Paddlewheeling podcast ends its Mississippi River journey in New Orleans


Reid Lustig, Galen Huckins and Brian Benson aboard the paddlewheel boat home to the trio's storytelling podcast The River Signal. - VANCE WALSTRA
  • Reid Lustig, Galen Huckins and Brian Benson aboard the paddlewheel boat home to the trio's storytelling podcast The River Signal.

The Channel Princess is just a few riverbends away from docking in New Orleans, where the 35-foot paddlewheel boat reaches its port of call after a summer-long journey on the Mississippi River.

The Princess — home to Galen Huckins, Brian Benson and Reid Lustig — also is a workshop and recording studio for The River Signal, a traveling storytelling podcast inspired by the trio's adventures and the characters and artists they've met.

The boat was rescued and refurbished after it sunk into Oregon's Willamette River during a snowstorm in 2012. The group hauled it on a trailer 2,000 miles across country and set off from Minnesota in June. The four-month journey comes to an end next week. The trio had several ideas for the trip but ultimately created a magical realism-inspired serialized radio drama using music and the Mississippi.

"What made the most sense in the end was to write fiction loosely based on our experience on the river," Benson says. "There's no such thing as a true travel story. ... A documentary is about choices the person behind a camera or person behind the computer screen is making. We want it to be grounded in what we're doing as well."

After recording musicians, the group talks about "what that evoked, their personality — that would inform their character and weave it into a larger plot line," Benson says.

Musician David Zollo's story about his recovery from addiction inspired a character who is held captive on the Delta Queen and receives one hour a day to do whatever he wants — he spends that hour playing piano in a broom closet, a detail true to Zollo's experience in treatment.

Life on the Mississippi has been a storytelling trope in fiction for decades, not so much in present day. Benson says seeing the Mississippi from the river itself offers a glimpse at the literal fringe of the towns it snakes by. "We step into a new world every episode," he says, whether its the small towns along the river or industrial Cancer Alleys with ocean freighters, cranes and smokestacks until its "closer and closer to what a city feels like."

"The river itself doesn't change but pull into a bank and there's a drastic shift."

Last night, after a day spent dodging massive barges and storms, the Princess passed a tugboat, whose captain invited the trio to tie next to a barge, eat and do laundry with its crew.

"We're this really adorable boat," Benson says, laughing. "Tugboats are cruising up like, 'What is this?' and snap photos from the wheel."

Benson says the Princess and Huckins will dock in New Orleans until May while Huckins works on a potential offshoot with local artists and musicians. Listen to episodes of The River Signal on its website.

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