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Vilma B, the (future) Orphanage Raft:

the  Mississippi River trip

The sailing raft Son of Town Hall, a scrap-built vessel which safely crossed the North Atlantic in 1998, was  an experimental model to test and prove our sea-going raft design. Having weathered gales at sea, the design has proven itself, and we are well into our next project, the Orphanage Raft. This will be another scrap raft built along the same principles as the Son of Town Hall, but twice as long, twice as wide and twice as high, yielding eight times the inside volume. This raft, the Vilma B, will eventually be a world-travelling orphanage, housing up to 25 orphans in individual private cabins, and 15 - 20 crew, teachers and staff.  The Vilma B was begun in April of 2000, at the headwaters of the Mississippi River in the Minneapolis area. A small raft/platform was quickly built to house the initial crew members, and for material storage and building space.  Soon the raft and crew were moving down the river, gathering materials and building as they travelled. By the time we reached New Orleans, the raft was 106 feet long, and we had also built the June's Barn raft in Dows, Iowa, which became part of the flotilla at Grafton, Illinois, after travelling overland by flatbed, thanks to SMX.  But there was still a long way to go before the raft would be ready to take on its ultimate task as an orphanage, so we continued south and west via the Intracoastal Waterway. At Corpus Christi, Ed Garry and June Donaldson, who had built a good portion of the raft and come all the way from Minneapolis onboard, left with a portion of the raft to start the Absolute Absolution raft project. Poppa Neutrino, Capt. Betsy, and Shawn Kelley continued on to Arroyo City, Texas, where for 3 1/2 months the Vilma B underwent major reconstruction in preparation for travelling along the Mexican coast. Much work still remains ahead before the Vilma B  finally becomes a 128’ sea-going vessel, ready to travel the high seas, picking up orphans in  Brazil and other Central and South American countries, then on to Africa and India, travelling throughout the world, raising and educating the street orphans along the way. 

See also the FAQ page for answers to common questions about the Orphanage Raft project.

The end of the river trip is at the top; to begin reading from the first entry, Click here.

To read the log after New Orleans to the present time, Click here.

To see the photo gallery, Click here.

To read about the Vilma B's crew, Click here.

Oct. 28, 2000 - NEW ORLEANS!

WE MADE IT! The last week, we've really pushed ourselves to get here, and have had numerous obstacles to overcome, from more motor breakdowns, to an actual collision with a barge in the fog! (Nobody was hurt, and the raft sustained only    minor damage) Photos and story of the collision There will be lots more details here in the log in the next week or so, after we get a little rest and have time to recuperate.

Oct. 10, 2000, about 50 miles south of Greenville, MS

"Betsy!" Shawn was knocking on the door to my cabin. Her voice, though calm, held a hint of urgency. "David says to tell you that we're on the outside curve with a barge coming, and everybody's to be on alert."

Grabbing my lifejacket as I climbed out of the cabin, I looked quickly around to assess our situation.  Somehow, we had gotten caught in one of the worst situations possible: on the outside bank of a tight curve, with a whole series of tows coming upriver toward us. Each of them had at least 30 barges. There was no way we could switch banks and get to the inside of the curve like we normally do, travelling outside of the channel. The channel goes right up to the bank on the outside of the curve, and those tows have to use all the space they have, to swing all that length around the bend.  To make matters worse, there were particularly bad whirlpools and rips and eddies along the bank. We were all on high alert, ready to jump from the June's Barn, which was on the shore side, onto the bank, if we had to,  in order to escape a collision. We might lose the raft, but we would escape with our lives at least!

Poppa sat at the helm, steering as close to the bank as he dared. Luckily for us, all the tow captains were doing their best to help us out, taking the maximum inside position possible, cutting down their engines as they passed in order to minimize the effect of the waves from their wake. Still, when the first one went by, the waves were so huge that the raft was undulating from one end to the other like a giant sea-dragon!

Then one of the approaching captains got Ed on the radio and warned him about the point just ahead of us, where rocks just under the water caused back-eddies and could pull us up onto the rocky shore. What choice did we have? To move further from shore and closer to the rakes of the oncoming barges...OR take a chance on being pulled onto the rocky shore and spun around by the current? We weren't worried about hitting the rocks, because they would not damage the raft, and the paddlewheel boat was on the side away from shore, but if the front went aground, the whole raft could be spun around by the current, backwards and out of control , and there certainly was no room to maneuver, to turn and get her under control again!

The current was pulling us inexorably toward the point. "Maybe you should cut down the speed so the next barge gets past before we reach the point,"  I suggested, more out of desperation than belief that such a scheme could work. "No," Poppa said, "I don't want to cut down any on our steerage speed." Of course that did not surprise me either. From behind the video camera, I watched helplessly as we closed on the point, while the 5-wide tow came ever closer, like some enormous unstoppable monster. It was a breathless moment, but in the end, we slipped right by without a problem, a credit to Poppa's many years on the river. I believe he actually feels the river under the raft with his bones and instinctively knows what to do. I don't think any of the rest of us would have successfully navigated that spot.

