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Adventure artist floats tiny Lewis & Clark boat made of cardboard down Missouri River

Just like Meriwether Lewis and William Clark who inspired him, Steve Snell was looking for a great adventure.

His idea, spurred by his love of America’s mythic history:

Build a Lewis & Clark-like keelboat, a tiny one, only 12-feet long. Jump in and float or paddle or sail it more than 100 miles down river from his former home in Nebraska City, Neb., to Kaw Point Park in Kansas City, Kan.

The catch?

Well, he’d build the boat out of cardboard.

Why not? As a self-described “adventure artist,” and currently an assistant professor at the Kansas City Art Institute, it’s exactly the kind of thing Snell, 34, likes to do — merging art and myth and adventure, not just for himself, but for viewers.

In January 2013, he and some Nebraska students pushed an itty-bitty replica of a Conestoga wagon 55 miles over the Oregon Trail. He’s floated another boat built of a couch down the Connecticut River.

“What I do is create these kind of experiences for myself and other people,” Snell said Saturday, standing alongside his creation at Kaw Point. “The art part is like crafting an image of that experience. That could be a video or painting. A boat could be a sculpture, but it’s also a boat.”

Of course, sculptures aren’t typically seaworthy or river worthy. Snell quickly altered the core of his Corps of Discovery when it became clear how dangerous such a long trip would be.

“I’m not the kind of adventure person who wants to risk his life,” Snell said.

Instead, on Saturday, the goal was to float the keelboat — sealed to be waterproof, made mostly of the cardboard boxes used to ship televisions — off the boat ramp barely a quarter mile from Kaw Point upstream along the Kansas River.

If it was stable and floated well, Snell might try to row it downstream to Berkley Riverfront Park in Kansas City.

But after only a few minutes in the water, the boat’s rudder snapped. The craft was stable, but not maneuverable. The wind was heavy. Some 75 or so on-lookers stood watching at Kaw Point Park. The idea of going to Berkley was quickly scrapped.

“Just a bad idea, a bad idea,” Snell said. “Pretty clear to everyone.”

Instead, his craft was towed a bit up river, and in about 10 minutes or so, floated on its own to Kaw Point to a happy crowd.

Snell was happy, too.

“I consider it a success,” he said.

After all, art, like any adventure, is about the experience.

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler

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