced.

The original suggestion was to rig the raft with an outboard, but Hendon says that would have been too expensive. The compromise that mollified officials was adding 12-foot oars and a third rudder, which were donated by Vicksburg residents.

The rafters started their voyage on the Missouri River in Kansas City July 21 and made their way to the Mississippi. Their goal: promoting the preservation of the river culture and its environmental beauty. “There are historical waterfront areas that have been abandoned, and there are pieces of old buildings and materials everywhere that we used to make the raft,” says Burkart. “Libby is a friend of mine I’ve known for about six or seven years, when we were in high school. Laura was a writer for a weekly newspaper in Santa Cruz, and we met when she wrote an article about an art show I did.”

Burkart says they and three other friends built the raft at his mother’s house in Kansas City from July 1 to 21, using materials from abandoned buildings found along the river. The 12-foot raft has a VHF radio to communicate with other vessels, two bicycles that operate a paddlewheel, a strobe light on the bow, and a makeshift canopy (four poles and a tarp) for bad weather.

Attorney Paul Kelly Loyacono, a Vicksburg native who was the rafters’ pro bono liaison with the Coast Guard, says they only travel during the day and beach the raft at night. Their food, clothing and camping supplies are stored on the raft, and water is carried in two 30-gallon jugs. “Now they have the oars, which will help them turn and navigate the raft more quickly,” says Loyacono.

Burkart says they have been inviting people to join them on the raft and see the Midwest from a different perspective. “It hasn’t all been people in their 20s either,” he says. “We had a man who showed up with a sleeping bag and canned food who was 40 years old and between jobs. We’ve come across all sorts of people.”

Burkart says he tells everyone who joins them to release themselves and not worry about the destination or where the water will lead them. “You let the river make its choices,” he says. “We never thought we would have to stay in Vicksburg, but we are not on a set schedule; we are here to see and experience until the raft hits salt water. If you had a plane ticket for a trip, you’d still have to be back at a certain time.”

Mattingly says traveling with Burkart has taught her that it can be rewarding to take risks. “It is an opening up of possibilities,” she says. “Why not hop on a raft? It’s an interesting way to travel. It is different than seeing the world in a car, or bike or train. You see a lot more people.”

While Burkart enjoyed his time in Vicksburg, the departure has left him divided. “It has been an incredible roller coaster [ride] and a time of intense personal stress,” says Burkart. “While we have received intense love and hospitality from strangers, there is a tornado in my heart.”

Burkart says they are particularly grateful for the services provided Loyacono. “When they first came here a friend of my wife’s met these three downtown and referred them to me,” says Loyacono. “I like their project and I like their message, having lived next to the river my whole life.”

Mattingly says that, if nothing else, the trip has been a great learning experience. “It has been interesting to see the way the Coast Guard works. I didn’t even know they were part of Homeland Security until this happened,” she says. “I also learned a lot about law and how it is a great thing to have a good lawyer on your side.”