The third tow went on by, less frightening than the others, as we had passed the most narrow part of the curve and the channel was slowly widening out. All the tow pilots came out their side doors, and the crews lined the decks, watching us go by. There were quite a few friendly waves as we passed, and I couldn't help wondering what we looked like from up there on the top deck of a tow boat, and what they were thinking. I know WE were all breathing a huge sigh of relief!

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Oct. 2, 2000, Greenville, MS

We arrived here tonight and tied up on the outskirts of town just as it was getting dark. The last few days, travelling most of each day, I have had a chance to find out for myself what navigating the Lower Mississippi is like.   see photos Since I left just after St. Louis, I didn't really get much of a sense of it until now. I actually asked the guys yesterday, if all the excitement happens on my watch, or is it like this all the time? They said, all the time. In the last few days, I've run over one buoy, put us on a sandbar to avoid hitting another, and had at least 2 other very close calls with buoys, and at least one scary moment wondering if I could get out of the way of a barge in time.  The barge rigs have gotten lots bigger, up to 35 or 36 barges in one tow (15 is the maximum on the Upper Mississippi), and the wake behind those pushboats is enormous. The bends in the river are so tight and the channel so narrow that the barges can only go one way at a time, while the others sit against the bank above or below the bend and wait their turn. Needless to say, we take our place OUTside of the channel, which means we are always on the tight, inside corner of the bend, because these huge rigs have to swing wide out to the outside to make it around. Also, the river is so low right now that snags and sandbars are everywhere, outside the channel. A couple of days ago they started letting more water through from upriver and the tributaries, and as a result the current has gotten much faster too, which adds to the excitement. I went through one spot today between the channel marking buoy and a wingdam, where the water was rushing and boiling like it was a whitewater rapids! Add to all this that the wind has been kicking up lately, which means it is harder to steer, and sometimes you are actually going downriver sideways to go straight. An hour's turn on the helm goes by very quickly in these conditions.

On the other hand, tying up at night behind a sandbar or a wingdam, looking up at the stars, hearing nothing but the creatures of the forest and the occasional tow going by, is very peaceful and meditative. The land is almost exclusively rural, and it is quite a distance between towns, moving at the speed we go, about 30-35 miles a day. At night the coyotes howl, and usually our dogs just lie low and quiet, as if they know those canines inhabit a different world. Here at the edge of Greenville, however, perhaps it was a pack of semi-wild dogs instead, because Thor and Sigfried joined right in, and they've been barking almost non-stop since it got dark.

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Sept. 23, 2000, Helena, Arkansas

Capt. Betsy arrived at Memphis on the 11th, without Anabel, who has decided to remain with her family for now. The rafts were not there yet, having been delayed by the necessity of taking the motor out of the white boat we had been using as auxiliary power and steering since Clinton, Iowa, because the boat was starting to sink. This  huge effort took two full days, next to a wing dam. The 13th, just one day after the rafts' arrival, Lori Butterfield and Dwayne arrived to do more filming and interviews for National Geographic. Poppa Neutrino sang and played piano two nights with Paul Richardson at the Rialto on Beale St. We left Memphis on the 15th, with them on board to get some film of us underway, but not before Shawn and Ed had their opportunity to see Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley.

Since leaving Memphis, we have stayed behing wingdams or sandbars every night, and have been thoroughly enjoying the rural territory. At one spot, Ed and David hiked about 3/4 of a mile through the woods to get water from a casino complex, seeing all kinds of wildlife along the way - deer, racoons, foxes, etc. They were warned about the presence of rattlesnakes and cottonmouths but luckily didn't see any. (Ed did see a snake climb up onto the foam under one of the decks one day, however.) While they were gone, a flock of wild turkeys came down to check out the rafts.

We have had some very heavy winds, sometimes enough to keep us from moving. Sometimes we are actually going downriver sideways because of the wind. Even when the wind is strong, though, the current is stronger; still, we can only proceed very slowly.

Today, just a few miles above Helena, while we were maneuvering to get out of the way of a barge coming upstream, our 20HP motor suddenly quit. For a few minutes it looked like we were goingto hit a buoy, and probably with our most vulnerable part, the paddlewheel boat, which is the only part we have left which could sink. But we made it, and  just after we got out of the channel, the barge passed us. We limped along using the paddlewheel boat, which had a slipping belt and therefore couldn't run above idle speed, and Ed raced from side to side with the little skiff and 6 HP, pushing the bow or stern around for extra steering, until we got close enough to town, and pulled in behind another sandbar. I guess we have some work to do with our motors here before we move on.

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[In this space, Poppa Neutrino, Ed,  and Shawn are going to tell about the highlights of their time onboard between St. Louis and Memphis.]

