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A Mississippi cruise

Four years ago, Lindsey Scherloum and Hannah B. were following the Mississippi River, driving their way to New Orleans over a two-day period.

On that road trip, somewhere between twilight and the mists that rise off the river in the early morning, the two found it crazy that they were traveling on highways rather than on the river. At that time, they swore to each other they would repeat their route, this time rafting down the waterway.

Last Saturday, after four years in their minds, one year of planning and three months of intense preparation, the Mississippi River Project was ready to launch. Delayed by some of the recent rainstorms and windy days, Scherloum and Hanna B. untied their hand-made vessel from the dock at Scherloum's grandmother's home on Point Road in Bayport, heading for the Mississippi by way of the St. Croix River. Their destination of New Orleans: more than 1,200 miles away.

"It's pretty amazing sitting on this, knowing that we made it and that we're about to do this," said Hannah B., the afternoon before the two 25-year-olds launched the raft.

"I'm excited that we are going to be so self-reliant," Hannah B. continued. "We're going to be doing everything with our hands. We're building campfires every night, not using a stove. I'm making a solar oven right now. We're growing our own food. We are paddling our own boat. And we are really excited about that."

The boat is 20 feet long, 13 feet wide and made almost entirely of reused materials. Constructed much like a pontoon boat, Scherloum and Hannah B. used old dock foam salvaged from the St. Croix River and Living Lands and Waters, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving rivers and their environments.

The wood used as the boat's deck was found in dumpsters or trash piles at local construction sites. Boat covers and shrink-wrap that were tossed out were constructed into an "A"- frame tent, complete with windows and an upper level hammock for sleeping and storage. The tent walls can be rolled up on nice days, creating an open-air raft.

The boat is powered and controlled in two ways. The women constructed paddle wheels powered by stationary bikes. To avoid rusted chains, they developed a pulley system with ropes and belts to act as the drive train between bike and paddle wheel. On the rare occasion additional power for speed or steering is needed, a small outboard motor is mounted between the paddle wheels.

"The paddle wheels are a really simple machine," said Scherloum. "It's really clear what's going on. When something breaks, it's all right there. It's easy to fix. It's not as much power as the motor, but we aren't trying to go fast."

The combination of paddle wheels and outboard motor should be enough to ward off legal issues that have stalled other rafters attempting to float down the Mississippi.

In 2007, three rafters attempted to boat from St. Louis to New Orleans. They were stopped by the Coast Guard in Vicksburg, Miss. After an inspection, the three rafters were pulled off the water because the Marine Safety Detachment found the paddleboat did not have effective steering and propulsion methods, making it unsafe in the highly traveled waters.

The rafters spent two months in Vicksburg altering their raft to meet standards set by the Coast Guard and were allowed to continue on their adventure.

Scherloum and Hannah B. have taken other precautions as well. The boat is a licensed and registered watercraft. They purchased a marine radio, allowing them to contact locks operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, barges and any other boat traffic that might come their way. It also provides them with the safety net of being able to call out if distressed on the river.

Aside from fulfilling a commitment made years ago, the women are seeing the trip as a social and cultural experiment.

"The interesting thing to me about this trip is this river is like the sewer of America," Scherloum said. "It's a way to interact with this country through all the waste. We have all this cast-off material from Stillwater and Bayport. We are surviving on all this waste and recycled things, basically."

The rafters have no agenda, other than to complete the journey. They look forward to waking up on the same mist covered riverbanks they watched pass by out a car window four years ago. Scherloum and Hannah B. plan to visit with many of the people and river towns along the way, and are prepared for almost anything that may float their way on their raft, named Her Majesty's Raft: C. Bernadette Able.

"The wind will probably be against us," Scherloum joked. "We've had three copies of 'Huckleberry Finn' donated to us. We're thinking six months for this, but we're not in a hurry."