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River Men

By France Griggs Sloat

June 30, 2002—A retrofitted pontoon boat left Cincinnati’s public landing on the last day of June carrying four men down the Ohio River for a month-long journey in search of history, a little adventure and their own solitude, peace and companionship. The raft carrying Bob Herring, a 1973 and 1977 graduate, and his three friends will end when they reach New Orleans and the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Equipped with a solar-powered generator on the roof of their hand-made hutch, a laptop computer and digital phone and camera, the pontoon crew, who call themselves the River Men, will file daily web dispatches that curious readers can follow throughout the trip.

“We’re just four guys looking for a good time on the river and seeing what’s there,” Herring says. “Certainly it’s a break. I’m 52 years old, and I’ve never been down the river before. I really believe we are connected to those who have gone before us, and I wondered what was that like for them?”

Granted, there are no Indians to watch for, and their boat is no wooden raft lashed together with rope. And the high-tech equipment, including a refrigerated cooler fueled by the solar-powered generator, are modern conveniences that will make the trip a lot more enjoyable than those trips experienced by the early flatboat settlers. But Herring says they can get a taste of what those adventurers experienced as they discover the territory from the vantage point of the river. He plans to stop at Vicksburg, Miss., to visit the famous Civil War battlefield and in Memphis to see the National Civil Rights Museum.

“It’s a leisurely trip, not a race. We’re not out to prove anything,” Herring says.

The idea began when Herring, principal of Nativity School in the Pleasant Ridge neighborhood of Cincinnati, and Brad Stevenson, the school’s artist-in-residence, were discussing with students what happens to rain that falls at the school. A simple conversation about where the water goes grew into a plan to follow the Ohio River to the Gulf of Mexico. Stevenson’s friends, Bob Gray and Mick Michaelson, owner of Sugar ‘N Spice Restaurant, helped build the hut on the pontoon boat bought for the trip and they, too, decided to join the journey.

The men prepared for the trip by talking to the U.S. Coast Guard and doing a trial run at one of the locks on the Ohio. They found they got through faster than the barges. The guard told them to be wary at night in the river’s rural stretches where country boys pass the time by shooting at the buoy lights in the river. Herring said they plan to tie up every night. They were also warned to be careful of bugs and snakes, so they have plenty of mosquito repellant and a snake bite kit.

Each man took his own food, mostly items like cereal, dried fruit, peanut butter and crackers. Water, Gatorade and a little beer will quench their thirst, but they are not planning to cook any prepared meals. They will tie up periodically to refuel the boat and their food supplies. Equipped with a small outboard motor, the crew expects to travel up to 70 miles a day, aided by the rivers’ southbound current.

Herring will use his laptop and cell phone to file daily briefings to a link on the school’s web site. Readers can keep up with the River Men by calling up www.nativity-cincinnati.org/river/river_trip.htm, or going to the school site at www.nativity-cincinnati.org. The site is prepared for 28 days of dispatches, though Herring said they could get to New Orleans in as little as 20 days.

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