City may acquire keelboat according to Captain Bailey

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Prolog

“Sometime in 2017, Jack Mitch and Gerry Messmer decided to retrace the return route of General William Ashley from the 1825 fur trappers rendezvous near Green River, Wyoming to St. Louis, Missouri. They call it "Ashley's Return.” In southwest Wyoming, six men will begin their journey mounted on horses & mule negotiating a roughly 500-mile path north to the Bighorn River. There, other men will join to launch canoes & bullboat for water passage some 525 miles northward to the confluence of the Yellowstone River continuing northeasterly to the waters of the Missouri. Along this course, eight men will board a keelboat for the third-leg of this adventure navigating 860 miles southeasterly down the Mighty Mo to their journey's end.”

- Muskrat Keelboat Journey on Facebook

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The Landing

The river was high and swift Saturday morning as these modern-day mountain men moored their keelboat, “The Muskrat,” securely along the sand bar at the Hermann waterfront. This colorful lot with their floppy hats, trade beads, shirt coats, buckskin pants and moccasins looked tired. It had been hot at night making it tough to sleep without the incessant high-pitched whine of mosquitoes looking to land on cheeks and ears for a quick bite. 

They had camped at Chamois, just up the river the night before, but the river had been giving them fits for most of the journey. A railroad bridge had collapsed above Glasgow and the boatmen had to maneuver through the mess of large floating pilings and tree trunks on their way down—not a nice river companion. 

“It has been basically dodge ball all the way down the river,” said Bill “Keelboat” Baily, from Wheatfield, CO. “We’ve been riding the crest since we got on it.”

He is the captain and builder of the 30-foot “Muskrat,” which is half the size of the original Muskrat. A historic preservationist by trade, Captain Bailey built the keelboat replica in his spare time. It took almost a year. 

“Once you get into bigger boats, you run into regulations [that would make construction difficult},” he explained. “Plus you would need six to 10 men on the side of the boat oaring and we couldn’t get that many guys to make the trip.”

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The boat

He says the Muskrat is a traditionally-built boat with a 14 inch draft in the water.

“There’s not a piece of plywood in it,” he noted. It’s traditional carvel planking (a method of boat building where hull planks are laid edge to edge and fastened to a robust frame, thereby forming a smooth surface - Wikipedia), and cotton calked,” he shared. “The top decks are made of cedar.”

How river-worthy is it?

“It has done well,” said the Captain. “All wooden boats leak—it’s just a question of water management.”

They find a safe place to dock to patch the leaks, with cotton, manila rope, tar—anything they have that can be pounded into the leaks.

The Missouri River is only about one-tenth of the original width, when there were islands and sandbars everywhere outside of the main channel. Captain Bailey says the current in today’s channel is much stronger than it was in the 1800s, increasing the danger factor, at least within the channel and along the banks.

“It’s true, the river men sometimes had to search for water to float their boats,” he said. “The original military boat, The Muskrat, in 1825, sank twice in three-feet of water. They were able to bale out the water, because of the shallows, patch the holes and get her going again.”

Starting out, three of them put in at Yankton, SD (due to lakes and dams further upstream). The journey for these boatmen will be 1855 mi. when they complete the trek in St. Charles.

“We’ve been out 75 days,” said Gerry “Lucky” Messmer, from Odessa NY.

But they loved what they had seen on their trek down the Big Muddy, these men steeped in history and heartfelt gratitude for the magnificence of everything on a big river, far away from the distractions that wreck their dream life of living in the 1820’s.

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Dangers

The explorers (they don’t call themselves “river men”) keep their boat in the main channel of the river. 

“The danger for us is along the river banks,” said the captain. The overhanging trees are extremely dangerous. There are no brakes on a boat being pulled by the currents and the tiller is of little use due to the sheer force of the currents. Imagine gliding on ice and being pulled into branches which don’t bend at a speed controlled by the current. It might tear the boat to pieces or certainly capsize it, according to the group.

“For a boat of this era (1820s), [the Missouri River] is kind of a modern-day monster because of the engineering in the channel.

Captain Bailey said the day before, they had a whirlpool that opened up beside them that had a six-foot center hole in it.

“It started to pull us in, pulling the boat over to a 35 degree angle, before it let go and spun it,” he explained. “The power is amazing.”

He said the whirlpool was in deep water, so he couldn’t be sure of it’s cause, but pointed out “hydraulic boils,” calm, circular places on the water surface that large enough, can pick up a boat, turn it and doesn’t immediately let go of it, like some giant’s hand rising from the depths. 

He says the crew carries cell phones.

“Without modern communication, within three miles, you might find yourself dead or upside down,” he says matter-of-factly.

He notes they almost got into a scary situation of being pulled into the bank with tree limbs and if it wasn’t for a grapple hook to prevent that, it could have been the end of the journey. Consequently, they had more grapple hooks made for-the-ready and placed on the stern and bow of the boat.

Barge wakes are another possible hazard, where they can be buffeted by the energy from large waves for as long as 30 minutes.

Scott “Amish” Staggs from Upland, IN. says the crew has life vests on board. 

“We don’t normally wear them, but we had an incident one day and I ran to pull them out to see everyone had one,” he said.

“We have to plan our day, [by asking] ‘Where can we safely get out of the current and off the river?’” said Bill Bailey.

That’s the value of having a “pathfinder.”

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Local connection

Hermannite Paul “Pathfinder”Fennewald has served as a “spotter,” for the group. He moves ahead of the boat to locate places to moor that secure and protect the boat from tree limbs, strong currents and rocky banks. 

“We grew up on a farm just east of Hermann off Hwy 100 close to the Gasconade-Franklin County line,” he said. His dad was a railroad man and later worked at a metal plant in Warrenton. He graduated from St. George School and went into the U.S. Army and later worked for IBM before settling on a career with the FBI. Then, he ran the State’s Homeland Security Program for six years. He now lives in California, Mo. and is excited to share in this adventure.

 

The pull of the river

What would make these men want to sleep out with the mosquitoes and float on a boat they have no control over, at the mercy of the currents, possible dangerous snags, and violent summer storms?

“We just wanted to see if we had what it took to do it,” said the captain. “We’re quite a bit older than those guys, which were all in their 20s. People ask,’Why?’ and I say, ‘Why not?’”

The group will have used all of the modes of transportation that were available in the 1820s—horseback, bullboat, canoes and the keelboat. It comes down to pioneer skillsets reflecting independent self-reliance for survival.

“Going home is going to be difficult,”said Amish Staggs. “Sleeping out here, I can look at the stars. When I get home, I’m going to be looking at a wood ceiling. I guess I’ll have to sleep inside with the windows open.”

 

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Epilog

“Notes from the Muskrat - nightfall October 6th:

Hermann, Missouri

What a beautiful day in this historic town on the riverside. The crew went on a field trip to visit the John Coulter Museum & Monument, a glass factory, and an old French river fort. Their report of the trip was great to hear.

The Captain stayed in watch of the boat and greeted over a hundred afternoon visitors with tales of the mountaineers and the Keelboat journey. American Fur Trade history was the order of the day.

Part of the day was spent on negotiations with the city fathers of Hermann regarding the final disposition of the Muskrat.

The day ended with Captain Bailey and the Mayor of this fine city agreeing with a handshake over the night fire, that the Muskrat shall live in permanent protected display on the waterfront here in Hermann.

It is with great satisfaction from the Captain that the Muskrat continue her journey into the future to educate, inform, and excite the frontier spirit of our citizens and visitors.”

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- Muskrat Keelboat Journey on Facebook

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