Poppa Neutrino: " Hickman, KY:  a place from the distant past. Black and white living together without the degenerate effects of a fast - paced society. Impossible to walk past a person without them saying 'Howdy,' or 'how y'all.' It is what the struggles of the past were all about, only somehow, we didn't become Hickman, we became Perinopolis, a city beside itself. The black Methodist church was such an overwhelming experience that my belief in black-white-brown brotherhood was rekindled."

Shawn:  "We had all retired after a long day on the river, when I was roused by the sound of David shouting. I jumped out my door and saw hovering above David's tent,(which was pitched on  the June's Barn, alongside the front of Vilma B) the bow of a huge raked barge. This barge was turning around in the inlet formed by the wingdam behind which we had tied up for the night.  None of us were sure whether the pilot had seen us or not. But he eventually backed away, without even touching the raft. From  that night forward, Ed was inspired to begin using the anchor light."

Note (Feb. 2001): Ed left the raft without ever giving me his narrative, so Shawn is going to give another one here.

Shawn: "A couple of days above Memphis, the boat the 100HP motor was in began to sink. Nothing we could do seemed to slow the leak - we couldn't even figure out where the water was coming in. We decided to scrap the boat and just try to save the motor. So we tied up alongside a group of moored corn barges and brought the boat over to the bank.This bank was on about a 40 degree slope and was all rock and boulders. Strangely enough, a crane just happened to be in that spot and they pulled the boat up onto the rocks. In this impossible position Ed and David worked with chainsaw and handsaws to rip the entire frame and boat structure from around the motor. They were covered in fiberglass dust.  Then we hooked up the winch on June's Barn, which we  brought to the spot where the dismembered boat was, and built a ramp of planks down the slope onto the June's Barn and cranked and pulled and pushed etc until the motor was onboard. And as a result we got to Memphis two day later than we had expected."


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Sept. 5, 2000, the raft is at Hickman, Kentucky

Capt. Betsy and Anabel left the raft on Aug. 25 to visit relatives in New York and New England.

Meanwhile, the rafts have continued downriver, past the confluence of the Ohio River at Cairo, Ill., and on into Kentucky.  More details about this part of the voyage after Capt. Betsy returns to the raft on the 11th.

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August 24, 2000, a few miles below St. Louis, MO

Yesterday, after passing the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, we passed through the last lock, and entered the Lower Mississippi River. WOW! This is different. We got our first taste of it as soon as we came out of the canal from the lock. I saw a log ahead of us, going sideways across the river. Before I even had time to really wonder what on earth that was about, we were turning widely in the direction the log was going. By using both motors to turn in the opposite direction, I was ble to quickly bring the rafts back on course, but that was only a warning of things to come. There are whirlpools in the most unexpected places, and you must be extra alert at the helm. The barge traffic is picking up, and there are at least twice as may barges in each tow as there are on the Upper Mississippi. The rest of the trip to New Orleans looks to be challenging as well as adventurous.

Another new factor is that the distance between towns is increasing, with much more empty territory in between, so we will have to plan ahead a good bit regarding fuel and other supplies.

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August 20, 2000, Grafton, Illinois

We have been here nearly a week now, and it has been a very eventful time. The June's Barn, our pushboat raft which was built in Dows, Iowa, was trucked here by Smithway Motor Xpress (SMX), and launched into the Illinois River, within sight of  its confluence with the Mississippi. This was such a long-awaited event, and as we got further and further downriver, we worried that the June's Barn might not catch up with us. But Jim White, president of the Dows Historical Society, worked the phones tirelessly until he connected with the Smithway folks, who volunteered to transport the raft from Dows to where the Vilma B was, free of charge. The SMX driver, Steve, told us that he's had a lot of interesting loads before, but this was definitely the most unique. We all cheered as the raft hit the water, and floated high, with only 4" of draft, just as Poppa Neutrino had predicted. He and Ed took her out for a test run with the little skiff and 6 HP motor, and she moved through the water beautifully! The next step will be to get the diesel for it, so that it can start doing its job of pushing this flotilla downriver.

Basil and Myron debarked from the raft at Lock and Dam 25 to continue their bike trip.

Yesterday June left for a visit with her children and other relatives in England. We will miss her, and look forward to her return.

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August 11, 2000, Mississippi River below Hannibal, MO  see photos

Hannibal - the birthplace of Mark Twain. We visited all the famous sites and museums covering Mark Twain's life and times. Poppa Neutrino was deeply moved by the feelings engendered in him by  the old time exhibits, videos and re-creations. The rest of us were impressed and curious, but a bit disappointed that there was so much emphasis on Tom and Becky and so little about Huck and Jim and their rafting trip. Anabel: "I loved learning about the old times, and about Hannibal's history, but I didn't think their raft was anywhere near as cool as ours is."

At Hannibal, we met Myron Skott and Basil Campbell, from Atlanta, Georgia,  who have taken some time out from a bike trip to join us on the river. They have been riding those unusual, "recumbent" type bikes for about two weeks, having started at Minneapolis, the same as we did, but obviously they have been moving much faster. Myron is helping Ed build a new frame over the front two cabins, for the third tarp that was donated by Terri Grauel, because the tarp for that section came down in a wind storm a few days ago. We have also had some very interesting talks. Basil was a member of Stephen Gaskin's farm community in Tennessee in the 80's, and we have had much discussion about what works and what doesn't in community efforts.

