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Rafting the Mississippi-Up the Creek 1972

Rafting the Mississippi-Up the Creek 1972

Raft Launch from Paducah, KY

Raft Launch from Paducah, KY

In September, 1972, a group of young friends from New England built a thirty-eight foot raft in Paducah, Kentucky and then traveled for twenty-one days and nearly one thousand miles on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans, Louisiana. Excerpts from a forthcoming memoir chronicle the experience:

September 16, 1972. Departed Paducah, Kentucky. Rain. 2:00 pm.

A big work project on the banks of the Tennessee Chute ended on Saturday, September 16, one week after the arrival in our Paducah.  At 10:30 am, we motored away from Walker’s boatyard under dark, sprinkling skies. Puddled rainwater leaked through the raft’s roof into galley pots positioned across the cabin floor. We felt proud and jubilant, but conflicted about leaving newfound river friends behind. Most had quickly bought into the trip and helped us, a bunch of strangers. We couldn’t share much in return. We’d get closure if and when we reached New Orleans and they would miss that endgame, the point of it all. Some didn’t care, of course. To a river town, all that really matters is what occurs between the arrivals and departures on its own banks.

The maiden launch from the construction site lasted for one quarter of a mile, the distance between Walker’s and the boat ramp footing Paducah’s Broadway on the Ohio. Townspeople and newspaper reporters filed through the floodwall gate and down to the raft. We topped off our gasoline, waited for all to assemble, and finally shouted out as Mabel Hall christened Doolittle Driftin’ KY 4418-R by whacking a bottle of champagne against a river rock wedged atop the bow’s breakwater. She teetered back to shore on the skinny gangplank, and we fired up the outboards and headed out into the Ohio. Waves, hurrahs and champagne bubbles faded.  Looking back at Paducah, we faced the painted  “Welcome to the Port of Paducah” sign as we exited town. After the land-locked boatyard building phase, floating by and scanning the shore panorama was a first real taste of the rafting escape.

The thrust of our outboards overwhelmed the wooden transom. The motors separated from their mounts and we had to return, red-faced, to Broadway for repairs.  A two-hour delay shortened the day’s river time, but when we pulled away again from Paducah, spectators and rain clouds had disappeared.  “Nothing but blue skies” welcomed to the west. We sunbathed, prepped lunches, and rope-jumped into the river. Twenty river miles west of Paducah, we braced ourselves for passage through Brookport Lock 52 near Joppa, Illinois. Locks combine both up-river dams, fully or partially across a river’s breadth, and holding “chambers”, usually two, side by side. This scheme accommodates different length boat and barge rigs when water levels are too low or a tow is too long.  Dam walls, or “wickets” of wood or steel, are raised up as needed from flat passivity to sturdy barrier. The river before them rises; the boat moves into the lock chamber with its more manageable water level, the lock closes, the water drops, and the boat safely proceeds on the newfound river level. The series of “pools” created between the dams and locks resembled stair step river stretches of varying mileage. The Ohio’s locks had started at 710 feet above sea level in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and had dropped after 938 miles to 302 feet above sea level in Brookport. At 3:15 pm, we eased into the lock under the guarded gaze of a lock man whose responsibility was to tie us up for “the drop”. The Doolittle’s reported “lock-lift drop” at Brookport was twelve feet. We dropped; the raft swung sharply to one side and splintered the end edge of the stern transom that had caused the Paducah launch delay.  Unfortunately, rubber “bumpers” had been omitted from our equipment list. They would have helped here, and at every other wharf stop downriver. Dick and Bob extended their arms and tried to push the raft away from the rusted, steel lock wall. Dick lost his balance and toppled into the river.

So we wasted no time dealing with a “man overboard” scare. Talk about a snake-bitten raft launch! Dick generated some urgent, impressive splashing (chilly water and live outboard props will do that) with his freestyle strokes back to mother raft. He had never swum so fast, and he never did again. His crewmates on the stern quickly snatched him back on board. On the far southern shore of the Ohio, Mabel Hall waved at the Doolittle and turned to drive the thirty-five road miles back to Paducah with news that “they” (we) had made it to and through the lock. She might have been shaking her head and clucking about the wooden transom and how many more incidents it might trigger. Her Gordon was leaving for a while, too, and hopefully coming back in one piece. Surely that was on her mind.

