Their start may have been a bit chaotic, but a handful of Kansas City and California art-adventurers have sailed across the state of Missouri on a homemade raft crafted from recycled materials.
Jamie Burkart, a slender filmmaker with a penchant for pastel-colored clothing and off-the-wall art installations, came up with the idea of an experiential boat expedition this past winter. A Kansas City native but current student of film and digital media at the University of California- Santa Cruz, Burkart became fascinated with Kansas City’s transportation history.
This spring, he organized a subterranean screening of old trolley videos in an abandoned tunnel that used to shuttle goods from the West Bottoms to the heart of downtown. That, he says, got him thinking about what Kansas City would be like without highways and how the metro had lost its connection with its historic thoroughfare: the Missouri River.
“My experience growing up here was that it was an invisible place, a dividing line between north and south,” he says. “But City Hall used to be on the river front. There was a time when we were proud of the river, part of it.”
“I don’t know if I’ve ever touched the water,” he adds. “Everybody thinks it’s poison.”
So this summer, Burkart and six others decided to experience the river for themselves through an adventure they whimsically titled “Release yourself onto the river until the taste of salt.” The goal: sail from Kansas City to the Gulf of Mexico on a boat made with discarded materials.
Jamie, wearing glasses in the middle, with his mother, Anne, on his left,
and Libby Hendon on his right.
The group — two Kansas City natives and four of their acquaintances from Santa Cruz — started construction in the West Bottoms at the start of July. They didn’t have any preconceived design for the boat, Burkart says, but let the materials they found dictate what kind of vessel would carry them more than 1000 miles across the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.
They used blue plastic barrels from a Pepsi facility as pontoons to make the raft float. The plywood for the body of the craft came from a dance floor Burkart’s parents built for his first boy-girl dance party. The paddlewheel to propel the vessel was welded together with fallen road signs and bits of metal Burkart dug out of neighborhood dumpsters (with the owners consent, he says).
After pushing back the launch date several times, the raft finally set sail on July 21. But that was no easy task. A dozen helpful and curious Kansas City residents showed up that Saturday morning to help the crew get underway. Little did they know, Burkart intended for the crowd to physically carry the structure from the West Bottoms to the Kaw Point boat ramp — nearly two miles. The group muscled the raft several hundred feet before they called in a favor from a friend with a trailer. Once they loaded the raft behind the red Suburban, a caravan of cyclists and cars followed the boat to the water.
As they slid the raft into river, members of the group held their breath, in part from anxiety about the boat’s buoyancy -- and out of surprise at how foul the water smelled. Burkart’s mother, Anne, wasn’t the only one to cheer when the craft stayed afloat. Once it was loaded up with suitcases and canned-food provisions and a yellow bike to power the paddlewheel, though, the boat listed precariously to one side. Nevertheless, the crew of seven left that evening for the journey. More than two weeks later, they’re still underway.
Before the departure, Burkart admitted that the group had virtually no water-faring experience. And just about everyone they spoke with, he says, warned them of the dangers trying to traverse the Missouri and Mississippi: the quick current, the barge traffic, the natural debris and man-made wing dikes not visible at the water’s surface. Luckily, everyone on board is equipped with a life jacket.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve tried to get in contact with the group, but calls to the members’ cell phones went unanswered. Last Monday, Burkart’s mother told me that she’d gotten a call from the artist-turned-sailors, reassuring her that they were doing fine and had made it all the way to Jefferson City — halfway across the state of Missouri.
In a brief conversation today, Burkart told me that they’d made it to the other end of the Show-Me State.
“I'm looking at The Arch right now,” he said, speaking on his cell phone from a stop in St. Louis.
He didn’t have much time to talk, but said the biggest challenge thus far was navigating the watery intersection where the Missouri meets the Mississippi.
“Our highest adventure has been going over this thing at confluence called the Chain of Rocks,” he said. “There’s a small waterfall and we went over. It was pretty exciting.”
Check out Burkart’s MySpace page for his blog entries before the crew set sail and stay tuned to the Plog for further trip updates. -- Carolyn Szczepanski,