Building the raft
|Rafting on the Mississippi River
Chicago to New Orleans, June-July 1964
On the way
Where are they now
Click on images to enlarge
Norm's raft plans
Les and Ron with gear
Norm working on the raft
Les, Norm, Ron - getting ready!
home from Chicago via the Mississippi River had been a growing
dream of three New Orleans college friends: cousins Ronald
Wismar and Norman Hellmers, and Michael Riemer. The three, who had attended elementary
and high school together, were attending Concordia Teachers College
(today's Concordia University
Chicago) in River Forest, Illinois. In 1964, the dream became
a reality. With Mike Riemer unsure of being able to make the trip,
Leslie Netland, a Concordia classmate from Lakewood, Ohio, joined Ron
As the end of our junior year approached, the group of potential rafters met a number of times to make plans and to see who could make the trip. (The minutes of the second "official" meeting were typed up by Ron. They can be read here. No other minutes have survived.)
By the close of the spring quarter, the three of us who could go—Ron, Les, and Norm—had finalized plans to construct a raft and follow the Illinois Waterway and the Mississippi River from Chicago to New Orleans, a distance of nearly 1,400 miles.
The raft—designed by Norm—was a 10 by 15 foot wooden platform resting on 14 empty 55-gallon oil barrels, which were bolted to the 2x6 frame with metal bands. A 4-foot-high, 6 by 7- foot “cabin” on top of the raft—open on the front and rear—provided shelter from rain and a sleeping place protected from mosquitoes. Our preparations also included reading about the river and its history, such as accounts of early explorers and books by Mark Twain, like Life on the Mississippi and Huckleberry Finn.
After classes ended and finals were taken, the materials were purchased and then transported using a rented truck to the backyard of Concordia friend, David Mahler. There we prefabricated the raft framework and gathered other supplies and equipment: ropes, anchor, hammocks, blankets, mosquito netting, Coleman cooking stove, lantern, and storage containers for food and water. Power was to be provided by a used 25-horsepower Johnson outboard motor.
The place we found to construct and launch the raft was on the bank of the Calumet Sag Channel, just before its junction with the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. (The canal provides a navigable link between the Illinois River and Lake Michigan.)
With the materials and supplies in hand, we began construction of the raft. After working all day long, sleep was easy—either in a hammock strung between two power poles or right on the ground. We assembled the framework of the raft and attached the barrels on land. We then slid it down the steep, rocky bank and christened it The Breaux. (In New Orleans, friends call each other “Bro” as a nickname; a French spelling was selected for the raft.) Once the raft was in the water, we added the decking and the small “cabin.” Altogether, it took us four days to finish it. The raft was registered as an Illinois “pleasure craft” and given the number IL 2803 AC. An article in the Hinsdale Doings documented our progress. (See the article here.) With the raft completed and supplies gathered, we were ready to begin our adventure.
At the end of the school year, we—Ron, Les, and Norm—were invited to stay at the home of our Concordia college mate, David Mahler, in Hinsdale, a Chicago suburb, as we made preparations for our journey. We were made a part of the Mahler family: parents Henry and Meta, David, and his brother Peter. Henry allowed us to use his tools and supplies, and Meta—besides feeding us—drove us all over the Chicago area to make purchases and gave us cooking and eating utensils and food to get us started. The Mahlers helped us move everything to the launch site and constantly looked after us as we built the raft and prepared to depart. There were many people who helped us along the way, but as we rafters remember our adventure of decades ago, we must first and foremost thank all of the Mahler family for everything they did to make it a success. The trip would not have been possible without them, and their kindness will always be remembered!
Special note: Meta Mahler, our "second mother" as we prepared for our journey, passed away on February 24, 2006. Her son Dave wrote a loving tribute, which can be found here.
Meta Mahler took some black and white photographs during our preparations, both in the Mahler backyard and at the launch site. Her photographs—and her captions—can be found by clicking below on "More preparation photographs here."
More preparation photographs here
On the way
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