The raft dropped at least twelve feet in the lock. The abrupt “thank you ma’am” gut shimmy sensation mirrored a fast car drive over a road bump. We adjusted to the new river level, relieved by stability at last.  Captain scanned the river map and the northern shoreline for a potential mooring site. Dick changed shorts; Catherine shampoo-scented the bow. Susan slapped together peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and ladled out chicken soup. Jim perched proudly on the bow’s folding chair for his first piloting shift. Bob scrutinized, frowned at, pushed and pulled the interior cabin supports. Chris thumped his guitar face like a drum. Ben and Tom launched themselves into the river with a knotted rope attached to a poorly inflated air mattress. Judy journal-scribbled. Uli prowled the galley, Mary Jane and Cooper laughed from life preserver cushions on the bow.  Niek and I tried to organize watch and meal schedules for later.  Everybody flexed his or her wings in a folk dance of early help. All tested the limits of the raft’s cabin and deck space. Most of the crew migrated to the raft’s bow to evaluate new scenery. Bob warned that too many up front burdened the raft’s butted mid-section. He worried that the foundation would break in half (great!). So soon after launching, we were having too much fun to accept that possibility. Bob delivered the adventure’s only voice of reason during that first day on a river.

At 6:00 pm, Cooper picked a sheltered mooring spot east of the C E & I Railroad Grain terminal on the northern, Illinois side of the Ohio. Facing a red, western sun that insinuated next day rains, we approached a riverbank gnarled by shrubs and cottonwood roots and skirted by a forty-foot belt of sand and mud. A splintered grey shack sat back in trees, seventy yards from the water’s edge. A grizzled, baggy-panted, grey-bearded, nearly toothless bum stood rigidly in the brush beside two dented dinghies.  We floated up to him on our raft of peppermint stripes, oil drums, and younger bums, some pretty. Imagine how that all looked to him.  “River risin’ or fallin’?” Cooper hallowed to the stranger, trying to decide on tying up near the bank or some yards out. The guy squinted, nodded his head and mumbled in a raspy drawl, “Risin!’“ before turning and wandering back towards the shack.  We accepted his report and moored close enough to the sandy mud skirt to extend a board gangplank from raft to shore. We later improvised a campfire ring with wood stumps and old logs for seating. Empty, smelly, shiny mussel shells trailed from the water’s edge to the woods, past the old plastic red and aluminum dinghies and eventually to the river coot’s shack.  That structure’s distance from the river proved deliberate.

The crew was ready to sleep after the long, rainy inaugural of stops and starts. The steps to shore on the sagging gangplank were tightrope acts, with or without alcohol. We wondered what the riverbank coot was thinking about the folk who had invaded his frontage stake. How often was he interrupted? Did he own the land? What was on his mind as night fell? Was he a peaceful sort?

We felt safe in the strength of our numbers. The mysterious local would have never navigated the treacherous gangplank, judging from the shuffle that he had demonstrated as we landed. If future moorings were to present such chilly mystery, perhaps the Captain’s cache of weapons made sense after all. Our fresh adventure had hardly started.

Around 4:00 am, watchman Uli Schnell, likely on German time, rousted all from sleep to report that the Ohio’s water level had fallen, that the raft was stuck in the shore mud, and that the river was barely lapping against our port-side foundation barrels. We were grounded. This surprise had followed planning so meticulous that we had overlooked the rising and falling behaviors of our rivers. At least the Captain had asked a local before we moored.

By 7:00 am, using long joust poles, old trees, and boards propped at angles beneath seven thousand pounds of drum and wood, we labored, inched and rocked the raft back and forth away from the mud towards clear water.  This dance of grunted lifting and pushing with levers lasted for almost three hours. After each attempt at lifting, the raft fell heavily back into the mud with a splash and a squish. If we couldn’t free the raft, we would have to wait its eventual rise…more delays. We would have been obligated to invite the coot for dinner and cards.

We eventually worked enough of the raft back onto the edge of the Ohio to attempt a re-float. Coffee, adrenaline, and fear fueled that miracle.

That first day of rafting delivered big lessons:

Boaters thrive and survive by managing draft, the depth of a boat’s hull under the water line as river levels fluctuate. That’s how “sounding” and “mark twain”, Samuel Clemens’ eventual pen name, became river jargon. Sounding was measuring river depths with a weighted hand rope line; mark twain was the second of two six foot marks on that line. It designated two fathoms or twelve feet, considered a safe depth for riverboat passage in the 1800s.

You’d better know if and by how much a river is rising or falling. From point to point, depths and drafts change like the weather.

