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by Tim O'Guin – Memphis, Tennessee - USA

My friends and I loved boating and fishing! However, as none of us belonged to a family that actually owned any sort of a boat, we were usually confined to the banks, except on rare occasions, when we could either rent a boat or be the guest of a boat owner! Since we qualified as "fishing fools" spending most of our free time fishing or preparing to fish, we naturally felt stymied being stuck fishing from the banks! Therefore, between the ages of eight and eighteen, we attempted to float ourselves upon the waters on a variety of makeshift craft! Often this was just a raft of a few logs lashed together. Usually this meant the "deck" was awash when we added our weight and were totally unwieldy!

Our best effort at a raft came about one summer while in our teens. Three of us decided to build a raft, definitely inspired by the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn! We cobbled together a collection of five gallon tin oil cans gathered from every garage and service station in the area. We cut poles ranging from ten or twelve inches down to two or three inches in diameter about twelve to 15 feet long. We wove, nailed and lashed these together into a deck with the largest poles paired on either side and down the middle, maintaining an oil can width between each pair. This we had done on the bank of an old channel just off the present channel of the Loosahatchee River. This was just about a mile from the Mississippi River and just a few hundred yards from the Frayser boat dock. After much work, we realized it might get too heavy to push into the river. It already was! So, we partially disassembled and from there on, we worked in the water (and the mud). We arranged rows of the oil cans between the pairs of larger poles down either side and under the middle, fastening them with scavenged chicken wire and fence staples. The two center poles we left protruding several feet behind the raft and between them we lashed a makeshift rudder/sweep made up of a pole, two by four lumber and an old plywood signboard. At last we thought it ready to embark upon the mighty Mississippi River!

We arrived early that morning, with our war surplus water canteens, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and full of excitement! We were finally going to sail away on an epic adventure of unspecified length! The raft soon proved to be quite unwieldy in the narrow and shallow waters of the Loosahatchee! With our weight added to the raft it sat down nearly to the oilcan tops! Our deck was dry only a few inches above the water as long as we stayed distributed, roughly equally upon the rafts surface! If we came together on the same side of the raft it would dip down and go awash a bit. Frequently, we became stuck in the mud and it took us all morning to go the mile to the big river. We would have to drop our push poles and get in the water, shoving and pulling the raft free. All this, while sinking to our knees in the sucking mud! Regarding boarding, we discovered leeches hanging from us and had to pull them off each other in disgust!

Sunset by the Mississippi River, Memphis Tennessee.
The Mississippi River flood in Memphis - Juliet Thomas.

Finally, midday in the hot summer sun we floated out into the mighty swirling waters of the great Mississippi River! What joy! We were exuberant, elated with our success as we swung out of control in the rapidly swirling waters! We discovered our push poles useless in the swift deep water. The sweep/rudder had only a slight effect and contributed only a very little influence on our control of direction/orientation. Until we got into slower waters we were firmly in the grip of and at the mercy of Old Man River!

I must admit a bit of concern began to creep over us as we realized we were basically helplessly adrift in the boiling waters, heading towards Memphis and barge traffic! We had heard tales told by our fathers that if you got in the way of a river barge you were doomed to almost certain death! Also, the prospect of crashing into the Memphis bridge piers suddenly became a worry as reality began to set in! Still with the boldness and courage of youthful adventure, we relished our success and took in the sights, as Memphis came into view.

As we drifted by the downtown waterfront and approached the bridges, we could see a few people at Tom Lee Park pointing at us! We waved proudly and they waved back! Then swiftly our elation became apprehension as the first bridge piers rushed upon us! I suddenly felt small and vulnerable as we sped headlong right at the massive stone structure with foam swirling off it, in a two foot high wake! At the last second we swung safely beside it and passed, bobbing in the swirling wake! We soon swept past the last bridge safely and were now heading towards the Arkansas shore. In the heat we baked in the afternoon sun on the exposed raft. We now found ourselves in slower waters and we hung from the sides of the raft in the cooling waters while floating along. After a while our feet touched the bottom and being close to a sandy bar shore, we kicked hard, nudging the raft towards it. About that time, we passed a motorboat and a couple of people along the shore.

Soon afterwards we pushed up on to the sandy shore beaching our raft in a calm stretch along the miles long sandbar! Our sandwiches and water were by now gone and our plight began to dawn upon us! We decided we had no choice but to start hiking the several miles to the Memphis Bridge. Shortly, a shout caught our attention; it was the boaters we had passed! It seems that the man and his granddaughter had run aground and could not free their boat! They had been going swiftly and had run dozens of yards into water only a few inches deep. Now they were aground in water too shallow to float their boat. They shared cold drinks with us and then we pushed and pulled the boat to deeper water (a good fifty yards!) The grateful man then gave us a ride to the Frayser boat dock back on the Loosahatchee River, and that concluded our adventure! Exhausted, sun burnt and a little wiser form our experience! I'm sure we all slept dreaming, as I did, of the many possible conclusions of that day's adventure!

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