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Barely keeping afloat on 232 pop bottles

March 16, 2004|Jenna Bordelon | Special to The Times

LUNGING FORWARD, SANS life jacket, for the bottle of Jack Daniel's, I balance on a human-powered raft that tips dangerously in the waters of the Mississippi River. But I need that drink.

Just two weeks ago, I was an out-of-work journalist watching reruns of "Roseanne" and talking to my cats. Now I am a reluctant first mate three days into a three-month journey from Dubuque, Iowa, to New Orleans aboard the Bottle Rocket, a 5-by-10-foot pontoon boat floating on 232 two-liter soda pop bottles lashed together by my rafting partner, Marc Eriksen.

He tempted me with visions of writing about my adventure. But I have yet to take a note. Overwhelmed by exhaustion, a bad sunburn and Eriksen's tally of my numerous failings as a sailor, I am an anxiety-ridden wreck.

Suddenly Eriksen yells, "The captain says, 'Sit down.' " He likes to refer to himself in the third person.

I snatch the whiskey from the cracked milk crate where we store our meager supply of canned creamed corn and various snacks from the good people at Little Debbie. I take a couple of swigs as I cling to the mast.

"You're not the boss of me," I say. The truth is, I feel like an intruder.

Eriksen, who is filming this trip to make an educational video, already has his routine down by the time I join him. He had started weeks earlier in August, at the headwaters of Lake Itasca, Minn., so not only am I late to the party, he seems content to have the whole river to himself.

I also suffer greatly from a lack of confidence in my abilities. I am not anybody's idea of fit. With my pasty, pale skin and squishy tummy, I am an unlikely candidate to pedal a homemade paddle wheel round and round, down what is arguably a large sewer, for eight to nine hours a day.

Still, with some strange compulsion to change my life driving me on, I met Eriksen at the National River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, and we soon set sail. Yet I can't shake the feeling I'd rather be home in Los Angeles, far away from this emotionally unwieldy trip with my ex-boyfriend.

"Pull over to that sandbar," I say, pointing with my bottle to a surprisingly lovely beach on the Illinois side of the river. Eriksen grabs the booze and steers the boat into the bank. Chortling drunkenly, I slosh off in a northerly direction, dragging my bags.

Each day brings disappointments and adjustments. We move so slowly, for one thing. Eriksen's homemade junk pile is sturdy but sluggish. Up front, I pedal a rusty bicycle attached to a paddle wheel. In the back, Eriksen rows with oars salvaged from a discarded sailboat. Still, we average only about 12 miles a day.

Then there are the creatures to contend with. On our first night on the river, camped on a grassy shore six miles below Dubuque, a bat flies at my face as I huddle over the fire. The second night, hunkered down on "Spider Island," I trip over my pants in my hurry to get ashore and land face-first in a fat, sticky spider web.

I am lonely and grungy, and my left eye has begun to twitch. Alone in my tent, I sulk and plot how to abandon this scrap heap of a ship.

Against the gentle lapping of the water, I hear scuffling. Peering through the tent flap, I watch Eriksen erect a small shrine, a peace offering of heron feathers and clamshells he's scavenged from around the sandbar.

That night, serenaded by angry beavers slapping their tails on the surface of the water, Eriksen and I dance naked around a roaring bonfire. We've reached an otherworldly detente. For now.

To be continued....

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