In LaGrange, where we stopped for a day due to high winds, we were overwhelmed by the generosity of Pat Livingston, the owner of the Riverfront Liquor Mart, which is also a video rental and has non-alcoholic beverages and snacks as well. Ed made her acquaintance when he went in to rent a video. When she found out that he was from "the raft," she was so excited, she refused to allow him to pay the rental fee, and started calling all the local officials and press connections she could think of. We were interviewed by both the local newspaper and also the TV news from Quincy as a result of her calls and were also visited by the president of the Chamber of Commerce. She insisted on our taking advantage of her old fashioned bathtub, and sent down loads of soft drinks and snack foods to the raft. Thanks, Pat!

We also enjoyed the Shirley's hospitality at the Double G Bar and Grill.

June, who has been staying in her camper since returning from her trip out west, has moved back onto the raft. Her presence and assistance onboard are very welcome.

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August 3, 2000, Mississippi River below New Boston, Illinois

We spent last night at New Boston after what is probably our record run so far, 39 miles in one day. We have decided to put a focus on making more distance as many days as possible. The people of New Boston were both curious about the Vilma B and also generous. We sold a number of  postcards, and a very friendly fellow named Lex gave Poppa a ride to get gas and water, and also donated some fresh produce and fish. His wife Sandy  came onboard for a short visit, giving us some smoked fish she had made. New Boston, we were told, was surveyed by Abe Lincoln himself. Lucinda and Jim Puckett of the New Boston Community Club gave us a bunch of T-shirts from the "Battle of the Bands." A local adventurer and videographer, Jeremiah Hartman, came onboard and had a lengthy conversation with Poppa Neutrino, and gave us a copy of his video, "The Search for the Black Pearl."

At our last stop, in Buffalo, Iowa, Ed rebuilt the tarp supports over the four back cabins, and installed the second of three beautiful ochre colored tarps donated by Terri Grauel. Cory, Max and Zane left on the 30th to return to Phoenix, promising to visit again soon. While here, Cory completed the decking of the cafe space, and donated tables and chairs for the cafe, as well as helping out with all sorts of daily chores and crewing underway. We felt like they were part of the family, and were sorry to see them go.

Bob Bradour, our friend from the trains,  made it to Buffalo with more foam and batteries, but told us that due to his work schedule, he will probably not be able to meet us any further south. Bob - "too much donating and not enough visiting!" No, seriously, we are so thankful for all his additions, we just wish he could have spent more time with us. We hope he will come see us on one of his vacations, maybe even travel along for a while.

Also on the 30th we had a surprise visit from Rodger Doncaster, one of the crew on the Atlantic crossing of the Son of Town Hall. It was great to see him again, and to show him the latest progress on our present raft projects.  see Photo

Our other stops after Camanche were at Princeton and Bettendorf. We have been travelling almost every day, having decided that  we had  better get a move on if we want to beat the weather going south.  Anabel is becoming an active crew member, has learned to tie a bowline,and handles the throttle of the outboard when we go through the locks.

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July 27, 2000, Camanche, Iowa

We have been here since the evening of the 23d, near a towboat and barge maneuvering zone. It is actually very peaceful, with woods on one side and a beautiful island on the other, and the little town of Camanche is lovely and quiet.

Terri Grauel, her son Shawn and friend Ben left the evening of the 25th. While he was here, Ben reinforced the framework of the cafe space, and built the rafters for a wonderful slanted roof, which he covered  with an ochre colored canvas tarp, one of several tarps donated by Terri. They also made a number of other gifts to the raft: little miniature rose bushes, aloe plants, and other flowers for the garden, a folding rocking chair for Poppa Neutrino, and many other goodies. Also, Terri, who cuts hair professionally, cut Shawn Kelley's and Capt. Betsy's hair. But best of all, they left behind Anabel! Yes, Anabel has decided, with her parents' permission, to travel on the raft and continue her homeschooling as she travels down the Mississippi. We are all very excited to have her on board.

Bob Bradour has made yet another trip to the raft with lumber, foam, and other useful items.Thanks, Bob! Now, every time we hear a train whistle we think of Bob and Darwin.

Sadly, after less than a week onboard, Matt has returned to Clinton. He was a valuable crew member while onboard, efficient underway, and a big help with construction and other work, and got along well with everyone. He would be welcome back.

We now have a paddlewheel houseboat as part of our flotilla, adding polarity to our visual aspect. The garden has begun to sprout. Ed spent the last two days working on the100HP motor, which has been acting up and not 100% reliable. He has been helped by local boat mechanic, Dan Cerling, who refused to charge anything for his assistance.

