CLINTON — The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic forced a landlubber onto the mighty Mississippi in a makeshift raft that takes on water.
Lying on his face at the front of his home-built boat, Erich Mische, pumped water out of one of his pontoon tubes Tuesday at Clinton Marina.
They aren’t supposed to take on water, he said, but they do. And that adds weight to the boat.
By his own admission, Mische has no business being on the water. Executive director of non-profit organization Spare Key, Mische jumped into this adventure because of the huge financial hit Spare Key took due to COVID-19.
Donations to the organization are down $500,000 to $750,000. “That’s more than half my budget,” Mische said.
Because of COVID restrictions, Mische can’t host an event to bring in donations. He had to find another way to finance the charity in an environment where every nonprofit is doing the same thing.
One day, while biking near the river, Mische thought he might bike the length of the Mississippi River to raise awareness and money. But he didn’t think anyone would care about that, and he’s not in shape to do it, he said.
Mische thought about canoeing or kayaking the river. But facing barges and large boats in such a small craft terrified him.
“So I thought, I’ll do a raft.”
Mische checked the internet “and there were some other idiots who had done this, and they had made it.”
One group of young guys floated the length of the river in a raft built of plastic barrels. But that wouldn’t work for Mische. Who would build it? When he lost barrels, who would put them back on?
Mische, one of nine children, sought help from his brother Fred. “As a kid, my mom would sent Fred out with me to keep my hat and mittens on,” Mische said. He figured Fred was already invested in him, so he’d be willing to help build a raft.
The brothers decided they didn’t want to build a craft from scratch. They bought a 50-year-old pontoon deck on Craigslist for $500. It was rotting out, but the tubes looked OK, Mische said.
They bought a garden shed from Home Depot — the last one at the store — and cut 500 pounds off of it by taking out the loft and cutting windows in it.
Fred’s 14-year-old daughter Matilda, Erich’s 19-year-old son Owen, a friend named Ray and three friends named John helped build the home away from home when they weren’t working. The project took a month.
When the raft was finished, people who know boating told Mische that he’d never make it downriver with that 32-year-old, 50-horsepower Nissan motor. He needed a backup motor, and he needed a depth finder, they said.
Mische left St. Paul on Aug. 27. At his first stop, in Red Wing, Mische added a back-up motor, a marine radio and a depth finder.
“That took all day,” he said. He finally got back into the water and headed to a harbor about 5 miles downriver to load some equipment.
On the way, the rear of the raft started sinking. That’s when Mische realized that the tubes forming the foundation of the raft had holes in them. He stopped overnight to have the holes patched, and he was given a pump and told to pump water out as often as he could.
Mische didn’t get far before he met another challenge. He spent six hours crossing Lake Pepin. “I nearly capsized three times,” he said.
Do you know what that’s like? Mische asked. “You’re in it, and you can see through the side windows, and you see the sky.”
Mische stopped in Bellevue on Sunday night and in Savanna, Illinois on Monday. He passed through Lock and Dam 13 near Fulton about 11:15 a.m. Tuesday and arrived in Clinton around noon.
On Wednesday morning, Mische left for LeClaire.
“I don’t have any skills in this,” Mische said. He’s spent his life in government and politics. Now he serves as executive director for Spare Key.
“We help families that are dealing with any kind of significant medical crisis,” Mische said. Spare Key might pay a mortgage or car payment or funeral expenses — anything that will keep families from financial failure during already stressful situations.
In 1997, Spare Key served more than 4,000 families, paying out more than $4 million, Mische said.
The organization operates in 47 states. Its approval is pending in two others. Mische will file papers for the organization in the final state, Louisiana, at the end of his river journey.
In 2020, the organization was starting to invest in more significant ways. Then COVID came, and Spare Key saw a massive drop in both individual and corporate donations.
“There are as many nonprofits in Minnesota as there are lakes,” Mische said. All of them saw declines in revenue. “You gotta figure out a way to survive.”
“It’s kind of buying time,” Mische said. He hopes he’ll raise enough money in two months on the Mississippi to keep Spare Key alive until 2021 when, he hopes, pandemic restrictions are lifted and the economy improves.
Mische calls his journey Hope on the River.
Mische live streams the trip on Facebook and blogs every couple of days. The journey will cover 1,700 miles and reach 10 states in two months, ending in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
For more information, or to donate, visit hopeontheriver.com. Or text “RIVER” to 52000 to donate $5 from a mobile phone.