Paddlers traverse Missouri River to raise awareness about new musical

Sunday, October 5, 2008 | 10:29 p.m. CDT; updated 10:19 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 6, 2008
Participants paddle down Moniteau Creek and into the Missouri River in Rocheport during Sunday's Gumbo Bottoms River Float. The float was a promotional event for "Gumbo Bottoms: A Big Muddy Musical," which is set to open Nov. 21.

This story has been updated to correct that the float ended in Huntsdale.

If you go

What: "Gumbo Bottoms: A Big Muddy Musical," directed by Lesley Oswald

When: 8 p.m. Nov. 21-22  and 2 p.m. Nov. 23

Where: Thespian Hall in Boonville

Sponsors: Turner Hall River Rats for the Arts and the Boonville Tourism Commission

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As trees hinted at autumn splendor, paddlers meandered through the limestone of Manitou Bluffs along the Missouri River on Sunday at the Gumbo Bottoms River Float.

Starting at 12:30 p.m., paddlers traversed the
6 ½-mile stretch of the river from Rocheport to Huntsdale. The float aimed to increase awareness about a new musical, "Gumbo Bottoms: A Big Muddy Musical." Written by Meredith Ludwig and Cathy Barton, the musical explores life on the Missouri River.

"We couldn't ask for a prettier stretch of river, and there's so much history," said Brett Dufur of Mighty Mo Canoe Rental, which provided transportation for the day.

As paddlers slipped and slid their way down the banks to the river, Dufur joked, "It wouldn't be a Missouri float without getting a little mud on your shoe."

Mud indeed. After stopping at a sand bar for some rest and Frisbee-tossing, paddlers had difficulty scraping away the squishy, squelching mud that firmly attached itself to boot grooves and the arches of bare feet.  "Gumbo Bottoms" garners its name from the stubborn muck.

Fred Oerly, a longtime resident of Boonville, visited with paddlers when they made a stop at Taylor's Landing.

Oerly, born in 1922, has spent his entire life on the muddy banks of the Missouri River, and he was full of stories for the visitors. He traversed a wide array of topics as varied as moonshine and the Depression to the ever-changing ebb and flow of the river.

Oerly's abundance of stories provided Ludwig with inspiration for the musical.

"Fred was my very first interview, and I thought I'd hit a gold mine," Ludwig said.

He relayed several stories to the group, including one in which his wife ran out of gas near Hacienda. She called Oerly and insisted he come pick her up. When he arrived, it was to see people in four-buckle overboots dancing around on a makeshift dance floor.

"After the rain, people were on the dance floor stomping and dancing to get the mud off their boots," Oerly said.

He calls that slimy, sludgy muck "gumbo."

Ludwig said that she wanted to celebrate the river and the stories of people that she has met. She started interviewing in 2005, and soon thereafter had plenty of material.

"I'm a baby boomer," she said. "I'm over 50, and I thought, well, if I'm ever going to write a musical, I'd better start writing it."

Having worked in Chicago with Bonnie Koloc, Ludwig has a background in theater. She heard co-writer Cathy Barton performing original pieces on the piano and said that she immediately knew that Barton was going to be her composer. The two often discussed their material via e-mail and used a variety of original pieces as well as folk melodies.

Ludwig hopes to take the show on tour, but first she has to fill 600 seats.

Steve Johnson, executive director of the Missouri River Communities Network, was one of many who kayaked the river, and he said he hopes that floats such as these will help people see the recreational aspects of the river.

"A lot of people think the river's dangerous," he said. "The reason we all live here is the Missouri River."

Johnson said that the Missouri Department of Conservation labels the Missouri River as the most underutilized natural resource in the state of Missouri.

"Here we are on a sunny, beautiful Sunday, and almost no one is here," he said.

One of the network's major projects aims to increase tourism, an area in which Johnson sees huge potential.

The network has partnered with more than 20 communities along the river in an effort to increase tourism through activities such as wine cultivation and increasing the abundance of wildlife in the Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. The refuge has purchased 13,000 acres of floodplains on the lower Missouri River.


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