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Rolling down the river

Two Falcon High School graduates embarked on a journey this summer, floating down the Mississippi River on a homemade boat.Dave Brandsma and Nate Oligmueller had just finished their sophomore year at the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley. Their vessel, the “Bear Naked” raft, testified to their school allegiance as it glided down the river adorned in its blue and gold school colors with the UNC mascot – a bear on its side.Oligmueller said the raft was built in Falcon with support and donations from the community. “People in Colorado Springs and Falcon gave us everything from fishing poles to pieces of steel,” Oligmueller said.The crew knew the raft needed to be sturdy for the journey. “My dad’s an engineer. He engineered the design so he knew that we would make it to the bottom safely,” Oligmueller said. “It’s totally our own design. We looked at a couple of other ways people had done it in the past and decided to go off on our own.”To ensure the raft was river worthy, Brandsma and Oligmueller first launched it at Prospect Lake. After some alterations, they relaunched at the Pueblo Reservoir. At that point in the design, it was ready to go. “We definitely had to test it before we drove a thousand miles,” Oligmueller said.The adventure began June 9 in a launch from Davenport, Iowa, with the original crew of Oligmueller, his father Dan and Nick Denenberg, a friend from UNC. The Midwest’s “Katrina” was imminent at the time. The winter snowpack and heavy rains led to record flooding.”We floated for a week from Davenport, Iowa, to Fort Madison, Iowa, and at that point the river was flooding – the record floods of 2008 – and it got so bad that they actually closed the river,” Oligmueller said. “You couldn’t pass under the bridges anymore, the water was too high and when we left, it was 30 feet above the flood plain.” After they were forced off the river, they left the boat with some acquaintances at Fort Madison and waited at home for the floodwaters to recede.Three weeks later, the adventure continued.”A lot of the weekdays were a lot of the same,” Brandsma said. “We’d get up early and just start floating, kind of just stay out of the way of the barges all day. Try to stay out of the heat during the middle of the day and evenings we’d just sit up on the roof and watch the sunset.”There were many hazards during their trip, Oligmueller said, referring to the barges. “They’re extremely large and sometimes the river gets extremely narrow and to the point where they can hardly get through, let alone them having to worry about a small recreational vessel,” he said.River navigation was not an easy task. Oligmueller said the second time around the water was still high, with debris floating in the water. They avoided a catastrophe when the boat lodged in an outcropping of rocks. Oligmueller said the boat was halfway under water before it finally dislodged and bobbed to the surface.”If you got close to the shore, sometimes you had to worry about water moccasins but we really didn’t see too many dangerous animals. There were alligators when we got closer to Louisiana. And there were alligatorgar. An alligatorgar has the body of a fish and the head of an alligator. I think it’s a weird mutation or somehow something got crossbred there,” Oligmueller said.Brandsma said his feet got infected along the way and he needed a doctor’s attention. Oligmueller said the water was dirty and described it as “chocolate milk.” However, they ate the catfish they pulled out of it.Oligmueller and Brandsma maintained a Web site to track their progress. Brandsma said, “Folks wanted to know where we were and we updated the Web site. We had batteries on a trickle-flow from solar panels. We used those to charge the cell phone and we also had a computer.”The crew traveled through Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas on the west bank; and Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi on the east bank, ending just north of the Louisiana state line.”Dave and I decided a lot of people in life always say they wish they would have done something,” Oligmueller said. “They wish they had floated the river. They wish they would have done this and that, but they’re too old now or they have kids. We figured we’re young, we have no kids, no career to tie us down, no wife, so now’s a good time to do it.”

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