Cory has continued the work on the cafe space, today filling in and leveling the deck, which Shawn Grauel and Anabel also had done some work on. Zane, Cory's 7 year old son, helped with nailing. He also donated some white outdoor armchairs for the space. It's really starting to come together.

Meanwhile, Zane and Max, who's 4, have been fishing every day, along with Shawn Grauel while he was here, and they have caught several delicious fish every day!

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July 23, 2000, 8 miles south of  Clinton, Iowa

This has been an extremely eventful week. The day after we arrived, Bob Bradour came by with another truck load of lumber, foam, nails and screws, bottled water and batteries, and other goodies. It is amazing how much he has rounded up and delivered down to the raft. Two days later his work partner on the train line, Darwin Malone, came down with his parents to see the raft with their own eyes.They had seen the video of the crossing and wanted to see for themselves what we were doing. Darwin Sr., who has emphysema and doesn't get out much any more, got into the skiff at the boatramp so that he could get onboard the Vilma B and take a closer look. His wife Edith went onboard as well. Meanwhile Darwin Jr., his wife Frances, and two children, watched from the top of the rock levee and discussed our plans with us, also making a donation to the wishing well.  Next morning Darwin Sr. brought us a tarp and Darwin Jr. brought a load of lumber. Thanks very much to all these donors. You are the foundation of our project!

On the 18th, we acquired a 100 HP inboard-outboard in a 16' skiff for an unbelievably low price from Dick Falls of Thompson, Illinois. When he came down to see what we were up to, he returned the next day with two more skiffs filled with foam and some lumber. These two skiffs are going to provide extra flotation under the center of the raft, in between the pontoons.

Also while we were in Clinton, a fellow brought down a whole case of doggie treats for Thor and Siggy!

On the 19th and 20th, a National Geographic crew was at the raft in Clinton, filming our progress and interviewing the crew. We had hoped that the Dows pushboat/raft June's Barn would be able to be launched while they were here, but the transportation didn't come together for it.

However, the 20th was the day of many other exciting arrivals: our friend Terri Grauel and her son Shawn, whom we had met in France while on the Son of Town Hall, arrived from New York city in her RV with friends Ben and Anabel. They plan to be with us for about 5 days. Also arriving that day were Cory Waxman and his two sons Max and Zane.   Poppa and Betsy have known Cory for nearly 17 years but have not seen him since 1987. It was a day of wonderful reunion.  The next day, a new crew member from Clinton, Matt  Lewerenz, moved onboard.

The much enlarged crew,  now 13 humans, 3 dogs (Terri brought her little dog with her) and 2 cats, voted to leave Clinton and travel downriver, and so we left late on the afternoon of the 21st, and camped overnight on  a little island about 7 miles downriver. We spent the following day there, working on a number of projects: the now rapidly expanding garden we are planting in the center of the port side of the raft; the cabin at the back which will soon be a public space to invite people onboard; and moving one of the "floatation" skiffs into position and stuffing it with foam; also general organization and clean up of some of the storage areas.

Today we resume our travel downriver, heading toward the Quad Cities. 

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July 15, 2000, Sabula, Iowa

"Iowa's only island city" was the site of a 36 hour stay, thanks to Ulysses, who took off on his usual morning jaunt just before dawn, and didn't come back all day. We had been planning to leave that morning, but waited for him to reappear. We took it philosophically, however, feeling perhaps there was some other reason why we should not travel that day. As it turned out, it was a very good day of rest for most of the crew, and we had quite a few interested and curious visitors from the little town of Sabula, a beautiful spot, and some donations to the wishing well.  Capt. Betsy went biking around the island toward evening, whistling for Ulysses, and talking to anybody who was outside, asking if they had seen the cat. About an hour later, as we were eating supper, a man drove by in a station wagon and said that his wife had found our cat, just around the corner. Capt. Betsy hurried to the spot, and the woman said, he's in those bushes there, he answers when I whistle, but won't come out. Sure enough, as soon as Capt. Betsy called him, out he came, and was carried back onboard, where the rapidly rising water prevented him from any more excursions by covering the ramp with 12-14" of water! Word of mouth had spread quickly through this tight-knit community, and Ulysses was brought safely home. This is one of the things we truly love and appreciate about small town, rural America, having spent so much time in the cities, where such an occurrence would be next to impossible. Our thanks to the people of Sabula.

While this little feline drama played itself out, Ed took advantage of the day of no travel to put our new working platform to its intended purpose, and built the first frame of the Absolute Absolution, which will eventually be an 80' trimaran raft, training raft builders and raft sailing crews. This was a very big milestone, a long awaited event.

Today the raft moved on to Clinton.

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July 13, 2000, Bellevue, Iowa

Dubuque was really a very productive spot for us; lumber donated by two different people enabled us to build a 28' x 11' platform which will serve as material storage and building space for Ed's project, the 80' trimaran Absolute Absolution. June came back from her trip out west and she, Ed,  and Shawn did the building in two days, in blistering heat, but at least we had shade and showers close by.

