DULUTH — Kyle Ollah had 24 hours to decide: Did he want to be a part of a traveling troupe of musicians, touring from gig to gig along the Mississippi River in a tricked out pontoon?

“I’m not really a boater,” said Ollah, an Americana musician. “I don’t even know what you’d call yourself if you were. But I have traveled, and I have wrapped myself in Mark Twain’s romance of the river. Mostly my calendar was clear. I’m a musician primarily; I didn’t have a lot of gigs going on.

“In the end, it wasn’t a hard decision.”

Ollah joined Minneapolis bassist Liz Draper and fellow Duluthian Clancy Ward for a handful of socially distanced shows in the river towns along the route in late July: in St. Paul; Maiden Rock, Wis.; Wabasha, Minn. Then they were towed to a small festival in Soldiers Grove, Wis., for the finale of the Mississippi PonTour. They raised more than $1,500 for the NAACP’s legal defense fund along the way.

All aboard 'Ivan Doer'd'

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Draper, a heavy-touring musician, acquired the pontoon in January from a member of the Wild Goose Chase Cloggers. A Mankato-based woodworker built a timber frame, wood sides and storage areas for the 16-foot boat, according to a story in the Mankato (Minnesota) Free Press.

The musicians slept on either storage boxes or a hammock — though they spent one night on an island.

Painted along the side: the boat’s clever name, “Ivan Doer’d,” and “Mississippi PonTour.”

The musicians traveled aboard 'Ivan Doer'd," a tricked-out pontoon. (Photo courtesy of Ollah)
The musicians traveled aboard 'Ivan Doer'd," a tricked-out pontoon. (Photo courtesy of Ollah)

By the time Ollah came on board, the trip had mostly been organized and plotted. Draper had arranged the shows and gotten the maps.

Ollah brought along a life jacket and nonperishables.

“I watched a YouTube video on how to get through a lock, which didn’t help,” Ollah said.

There were learning curves: figuring out where to land the pontoon for the night, understanding the effect of speedboats on a small watercraft, navigating locks. They went nose deep in the river about once a day. The first wave gets you wet, and the third one is like a claw coming out of the water, Ollah said.

“The way it sucks you down is unmatched,” he said.

'Completely blown away'

The three musicians had mostly been sidelined since the shutdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ollah was giving virtual music lessons but spent time working on the 3-acre homestead on the edge of Duluth that he shares with his partner.

Out on the river, they averaged about 6 miles per hour and saw the dune-shaped structure caused by dredging, eagles at play and the tiny river towns that, Ollah said, get your imagination going.

“We were, every day, completely blown away by the scene,” he said.

The trip was nonstop work and didn’t allow for sitting back and enjoying a book. In Winona, they found a houseboating community separated by an old wagon bridge. One side, Ollah likened to Sausalito, Calif., known for its upscale houseboats. The other, he said, was composed of homemade boats. They chose to hang with the latter.

The crew was committed to safe concerts and social-distancing measures. The shows drew an audience of 30-50 people. They canceled a concert in Pepin, Wis., that didn’t feel safe, Ollah said.

They left the water more interested in river culture and river management, he said, and the idea that this could all happen again.

“I think the main lesson (from the trip) is taking it easy. That’s the lesson we had to learn every day on the river. When we tried to make the river appease us and help us out, it always flooded our boat. We took it easy and got there when we could.”