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Unsinkable - Part Two
If you weren't
steering, the best place to be was up front. This practice came to a quick
halt. If we hit a wave that was over 6 inches we would start to plough
water- that is we would actually start to dive under water. The breakers
that were on the front of the barrels would fill with water making the
front too heavy and we would have to run to the back of the raft to bring
it back to level. This was scary the first few times that it happened
and any thing that was on the floor got wet. It took a while but after
a few good soakings we learned how to keep the ol' raft trim.
The reason we did not sink was that motors were lifted out of the water
when that happened and they could not push us any further into the drink,
river that is. Only the lookouts were permitted to be up front and we
had a message runner. The message runner could be up front if he were
on business. This business included relaying messages as to where we were
and delivering food to the lookouts. Waves on the river could reach 7
feet or more. We had to learn how to ride them, that is to pass over them
without getting wet or breaking anything.
We were on a part of the river called Pigs Eye; this is just below St.
Paul, when we spotted a tow with several barges going up stream. What
fun it would be to ride the waves that were created by its wake. Just
about a mile or so behind such barges a large wave called a "King" wave
follows. The bigger the barges, the bigger the king wave. This was a big
one. Perhaps 12 or more barges tie together. We spotted the king wave
and decided to ride it. The raft, much to our surprise did not even raise
1 inch, instead the king wave hit us like a tidal wave. It was all of
six feet high and it went over us like we weren't even there. The raft
wobbled like a flour tortilla. I was sure we were all as good as dead.
It tore off the entire front railing and ruined some other parts. This
included the screen on the front of the cabin and broke the steering cable,
the first time of many. We were lucky we didn't end up in the water. We
had an instant learning experience and from then on we never went behind
any barges. We also gained a healthy respect for the river and it's powers.
You may be interested to know a little more about tows and barges. First,
a towboat does not tow anything, it pushes. It pushes barges. It pushes
from one to 24 barges at a time. The barges haul items like grain, gravel,
and coal, up and down the river. The barges are tied or lashed together
with wire ropes, these ropes are held together with huge clasps much like
a very large clasp on a necklace. To unhitch these clasps a deck hand
uses a heavy hammer. This is a very dangerous occupation and the men and
women are trained and use much skill on the job. They live on the towboats
all summer long and they really love the river life.
We made many friends with these people, some of them even helped to save
our lives. It was awesome to watch these barges pass our camp cite at
night with their engines roaring and the powerful spot lights. Sometimes
we could get the Captain to shine the spotlight on us as we ran up and
down the sand bars and waved at the crew on board. What fun.
Well, now we had our first repairs to make. We also had to dry out. How
about that we weren't even underway for more than an hour and we were
wet, broken, and scared. I think some of us wished we were at the home
school. First thing was to get the steering cable back in order. While
some of us worked on that, others worked on the broken railing and replacing
the screen in the cabin. The rest of us hung up our clothes and sleeping
bags to dry out. Boy did we look funny floating down the river on a broken
raft with all that laundry hanging on the rails and from rope that we
tied from the roof to the railings. We passed our first test and learned
our first lessons as sailors. But, we weren't able-bodied seamen yet.
Copyright Jan.20, 2000: Dean Edward Felsing
For Eddie, Molly, Mary E., and Dennis
Not only did we look funny we looked pathetic. We looked like a floating
laundromat that had had an explosion in it. Here we were on our brand
new raft and we were a mess. The repairs were made to the steering cable
and we would have to wait to get parts for the railing and the screens
and chicken wire. The clothes and sleeping bags would dry sooner or later
in their own time.
Remember the channel I mentioned earlier? The channel is like a road in
the water and it is marked by buoys and lights. The channel is maintained
at nine feet deep by the Corps of Engineers. It is several hundred feet
wide. All you had to do was stay between the buoys and you would be safe.
This is called navigating. The navigator would look at the charts and
tell the driver which way to go, and the lookouts would make sure we stayed
between the buoys.
In the daytime you could see the buoys very easily. At night there were
blinking lights call oscillating lights. In the dark it was difficult
to see the buoys so you would head for the blinking light until another
one came into view, then you would head for the new light. This would
keep you in the channel. On each light there was a sign with the miles
on it, much like the numbers you see on the freeway when you travel. The
number was the number of miles that you were from the mouth of the Ohio
River. After the Ohio River the mile number was your distance from the
mouth of the Mississippi River or the Golf of Mexico.
Now with all this help you would think we would have little trouble getting
to our destination. Well, guess again. Our next lock was lock and dam
#2 at Hastings, MN. Just a few miles from where we hit the king wave.
The river was just over a mile across and we could see a wide-open river
ahead, so we decided to take our first short cut. After all if you could
see where you wanted to be way off to your right and the channel went
to the left, why not head right for the lock?
Our short cut took us right through an underwater stump field. This was
created many years ago when the dam was built and the river backed up
over a wooded area. The trees were all gone now and all that was left
was the stumps. We were just a few hundred feet into this submerged forest
and all of a sudden the bottom of the raft started to shake and we heard
the first cry of "Shear pin". Then we broke the steering cable again.
It was like being in a minefield except that the stumps did not blow up.
It took us several hours and more shear pins to work our way back into
Ah yes another lesson on the river. Can you guess what this one was? We
couldn't really blame any one but our selves for this blunder. Most of
the time we tried to pin the blame for things that went wrong on someone
else even if it was your fault you would try to blame the next guy. Remember
most of us had been together for over a year by now and we pretty well
knew who was responsible for what. For the most part I got along with
the majority of the other boys. In fact some of us lived near enough to
each other that we would play after school. We did things like swat pigeons
under the Broadway Ave. bridge over the Mississippi River in north Minneapolis.
If we caught a pigeon we would put it in a paper bag and get on a city
bus and let it go. Now you know one of the reasons that I got into trouble.
It wasn't very nice with all the feathers and poop flying around the bus
but it sure was a lot of fun.
Lock and dam #2. Jack our leader went ashore and got his car. He mostly
followed us in the car so he could go ahead and make arrangements for
publicity, food and other things we may need. I some times think he needed
to get away for a while especially now that we got him soaked and all
the hubbub over steering.
Jack was an excellent scrounge. By that I mean he could find anything,
even if it wasn't there. Yes, he was a magician. In fact most of the things
that our raft was made out of were "found" by this man. He scoured the
Twin City area hi and low and asked for donations from the most unusual
sources. I think some people gave him things, like the oil drums and lumber
and nuts and bolts just so he would go away. By go away I mean because
his story about a raft and the river and all was too much for some people.
How he got the folks at the out board motor company to donate two motors
is still a mystery to me. These people ended up giving us a total of five
engines. More about this down the river. He also got a major oil company
to donate all of our gas and oil. This remarkable fellow became one of
my best friends for many years after the raft trip we would sit at his
house and tell stories of our adventures.
I learned many things from the river and Jack and hope that some day you
may have as good a friend as I found in this man. I still visit with his
wife and children and grand children, they have all encouraged me to write
this story for you.
Dean Felsing - Crew member of the Unsinkable
Copyright Jan. 21,2000: Dean Edward Felsing
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