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Trouble up the Yazoo

September 28, 2004|Jenna Bordelon | Special to The Times

Vicksburg, Miss. — "MY brother thinks I killed my mother," Doc drawls between slugs from his morning 40-ouncer. "But it's not my fault she fell down the stairs."

Doc's matricidal ramblings strike me as inappropriate considering that my rafting partner's twisted body is lying at our feet on the bricks of the Vicksburg, Miss., wharf.

"I've snapped something in my back," Marc Eriksen whispers. "I can't go on."

We should never have left the safety of the Mississippi River, which has been our home for two months now since we set out to float it on a homemade raft made from plastic bottles.

The day of our arrival in Vicksburg began on a hopeful note when I spotted a beaver on the river's eastern shore Before my three-month expedition, I thought the river would be chock-full of the dam-building overbite crowd. But so far, I had only heard their angry squeaks when we camped on what they considered their property. When I pointed at one that was as fat as a HoneyBaked ham, it dove into the river with surprising grace.

Thirty miles later we rounded a curve, and the former Civil War siege town of Vicksburg appeared through the haze on the bluffs. We looked for a place to tie up, but the pickings were scarce. At one landing, a flunky from a nearby towboat company told us to shove off. I threatened to write a letter. He shrugged.

Options were so limited, we had to paddle back up the Mississippi to the mouth of the Yazoo River. The Vicksburg wharf was a mile up the Yazoo, whose current flowed against us.

The riverbank was an obstacle course littered with rocks, trees, rusted car parts and long cables strung into the river in an attempt to stop erosion.

Foot by foot, Eriksen dragged the Bottle Rocket, our boat, along the shore by its tow rope, while I used a tree branch to push-pole around the cables.

It grew dark.

Slowly passing an unloading log barge on our right, we watched in dread as a crane swung tree-sized hunks of wood over the channel, seesawing them back and forth above our heads as it hoisted them from the boat to the bank. No one on the barge noticed us.

Once we reached the deserted wharf, I ran to a hotel and got a room that looked like the 1980s had thrown up all over it.

Two days later, poor but proud at having made it to Vicksburg at all, we met Doc, a local jack-of-all-trades. He agreed to give us a ride back to our boat in exchange for an 8 a.m. bottle of beer.

Meanwhile, the Yazoo had dropped several feet overnight. We found the boat stranded far above the waterline. In a hurry to leave, Eriksen grabbed the 300-pound raft and lifted.

I watched in horror as the boat slammed to the ground and Eriksen fell, clutching his back.

I wondered then if we would make it to New Orleans.

To be continued ...

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