Time begins to ease backward as you stroll toward the quaint walkbridge from the north side of the Bad River to the south bank. Echoing from behind you are the voices of a Fort Pierre farmers’ market; friendly banter reminiscent of a slower enjoy-the-day life. Horses drawing a covered wagon, with the cover down, clip-clop far behind you. Laughter from kids and adults at the market and on the wagon ride carries on the wind, and you catch yourself smiling.
While crossing the high walkbridge, you try to take in the brown-blue of the Bad River below, the green of the city park on the other side, the creak of distant playground equipment, the slight moisture-filled breeze, the blue white-capped current of the Missouri River in the distance, but your attention is drawn to the dominant object moored on the other side.
You are here for a ride on the paddlewheeler The Sunset.
Men in black slacks, white shirts, and captain’s caps welcome you at the gangplank. “Come on board” is not a command, but a grand invitation.
All three decks of the ship have been filling with people, in a ‘join us” atmosphere. The crowd — all kinds of people, including a large birthday party group --is actually fairly light, because the ship can comfortably carry over 100 passengers plus its four-member crew.
What on the Ohio River in 1964 was christened “The Spirit of Cincinnati,” is now rechristened “The Sunset,” the last true paddlewheeler on the Missouri.
Since May 2017, Fort Pierre is its home port. The railroad bridge between Fort Pierre and Pierre is its up-river destination, followed by the down-river edge of LaFramboise Island, before returning to port. The trip takes a couple of hours, maybe a little more.
For a large part of the time, Captain Caleb Gilkerson is using the intercom system to relay the history of the boat, the car bridge, the railroad bridge, and other points of interest. His tales, and corny jokes, go back to the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Kids, and some adults, have their pictures taken while wearing Gilkerson’s cap and ‘driving’ the boat. “It turns hard, so the kids just get to move the ‘play’ out of the wheel,” confides Gilkerson. The kids are driving the 22-feet-tall and over 120,000 pound ship at an against-the-current speed of 3 miles per hour (mph), or at a with-the-current speed of 8 miles an hour. “Anything over three is ‘hauling’ according to my crew,” said Gilkerson.
His crew includes Juan Caicedoarza, Taylor Cowan, Lisa Young, and Morrie Gilkerson.
About 95 percent of the excursions are private charter trips for parties, business gatherings, family reunions, class reunions, and many wedding parties. As captain, Gilkerson has actually performed three weddings while on the water.
Since it has begun trips from Fort Pierre, The Susnet has carried over 10,000 customers. Last season, River Boats LLC hosted over 280 trips. The boat, with two main heaters running, has experienced weather conditions good enough to churn its way up and down Big Muddy for Christmas and New Year’s parties.
In a casual, but clear way, safety is first. More than enough life jackets are within easy reach. An enclosed rail system keeps kids safe, so passengers do not have to wear the jackets unless needed.
“The boat hasn’t sunk for, what?, over a year now,” jokes the captain in his before-sail introduction. He announced several times, especially for echo effect while under the car bridge, “I’m going to blow the horn a couple of times, so you might want to cover your eyes.”
The boat is not just for charter customers and some tours.
Gilkerson has hosted Boys & Girls Club trips, camping trips on the shores of the Missouri, and fundraisers for local causes.
The paddlewheeler fits into the community of Fort Pierre, into the Pierre region, into the past and present Missouri River lifestyle.