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'Sea Monkey' nearing Big Easy

Brothers Josh, from left, and Ben Monson and their friend Matt Folkedahl are seen on the "Sea Monkey'' on Diamond Lake a day before they launched their journey. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

WILLMAR -- The crew of the Sea Monkey was expecting to reach New Orleans this morning and complete their 2,000-miles-plus, 35-day trip down the Mississippi River in a homemade raft.

"Excited, but also a little disappointed,'' said Ben Monson, 23, who organized the trip, when reached by telephone Thursday as they motored about 30 miles upstream of Baton Rouge, La.

Monson said he and his crew mates, which includes his brother Josh, 25, and friend Matt Folkedahl, 23, all of Willmar, were excited about reaching their goal but also not ready to see their adventure ended. They've had a great time meeting people along the river, enjoying the sites and activities in cities like Memphis and St. Louis, and just enjoying their Huckleberry Finn-like adventure.

"There's always something to look forward to,'' said Monson of life on the river. The trio spent months looking forward to the adventure, which they launched July 11 in St. Paul. They built and tested their 12-foot by 16-foot raft in April on Diamond Lake. They had to modify the raft once they began making their way down the Big River.

They added barrels to make it more buoyant and a splash guard to protect against the onslaught of water from the 5- and 6- foot rollers they sometimes ride.

Plans to use solar panels and an electric motor proved impractical. They have relied on a gasoline-powered motor to keep them on the move and out of the way of the large barges that ply the river.

Monson said the learning curves were sometimes long, but they've now reached the point where they feel adept at reading river charts and the river to stay afloat and in the navigable channel. They've also mastered the seamanship needed to ride the big rollers and waves on the river in a square-shaped raft, and work the radio to keep out of the way of the massive barges.

They've taken time off to visit the large cities along the way, but otherwise they spent many of their nights camped on islands or at marinas and other locations along the river. Monson said 99 percent of the people they met along the way have been nothing less than "awesome.'' People have offered supplies and support; some have even opened their homes to them.

Monson said the heat has been intense in the lower reaches of the Mississippi, and the cities farther apart. He said they were very eager to get to New Orleans and spend a weekend celebrating their journey.

They have one more big trip ahead of them. A group of young men they met earlier in the trip from Prairie du Chien, Wis., are interested in purchasing Sea Monkey to make their own run down the Mississippi River. If things work out as hoped, they will be bringing a semi-truck to pick up the watercraft in New Orleans and haul the trio back to the Midwest.

If not, Monson said they may rent a moving truck on their own and bring it home. They need to be back so that Folkedahl can start classes at the end of the month in St. Cloud. Monson graduated just before the start of the trip, and begins a new job in September.

He said he remains committed to starting the job, but said he knows that he will be thinking and planning another trip like this one.

He said they took the trip in part to force themselves "out of the comfort zone'' and experience new things. They have not been disappointed in the least, said Monson.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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