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Hoisting a few with Lewis and Clark

August 03, 2004|Jenna Bordelon | Special to The Times

On the Mississippi River — "I'M CAPTAIN

Meriwether Lewis," says the guy in the adult-diaper-style pants. "Welcome aboard."

Squinting through my insect-coated glasses at this 19th century apparition, I am ready for shore leave, no matter how retro. But instead of a good time, I just want a hug.

Since leaving St. Louis on our homemade boat, the latest leg of a Mississippi River journey that began in Dubuque, Iowa, my ex-boyfriend and I have fought off a towboat captain who came close to hitting our raft, dubbed the Bottle Rocket, made out of 232 2-liter soda bottles, and fought each other over my need to stop every two hours at a sandbar to use the bathroom.

"You have an elf bladder," says my raftmate, Marc Eriksen.

That day, we slogged 21 miles around circular bends. We called ahead to barges on our intermittent radio for river traffic warnings. This was a cakewalk compared to the Lower Mississippi.

For the next 850 miles to New Orleans, the river -- unhindered by pesky locks and dams -- would finally be free to drown sandbars and small islands.

So when we stumble upon reenactors from the Lewis and Clark bicentennial Discovery Expedition a couple of miles outside Cairo, Ill., at Fort Defiance State Park, it is a good excuse for a pause before golden island sands give way to slurpy swamp muck. The crew is on its way upriver to re-create the entire route of the original Manifest-Destiny trip of the Corps of Discovery, led by Lewis and William Clark.

But tonight we are going to party like it's 1799.

After much-needed showers, we join these pseudo-expansionists in the dining room of the J.S. Lewis, a 1930s towboat commissioned by the Army Corps of Engineers to support the reenactors on the Ohio River leg of their journey.

As Lewis, a.k.a. history teacher and former Ronald Reagan aide Scott Mandrell, says: "We too are making history." Lewis and Clark reenactors shoot guns, march in formation and speak the words from Lewis' journals. They also make toasts with cans of beer and play music on washtubs. Faux commander Lewis says that some of the crew is "going soft."

"They want four-poster beds in their tents," he says, drawing me briefly into the exciting world of reenactor gossip.

Their keelboats may have motors, and they may carry cellphones in their leather pouches, but the urge for adventure is one the expedition team understands. Refreshingly, none questions my presence on this river.

Two days later, after lots of healing naps and slices of pie, Eriksen and I push off.

A blinding sun distorts the figures of the mock Lewis, Clark and crew lined up in their feathered hats and knee-high boots on the Illinois bank, yet their voices swell clearly over the water. They sing a sailors' work song called "Cape Cod Girls." But they change the destination from "We're bound away to Australia" to "Louisiana."

"Three cheers for the 'Bottle Rocket,' " Lewis yells.

Stirred by their gesture and the shadow of their namesakes, I face south, determined not to quit, no matter the cost.

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