From left: Douglas Miller, Dustin Strite and Jesse Halteman, stand on the deck of their raft, “Georgia on my Mind” as they dock near Tom Soya Grain in Clay County on a recent Sunday afternoon. The boys, all of whom are from Georgia, have relatives in Noxubee County. They are piloting their homemade raft the length of the Tenn-Tom Waterway. Tyler Strite, unseen, is piloting the raft. Photo by: Birney Imes/Dispatch Staff
June 17, 2017 9:47:16 PM
About a year ago, four Mennonite boys from Georgia came up with the idea to build a houseboat and motor down the Mississippi.
Actually, it was Tyler Strite's idea. Tyler, 20, lives in Hephzibah, near Augusta. Tyler's older brother, Dustin, 22, was game; so were friends Douglas Miller, 18, who lives in Meigs and Jesse Halteman, 21, from Wrightsville. All of the boys work with their fathers in the building trades.
Eventually, the boys scaled back their ambitions. They would raft down the Tenn-Tom instead. Besides, they have relatives, who live in Noxubee County near the Waterway.
The four took their time and put a lot of thought into the 21-by-12-foot raft they built in the Strites' garden. The boat has an 11-by-12-foot cabin with a kitchen, steering console and shelves to hold canned food. There is a generator to power the cell phone chargers, a laptop and refrigerator. To ensure mosquito-free sleep, roll-down nylon screens cover all four sides of the cabin. There's a diving board on the roof.
The boys spent about $2,000 for lumber. They found a 1975 Evinrude 85-horsepower outboard motor on a Facebook yard-sale page. It cost $400 and came with a boat, which they junked. They spent $200 to rebuild the Evinrude's carburetor. They named their craft "Georgia on My Mind." A cousin made them a flag.
When Galen Schrock, on a recent Saturday, sent me a text that his nephew and three boys were coming down the Tombigbee on a raft, I pictured images of Huck and Jim floating the Mississippi on a log raft.
Schrock, 69, is a Noxubee County businessman and farmer, who can go to his computer and tell you the present moisture levels in sections of his farmland. That is to say, he's no stranger to technology.
When I asked Galen when the boys might be in Columbus, he sent a link to a website (spytecgps.com) where you can see the raft's exact location. Not only were these young adventurers traveling with laptops and cell phones, they were sending out a satellite uplink that transmitted their precise location. They have more than 1,000 Facebook followers.
The next day while waiting to meet the boys at the old Tote 'N Float, I stood in the shade of the Tom Soya grain elevators and watched couples fish. The scene was timeless, a lazy afternoon at the cusp of summer.
A man and woman sitting in lawn chairs on the deck of a barge 20 or 30 feet above the water tended a handful of rods. How would you land your catch from that height? A fellow named Jason came up and introduced himself and asked what I was up to.
"Isn't that Goat Island?" I said pointing to a small island separating the channel and us. "Yes," Jason said. "Were there ever any goats there?" "Seven or eight, but someone took care of them," he said. Took care of them how? I should have asked.
We heard the music before we saw the boat. One of the boys said later they listen to bluegrass, a cappella and country. The boat, the boys, all looked neat and clean; the "Georgia on My Mind" on the side of the boat appears to have been painted by a professional sign painter. They rounded Goat Island and docked at the Tote 'N Float.
Jesse and Tyler took my truck to West Point for supplies and gas while I talked with Dustin and Douglas and toured the boat. This was the end of Day 6; they launched in Burnsville on Tuesday.
They've had a good time, so far; not the first discouraging word, they said.
"Jesse has talked a lot about his girlfriend, but other than that ... ," Dustin said, first laughing, then serious. "It's been awesome."
Tyler has acquired the nickname "Captain Sweet Tea."
The days have a leisurely routine, Dustin said. They eat two meals a day with snacks in between; they take turns making breakfast -- some days there are pancakes. Someone steers -- they salvaged the steering mechanism from the discarded boat that came with the Evinrude. They cruise about 2 to 3 miles per hour, about 20 miles a day.
There is a set of dumbbells on the upper deck and pellet guns, fishing rods and bows for bow fishing at night. Dustin and his brother write in the journals their parents gave them for Christmas.
The travelers say they have been met with kindness at every stop. The manager at the Midway Marina in Fulton lent them a courtesy car to run to town. A stranger there helped them put on a new prop.
"We can't even get to town with a gas can before someone picks us up," said Dustin.
"One of the advantages of living in the South," he said.
We're sitting on the deck talking. Jesse and Tyler are back from West Point. These kids seem -- what's the word -- wholesome. They are well spoken, polite, thoughtful.
"Do you see yourselves always Mennonites?" I ask. The question just popped out.
"Without a question," one of them says. The others nod. "That's how we were raised."
"I've not seen anything better," Douglas said.
Plans that night were to anchor somewhere downstream. The following afternoon they would meet their Noxubee relatives in Pickensville, who were hosting a picnic for them.
It took five or six tries before the Evinrude sputtered to life. The light was fading; it would soon be dark. Jesse turned on the running lights. Dustin eased the raft away from the landing and out into the channel. The boys waved good-bye, but it was clear their attention had shifted. Again they were in the thrall of the river with its timeless, hypnotic charm.
Birney Imes is the publisher of The Dispatch. Email him at [email protected]
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.
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