The Quest of the Huck Finn

Livingston recreationists aim for New Orleans in the name of preservation
Liz George —
Tuesday, December 4, 2018
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Ryan Early, left, and David Zollinger, fishing the Yellowstone east of Livingston. (Photo courtesy of David Zollinger)

Two years ago, during a late fall float on the Yellowstone River, a crazy idea was born. David Zollinger and his crew, including Mark and Kim Manseau, Ryan Early, and Barbara Lopez, were enjoying the water on what looked like one of the last floats of the year. That’s when they saw it.

“We were going down river from Mayor’s Landing to the 89 Bridge. The water that year had come up from 2,000 to about 4,000. We had a very nice fall that year and got a lot of floats in. All of a sudden, right above the 89 Bridge, there was this homemade log raft beached up,” said David.

Excitement bubbled inside Zollinger and his friends. They knew they had stumbled upon something amazing. They just had to figure out how to free it from the rocky whitewater. One member of the crew, Ryan Early, didn’t hesitate.

“We pulled the boats over really quick, gave (Ryan) a canoe paddle, he got on the island and was able to get it out.”

The raft was made of five big, hand-sawed logs. On the top of it, when they found it, were smaller logs and a couple pieces of scrap wood. For the crew, the great mystery was where it came from and who made it.

“It weighs about 1,000 pounds, so we just tied it off right about the 89 Bridge and didn’t think about it again.”

A few weeks after finding the raft, far up river from where it was found, the crew was exploring an island when they stumbled upon an encampment. There were many similarities between the encampment and the raft. They found hand sawed trees and spikes similar to ones on the raft. There were other handmade things, as well, and a handsaw.

The encampment further sparked Zollinger’s curiosity in the ramshackle raft. “I absolutely know they’re connected,” he said.

Three months later in snowy November, crew members Mark and Kim were driving and spotted the raft again across the river. The raft had floated about 10 miles downstream from where Zollinger and his crew left it.

“We went out the next day in the snow and the cold. It was about 20 degrees out. We got some friends and we pulled it off and we floated it to Springdale,” Zollinger recalled.

Once again, they tied off the raft on the bank and left. As Spring rolled around, Zollinger couldn’t get the raft off his mind. He knew the river would start coming up soon and if they didn’t retrieve it, it would likely be taken by the raging high water of spring.

So, in the spring of 2017, Zollinger and his friends retrieved the raft from the river. Once home, they decided to modify it. The crew built oar sweeps and added extra-long oars.

In May of that same year, they took it out for a test float from Pine Creek to Livingston, before the water had come up to flood stage. After the test, it went back in the driveway and stayed there all year. Zollinger noted that the raft is so heavy that moving it was very difficult.

After months of staring at the raft sitting in his driveway, Zollinger was struck by an idea.

“I came up with this crazy idea… why don’t we make people aware of the fact that you can get from Livingston to New Orleans?” Zollinger thought.

His friends loved it. They further modified the raft, adding an American flag, a jar intended to hold notes and tokens from it’s travels, and a small bucket.

They named the raft “The Huck Finn” and dubbed the adventure, “The Quest of the Huck Finn.”

For Zollinger and his crew, there is more to the quest than simply getting a homemade raft from Livingston, Montana to New Orleans, Louisiana. Everyone involved in the quest are lifetime boaters, including 38 years experience alone for Zollinger.

For Zollinger and his crew, bringing attention to preservation became the driving force behind the idea.

“There’s a lot of pressure going on with the rivers these days. There are a lot of bad things happening with the development and we really have to be smart or we’re going to lose everything,” said Zollinger.

Their mission to spread awareness of preservation appears to be fate: The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, an act designed to protect rivers and streams in the United States, turns 50 this year.

According to the WSR Act, rivers or sections of rivers are classified as either wild, scenic, or recreational. The goal of the act was to preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.

Zollinger believes that the rivers are just as important to the individual as they are to the culture. He said they become part of those that live along the water every day, “Most people know their stretch of the river better than anything. I know the Upper Yellowstone here like the back of my hand,”

There are approximately 3.6 million miles of streams in the United States; 1.1 million are at least 5 miles in length. Only 12,754 miles are protected by the WSRA — only 0.35 percent of the rivers found here.

“The river has to be free flowing. It’s not something to be used strictly as a utility. Everyone involved in this is a recreationist and they like to have fun. That’s what’s in their heart. But they all know what they have and they all know what they can lose, too.”

According to, “As of August 2018, the National System protects 12,754 miles of 209 rivers in 40 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico; this is less than onequarter of one percent of the nation’s rivers. By comparison, more than 75,000 large dams across the country have modified at least 600,000 miles, or about 17%, of American rivers.”

The act prohibits federal support for actions such as construction of dams or other instream activities that would harm the river’s freeflowing condition, water quality, or outstanding resource values.

Zollinger hopes to continue bringing attention to this and other preservation efforts one river mile at a time.

“The raft is currently in a safe spot in Montana. We want to continue sending it to New Orleans. I think people should take it through their sections if they can.”

If you or someone you know is interested in being part of the expedition, check out “The Quest of the Huck Finn” on Facebook.