People’s Riverboat History
By Melissa Mendonca
Rollin' Down the River
By Melissa Mendonca
Photos by Mendilla Harong
As morning started settling in on the Saturday of the July 4th weekend, a small crowd of Red Bluff locals gathered around the shantyboat of the People’s River History Project to watch it launch into the Sacramento River from the boating area at the Sacramento River Discovery Center, the start of a multi-day journey to the delta area near Sacramento.
The boat, made of reclaimed materials over a period of a couple of years by a team led by Wes Modes of the Digital Arts and New Media program at UC Santa Cruz, was easy to spot in its shady campsite adjacent to the launch site. As he finished off his last sips of coffee, Modes stood at the edge of the boat and spoke of the project to the growing crowd filled with curiosity about both the journey and Modes himself.
“This is my summer vacation,” Modes said. He is a lecturer at UC Santa Cruz during the school year but he’s logged more than 1,000 miles on the Tennessee and Mississippi rivers in this particular shantyboat. “It is roughly designed in a pattern of a wooden-hulled, barge-bottomed boat,” he told the crowd. “That’s a design that has literally been around for around 250 years in this country.”
While noting the historic qualities of the design, he added, “We got creative and decided to make a gabled roof because we wanted to put in a loft bed.” Bicycles were stored on the porch roof and signs stating “Art Gallery” and “Explosives” were mounted to the outhouse door. “The boat is completely self-contained,” stated Modes, though he noted, “There are things we noticed this morning, like we need a towel rack.” Still, the boat was equipped with everything else it needed. “If we find a sandy beach, we’re good,” he told the crowd
Questions remained about a food supply, and he noted that he’d just bought fishing gear from a local business. “I’m a really crappy fisher, but the people at Reynolds Ranch assured me that if I bought these really expensive lures, I’d be good,” he joked. Subsequent photos on the team’s blog and Instagram pages noted shipmate Benzy making great catches, with an impressive striper and catfish cooked up for the crew.
Anticipation for the launch was high amongst Modes and his crew – shipmates Jeremiah Daniels and Benzy of Santa Cruz, as well as Sara Jane Hall from the British Broadcasting Corporation doing audio recording – and the gathering crowd. However, the shantyboat was not fated to make its launch that day. Bad gas had infected the boat’s engine and the busy holiday weekend made it difficult to find help with repairs.
Finally, a man named Dave, recommended through personnel of the Tehama County Sheriff’s Department, got the crew back on the water a few days later.
“The main purpose of the trip is to collect oral histories from the people who live and work on rivers,” Daniels said during preparation for the ill-fated launch. Indeed, the shantyboat and the treks are part art installation, larger part social history documentation.
The website People’s River History, which chronicles the journeys, lists the art and history project as four-fold: “An academic research archive of long-form interviews with river people; an extensive project website introducing and connecting a wider audience to those who live and work on the river; the shantyboat as a central art piece is a physical archive and library of the Secret History project temporarily sited at museums and galleries; a series of books about the experience, the people we meet, and the places we visit.”
The crowd assembled for the launch was eager to witness such an elaborate effort, though concerns were expressed for safety of the crew and boat on a river that had developed snags and gravel bars from a rainy winter. “It’s a pretty swift river,” noted Modes. During the downtime waiting for repairs, Tehama County Sheriff’s river patrol took the crew out on the river to scout potential trouble spots as far as Woodson Bridge in Corning.
The website later chronicled a particularly harrowing trek in a blog post titled “Spoiler alert: We are still alive. Just went through the sketchiest bit of boating I’ve done in a 10-year career of sketchy boating.” An area of river in Bayliss almost took them out, and made some impressive chew marks in the boat’s Mercury 4 Stroke motor.
Throughout the journey, which was attached to a special exhibit at the Sacramento History Museum during the month of July, the team interviewed a wide variety of people. While some blog posts scream of danger and misfortune, most show a daring and engaged crew having the time of their lives on a river filled with opportunities for stories and adventure.