A made in Maine riverboat is underway down the Mississippi

 In Maine Insights, By Ramona du Houx

m and eEmily du Houx and Morgan Rogers with the boat they built, the Michi Zeebee, at the “road trip” launching in Portland, Maine just before they left for St. Paul for their 2,000 journey down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.

It began long ago, before they knew it would, long before they met — both beginning love affairs with rivers. Emily du Houx living by a waterfall that pours into the Kennebec River in Maine would swim loosing track of time disappearing around the next river bend mesmerized by the water’s endless heartbeat of reflections. At the same time, Morgan Rogers negotiated rapids, kayaking skillfully through river challenges sometimes to become unwittingly drenched while at others triumphing against the California river’s swells, near her home.

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They lived in opposite coastal states, until one day their paths collided. Three years later they’ve found themselves at the mid-point of America, on the Mississippi River traveling its 2,000 miles on a bare-bones watercraft, a modified version of the Glen-L Water Lodge that dates to the 1960s, during a long hot summer.

They christened their shanty boat the Michi Zeebee, the Native American name for the river that French settlers mispronounced turning it into Mississippi, with excited expectations but not knowing what adventures would await them along their two-month journey to New Orleans.

“The design is based of a 1960s-era houseboat. Its modifications incorporate elements from theatrical showboats with colonial-era details on its siding and windows,” said Emily.

Screen Shot 2017-08-08 at 1.45.48 PMEmily du Houx and Daren, from the Apprenticeshop, preparing the Michi Zeebee for the road trip to her launching in St. Paul.

The vessel has a 25-hp outboard motor to power them away from heavier river traffic, help with difficult weather, and through and around locks and dams. Portable solar panels, the duo from Revision Energy, provide them with electricity for their equipment and so, “we can have coffee.” The cozy interior includes a king size mattress sleeping space, room to store supplies, maps, a small canoe for portages, boat-building equipment and not much more. While traveling, they will also take sonar readings of river depths.

But the Zeebee is more than a riverboat.

“She’s really a floating sculpture in the form of a boat, and a vehicle for collecting stories,” said Emily.

The multi-media project will continue to evolve along the route aiming to bring communities together. Knowing that they are following the footsteps of explorers, writers, big gambling riverboat passengers and crews, fishermen and countless workers inspires them to continue the tradition with their own twist and recordings of their experiences.

morMorgan Rogers at the “road trip” launching in Portland, Maine on the Michi Zeebee’s deck showing the bare bones cabin that will be added to along the journey. 

Below: the first stage of the cabin as it evolved during their epic trip.

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“It is our hope that by gathering stories on how people relate to living and working on the water in Maine and down the Mississippi River, that we will be able to connect these different socio-geographic communities,” said Morgan. “We also aim to highlight the different ways we can coexist with the environment to ensure a more sustainable further through renewable energy, adaptable architecture, and other means that we’ll discover as people share their experiences with us along the way.”

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The wooden hull is covered by framed plywood, with windows cut out and images of flora and fauna from river life scrolled in. (photo above)

“The pattern will start out as a carved bevel, but as we travel the river and collect items along the way — shells, rocks, plastic bottles, and the like — we will fill the carved recesses, inlaying and coloring them with the detritus of the river,” said Emily. “On deck, in place of a traditional showboat’s stage, we will be rigging up a mechanism to create a screen from water pumped from the river. We intend to project sonar scans of the river bottom onto this water screen, bringing the rarely seen and volatile river bed to the surface for viewers on the banks.”

Most significantly for them both is that they want to raise awareness to the importance of the river and how it relates to people’s daily lives.

emEmily du Houx, framed by her designed cabin walls, preparing the Michi Zeebee for the road trip to her launching in St. Paul.

“It’s our multi-media portrait of the river,” said Emily.

Getting to the Mississippi was a journey in its own right, which started two years ago when they sketched out the first plans for their journey. A year later, after a successful crowd-funding campaign, and with a grant from the Rhode Island School of Design they started construction of their shanty boat at the Apprenticeshop in Rockland, Maine.

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Emily and Morgan constructing Michi Zeebee at The Apprenticeshop in Rockland, Maine

The wooden boat school welcomed them with open arms, helping guide them when they needed a little expert advice. Emily ended up becoming an apprentice at the shop.

Early this summer they completed the cabin. Everyone at the school felt such a part of the project, by the time the boat left the shop they’d pitched in many late nights helping the two ladies get Michi Zeebee ready for departure on June 28th from Portland, Maine.

Along their road trip to St. Paul countless cars rolled alongside to take I-phone images of the vessel as her exterior carved walls are captivating.

On July 11, they launched in St. Paul, Minnesota with plans to reach New Orleans by early September. Since then they’ve negotiated the tremendously long Mississippi barges, been through white caped waves, and anchored directly on the river, amongst other things. (Read their blog postsHere)

True to their plans, at every stage of the journey the boat continues to evolve. In Dubuque they were given the city’s flag and the community of shanty boat’s flag.

There are canvas walls that stretch over the fore and aft of the boat as doors. But one was ripped off in a violent storm. At a stop at the Convivium Urban Farmstead downstream from Dubuque, the two constructed a new door from plywood, using topographical maps as a template and they added a hydroponic garden on the roof. (photo above, read more about it HERE.)

”They not only put us up at their place, but gave us full use of their wood shop . . . We arrived just in time for the grand opening of their space, two 1920s-era greenhouses with a commercial kitchen, a coffee house, and wood shop/learning center, dedicated to creating community around food,” wrote Morgan on the duo’s blog of their journey.

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Other planned stops include a “River Monologues” event in Memphis, Tennessee, and a final party and exhibition in New Orleans.

Their progress can be followed at the Carrier Pigeon: carrierpigeonstudio.com.

They’ll publish an art book of their exposition, with the Solon Center for Research and Publishing.

Emily du Houx teaches at the Rhode Island School for Design (RISD) and is an avid boater. She’s a writer, and has a Master in sculpture from RISD. Morgan Rogers is a communications specialist, and has a passion for storytelling, environmental policy, and program development.

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