ADVENTURES IN FOOD AND FITNESS: Boy realizes dream of building homemade raft for river journey

The raft designed by 13-year-old Ben Decker, third from left, got its buoyancy from milk jugs sealed inside its plywood frame. Decker estimated that the 174 1/2 gallons' worth of jugs would support 1,396 pounds. The raft itself weighed 300 pounds, according to the truck scales at a Wells County grain elevator. (By Tanya Isch Caylor for News-Sentinel.com)
The crew of "the Ben-Boat" makes its way through a shallow section of the Wabash River at the start of its 4.5 mile journey on July 14. The yearlong project to build a homemade raft was the brainchild of Norwell eighth-grader Ben Decker, second from right. From left: Ben Stephens, navigator; Nick Stephens, cabin boy/marine scout; Kevin Mechling, quartermaster and Decker's youth pastor at First Church of Christ; Decker, ship's captain; and Boy Scout Troop 149 Scoutmaster Dean Stephens, who served as the crew's engineer. (By Tanya Isch Caylor for News-Sentinel.com)
Ben Decker, 13-year-old captain of a homemade raft christened "the Ben-Boat," and his mom, Karel Decker, before a July 14 voyage down the Wabash River in Wells County. "It was great to see all the people who turned out to support him," Karel Decker said. (By Tanya Isch Caylor for News-Sentinel.com)
Ben Decker, 13, right, helps unload a raft he designed and built during a yearlong project at the Wabash River in Bluffton on July 14. (By Tanya Isch Caylor for News-Sentinel.com)
The crew of the homemade raft known as "the Ben-Boat" arrives at its destination after a 4.5-mile journey down the Wabash River in Wells County on July 14. From left: Dean Stephens, Kevin Mechling, Ben Decker, Nick Stephens and Ben Stephens. (Courtesy photo)

This is a story for everyone who worries that today’s kids don’t know how to have fun in the real world, without staring at a video screen.

One day last summer, a 12-year-old boy was fooling around at Ouabache State Park in Wells County when he was suddenly struck by a funny idea: If you lashed together a couple of picnic tables and put them in the lake, he wondered, would they float?

Norwell middle-schooler Ben Decker couldn’t get the thought out of his head, though it morphed into other variations over time — such as what would happen if he chopped down a tree and tried to float it down the Wabash River that flows through Bluffton, where he lives with his mom and older brother?

Eventually, all his imaginings coalesced into one of the most old-fashioned ideas a boy can have, as all-American as Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. He would build a raft and take it on a journey down the Wabash.

Decker talked a couple of his Boy Scout pals, twins Nick and Ben Stephens, and their dad, Troop 149 Scoutmaster Dean Stephens, into helping him with the project, which they built at the Stephens’ home in rural Wells County.

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Decker had learned that air sealed inside a gallon milk jug would support 8 pounds of weight. He collected jugs from friends at church, and over eight work days between February and June, he and his pals arranged 174½ gallons of the containers inside the raft’s 8 feet-by-6½-feet plywood frame. Some half-gallon jugs were used to fill small gaps.

According to Decker’s calculations, the air in the jugs would support 1,396 pounds. When the raft was completed in June, they hauled it on a trailer to be weighed at a local grain elevator. It came in at 300 pounds. That left plenty of weight to accommodate Decker’s five-man crew, three of whom were skinny boys who had become newly-minted teenagers in the course of working on the project.

For their river journey, Decker planned a 13 1/3-mile route from Kehoe Park in downtown Bluffton to the I-69 overpass just west of Markle in Huntington County. Looking for an open date that fit all five crew members’ schedules, they settled on July 14.

“We have no idea how long this will take,” Decker said as he helped unload his raft, christened “the Ben-Boat,” on the appointed afternoon.

Was he nervous? “A little,” the 13-year-old captain admitted.

On the banks of the Wabash, as traffic passed by overhead on Bluffton’s Main Street Bridge, a crowd of nearly 30 people gathered to see the sailors off. Even one of Decker’s former teachers showed up.

He knew his craft would float, as they’d tested it earlier in a pond. Because the river level was so low that day, though, they had to carry the raft under the bridge until they got to a spot where some of them could climb aboard.

The Stephens twins gave the raft a running start, merrily pushing Decker and the two adults on board, Dean Stephens and Decker’s youth pastor at Bluffton’s First Church of Christ, Kevin Mechling, down the middle of the Wabash.

Ultimately, Decker’s calculations proved correct: Even with all five crew members aboard, the raft sat well up out of the water.

On their journey, they would encounter bald eagles, a kayak, a turtle and several abandoned tires exposed due to low river levels. Because the current was so slow, they cut their journey short, exiting the river after 3½ hours at around the 4½-mile mark near the tiny Wells County village of Murray.

“That’s just how it worked out,” Decker said afterward.

He wasn’t disappointed. “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever done,” he said, adding that he couldn’t have done it without the help “of a lot of people.”

Despite all their hard work, the scouts did not earn a badge for the raft project.

“It’s just something Ben wanted to do,” his scoutmaster said.

“The coolest part was being on the water finally after a whole year,” Decker said.

When school starts next week, he’ll have plenty to talk about if anyone asks what he did over the summer. But the eighth-grader has already shifted to his next project: Training to climb Pike’s Peak next summer with a couple of friends from church.

Tanya Isch Caylor blogs about postfat living at www.90in9.wordpress.com. Contact her at tischcaylor@gmail.com. This column is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.

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