From left, Alex Ponik, Nate Smieja, and Jason Holmes stand aboard their boat, the Ella Marlene, at City Front Tuesday afternoon. (The Vicksburg Post/ROB MAXWELL)

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 17, 2000

A group of Wisconsin college students who spent the summer as guests of the Father of Waters pulled into City Front Tuesday.

Jason Holmes and Alex Ponik, who spent the last 10 weeks on the Mississippi River on a homemade raft, and Nate Smieja, who joined them for much of the trip, planned to float the entire length of the river. They started the trip in Minneapolis with “New Orleans or Bust” inscribed on the back of their boat, but a bad motor prompted them to cut the trip short in Vicksburg.

“This is our last hurrah before we go to work,” Holmes said. “It’s an American thing to do, I think. I was inspired by that Mark Twain stuff.”

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The three built their wooden boat from scratch, with plastic barrels underneath for flotation and an outboard motor on the back.

When they started the trip in June, Holmes said, they were wearing sweaters. But by the time they drifted into City Front, they had tanned considerably and were down to shorts.

Their diet consisted mainly of canned food heated on a portable gas stove while they were between towns, which could be for days at a stretch. It took the trio two days of drifting between Greenville and Vicksburg.

The routine on the boat consisted mainly of fishing, swimming, eating and reading.

“We read lots of books,” Holmes said.

Sometimes, Smieja said, to make them feel like they were having a productive day, they would make lists of “Things to Do.” A typical list might read: 1) brush teeth; 2) make bed; 3) heat can of food; 4) wash plate.

“It helps you understand what bare bones is,” he said. “Life is simple.”

The group is hitching a ride back to Wisconsin with Holmes’ parents, who drove down to pick them up. They are going to stay in town long enough to donate their extra canned food to charity and find someone who wants their boat.