By the time you read this, the good ship The Channel Princess will be miles from its port in St. Louis -- if you can call a couple of lines thrown out to a hunk of metal a port -- headed downstream on the Mississippi River, final destination New Orleans.
Begun on June 16, 2014 in Minnesota, the maiden voyage of the floating podcast and radio broadcast project "The River Signal," piloted by three Portland, Oregon-based friends -- Galen Huckins, Brian Benson and Reid Lustig -- isn't really about a riverboat trip down the Mississippi. That's been done before, and it's happening every day; you could throw your pontoon boat in the water tomorrow if you wanted to. The three men have something else in mind: genre-twisting storytelling, impressionistic video, unusual music performances and new ways of seeing what will happen along the way. "The River Signal" is anything but a travelogue.
"In terms of doing the podcast as fiction," Benson explains, "we talked about what it would look like to document the trip. Documentary can be such a weird thing. It can come across as fact, an objective story, when really it's about the choices the documentarian is making. Especially the three of us, white men from Portland, coming from a part of the country we don't understand that well. I'm from Wisconsin, so there's a connection to the Midwest, but the river is a different space. We didn't want to produce something that was, 'This is the Mississippi,' given to you in this omniscient voice. We wanted it to be subjective and to be clear about that. We are taking what happens to us and spinning it in weird directions."
"The River Signal" was in planning for a year: Huckins brought experience working with "The Steam Radio Syndicate," a Portland-based radio show transmitting from a World War II-era tugboat that had been converted into a studio and performance space for storytellers, slam poets and musicians. The series was broadcast on community radio station KBOO; so too is "The River Signal," with weekly podcasts and video episodes to expand the narrative. The crew records both on and off The Channel Princess, and uploads the content either from the boat or from a Wi-Fi hotspot they snag on shore. The bulk of the editing and production, however, happens on the water.
After a stop in Alton, Illinois, and passage through the locks and dams, The Channel Princess first docked at Cementland, fifteen miles north of the Gateway Arch. The shoreline there was too thick with brush and poison ivy to allow access off and on the boat, so the crew floated a few miles down the river to the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing, where they were welcomed by the young men working at the rest area along the bike path. It was an ideal spot, with the Merchants and McKinley bridges in the background, and an accessible if steep and rocky path up to the Mississippi Greenway, where the three could take their bikes into town for supplies and recording sessions.
When I met Huckins and Benson (Lustig was on shore leave), they invited me on board via an inflatable dingy that they pulled to the mothership by means of a slimy rope. We sat on the small front deck, just below the shade of the solar-paneled roofs, and talked about their 800-mile plus journey thus far (they're not quite half way to New Orleans) and their broadcast and podcast work. It's their first time on this part of the Mississippi.
"In the last 25 miles," Huckins begins, "after the confluence of the Illinois, the Missouri, and the final lock and dam, my first impressions are that the river is faster and stronger here. The pleasure boaters, people fishing and floating with cocktails in the afternoon, that's all gone."
"We've been in small towns and in some cities, but nothing like this," says Benson. "Approaching it from the river, St. Louis is hard to access. Scrambling up the banks, and slowly down the bike path, and then past the factories, the waste treatment plants and into downtown -- it's a cool way to approach the city."
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The boat arrived July 30 for a week-long stay. During their time in St. Louis, the three recorded sessions with local musicians Beth Bombara and Bo and the Locomotive, as well as organ sessions at the City Museum and an Indian classical duo at a church. The previous week they recorded noted songster William Elliott Whitmore on the Missouri, Iowa and Illinois border. And along the way they've gotten to know the unique culture of the Mississippi itself.
"The most interesting people are the folks living on the river or where the river is their space," says Huckins. "People on the river know other people all up and down the river. It's this whole connected area, like its own state. We're kind of an oddity to people who are not involved in the river. People in St. Louis don't really access the water. So it's a bizarre thing. But someone who lives on a shanty boat somewhere understands what we've seen and even knows the people we've come to know."
To pay for this expedition, the team sold the truck and trailer that somehow transported The Channel Princess from Portland to Minnesota and ran an Indiegogo campaign. Mostly they've funded the journey out of their own pockets and relied on the kindness of strangers along the way.
"If we look happily incompetent, people will usually take pity on us," Benson says. "In Hannibal, we tried to tie up at the seawall where The Mark Twain ties up. It was going all right but not our best operation. There was a guy watching us just upstream from the boat club. He saw us there, and as he was pulling the line on his pontoon, he said, 'Do you guys just want to come up here?' He had a really nice dock and let us stay there."
The crew may feign naiveté, but Huskins has been living on the 36-year-old boat for three years; it was originally built on the Missouri River as a mini paddle wheeler, then salvaged by Huskins and completely restored and retrofitted. He gutted the 33-foot craft, installing walls, cabinets and bunks, and he feels confident passing through the locks and dams, navigating the submerged (and potentially treacherous) wing dams, and dealing with the wakes from barges that sometimes swamp the transom. All three of the crew share chores, work on scripts, edit podcasts, tweak the sound and keep the boat afloat. And all three will get to know and re-imagine the main artery at the heart of the heart of the country in ways that would otherwise be impossible.
"A city like St. Louis looks so different from the river," says Benson. "You do feel like you're in this altered landscape. It made sense to tell a story from that perspective. On the river, the world is totally different."