MOORHEAD – The steaming bowl of shrimp soup looked pretty good to Bert Chamberlain.
When the Moorhead man set sail from St. Paul in his homemade catboat two months ago, he vowed to reach New Orleans and try some of their famous gumbo.
"I take a bite of it and thought I just about had my brain explode," Chamberlain said. "I didn't know it was spicy - It was spicy hot! - and I go 'I'll have another beer please.'"
That was about right for a journey where almost nothing has gone according to plan. For one thing, he was having gumbo in Mobile Bay, Ala., about 130 miles east of New Orleans. For another, the wind was so stubborn he had to buy a gasoline-powered motor and forego sailing.
But Chamberlain wasn't complaining. The other part of the plan was to meet interesting people and have an adventure. That he did plenty.
The odyssey began July 5 from a marina on Harriet Island in St. Paul. Chamberlain, retired from the Robert Asp Elementary School in Moorhead, had spent a couple of years building the Box Turtle, a pudgy little boat he painted aqua green. He'd only sailed her once in Detroit Lakes.
The Mississippi River, which flows 1,700 miles south to New Orleans, wasn't much like what he thought it would be, Chamberlain said. It's a working river filled with tugboats pushing huge barges chained together, three, 15, 24 at a time. A little boat like Box Turtle has to stay out of the way, a mighty tough task if the wind won't blow or if it's a headwind.
At one point, before he replaced his solar electric motor with the gas motor, Chamberlain found himself too underpowered to get out of the way of a barge. He said he had to use an oar to propel the boat, which weighed more than 600 pounds, pushing with all his might back and forth against a backrest that was not designed for this motion.
His back and sides were black and blue by the end, he said. "You do that a few hours and something's going to give. It was my body not the boat."
Being a working river also means the Mississippi didn't have a whole lot of marinas to stop for food and fuel. Chamberlain said the old men of the river he met advised him not to proceed south of Cairo, Ill., where the Ohio River met the Mississippi. Not only are there few places to stop, with no one around, there might be plenty of opportunity for robbery, too, they told him.
Following their advice, he charted a course for Mobile, Ala., by way of the Ohio, the Tennessee, the Tennessee-Tombigbee canal and the Tombigbee. It seemed like it was just a tad easier.
Chamberlain often found kindred spirits in the people who live along and work on the river.
Near St. Louis, he was stuck in a narrow channel right next to some hulking barges and didn't know where he was because the mile markers were missing. The tugboat captain came to his aid, offering guidance on how to navigate to the right set of locks. Afterwards, the captain and the crew came out to take photos.
In Tennessee, he bonded with two fellow vets, one a former fighter pilot and the other a former military police officer like him. The pilot and his wife invited Chamberlain to spend the night and entertained him with a player piano.
Newspapers took an interest in his story and many people he never met would look for him. In Alabama, he pulled up to a dock and stranger came to help him out. "He goes, 'Hi, Bert,'" Chamberlain said, then gave him a ride to get gas and food.
A few times, Chamberlain said, he met men who dreamed as he did but just didn't try to make their dream come true. "For a brief moment in time, I could see it in their eyes. They transformed themselves back to when they were younger, and every one of them said 'I wish I had done what you're doing now.'
"It was sad."
End of the river
On Aug. 31, the skyscrapers of Mobile came into view as he came around a turn on the Tombigbee.
It had been nearly two months of hard living. There were moments of boredom waiting his turn at the locks, moments of beauty watching eagles catch fish. There were moments of anxiety wondering if he would have enough fuel and moments of fear as a roiling storm appeared on the horizon.
All of those emotions welled up in one moment in Mobile Bay, after he'd tied Box Turtle up for the last time on the journey.
"Then I got out on the dock and looked down at her," Chamberlain said. "I didn't lose it as far as crying out loud, but I was basically an emotional wreck because we did it. We crossed an open bay. We went 1,500 miles. She protected me, she was an ambassador for me, she did everything that I could ask of her and there she sat safe and sound. She made it safe and sound for me. To me she was my teammate. And my teammate and I went through what we went through together."
As you read this, Chamberlain and his wife are driving home to Moorhead with Box Turtle in tow. He wouldn't want to leave a teammate behind.