Mississippi River Raft Trip - 1964

Norm, Ron, Mike
Norm, Ron, Mike

Rafting on the Mississippi River
Chicago to New Orleans, June-July 1964

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Click on images to enlarge

Welcome aboard, Mike!
Welcome aboard, Mike!

The dredge Jadwin
The dredge Jadwin

Mike and Les
Mike and Les prepare breakfast

Meal time
Dinner time: Norm, Ron, Mike

Almost losing a barrel
After almost losing a barrel

Ocean-going ship near Baton Rouge
Ocean-going ship, Baton Rouge

St. James sugar cane growers
St. James sugar cane growers

The end of the trip nears
The end of the trip nears

Daily devotions
Nightly devotions

Ron and Norm in river mud
Ron and Norm in river mud


Part 3 Helena, Arkansas to New Orleans
Life drifting down the Mississippi settled into a pattern of tranquility. As the warmth of July approached, the trio of rafters enjoyed a series of long, relaxing days, interspersed with moments of excitement and occasional danger. On the morning of July 1st, the three-man crew had the experience of the trip.


On Monday, July 1st, we had just stopped for gas, oil, and water at a marina in Helena, Arkansas. Just after we passed under the highway bridge, a small motorboat came toward us with two men in it. Our first thought was that they were just more “tourists” who wanted to find out what we were up to. To our utter amazement and delight, one of the two turned out to be our friend, Mike Riemer, who was quickly welcomed aboard. After the initial shock of his appearance wore off, Mike told us his story. Apparently our postcards to him back at Concordia conveyed the fun and adventure of our trip, so he decided to abandon his summer classes and try to find us. He took a jet to Memphis, where he estimated we would then be. At Memphis, the people who monitor river traffic told him we had already passed. After a lot of questioning and calling along the river, he was able to contact the Helena Marine Service, a towboat fueling station in Helena, which said they had not yet seen us. He took a Continental Trailways bus to Helena, where the Marine Service put him up overnight. The next morning they spotted us and ferried him out to the raft. What an experience for Mike—and what a surprise for us! So from Helena, Arkansas, to New Orleans, there were four of us on our little raft.

When the weather was good, there was lots of room on the raft. For sleeping (or napping, of which there was plenty), we could lie down anywhere–on the front “deck,” and inside or on the roof of the “cabin.” But on those nights when it was raining
and especially if there were lots of mosquitoeswe would all squeeze into our little shelter, which was only 6 feet by 7 feet, and 4 feet high. Inside this little hut, we could sleep two of us in hammocks, with two sleeping on the floor. The open ends would be covered with mosquito netting and then we’d spray the inside with Black Flag. Without exception, the hilarity of the situation always overcame any discomfort.

During the days, we took turns on “watch,” while following our progress on the Corps of Engineers Navigation Maps. Our navigating goal was to stay as close as we could to the main channel of the river, while avoiding the route used by the towboats. We learned how to read the daymarkers and other navigation aids and how to avoid hitting the “nuns” and “cans” that marked the channel. On a number of occasions, we couldn’t avoid being pulled into side channels. After St. Louis, we only had to use the motor to avoid tows and to keep us away from obstructions in the river, like submerged trees, or obstructions along the banks, such as wing dams and revetments (linked blocks of concrete that stabilize the banks).

We tried traveling in the dark several times. One day we felt we were behind schedule, so we kept going into the night. We were in the middle of the channel rounding a bend when we spotted a tow coming toward us. Towboats are hard to maneuver and can take a mile or more to stop, so we knew we had to get out of the way. It was then that our motor decided not to start. After a few frantic pulls on the starter cord, we were able to move out of the path of the tow. It was a close call, and in retrospect, was the most dangerous moment of the trip. Other hazards included the wake put out by larger craft on the river, such as tows, large pleasure boats, and—below Baton Rouge—ocean-going ships. On one occasion, the wake of a nearby tow broke barrels loose, leaving the raft partially submerged. We rescued the barrels, tied them in place with ropes, and restored the stability of the raft.

On the afternoon of Sunday, July 5th, as we motored up the “diversion canal” to downtown Vicksburg, we were surprised to be met by Norm’s parents and brother Leonard and sister Eileen. They had driven up from New Orleans and tracked us down. After a great visit and helping us get supplies, the Hellmers left for New Orleans. We four rafters then walked to the Hotel Vicksburg for supper and to the YMCA for long, 40 showers—the first time we were able to get cleaned up in weeks. That night, we
were given permission to tie up to the steamboat Sprague, the largest sternwheeler ever built.

On Tuesday, July 7th we passed Natchez, on Wednesday, the Old River Control Structure, on Thursday, St. Francisville, and on Friday, July 10th, we reached Baton Rouge, where we went into town, had supper, and then visited the sites, including the grounds of the capitol building and the gravesite of Huey Long.

Just before Baton Rouge we had our first encounter with an ocean-going ship. You can hear–and feel–the thumping of their engines from a long way off. We didn’t know what to expect from the wake, but all we got was a series of long swells. We just had to be sure to stay out of their way.

On Saturday, July 11th, our last full day on the river, we had an unexpected
but fascinatingdelay. We had stopped at St. James, Louisiana, for gas. We asked two men for directions to the nearest gas station. They turned out to be owners of a sugar cane plantation. They gave us a tour of their fields and mill, and gave us bottles of sugar and sugar cane stalks. We were treated to sandwiches and were shown an article about us in The Times-Picayune newspaper. We also stopped for a quick look at the historic plantation, Oak Allee. That night we stayed near the Monsanto Chemical plant at Luling, 25 miles from home.

Special Thanks

Mike Riemer was able to join us thanks to many people, including the river watchers at Memphis. Most helpful was the manager of the Helena Marine Service [probably owner Jim Walden], who had Mike picked up at the bus station, fed and kept him overnight at their riverside facility, gave him a life preserver, and had him brought out to the raft. Without this remarkable friendliness and generosity, Mike would have had a difficult time joining up with the raft and its crew.

Our Mississippi River raft voyage would not have been possible without the blessing and moral support of our parents. Without exception, they had reservations about the wisdom of such a trip, but understanding our desire to create an adventure for ourselves, they all agreed. Also important was the financial support they gave us, both before and during the trip. We were at first hesitant to ask them for more money, and so relied on the generosity of friends and strangers. But when we asked, they provided whatever was needed. Thanks for loving and understanding parents!


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