Consider the source and credibility of information offered up along the river, and then consider both again.

September 21, 1972. Departed Hales Point Chute at 6:00 am. Landed at Brandywine Chute, Tennessee at 7:00 pm. Mile 751.1.

A popular sailing rhyme says to “take warning” when the “sky is red in the morning”. That ditty crossed some minds on September 21st. We hadn’t encountered truly bad weather on our two rivers but the early morning sky showed red.  We left a chilly Hale’s Point Chute at 6:00 am, that an improvement over the two previous days of awful heat. Ugly clouds started to clot the sky and flies hugged the interior netting and roof of the cabin in swarms, behavior that usually meant rain. We killed the flies with towel swats and sweeps of the broom, but new battalions quickly replaced the shooed and the squashed. Were those rafting flies or roaming swarms, and how did they find the confines of a raft drifting down the middle of the wide river? Had they tired of possum meat from nearby shore towns?

To form, the clouds quickly thickened as the weather threatened.

We drifted into a notorious river run. Below Hales Point at Mile 779.5, a small Confederate fort, Fort Pillow, had once sat on the Tennessee bluffs. In 1861, sixty, rarely engaged soldiers manned it.  The Union army and navy had planned to attack the fort in June 1862, but when they advanced, they found it abandoned. Its troops had been tipped off. They established a new, small Union garrison of three hundred black and two hundred white soldiers at the fort because of its strategic river position. The mixed race forces were significant because many of the Union’s black soldiers, by design, were recruited, and motivated slaves from the south. Late in the war, when the Union army was well established at Fort Pillow, Nathan B. Forrest, a former slave trader and Confederate General, attacked the fort. One thousand “rebel” soldiers surprised its undermanned troops and reclaimed it, bloodily, for the South.  This skirmish, or massacre as the press described it, embarrassed the Union and its highest levels of Government, including President Abraham Lincoln. The acceptance of former slaves into the Union army was strategically supposed to demoralize the Confederates and all slaveholders. There were an estimated one hundred thousand black Union soldiers garrisoned along the Mississippi in various captured forts at the time, and the Fort Pillow setback became a rallying cry for both sides in the conflict. As we drifted nearby, Cooper mentioned the fort and its history. Though the Union ultimately prevailed in the Civil War, Confederate successes at Fort Pillow and Plum Point lived on as brief, hopeful milestones.

From the raft, we couldn’t visualize conflict that had routinely occurred on the docile Mississippi’s banks. River travelers had always been vulnerable targets, caught by floods, pirates, Native Americans on the run, armed traders, relocated African and Haitian slaves, drifters, carpetbaggers, soldiers and war, most uncomfortable situations. Fear and hatred still lingered along the Lower Mississippi River, occasional breezes on a small town street or in a visited store. In 1972, we were no better than bird-watchers with assumptions.  Along the river, trees grew in our heads.

In the early 1800s, a second treacherous river stretch developed between Hales Point and Memphis near Mile 752. The Mississippi channel meandered due west, then south between three small islands on its western banks and a large peninsula on its eastern banks. At the southern tip of Devil’s Elbow peninsula, it headed north again, the peninsula now to its west and another rounded point to its east. Convoluted and typical, the river at the time had neither conscience nor shaping help from a modern Army Corps of Engineers. In April 1832, the southbound steamer, Brandywine, caught fire and sank off of the eastern point, giving the nearby spot its name, Brandywine Point, and its notoriety for the loss of sixty passengers and all of the boat’s cargo. In 1876 and later, a natural, more direct “Centennial Cutoff ” leap-frogged thirty miles of river channel and turned Brandywine Point into the western edge of the newly-named Brandywine Island.  This newly created north-south channel was named Brandywine Chute. We had traveled sixty-seven river miles in nine hours before we approached Brandywine Island from the north.

