Monday, August 15, 2016

Catching up: A flatboat stops at Huntington

The morning of July 18, I had two family errands to tend to. One was around daybreak, and the other would be a couple of hours later. Naturally, I spent some time around the river between the two. While crossing Huntington’s East End bridge, I saw a small boat coming down the river. Odd, I thought, that a pleasure craft would be out on the river this early on a Monday morning.

I drove ahead on down to Harris Riverfront Park to see if there were some river pictures to get. While there, I came across a man who said he was waiting on a flatboat coming down the river, one containing an author who had written a best-selling book about doing the whole Oregon Trail by covered wagon. I remembered reading something about this fellow as he left or passed Pittsburgh, so naturally I had to hang around. 

And there it came down the river, a motorized flatboat.

In my nearly forty years of writing this and that about the Ohio and its tributaries, I’ve interviewed several people who took boats from Pittsburgh to Cairo and beyond. The trip is harder than it looks, and some people didn’t make it. A couple of years ago, one guy who did used a canoe. A year or two before that, another person swam the length of the river, although I didn’t get to meet her. Back in the 1980s, another man used a homemade raft and got down to the Mississippi, where the big boats scared him out of continuing on to New Orleans.

So I snapped a few pictures as the flatboat passed me, looking for a place to tie up. I had told the man waiting for it about some sediment that had accumulated along the river wall at the park’s upper end. The flatboat went down below that and tied up at the lower end.

More pictures followed. 

The man in white asked me about getting some coffee. I told him he was a few blocks from a Starbucks. No, he said, he wanted something better than that. He griped about modern coffee, about the kind grown in Vietnam and sold in the U.S., about this and that about coffee.

My time had run out, and I had to pick up my granddaughter, as I had papaw duty that day.

That evening, after I dropped by granddaughter off with me daughter following her day at work, I headed back to the river and got a few pictures of an Ingram boat at sunset. The flatboat was still at the park, but things were quiet as compared to the morning. The coffee-loving guy in white was gone. There were five or six people on board that morning, but now I saw only two. I asked one if Rinker Buck were there. A man in a blue shirt said he was Rinker Buck, and he invited me aboard. I told him The Waterways Journal said it might want a photo and an extended caption about this craft heading down the Ohio. I also said I had read the Amazon reviews of his book “TheOregon Trail” and it sounded something like what William Least Heat Moon had done in “Blue Highways”. We agreed that “Blue Highways” was a pretty good book, and we talked briefly about Least Heat Moon’s subsequent works.

Buck opened a chest, got a copy of “The Oregon Trail” and autographed it for me, and we proceeded to talk about information for a cutline to go with my photo, if The Waterways Journal used it.

We sat in the open on a fairly quiet evening at the park. Almost no one was fishing on this hot Monday evening. The skateboarders up the hill weren’t making much noise if they were even there. With my notebook in hand, Buck started talking as I asked questions. He allowed me to pause to get a photo of the M/V Nashville Hunter as it passed us upbound. I figured I would impress him by talking about the history of this relatively new towboat, where it was designed, how it came to be and such. I have no idea if he was impressed, but I had to present my river credentials.

Buck said he, too, is a former newspaper journalist, having started at the Berkshire Eagle – “the best country newspaper in America” – in 1973. (I didn’t say it, but for a few years we at the Huntington paper put out some pretty good stuff, too). Since then he has written for several magazines and published five books. He said he and his brother were the first people to do the entire Oregon Trail in a hundred years without the help of support vehicles following along. The electric bicycle on the flatboat’s roof was the only support vehicle he and his crew had, he said.

That trip from Kansas through to Oregon included a stop at a place on the Columbia River where the pioneers would be very near the end of the line. After the long trip, their mules would be near death and their wagons would be beat up. Some settlers took advantage of free passage on the river in exchange for their wagons, which would be rebuilt into boats or salvaged for lumber for use there in Oregon.

These pioneers would have been familiar with the flatboat history on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, so this deal would have been familiar to them, Buck said.

Thus came the idea for Buck’s next book, which will be about his river trip on a flatboat and the flatboat era.

“This era created the modern American economy,” he said.

“I’m going to write a book about the flatboat era. How can you do that until you ride it in a real flatboat?”

As we talked, we were joined by Buck’s sole remaining crewmember, Brady Carr were on board. Buck said he met Carr while at a book signing in Columbia, South Carolina.

“He came and said, ‘Do you need a crew for your next project?’ I jumped across the room and landed in his lap,” Buck said.

Rinker Buck and Brady Carr

Buck’s boat is called the Patience. It’s 14 feet wide and 36 feet long. Its draft is 18 inches. The structure above the water line is poplar. Below the water line, it’s made of oak because oak can take the abuse of river traffic, where you bump into logs and debris, better, Buck said.

The Patience was built by John Cooper of Gallatin, Tennessee. Buck put the Patience in the Monongahela River at Elizabeth, Pennsylvania (hey, that’s where I was last summer for the christening of the M/V Michael T. Somales and the wedding of its namesake, I said). Their stop in Huntington was the ninth day of their trip.

“This boat has performed beautifully,” Buck said.

Carr said, “It’s taken some getting used to. I’ve never piloted something with a flat bottom and a sail. It’s done a great job. It’s a tough-built boat.

“The boat has a perfect name. The river is all about patience.”

Buck said he was interested in the big towboats he had seen. He said he and Carr did their best to stay out of the way of the big boats.

They had stopped at Huntington to change the oil and do other maintenance on the boat. And to ride out a big storm that had been forecast. The storm never came, causing them to think they could have made a few more miles that day.

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As for this entry, I had planned to run it earlier, but I lost my notebook. I looked all over for it until I found it out in the open on an end table in my living room. Go figure.

I’ve been reading “The Oregon Trail.” When I read fiction, I tend to read to quickly and zoom through it. With this book, as with most nonfiction, I tend to read more slowly, in chunks spread over several days. It’s been an interesting read so far. Among other things, I found the section on the history of mule breeding in America pretty interesting.

Learning how people in the pre-industrial age executed such a long trip has been a relief from some other things I’ve been reading, such as how the PJM power auctions work. Although I haven’t finished it, I would recommend it to people interested in learning the history of America as it was experienced by the settlers who traveled west.

As for the Patience, its website is The boat is now on the lower Ohio, and Buck has started a blog about the journey and people he meets.

# # #

The Waterways Journal ran two of my photos of the Patience in its August 8 issue. And the long cutline they wanted? It was long enough that I got a byline for it.

# # #

Have you ever walked away from something and only later regretted not asking a question that would have sounded kind of smart-alecky at the time? In my case, that question was how Buck planned to get home once he got to New Orleans. Would he sell the Patience for its lumber, put the money in his pocket and walk back to New England or wherever on the Natchez Trace? We'll probably have to wait and see.