Bob Bradour, who first contacted us in Prairie du Chien, brought us a lot of used lumber, 2 life jackets, several buckets full of nails and screws, some used foam, and quite a bit of first aid supplies, as well as some canned goods, etc. Bob works for the railroad, and keeps tabs on us on the river as he makes the run along the shore. His very generous donations are much appreciated.

Shawn Frazier of Dubuque saw the article in the local paper, and brought down a lot of used wood, plus some buckets, a camp stove, etc.

Barb Cooey spent several visits talking with us and exploring the Neutrino Ideas; she also generously donated quite a bit of brown rice, and several blankets.

We would like to thank everyone in Dubuque who came down to talk, and all those who made donations. This is what keeps the Orphanage Project going, along with lots of hard work by all our crew.

We spent one night in the city basin near the Welcome Center, before leaving Dubuque. When we went through Lock #12 at Bellevue, there was a tow waiting just outside on the downriver side, with several raked barges. The slot between these barges and the gate proved too tight for us to negotiate, with the strong current just outside the lock, and a fairly strong wind blowing us sideways onto the barges. We ended up held bay the wind against the side of the first barge, unable to power off against the wind, as there was another raked barge just ahead of us. The lock keeper and his assistant came out in a john boat to help pull us off. 40 HP made a difference, and we would have been free and clear, but for the fact that our throttle arm broke just at the crucial moment, leaving us with no power. As we scrambled to get our 6 HP back up motor started, the john boat stayed with us, getting us clear of the tow and over to the bank just below the locks. We resolved never again to go through a lock, unless we know that it is all clear on the other side. We are also really anticipating the time, soon, when the June's Barn arrives and is equipped with a diesel to give us more power and maneuverability.

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July 4, 2000, Dubuque, Iowa

We are pulled up to the bank at the Miller-Riverview R.V. Park here in Dubuque. The manager, Pat Felderman, has welcomed us and called us "the most interesting thing she's seen on the river." We plan to build another cabin here, for Shawn. June has completed her visit with her sister, and will be returning to the Vilma B within the next several days.

Meanwhile, Poppa and Ed, with lots of help from Gordon Wordon, finished the hull and deck of the pushboat last week. It has been registered in Iowa and renamed June's Barn, to honor June Hanson, who donated the lumber from her barn outside Dows, and to emphasize the recycled nature of the vessel. We are all very excited about the imminent meeting of the two rafts here on the river. Without the help of Jim White and  Gordon Wordon, this raft would not have been built. We also want to thank everyone else in Dows who took part in this effort.

Before we left Prairie du Chien, we had a visit from Tommy Vaughn of Ferryville, who brought down and donated to the
Vilma B  his classic 1930's vintage Johnson Seahorse 4.5 HP outboard motor. These old Johnsons have many advantages: they are built very simply, and are therefore easy to repair; are quite reliable; and their parts are readily available worldwide. We feel honored to have received this treasure. Tommy's daughter, Georgia, came along with him, and had quite a visit onboard the raft, asking many questions of Shawn. It was a pleasure to meet them both, and we are very thankful for their donation.

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June 24, 2000, Prairie du Chien, WI

Tom Bouzek of GCR Tire Center here in PDC brought down a donation of a Chrysler 20 HP outboard motor today, complete with a tank of gas, to replace our little 6 HP which gave up just below Lock and Dam #6. He started it up for us, and it sounded great! Ready to roll on down the river.

Ed and Poppa have gone to Dows to put in a major effort on the DowsIowa pushboat/raft. There is plenty of lumber and they feel that now is the moment to get a big chunk of that raft finished. Perhaps the two rafts will meet at Dubuque.

Leah went home to celebrate her son Trevor's 9th birthday with him., and to work on her book. We will miss her.

Our thanks to the many people who have put donations into our wishing well to help further the orphanage raft project.

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June 18, 2000, Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin

Still under power provided by Jim Beeman and Bobby King, who have been floating alongside us in their houseboat since leaving Latsch Island, we arrived here at PDC on the 15th. We have acquired another old 6 HP, almost 40 years old, a Mercury, but it starts with the first crank, so it will be a good backup. Also planning to get the lower unit fixed on our other 6 HP. Jim and Bobby hauled their houseboat out of the water today and are on their way back to Minnesota. We plan to keep in touch.

Design Homes here in PDC has donated quite a bit of used lumber, and we are in the process of loading it onboard for construction as we continue downriver. We have joined together the two pontoons built at Wildcat Landing, and added them onto the front, making the total length of the raft now 78 feet. In order to better organize the storage of lumber, we have  moved two cabins onto the new front section, clearing one whole 18' section for storage.

We also received a donation of about a dozen sheets of used plywood from Terry and Cindy Wille.

It is hard for people to believe that this raft will eventually go to sea. Of course it will not look anything like this by that time. For an idea of how a raft can be seaworthy, check the Son of Town Hall pages and also the FAQ page.

