2 of 3 settle in New Orleans|[01/02/07]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Three rafters who journeyed more than 1,000 miles down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers have stepped off their boat after a four-month trip including an unexpected two-month stopover in Vicksburg.

James Burkart, 24, Libby Hendon, 24, and Laura Mattingly, 25, who met while attending the University of California-Santa Cruz, arrived in New Orleans on Thanksgiving Day, said Burkart.

The trip, which the trio dubbed, “Release Yourself onto the Water until it Tastes of Salt,” began July 21, from Burkart and Hendon’s hometown of Kansas City, Mo. The fresh water turned brackish just above the Crescent City.

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“We made it to just north of New Orleans before we tasted salt,” he said Monday while en route to retrieve the raft, which the group left where what was to have been a summer trip ended.

Their voyage started appearing in news accounts after Sept. 15 when boarding officers from the Coast Guard about 15 miles north of Vicksburg deemed the homemade craft unsuitable for the lower Mississippi and ordered the expedition terminated. Their plight caught the attention of Vicksburg attorney Kelly Loyacono, who called congressmen, filed legal briefs and advised the trio free of charge.

After a nearly two-month delay, the blessing of the Coast Guard to continue came on Nov. 5 and they floated away from City Front.

The experience seems to have given Hendon and Mattingly an affinity for river cities.

“Libby and Laura are living and working in New Orleans,” he said. Meanwhile, Burkart said he plans to return to California, where he’ll decide what to do next. Burkart said the journey was a great experience but not one he’s in a hurry to repeat soon.

“We maybe came across as outdoorsy people, but that wasn’t the kind of activity I normally do,” he said. “I’m interested in trying new things, but I’m not sure I’ll be taking the raft down the river again.

“At the end we were very tired,” he said. “It was really strange — when we were going through Baton Rouge there was a helicopter following us and circling — it was the Coast Guard.” While the trio had received the OK to complete the trip, Burkart said they were told the Coast Guard kept tabs. The lower Mississippi has more traffic, including ocean-going ships.

In a letter to Loyacono, U.S. Coast Guard District 8 commander Rear Adm. Joel R. Whitehead, whose jurisdiction includes waterways in the Vicksburg area, confirmed he issued the order to terminate the voyage under federal laws dealing with water-borne recreational craft deemed unsafe. Whitehead cited an “unsuitable design and configuration.” Chief Warrant Officer Doug Chapman, who twice inspected the vessel, said the rafters improved their craft by adding large oars, nose cones and a third rudder to aid in steering. The parts were donated by local residents and businesses. Construction took place at the Carriage House Apartments, 1215 East Ave., where owners Bill and Nancy Libbey had allowed it to be parked. Chapman described the water craft as one of the most unusual he had ever seen in 26 years of experience.

Before their local encounter with the Coast Guard, the rafters said they had experienced more than a dozen other encounters with law enforcement officials, but all had given them a pass.

During their time in Vicksburg, the three stayed with Ross Andrews, a lumber inspector at Anderson-Tully who met them downtown the night they were pulled off the river. Hendon and Mattingly also worked as substitute teachers for the Vicksburg Warren School District during their stay.

A film student, Burkart said the voyage seemed like a movie at times with a strong beginning, plot twists and an “anti-climactic” ending.

While the group said repeatedly that they were not bitter about being held up in Vicksburg, the delay did alter their experience a bit. “I think the main difficulties we faced were the cold and when you get that far down the river, it slows down a lot. We’d have frost on our sleeping bags when we’d wake up.”

Over the course of their trip, the trio was joined by about a dozen others off and on. Their final passenger spent the day with them as they passed through Baton Rouge.

Burkart said any future visits he makes to Vicksburg will likely be via more traditional means. He said the group is forever grateful for the kindness shown here. “I don’t know how to appropriately reciprocate all the hospitality we received,” he said.