River Rat 

Andrea Buggey knows what it's like to be a pirate.

It sounds like a punk-rock version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn -- a group of twentysomething hippies build homemade boats using parts from the trash and set out from Minneapolis for a summer-long trip down the Mississippi River.

Every year, a mix of artists, poets, activists, anarchists, and adventure-seekers craft boats using salvaged materials, like old wood and Styrofoam. Most live up north and spend July through the fall exploring various river towns along the Mississippi.

"They show up in towns like migratory birds on their way down south for the winter," says local artist Andrea Buggey.

Back in 2005, Buggey decided to join the ramshackle crew. She headed to Minneapolis, got some help building a boat she affectionately dubbed the Ida B, and set sail on July 4th. Photographs, drawings, and poetry from her trip are on display in "Traveling Down the River" at Java Cabana through March 31st.

Originally, Buggey hopped aboard a boat for only a day, packing her bike so she could ride home when she got back on dry land. She had such a great time, however, she decided to spend the following summer traveling with the crew.

Two of the river regulars helped Buggey construct her boat, an open-air pontoon-style craft made from cypress wood, Styrofoam, and plastic bottles for buoyancy.

"Using salvaged materials is a lifestyle thing -- saving what other people have wasted," says Buggey. "It's like recycling."

For example, white PVC piping curved into arches over the top of the Ida B resemble an elephant ribcage. When it rained, Buggey would drape a blue tarp over the piping to keep dry.

"All the boats had motors, but the Ida B also had a paddle wheel. It was made of cypress planks and was hooked up to two exercise bikes, which propelled it pretty quickly. You just had to ride the bike," says Buggey.

Altogether, there were 12 crew members occupying five homemade boats: the Ida B, Shadow Builder, Gator Bait II, Bobby Bobula, and the Leona Joyce. Throughout the months-long journey, the crew would hop from boat to boat to visit, dine, and help captain. Occasionally, adventurous folks from towns along the way would join them and ride for days or even weeks before getting off.

"Four of the boats had dinghies that we'd trail behind us," says Buggey. "We'd keep our bicycles on the dinghies so when we got to towns, we could travel to get more supplies like food and gas."

Meals, cooked on camp stoves on boats or campfires on beaches, were generally communal. Boats were hooked together for eating and sleeping, so only one person had to captain rather than five. Most meals involved fish or food from cans, seasoned with fresh herbs grown on Buggey's boat garden.

At night, a couple of people usually stayed awake to steer and serve as lookout for barges or other river traffic. But occasionally, even the lookouts would fall asleep on the watch.

"One night when we were floating together, we woke up and discovered we'd landed in a stump field," says Buggey. "It was very shallow and we all had to get out and push. The propellers on the motors were tangled with weeds."

Sometimes the crew would retire their sails for several days, opting to hang out in towns.

"There was this small town in Illinois where all the people were very frightened of us. They were whispering to each other and following us around in stores. We created this panic," says Buggey.

The crew brushed the experience off until they befriended some teenagers a few towns down the river. The teens claimed the previous town was under the "Curse of the River Gypsy King."

"They told us that during the Depression, there was this group of gypsies that lived on houseboats," says Buggey. "They stopped in the town and their leader, the gypsy king, had a heart attack. They took him to the local hospital, but he was refused service. He died in the waiting room, so the gypsies cursed the town. The tale has apparently carried on."

By the time the boats reached Missouri in October, Buggey was running low on money for gas. Prices were high after Hurricane Katrina, so she decided to abandon ship and call her parents to pick her up. She left her boat in a creek while the rest of the crew headed on to New Orleans.

Buggey says the travelers generally give the boats away or sell them for a couple bucks since they often can't afford to trailer them back north. New boats are constructed for the next year's trip. Buggey doubts she'll be building another boat though:

"I might go visit when they pass through, but I wouldn't want to do a whole season of traveling again. I did gain a deep respect for the river and nature. There's so much beauty and wilderness out there. And we pretended like we were pirates."

"Traveling Down the River," photos, drawings, and poetry byAndrea Buggey, are on display at Java Cabana (2170 Young) through March 31st.

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