Tuesday May 25, 2004 11:33 PM
Lewis & Clark I : Keelboat

Two weeks ago today, on May 11 I took my family down to the Alton marina on the shore of the Mississippi River to see something that in the entire realm of time will not be seen again.

We went to see the functional replica of the 55' keelboat that Lewis & Clark sailed (and rowed) on the Missouri and Ohio rivers.

Yes, this boat is still visible to the eyes of men. In fact this very boat is making its way down the Missouri River now, this very moment in a historic (and historically accurate) reenactment of the trip made by those well-known men and the less-known members of the Corps of Discovery.

But it will never again be seen before its departure on the bicentennial reenactment of the original journey.

Ruth's Aunt Ruth had read in the paper that the boat would be docked at the marina through the week and as soon as I confirmed that information and determined where exactly to go to see it, I resolved to take my family to do exactly that.

This in fact, was prior to the 'official' departure on the voyage itself on Friday May 14, but the boat being in what would in the future be the Alton area on May 11 is historically accurate and was actually part of the reenactment.

I called Ruth that Tuesday afternoon and told her that I was coming home a little early so that we could go and see the boat. Isaiah had heard us talking about it and had been asking to go see it since the previous Saturday. It hadn't worked out before Tuesday and having read that, in accordance with the mandates of the journals written by the archetypes of the journey, the boat would be departing Alton for camp Dubois on Thursday and approximately 1 pm, I decided that Tuesday would be the day.

Due to the accretion of a number of small, insignificant incidents and the torpid sluggishness of traffic, I got home about half an hour later than I'd intended and I busted in the front door like a whirlwind of exhortation to haste. It took an amount of time that, at the time, I found to be maddeningly long to get Isaiah and Gideon ready and loaded into the van, but which in retrospect was probably pretty zippy.

The day was sunny and a little on the warm side, but otherwise perfect. We had never been to the marina before (we don't own a boat) but we could see the keelboat from where we parked.

"Come on, Guys! There it is," Isaiah called pointing and hopping as I told him to settle down and stay right with us. The parking lot was almost deserted and I could see there were only a few people around the keelboat about 150' away and two of them were easily identified as reenactors by their distinctive historical garb.

As I said, we'd never been to the marina before and as we walked down the steps from the parking lot to the floating walkways of the marina itself, the immediate proximity of the water itself somewhat outshined the still distant boat in Isaiah's eyes. He thought it was pretty neat to just look at the water and we did for a few minutes. As we stood looking at the light of the sinking, yet still high sun sparkling on the greenish brown wavelets of the Mississippi I saw a hand-sized turtle swimming close to the rocks and pilings at our feet.

"Hey, Son- do you see the little turtle over there?"

"Uh... no."

"Right over there. Look where I'm pointing."

"I see him, he's over there," Ruth piped up, also pointing to the turtle.

"Ah, now I see him," Isaiah cried, "Hey! He's got hair!"

They say a rolling stone gathers no moss and this evidently was a turtle, then, who rolled very little. Indeed, what looked like about two to three inches of hair sprouted from most of the top of his shell. It must have been some sort of moss or algae, but certainly did appear for all intents and purposes to be a generous (especially for a turtle) mane.

As we approached the boat, Isaiah was impressed once again.

"Look, Daddo, it's got a cannon on it!"

We walked up and were greeted by two reenactors, a man in loose-fitting white cotton clothes, and another, an officer, in a red and blue uniform. They had been talking to the two or three people who were there when we arrived and we stood and listened as they continued to describe details of the journey and of life in 1804.

The boat is about 55' long and about eight to ten feet in beam. There is a cabin at the stern in which a man of average height could just almost stand up straight and which contained two bunks- assumedly one for Lewis and one for Clark. The top of the cabin is the upper deck which is protected from the sun by a canvas sheet held in place by a frame offering maximum visibility in all directions.

Inside the boat and below the gunwales are what serve triple duty as storage compartments, seating benches when the wind filled the sail or for rowers, and a platform to stand on when poles were employed for propulsion. In the very center of the boat is a mast to which is rigged a single sail.

As I beheld the craft, my imagination was possessed with the idea of what blast it must be to stand on the upper deck, hand on the long tiller, setting the course the boat would make through the passing world in the river breezes and the canvas-filtered light of the sun while the boat flows swiftly down the river. I imagined what an experience it must be for the reenactors not only to travel on this boat, but to be a part of such a historic thing. It was then that I was struck with the thought that though it must be fun for the reenactors, what must it have been like to be not reenacting such a thing, but to be boldly sailing into the very face of the unknown?

I had to keep reminding Isaiah not to get too close, not to touch it, and that no, he could not get in it. He still thought it was pretty cool. He asked me about the anchor and said he wanted to see it. We walked the entire length of the boat and looked at the bow and the stern but we couldn't find the anchor. We walked back to where Ruth was listening to the officer talking. Gideon wasn't listening- he was asleep.

"Hello, young fellow," the officer said to Isaiah.

"Hello," he replied, "Where's the anchor?"

The officer laughed, "It's at the bottom of the river."

Since he couldn't see the anchor, Isaiah started watching a family of ducks that was swimming close by as I listened to the officer talk about how the replica was as accurate as possible, but law required it to have all the necessary modern radio and safety equipment and a working motor though the motor would only ever be used in an emergency.

The sun continued it's interminable downward arc and the hour was nigh unto and just a bit past the end of the official viewing hours of the boat- the reenactors had to secure it and make camp.

We thanked the men of the modern day Corps of Discovery and bid them adieu and bon voyage and after Isaiah also bade a good evening to the family of ducks he had been watching, we made our way back to the van. The hairy turtle was no longer to be seen when we passed by the point at which we'd seen him earlier.