Huck Finn Rides Again

  • Looking for an America with "substance," Mike Delano of Boston, along with Ben Doornbos and Ethan VanDrunen (L-R) both from the Holland, Michigan area are making their way down the Mississippi River on the 'Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn of Michigan,' a homemade raft they hope will carry them to New Orleans. Photo by Lester Graham

Inspired by Mark Twain novels, a trio of Huck Finns is taking a raft down the Mississippi river. They started their adventure where Mark Twain often did in his novels — Hannibal, Missouri. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham has the story:


Inspired by Mark Twain novels. A trio of Huck Finn is taking a raft down the Mississippi River. They started their adventure where Mark Twain often did in his novels, Hannibal, Missouri. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports.

Looking at their raft, it appears to be a little precarious. Inspecting a little more carefully doesn’t inspire confidence. They’re thrilled to find that the 1947 pontoons that they patched with fiberglass don’t seem to be leaking. This little vessel, a small deck of not much more than plywood and two-by-fours with an even smaller roof overhead has been dubbed the Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn of Michigan. It says so in magic marker and poster board tacked to the wooden side rail of the raft.

Ben Doornbos and his friend Ethan Van-Drunen are from the Holland, Michigan area. The third member of the trio, Mike Delano is from Boston. The little raft is supposed to take its passengers from Hannibal, down the mighty Mississippi to New Orleans. Doornbos says their trip on a homemade raft is inspired by Mark Twain’s characters in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, from the nineteenth century. But their reasons for launching the rickety craft seems to be more a reaction to frustration with the twenty-first century’s culture.

“We’re always griping about America and about kind of the loss of culture and how everything seems to look the same on the interstates. You know, it’s always McDonald’s here and, uhm, it’s just kind of– we wanted to find something else that was– had some substance, something that felt like something.”

We’re all sitting on lawn chairs on the raft, still on the trailer that hauled it to Hannibal. While his friend talks, Ethan Van-Frunen nods his head in agreement.

“I too, like Ben, am just kind of frustrated by cookie cutter America and mall culture and everything like that. And part of, like, what I hope to accomplish on the trip is seeing people who are, like, finding their identity and their culture and their past. So, that’s what I’m going to be looking for a lot on the trip is just talking with people who we meet along the way and what they’re interested in.”

As they try to explain their reasons for the trip, again and again the young men use the words “be free” and “freedom.” Each of them is twenty years old, quite a bit older than Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, but Mile Delano says really for all of them it’s the perfect time for an adventure before their freedom disappears.

“Right now I have no payments at all, car, apartment, insurance. So, I am completely free and this is the perfect time for that, so, I’m going to get on the river and get down to Louisiana.”

Van-Drunen and Doornbos built and tested the raft in Michigan. They noted when they slipped it into the still waters of a local lake that the raft rode deeper in the water than expected. They’ve been warned that the swirling currents and wakes of barge tow-boats can be unforgiving.

(Festival Band Sound)

The three friends have timed their trip to start during Tom Sawyer days in Hannibal. They even got to put their raft in the big parade. The local folks are a bit skeptical. They applaud the courage of the young men, but as David puts it,

“Well, I’ve been out on it on a boat before and I don’t think I’d want to do it on a raft, no.”

There are a lot of folks from all over the nation in Hannibal that come to see some of the sites mentioned in Mark Twain’s books. Standing across the streets from the site of the whitewashed board fence that inspired the story of Tom Sawyer persuading his gang to paint it and pay him for the privilege.

Larry Woodward shakes his head, he’s heard about the raft trip. He just brought his boat down from Wisconsin, and wonders whether the three friends know what they’re getting themselves into.

“I floated down in a 24-foot sailboat, but we were under power all the way with a diesel engine and I felt real intimidated by, particularly, the locks and the dams and a lot of places where the current could easily overpower my boat. So, I wish them luck, but it sounds like risky business to me.”

The three Huck Finns say they’ve been told the trip is a piece of cake. They’ve also been told they’ll likely get themselves killed. Mike Delano says they think the little craft has a fighting chance.

“We’re really hoping to raft to New Orleans, but I think we’re making our goal just to get to New Orleans, but if it doesn’t work out, we’ re just going to enjoy ourselves and, uh, no worries, I guess. We don’t want to have to worry about things like that. At least, I certainly don’t and I think I speak for all of us.”

His friend Ben Doornbos says, they feel a to like Huck Finn when he was adopted by Aunt Polly.

“He runs away from her. He talks about how it’s all too cramped in there and everything too civilized and he can’t stand it. And we’re just thinking the same thing. It’s time to get out and have some adventure.”

The trio says they’ve got six weeks for their adventure and they plan to use every moment. No matter how their raft, the Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn of Michigan fares.