We felt bad weather and noticed a broad pink and grey downriver band filling the gap between horizon and water line ahead. It hit us first with wind and hail, then with full-blown rains. The river swelled with real waves and the raft surfed south like a cork, faster than it had ever moved. It shot the channel, its outboards overmatched by the river. We were smack in the Brandywine Chute, north of Memphis. Cooper, the one guy who best knew the river, showed the most agitation. His guts and good intentions were presumed when he joined the expedition, but at seventy-six years old and experienced or not, he knew that weather fixes were limited. From his perspective, the raft lacked towboat power, a protective steel hull, and maneuverability. Following him, we realized that we were in trouble. The crew scrambled and put on life jackets. The outboards strained and ran hot.  The raft frame bent and tested its joined midsection. The motor props dipped in and out the river. We tried to leave the channel and to beach the raft, but protected banks or nearby inlets were scarce blurs. Bob and Dick had frequently fiddled with the engine throttles and the gas and oil mixes when the raft needed thrust. Fearing an engine fire on the stern, they removed the outboard covers for cooled, wet air.  Burdened, a three-foot horizontal section of the transom then snapped with a loud crack and broke away from the port outboard. Now unattached from mounted brackets on the wood, that outboard dipped completely into the river and seized. Saving the motor was akin to rescuing a heavy, greased pig from the back of a runaway pickup truck. The rain, the slick stern deck, and the raft’s bucking instability all presented “man overboard” risks. Quick-thinking crew wrestlers saved the outboard but the one surviving motor became more joke than salvation. We turned and aimed the raft at distant eastern banks and the current swept us downriver past potential moorings. Hitting any southern spot meant factoring in the river’s speed. We had no idea how fast we were drifting but it was certainly more than five miles per hour.  Our targeting was hit or miss…mostly miss.

The upriver current worsened and broadened the futility of single outboard navigation. We adjusted, aimed and ultimately chugged to the opposite, western side of the river in a long slow arc…and then back in a shallower arc to the east. We continued to eye downriver banks. The slick sides of this chute, the result of a river that had jumped land to carve out its new channel, guaranteed swift runs with or without bad weather. Inlets were scarce in a chute. Given the weather and compromised navigational skills, we had to settle for shallow angle skims into or atop wooded, rocky riverbanks. The raft bucked erratically. We worried that we’d run into something or that something would run into us. The storm continued to ebb and peak.  Pocket squalls dumped heavy rain, moved on, reappeared. We eventually caught one longer view bull rush wave and surfed to a shallow indent on the eastern riverbank. Barely out of the current, anyway, we stopped at this spot where the banks were steep, stripped of most vegetation, and lousy for mooring. We lassoed small trees and bushes to stall the raft’s advance, and like late-arriving sand-baggers in the middle of a flood, we grabbed every available large log or rock on the banks to unsuccessfully attempt an improvised, diverting jetty wall in the water between the raft’s stern and the river.  We then double-roped the raft to larger uphill trees. Landfall, if you could call it that, was a slight improvement, but we were rattled and soaked. Had the life preservers been striped instead of solid bright orange, the scene could have resembled a jailbreak gone badly. It was already 7:00 pm at Mile 751.1 on the Mississippi. We had been at it for thirteen hours. Shaken and pissed, Cooper leaned against his cabin berth with his back to the bow and addressed the crew, now huddled and wet in the cabin. Still wearing the life jackets and not inclined to take them off, all were quietly wondering a variation of, “Whoa, what was that?” Cooper announced that he was quitting, that the motors were inadequate, that the raft wasn’t safe, that he was going to get off in Memphis, the next stop.  We had to have a better system. Someone had to really be in charge. The incident scared the crap out of the old pilot…and his crew.

When the air thinned, Cooper softened. Both took some time.  A fall off of the stern into the Chute current would have lead to a recovery mission. There hadn’t been physical casualties. We had survived.

Were larger outboards available in Memphis to upgrade the raft’s power? What would they cost?  How could we repair or replace the jinxed stern transom with stronger, reliable lumber? Could unknown friends at a marina on Mud Island in Memphis help us? How would we reach them when the radio battery was dead and we couldn’t call ahead? Though we eventually agreed to the Mud Island overhaul plan, the crew was subdued, anxious, processing. That whole scheme was a bunch of unknown places, people, and upgrades hinging completely on Cooper’s relationships.

In some denial, we played cards by lamplight into that night, and nobody slept well because all were on watch. Towboat wake bumped the raft and our mooring ropes needed constant re-tightening. Chris was sick. At best, we would be limping into Memphis, another low point only one week after leaving Paducah.  Brandywine Chute had warned us about this river and the speed with which everything could change. Frisbee at sunset with the Delta Queen on Marr’s Towhead was already a shaky benchmark. Looking back, there had been more challenges on the trip than days on easy street.  So far, learning hard seemed to be the way of this river and the Doolittle crew needed to get cracking anew for the next six hundred and fifty-six river miles.










  1. Jan Shivel says

    so brillant to have information on this wonderful experience-ah those were heady times! Keep on rafting, Rat Daddy!

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