50 years ago today, June 8, 1972, a group of young men put their homemade raft into the Mississippi River in Keokuk, setting off on an adventure, hoping to make it to St. Louis.
As soon as the raft pulled away, there was a torrential downpour. They needed to take control of the raft, so they went to start the 7.5 horsepower Mercury engine and it immediately detached from its mount and went into the water.
“It’s a good thing I got my hands on the string,” Mike Burdette said Monday this week, reminiscing about the adventure.
He said he grabbed onto it and pulled the engine out of the water. According to a detailed, written description of what happened on the trip, provided by Burdette, two men from the Keokuk Emergency Corps guided the raft to shore a few hundred feet downstream.
“Over the next three wet hours, a new engine mount was welded and secured,” the description reads.
Gary Hendricks, then a sophomore in high school, was part of the team that embarked on this journey 50 years ago. He brought it to the attention of the Daily Gate City as something to remember. He said he particularly felt that Burdette and her family needed more credit for the project.
The Daily Gate City photo from the time indicates that it was a project thought up in English class as a communication exercise. The description provided by Burdette stated that the dream “was born for some in January 1972 and for others more than five years ago”. Burdette said Bob Campagna had the idea of doing something similar with college friends, but they all drifted away.
So Burdette, Hendricks, Campagna, Jim Arrowood, Dennis Biddenstadt, Mike Lefler and Terry Queen all decided to “just do it”. They started talking to people and businesses to gather materials. Hartrick’s Lumber donated lumber for the project and procured several 55-gallon steel drums to use as floats for the raft. Burdette said Biddenstadt’s father helped weld the barrels together.
“I think we had just as much fun building it,” Hendricks said.
What did the boys’ parents think when they asked to do this?
“I don’t remember asking permission,” Burdette said with a laugh.
Hendricks said he thought their parents believed that as long as they stayed out of trouble they were fine, saying they were more “free” parents at the time.
That first day the weather had cleared and the raft was back on its way at 10:50 a.m. The report says they floated downriver rapidly using oars and poles for guidance, but it soon became clear that more oars were needed, so they stopped at Alexandria, Missouri, and got a few more oars. One of the team left due to illness and the other six continued downstream.
Smoother navigation came later today. There were people waving along the shore and a visit from a speedboat carrying Lefler and Arrowood’s father.
They picked up stranded motorists north of Canton when Lefler and David Conttrell’s mother and aunt had car trouble. They took them to the lock at Canton. They crossed the lock of Canton and decided to stop for the night.
The second day started at 5:30 a.m. and was a hot day, according to the written account. They also had problems with collisions. They hit two river buoys and a wing boom too close to the surface.
They arrived in Quincy, Illinois, at 3 p.m. and left the raft to stock up. The temperature at that time was 96 degrees. They spent time in the water that day to cool off. Again the threat of storms was seen. They decided to start the engine because of the storm, with two people spraying water on it to cool it down so they could go faster.
They arrived at Turtle Island north of Hannibal when the storm hit. They came ashore and camped, huddled in the tent as the storm blew.
They woke up on the third day at 5 a.m. and the sunburnt crew wandered off, forgetting to weigh anchor and wondering why they weren’t moving. They immediately had to row hard because of an approaching barge. They passed Hannibal, Missouri, at 6:30 a.m., arms tired from two days of rowing.
The report says the morning was cool but beautiful.
“Eagles flew around the hills and cliffs overlooking the river,” the report said.
Above Saverton the winds turned and they went ashore and took turns driving the raft to the locks. The only crew member who had fallen ill joined the group there.
The wind picked up again near Louisiana, Missouri. A boater took Biddenstadt and Campagna to Louisiana for supplies, but no stores were open. Around 10 p.m., they landed at a marina across the river from Louisiana.
The fourth day was cold again in the morning, but they got up and set sail. The wind again disturbed the raft, strong enough to push it against the current and there were big waves, so they pulled ashore about 2 and a half miles from where they had started. Two of the guys hitchhiked into town for gas and they also bought a watermelon. They decided to try the boat’s engine and the raft bounced in the big waves, but that didn’t keep most of the crew awake.
“Supplies dwindled and exhaustion was high,” the story notes.
By the end of the fourth day, they could carry seven gallons of gasoline as they had collected several canisters of gasoline along the way. That night, they stopped at an island and lit a huge fire, eating a dinner of fried ham, corn, carrots, watermelon, and hominy.
The fifth day again saw problems with the winds. They arrived at Winfield Lock and Dam and had breakfast. They had to wait an hour and a half to lock up and the crew got restless.
Time and fatigue made them rely more on the boat’s engine. It made things more interesting and put a strain on the raft, but the finish turned out to be solid. They stopped at Kinder’s Restaurant near the Golden Eagle Ferry and luckily they got an out of town check.
After that, for once, the wind worked in their favor, pushing the raft faster than the current. But then there were many houseboats that constantly forced the use of the engine. They had trouble finding a place to land that night, so they dropped anchor off Dresser Island.
Day six started at 5:30 a.m., 13 miles from the Lewis and Clark Memorial. They reached Alton Lock at 6.30am and had to wait 3 hours to lock, then had to do it with a barge there as well. It was a scary experience for them and they struggled with the oars and poles as well as the motor to get away from it.
There was a ton of barge traffic and the wind was again kicking up three foot waves. They arrived at the memorial at 11:15 a.m.
Five minutes later, Doug Slater arrived and they began unloading equipment into the van. They returned to Keokuk and arrived at 5 p.m. The crew’s parents surprised them with a picnic and “Shit if it stopped raining.”