River rafters beached in Vicksburg|[09/21/07]

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 21, 2007

After eight weeks and more than 1,000 miles, the voyage of a homemade, bicycle-powered paddle raft has come to a halt near Vicksburg for lack of U.S. Coast Guard certification.

On July 21, Jamie Burkart, 24, Libby Hendon, 24, and Laura Mattingly, 25, dropped their vessel into waters in Kansas City, Mo., the native city of Burkart and Hendon, and embarked down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers until their journey was impeded six days ago about 15 miles north of Vicksburg.

“We’ve definitely run into an interesting wrinkle in our trip,” said Burkart, who has spearheaded the project since the construction of the raft.

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Burkart said they were pulled off the river and examined by Levi Denham and Doug Niendich, boarding officers for the U.S. Coast Guard, who found the raft in violation of regulations regarding registration, not equipment or operation.

The rafters said Denham did not have the authority to terminate the voyage based on registration, but phoned Rear Admiral Joel R. Whitehead, who, as commander of the 8th Coast Guard District, did.

In a brief phone interview, Denham acknowledged the incident occurred, but said he was unable to comment further. Lt. Leon McClain, public affairs officer for the Coast Guard’s Lower Mississippi River sector, explained that a Coast Guard Cutter had witnessed and reported a near collision between the homemade raft and a commercial vessel. This incident led to the Coast Guard to pulling aside the “nonconventional” raft.

“The Coast Guard was basically acting in the interest of safety for the rafters,” McClain said.

According to Burkart, Whitehead’s choice was made based on the raft’s lack of steering and propulsion, reports by tug-boat captains on the river saying they witnessed the raft having trouble navigating and a blog entry by a prior participant that mentioned an alleged collision.

The rafters’ said they asked to show the Coast Guard how they maneuver, but the request was denied. The three were then escorted to Vicksburg by Warren County Sheriff’s Department personnel.

The raft now sits where the journey stopped, securely tied by the side of the river.

“We are not allowed to move the raft,” Burkart said. “If we do, we would be arrested for failure to terminate our voyage.”

Before Saturday, Burkart said the rafters had experienced 14 other encounters with law enforcement, which included police, fire, sheriff, state conservation, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Homeland Security. However, all previous encounters resulted in a go ahead.

Upon their arrival in Vicksburg, the vessel-less rafters began seeking shelter and requesting legal advice regarding their situation. They found both.

Burkart, Hendon and Mattingly have been staying with Ross Andrews, a 30-year-old Vicksburg resident who is a lumber inspector at Anderson-Tully. Andrews said he met the rafters downtown the night they were pulled off the river.

“I at first helped them just because they looked like they needed help,” Andrews said. “But then I came to really believe in what they were doing. If they ever get back on the river I’d like to go with them, but I’ve got the job here.”

Paul Kelly Loyacono, a Vicksburg attorney, has been the source of legal advice. Working free for the rafters, he has been making phone calls to U.S. Coast Guard personnel and congressmen.

Loyacono said Lt. Commander Wayne Arguin told him that the rafters would have to “demonstrate maneuverability and ability to keep out of the channel” if they are to continue their voyage.

“I’m going to do all that I can to help these kids out,” Loyacono said. “They are doing what young people everywhere should be doing, and I want to help them on get on their way.”

Burkart said the raft is a product of and venue for his art project, titled “Release Yourself onto the Water until it Tastes of Salt.” The project’s participants want to experience the people, places and ideas that the rivers offer to those who “release themselves.” During the course of the voyage, six other people, all previously strangers, joined Burkart, Hendon and Mattingly on the river for short periods.

The raft is composed entirely from the discarded remnants of old homes, civic refuse, and main brand soda-pop items, Burkart said.

While their trip has taken an unexpected turn, the rafters said they have enjoyed their extended stay in Vicksburg.

“We have really been impressed with everyone here,” said Mattingly, a California-native who met Burkart and Hendon at the University of California-Santa Cruz. “Everyone has been very friendly and has really helped make this situation an enriching experience.”

If the rafters are allowed back on the water, they’ll have one additional passenger. Scott Moerson, 25, who also attended the University of California-Santa Cruz, came to Vicksburg to meet up with the group, only to arrive on the day they were forced off the river.

And the rafters are willing to take more passengers.

“If anyone from Vicksburg wants to join us for the remainder of the trip, they are more than welcome,” Burkart said.