It was harrowing, dangerous and perhaps the most bizarre of Mississippi River trips.

Clarence Jonk, three friends and a dog named Jack cast off from Minneapolis in a 44-foot homemade houseboat resting on 88 empty 50-gallon drums and powered by two used-car engines. But with no rudder. They left for New Orleans in October, late in the season.

They traveled on the cheap, sometimes hunting with a warped gun, trading a used battery for 8 gallons of gas, once down to their last $1.23. They dodged towboats and wing dams, smashed into rocks and got stuck in the mud. They survived wind, waves, snow, cold-water dunkings, illness and injury before two of them ended the voyage north of La Crosse, Wis., in December.

That was more than 80 years ago, in 1933. But the journey offers cautions for hundreds — some say thousands — of adventurers today who annually travel down the Mississippi via small craft, canoe, kayak, sailboat, raft, even swimming.

A crew of 20 from Augsburg College plan to canoe to New Orleans for a “River Semester” this fall term. A 64-year-old Moorhead man left the Twin Cities last month on a 15-foot sailboat he built himself. A Navy combat veteran, accompanied by a kayaker, left Lake Itasca in June to swim the entire river to raise money and awareness for fallen comrades.

Reality can be quite different from romanticism on the river. Sometimes “people don’t have a sense of the river and its power,” says Patrick Moes, a spokesman for the St. Paul District of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Travelers need to know about river currents, rules, to wear life jackets and be mindful of larger boats, he said. “If you can’t see the captain, obviously he can’t see you.”

Jonk’s river trip was a huge chapter in the unusual life of this poet, children’s author, game inventor, father of 12, river worker and small-scale farmer. His diary-type account, published 30 years later, promoted him as “an older but not really grown-up Huck Finn.”

A farm boy from Raymond, Minn., Jonk was a University of Minnesota dropout when he and friends built the Betsy-Nell to escape rent and property taxes. They floated it on Lake Johanna in Arden Hills, but authorities ordered it off. A truck moving the boat to the river broke down on University Avenue, creating a rush-hour traffic jam.

For power, Jonk bought two Model T Ford engines for $5 each, calculating that varying the two speeds could steer the craft. Anchors were two 150-pound fire doors from the university’s power plant. A cable from one of them caught Jonk’s class ring and dragged him overboard.

They did repair work in Red Wing, retiring one engine for parts, centering the other and making a rudder out of a metal Coca-Cola sign and a gas pipe from an abandoned still. Jonk’s girlfriend (later wife), Virginia Dunn, another crew member and Jack the dog left. Carl Franson, Jonk’s longtime co-adventurer, stayed for the rest of the journey, which was even more harrowing.

Ice floes and an ice dam threatened to carry the Betsy-Nell into a railroad bridge and, at one point, tilting it steeply. A floe resulted in loss of the rudder and a blown engine gasket, disabling the boat. Finally, a fisherman’s launch towed it into a winter harbor.

“The river had been harsh to us so far, but I know it was hostile mainly because we were ignorant of its wiles, its whimsies, its strength,” Jonk wrote.

According to biographer Lee Pederson, Jonk married Dunn in 1934 and they lived on the Betsy-Nell for a time. He took a series of jobs, suffered from depression, built houses near Lynxville, Wis. (the Betsy-Nell was the top floor), and Stillwater, and left his family for California, where he died in 1987.

His life was unconventional. He once said that he would throw bills away but use the envelopes to write poetry. And, he said, “The man who speculates in his own genius never loses.”

 

Robert Franklin is a retired Star Tribune reporter and editor.