Big River Magazine / September – October 2009

People boat down the river every summer, but few of them make their boats first. That’s an important part of the process for participants in the Urban Boatbuilders’ annual Mississippi Passage.

Urban Boatbuilders is a nonprofit organization in St. Paul that works with at-risk youths. The teenage boys and girls gain work experience and self-confidence while building wooden boats and learning to paddle them. Boatbuilding goes on year round, commissioned by local companies and individuals.

The 50 apprentices who have worked in the program since it began in 2003 have built all kinds of boats — skin-onframe canoes, cedar-strip canoes, Greenland kayaks, Norwegian prams, fishing dories, sailing skiffs and more. After the Mississippi Passage trip, the boats are sold via the organization’s website. Unsold boats become part of the fleet.

The three-day trip in late July was different than past events. Usually the group paddles 80 miles from Coon Rapids Dam to Lake Pepin. This year they launched their canoes in St. Cloud, Minn., and ended up 62 miles later at the Coon Rapids Dam. Unlike past years, this year’s trip also included cooler temperatures, a helpful tail wind and a fast running current from heavy rain the night before the trip started.

“We wanted more of a wilderness-type experience,” said Phil Winger, the group’s teacher and mentor. “The shorter route allowed us more time to do things at our campsites, like fishing and just horsing

Fellow teacher Brian Thorkildson added, “It also got us out of the way of barge traffic and the wakes and noise of the big speedboats.” Last year a member of the group had a heart-stoppingly close encounter with a local towboat at University Point, in Minneapolis.

Along the way this year they encountered a filmmaker, Ryan Jeanes, who was headed for New Orleans in his own inflatable kayak. While underway, Ryan is filming, blogging and writing about the trip. The crew from Urban Boatbuilders contributed to his efforts by rigging him a simple square sail for the times he has a tailwind. After showing the solo kayaker how to use the new sailing rig, Phil Winger estimated that when the wind cooperated, the sail increased his speed from three miles per hour to about six or seven. “It worked real nice for him.”

Ryan acknowledged the Urban Boatbuilders’ crew in one of his recent blogs:

Brian and Phil are camp leaders for a group of at-risk kids from Minneapolis’ inner city. They smiled at me. “Daaaaaang!” Perry, a young’n of 17 who looks like a basketball star, says. “You paddlin’ this whole river?… You gotta be crazy!” Phong, who is wearing an Asian-style rice paddy hat, speaks Hmong for a moment with his friend, Michael, who is wearing a perfectly flatbilled, white ball cap. “He wants to know,” Phong says, “if that boat, like, can go faster than this boat,” as Phong points to a beautiful wood and nylon skin canoe that was built by the teens with the help of Brian and Phil…Urban Boatbuilders takes city kids and makes them into 10 times the craftsmen I could ever be, before they’re old enough to drive.

They also learn a lot about handling boats, traveling on the river, and about themselves.