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June 13, 2000, Genoa, Wisconsin

Crew updates: June and her son Adam spent an exciting week traveling on the raft and participating in all aspects of life onboard. They have now gone off to spend a little time seeing some of the countryside before Adam returns to England. Ryan has decided not to return to the raft at this time. Shawn Kelley arrived yesterday from Tucson, Arizona, to join the crew.

Float the river: Bobby King and Jim Beman joined us in their houseboat the evening of the 10th, which was the day we left Latsch Island. The night before, Bobby hosted an evening at the Winona Arts Center, at which the National Geographic video of the Atlantic crossing by Son of Town Hall was shown, followed by Q & A with the Floating Neutrinos and Vilma B crew. There was a packed house, and the video was extremely well received.

Having added another 20' to the raft at Latsch Island, we started downriver on the 10th, but motor problems (the lower unit of our 6 HP has given up) forced a stop just 2 miles south of  Lock and Dam #6. After temporarily tying up on an island, the raft was towed over to the Wisconsin side by the Haines family - Todd and Angie, who were out on the river with their children Mandy and Aaron, and willingly pulled the raft across to where we could make contact with shore. This is where Jim and Bobby caught up to us, and graciously offered to act as temporary pushboat to get us further along. The next day, under their power, we made it as far as LaCrosse, but a combination of heavy traffic on the river and proximity to the bridge convinced us to continue on to a quieter spot. We spent the night at an island across from the Wildcat Landing in Brownsville, MN. Next day Jim and Bobby volunteered to do some raft construction, and we put together two more 20' pontoons for the next section of the raft, the fastest work yet.

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June 5, 2000, Winona,  MN

Crew updates: June returns today from a week in England visiting her children. Her son Adam is coming along with her for a visit to the raft. Welcome back, and welcome aboard! Ryan left yesterday for a week's visit with friends and family. We will miss him.

Poppa, Ed and Ryan made a three day's trip to Dows and got a huge amount of lumber salvaged from the barn and transported to the building site behind the museum. Meanwhile, Gordon Wordon has located another source of wood to be salvaged. We now have available all the wood we will need to build the Dows Iowa raft.

Construction is well underway on the next 20' extension to the Vilma B.   We have enjoyed many visits from local residents, as well as invitations to visit their boat-houses, and have spent numerous hours in conversations and exchange, leaving us feeling as if we are a real, though temporary, part of this lovely and unique Island community. Yesterday a new member of the community was born right onboard one of the boat-houses - a little girl. With all the rain we've been getting lately, and the number of tiny ducklings floating about, it seems like spring has sprung at last,  though much belated.

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May 25, 2000, Wolf Spider Island and Latsch Island, Minnesota-Wisconsin

I actually don't know which state we are in, here on these islands - maybe neither! This is such a beautiful spot -Wolf Spider Island has been designated as a wilderness area, so will always remain undeveloped. The Vilma B is here among a truly fascinating group of "boat houses"- houses built to float on top of platforms supported by barrels. Several of them are real art pieces - a geodesic dome, for example, among others decorated with all sorts of found natural objects - extremely unique; and so are the inhabitants - artists, writers and bohemian types, living here on the edge.

The trip down the river from Red Wing to here included several locks, giving our newest crew members, Leah and Ryan, an opportunity to gain experience with raft handling. They are also learning how to man the helm, taking their turns at steering. Poppa and Betsy have been meeting the raft in different landing spots along the river, whenever they are not in Dows, as well as filming from the shore and as the raft goes through locks. We had a several days' stop over in Fountain City, Wisconsin, as the van broke down and had to be repaired. Rick Duellman of Elmer's Auto Sales and garage was very generous with his efforts at tracking down and solving the problem. While we were there, we spent one night camping on a small island in the middle of the river, and the dogs and cat had a wonderful time romping on the shore. When we returned to the Wisconsin shore in the morning, we discovered a tiny kitten that had crawled up inside the hood of the van. Thank goodness the car did not start that morning! After investigation indicated she was probably  from either a wild or abandoned litter, the kitten was brought onboard the Vilma B and took up residence in Leah's cabin. We have since named her Pearl.

Meanwhile, in Dows, we now have six frames completed, leveled, and aligned, ready for the bottom and sides to be put on. We have had generous donations of labor from Lyon Anderson, the police chief, and from Gordon Wordon, who also was extremely instrumental in furthering the barn salvage work by arranging for Mitch Nichols to come with his backhoe and remove some of the sections of roofing and other debris which were blocking us from being able to get at the really good lumber underneath. We are now in position to get out quite a bit of good lumber. We would like to thank all of these people for helping to make the Dows Iowa pushboat a reality.

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May 15, 2000, Red Wing, MN

After several days at Island Station, during which many donations of foam, wood, and other items were received, along with numerous visits from local residents, on the 13th, the Vilma B was underway again, travelling downriver to Hastings, where two new crew members came onboard, Ryan Krieg and Leah Johnston, both  from the Minneapolis area. The next day they made their first trip on the river, as the raft moved on  to Red Wing, where we were welcomed by the mayor, who gave us Redwing pins as souvenirs of our stay. Leah and Ryan both showed themselves to be quick learners and got right into the action as crew. Today they are building more cabins so that each person will have his/her own private space.

