by Janice Christensen, photo by Greg Thompson
Sean Kafer has a map of the Mississippi near Madrid, Iowa from 1877. It shows the main channel of the river surrounded by wide meandering channels colored red or blue, wandering miles into the surrounding countryside. “That’s the way the river was. It changed course every year,” Sean says.
“Mark Twain’s river was very different from today. There were rapids and shallows and no dams. Riverboat captains needed to know just where to go – it was a matter of not straying more than a few feet to the right or the left, or you could lose your ship.”
Now the river is dredged regularly to a depth of nine feet. “The Army Corps of Engineers tamed the river,” Sean explains. “Well, they kind of tamed it.”
Sean is a young man, but he has already meandered far and dredged some deeper channels. He grew up in New London, Wisconsin, where both his parents were school teachers.
“We went in for ‘silent sports’ when I was a kid,” Sean remembers. The family went canoeing on the Chain-o-Lakes near Waupaca, as well as downhill and cross country skiing in the winter. “I played football in high school, but I wasn’t very good,” Sean admits. “Mostly I was that kid who would grab the video camera and start shooting whatever sports event was going on.”
That tendency continued into college. Sean started at UW Green Bay, then decided to switch to UWM after seeing a student film festival. “The experimental film program sold me right away. There’s nothing else like it, really. I was looking for a departure from Hollywood.”
After receiving his undergraduate degree in film, Sean worked for a Japanese production company in Hawaii. The pay was very good, but he was working 14 hours a day. And there was something else.
“Hawaii is a tourist destination,” he says. There was something that bothered him about working in a place where everything is handed to you.
“On the river, there were no tourist towns. Nothing is handed to you. You have a sense of independence, but danger too. You could lose it any time.”
The river. The Mississippi. That was the central theme of the project Sean undertook when he came back to Riverwest in 2008 to work on his MFA in film at UWM. He received a Masters’ Grant to fund a project that captures the imagination.
A trip down the Mississippi River. On a raft. Could there be a more iconic American experience?
He had been thinking about it for a while. He started building the raft in 2007 in New London. It took a lot of thought, designing, changing, improving. The finished raft was sixteen feet long by eight feet wide with an eight-by-eight foot cabin.
Preparations progressed, but could not be described as smooth. His first partner on the trip cancelled.
“I was living above the Bremen Café and Jeff Kelly was bartending downstairs. Two weeks before I was scheduled to leave I asked him to come along.
“He said, ‘Sure. I’ll take the rest of the summer off.’”
They left from Prescott, Wisconsin on June 18, 2009. It took them 43 days to get to New Orleans.
But this trip wasn’t just a trip. It was to become a documentary, Valley Maker. Sean was filming it. Like any good movie, things continued not to go as planned.
“The trip almost ended before it started,” Sean recalls. “We had a small 15 horsepower motor on the back of the raft. It blew up on day four.
“Some fishermen towed us to shore, and I had to decide whether to spend a thousand dollars on a decent motor…or not.
“I got the credit card out.”
The trip continued. Like any good riverman, Sean has some hair-raising tales of the journey.
“St Louis was exciting,” he recalls. “We came in to St. Louis on the day of the All Star Game in 2009 when President Obama was throwing out the first pitch. The Secret Service and Coast Guard had requested that all ships be docked. They made us put down anchor at East St Louis. It was kind of a seedy neighborhood, so we put both anchors down ten feet from shore and hoped they would hold in the silt at the bottom of the river. We both tried to stay awake.
“But we fell asleep. Our anchors slipped and we went into the main channel while we were sleeping. We had a little light on top of our cabin, but with the city lights in the background the barge couldn’t see it.”
Wait a minute. The barge? What barge?
“I woke up and the barge was coming right at us. They had their spotlight on us and were blowing the horn. Of course, our motor was propped up and not ready to go.
“It takes a barge two miles to stop. It was less than 100 yards away.
“I got the motor down, and of course it didn’t start the first time, but it did start. We made it to the side of the river. We had already floated down so far we decided to keep going. We got through the Secret Service and Coast Guard without a hitch. I think we made our longest distance that day, about 120 miles.
“But I don’t think my heart slowed down until about two in the afternoon.”
Then there was the storm. “I think it was in Mississippi. Just out of the blue, the wind picked up and skies got dark. Our raft was just a giant box on the water’s surface – the wind knocked us to the starboard side of the river. It pushed us against the bank, and we jumped off and tried to tie the boat down while we were sliding around in the mud. We lost a lot of stuff – a lot of electronics. Jeff’s cell phone went over, and the solar panel that we used to charge the phones and the camera. And we lost a lot of food.”
Food can be an issue on the River. “It was really hard to get produce,” Sean remembers. “Jeff’s a vegetarian. He just cannot eat in the South.”
They solved the problem by looking for riverboat casinos permanently docked at the river towns. “We would go to the salad bar and eat, and sit in the air conditioning as long as we could. And we ate a lot of beans and rice. I don’t like beans and rice much anymore.”
Gasoline became an issue as well. “Below Iowa there just weren’t any gas stations on the river. And the towns got really far apart. Once we went 230 miles between towns.” When they did stop they would carry their gas cans into town and back to the river. “Once we had to walk over five miles for gas. Luckily there were lots of nice people, and we got rides.”
Another issue: hygiene. “We would swim in the river to get clean. But after St Louis we were pretty skeptical about how clean the water was. We would go into towns and try to find a YMCA or someplace else where we could take a shower.
“Between Baton Rouge and New Orleans we didn’t get a shower. We tried the YMCA in Baton Rouge, but they weren’t having it. I think maybe the lady at the desk could smell us.”
Definitely not a tourist destination. Nothing was handed to our man Sean on this trip, and there was definitely enough danger for anyone’s taste. What other important lessons did he learn?
“Patience. The days would be so long. We’d get up at 5:30 in the morning and boat until it was dark. We’d wait for locks and dams, sometimes two or three hours.
“We didn’t have a radio, we had one for a few days, then the storm happened. We had no electricity once we lost our solar panel.
“We had to learn to be patient with each other, just to let things go.”
Sounds like a good life lesson to take away. So what’s next? Sean will be teaching in the UWM film program this fall, and he’s planning a new project.
“I think the next film will be a narrative. I’d like to get away from the documentary for a while. I’m collaborating with (Riverwester) Heidi Spencer. Neither one of us has done that before so it will be a challenge.”
Will it be set in Riverwest? “Maybe.”
Oh, and we have to know. Huck or Tom?
If You Go:
Milwaukee Film Festival
Valley Maker, directed by Riverwester Sean Kafer
(sponsored by Riverwest Currents, see ad Page 2)
Tue, Sep 28, 7:15PM, Oriental Theatre