The New Voyageurs

Wherein six Minnesotans brave the Mekong River, whirlpools, and dysentery in a leaky boat with a lawnmower engine held together by toothpaste and cardboard and live to tell about it

For any hardcore river rat, the idea of traveling the Mekong is at once alluring and daunting. The river, the 12th largest in the world, runs some 2,610 miles through terrain that is wildly varied both in natural and human terms. Flowing from Tibet through southern China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia before emptying into the ocean at Vietnam, the Mekong has many stretches that are heavily agricultural; others are extremely remote. Some of its tributaries have barely been explored. But anyone who knows much about the river—or wants to witness its glories firsthand—has plenty of incentive to go there sooner rather than later. The Mekong is home to an astonishing variety of fauna, including such creatures as the giant Mekong catfish, which can weigh more than 600 pounds. But the giant Mekong catfish, like many other native species, are imperiled by large-scale hydro-electrical projects, increasing pollution, and growing populations. So if you really want to see the Mekong, you want to see it soon.

The first of the group to sign on was Shoemaker's old friend, David Eberhardt. Eberhardt, a filmmaker originally from Forest Lake, had spent the better part of the past two summers traveling with the boat punks. In shooting a documentary about their exploits, he contracted a serious river jones himself. Eberhardt recruited Mike Dvorak, a friend from his days at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (and a longtime City Pages contributor) to join him in southeast Asia. Eberhardt had lined up a grant to document some charitable projects in the region—"art welfare," his bemused buddies labeled the gig—and he figured he could use a filming and still-shot partner in Dvorak. While in Asia, why not float down the Mekong? Dvorak, a fly-fishing nut and inveterate globetrotter, jumped at the chance.

Meanwhile, Shoemaker's partner, a 31-year-old conservation biologist named Andrea "Dre" Claasen, also had work-related reasons to go to southeast Asia. She'd contracted with the World Wildlife Fund to survey bird populations in northeast Cambodia, so it didn't take much for her to throw in. Randy "Gerty" Tonjum and Jack Brauday—two of the veteran boat punks—decided they were up for the adventure. Unlike the rest of their cohort, Gerty and Jack had no one to bankroll their outings and no official reason to go on a trip. But they knew something about dumpster diving, about how to scrape by on next to nothing. On two trips down the Mississippi, Gerty—a taciturn cabinetmaker originally from Faribault—had crafted some of the most impressive boats in the boat punk fleet: stylish, barge-like vessels made from plywood and powered by cheap secondhand outboards. He was a natural pick as mechanic and chief pilot for an outing on the Mekong.

Michael Dvorak

The gang—everyone but Mike Dvorak—met up in Bangkok last February. After a couple of days, they took an overnight train from Thailand to Laos, where the first leg of the river trip would begin. At that point, it made no sense to acquire a boat in Laos. A large waterfall near the border of Laos and Cambodia would have made it impossible to get the boat on the lower section of the river. Instead, the group hired a local captain for the daylong journey to the falls. On the way, they say, they encountered one of the most beautiful sections of the Mekong, a place where the river divides into dozens of channels called the Land of 4,000 Islands. Not far from there, they caught a glimpse of endangered freshwater dolphins frolicking in the shallows. Shoemaker jumped into the river, imagining a magic encounter with the dolphins. He would later write about the encounter with wry detachment. "All I see from the mud are some vague shapes breaking the surface of the water a couple hundred yards away. So much for the mystical spiritual new age swimming with the dolphins experience...damn, it was suppose to change me forever but here I am just stuck in some liver-fluke infested mud hole."

It was in the river village of Kratie, Cambodia, that the travelers finally acquired their own vessel: a traditional, 21-foot long-tail fishing boat. Befitting the seat-of-the-pants ethos of the whole venture, it was primitive. Carved from the trunk of a hardwood tree and "powered" by a 3.5 horsepower converted lawnmower engine, the boat came equipped with neither running lights nor life preservers. And it leaked. After the requisite haggling, the $200 asking price was knocked down to $180, or $35 apiece. The crew was ready to head downriver to Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh. As they set out for the long ride, one matter remained unresolved: What to name the vessel? After considerable debate, they settled on "the Tainted Nipple." The name was selected in reference to a cautionary tale about Thai prostitutes who would rob johns by applying knockout drugs to their nipples. "Given the number of people who doubted and advised against our river journey, it was only a matter of time before 'the Tainted Nipple' became the obvious and unavoidable choice of name for our boat," Bruce Shoemaker would later write.

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