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May 8, 2000, St. Paul, MN

On the 5th, the Vilma B  travelled downriver through the St. Anthony's Falls locks, [see photos]   the first of which has a drop of 50' and is the deepest lock on the entire Mississippi, and Lock Number One (a drop of 38'), stopping overnight at a small houseboat community near an old, shut down power plant (called Island Station). The following evening, Poppa and Ed were invited aboard one of the boats to give a showing of the National Geographic TV piece, which was enthusiastically received. Meanwhile, on the 8th there was a showing for the Senior Citizens of Dows, who were likewise very enthusiastic. Tomorrow Poppa resumes his work salvaging lumber from the old barn in Dows.

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May 2, 2000, Dows, Iowa

Today Roy and Jerry Johnson collapsed an old barn a few miles outside of town, from which June Hanson, the owner, has generously offered to allow us to salvage as much wood as we can, for use in the raft projects. We are planning to build a workboat-raft here in Dows, which will serve as a pushboat for the Vilma B while that raft is under construction on the river, and also as a floating sawmill and workshop. It will be called the Dows Iowa and will belong to the Dows Historical Society, who are partners in this part of the project, donating space behind their blacksmith museum for material storage and construction, as well as helping to organize volunteer help and locate sources of recyclable materials.

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April 30, 2000, Minneapolis, MN

This was a big day for the raft and crew. The two sections have been joined into a 38' raft, and there are now 4 cabins completed. Today we moved several miles downriver, a very successful maiden voyage, and it was a beautiful day on the river. We are tied up now behind a couple of little islands which are filled with nesting Canada Geese and other waterfowl, and their calls fill the air.   See photos.  Another big event was the arrival of our pets from France, where they had remained when Poppa and Capt. Betsy returned to the states. We drove to Chicago to pick them up at the airport, and it was a grand reunion. They were all three on board for the maiden voyage of the Vilma B: Thor and Sigfried, our two rotweilers, and Ulysses, our cat.

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April 24, 2000, Fridley, MN

As of tonight, Ed and June will both be living onboard the raft. We have two completed platform sections, the second one nearly identical to the first, but 20' long rather than 18'. There are now 3 completed cabins. The two platforms are tied next to each other now, but in the next few days, the second one will be attached behind the first, giving us a 16' by 38' raft, ready for river travel with our little 6 HP outboard motor. A National Geographic cameraman has been here all day, filming the early progress of the raft construction. Tomorrow Poppa and Capt. Betsy will be in Dows, Iowa, getting started with the Iowa branch of the project, and National Geographic will be along to film there as well. The people in this area around Fridley have been extremely friendly and helpful; donations of wood have arrived at the boat ramp, even a few times when we weren't around. We are very thankful for all the donations and assistance that have come forth, and for the peaceful work site where we have accomplished so much in a very short time.

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April 18, 2000, Fridley, MN

We now have a small cabin on one side of the raft, which Ed plans to move into tomorrow or the next day. This is only the beginning, as we will continue to build more cabins, and to lengthen the raft. Work is going along faster than we had expected, and we are very optimisitic. Even the weather is beginning to warm up and actually feel like spring! See photo

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April 14, 2000, Fridley, MN

Today we launched the first two, identical raft sections, having built the second yesterday, just like the first. They draw about 1" of water, which means plenty of buoyancy for storing materials. Next we connected the two floats together with cross pieces so that we have our catamaran. See Photos

Within the next couple of days we will be ready to move downriver and start gathering more materials from various spots. We have had great feedback from the NBC news broadcast; several people have called or e-mailed us with offers of used wood, and we are contacting them and making arrangements to receive or pick up the materials. We can use all the wood we can get! Two really big rafts are being built from these modest beginnings. Thank you to all those who are coming forward with donations of materials!

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April 12, 2000, Fridley, MN

Today Ed, June, Poppa and Betsy put together the first raft/float which will be the support of the working platform. It is 4'x18'x1' deep, filled with foam, and raked at the front. We have built it next to a boat ramp right on the edge of the Mississippi, where it can be easily launched. Tomorrow we will build another just like it, and then the two will be joined with cross pieces, forming a catamaran 16' wide and 18' long. As we finished our work, just before dusk, it began to snow. We were grateful that the weather had held until we finished. The local news were here filming and we will be on NBC TV news tonight. See Photos

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April 10, 2000, Minneapolis

Today we began gathering materials for the new rafts. After visiting several construction sites here in Minneapolis, we were given permission to remove a lot of used lumber from one site. Ed and David spent the afternoon loading a large quantity of 2x6, 2x8, 2x10, and 2x12's onto the top of our van and boat trailer, and into Ed and June's camper/trailer. With this lumber we will build the initial floating platform which will be capable of housing several people, storing lots of materials, and will also provide building space for both rafts, on the water.   see Photos

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