Augusta University
Photo courtesy of Wes Kisting
Photo courtesy of Wes Kisting

A River’s Gift, Lessons from a Wooden Boat

His latest project stands tall in his house – 6-foot-1-inch to be exact.

Blue. Red. Mighty.

Without a fully sketched plan, Dr. Wes Kisting is still not sure how the proportions of his creation came out as perfectly as they did.

Like the transformations he has seen and experienced in his life, this latest project began as an idea freely flowing in his mind. Navigating through a stormy process at times, Kisting gradually transformed leftover pieces from other projects and $200 worth of materials into the icon he grew up watching in the 1980s.

“He’s actually almost exactly my dimension,” said Kisting, who is 6 feet tall. “His hands are about (the size of mine). And he folds up into a pretty convincing-looking semi.”

“He” is Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots and the face of the Transformers franchise. The semi the robot turns into is a wagon that Kisting, a father of three girls, planned on using to pull his daughters around last Halloween.

Kisting and daughters with Optimus Prime. Photo by Phil Jones.
Kisting and daughters with Optimus Prime. Photo by Phil Jones.

But he never thought about building a Transformer in the first place.

Chance coupled with some planning led him to this happy ending – a pattern not too different from how he got where he is today.

From class clown in high school to associate professor of English and associate dean of Pamplin College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Augusta University, Kisting points to the unexpected source that transformed his life: the Mighty Mississippi.

Headwaters

Growing up on the banks of the Mississippi River, Kisting still remembers the moonlight cutting through the night and shining bright on the dark, rippling surface of the water.

A native of Dubuque, Iowa, he spent many evenings on a fishing boat when he was a kid. He would stare at the calm water and wonder what life was like underneath the boat.

A sonar that belonged to a family friend gave him the first glimpse into this unknown world. The tool measured the depths of the river in different spots.

Twenty feet deep in some places. Falling off the charts in others.

“So there’s like mountains under me,” 7-year-old Kisting would think.

Exploring this world could be scary at times – like when he inattentively swam into a deep area of the river.

“I couldn’t touch (the bottom) and came very close to drowning,” he said. “My mom had to come in and save me.”

Though experiences like this submerged his mind in fear, he wanted more of them. He wanted more of the river.

“I was drawn to it in part because I was so afraid of it,” Kisting said.

The idea to tame his fear and conquer the river would come in high school, where he was an indifferent student

“I didn’t care much for English class,” he said. “I wasn’t even trying to go to college.”

His English teacher, however, changed his mind by introducing him to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the story of the moral transformation of an uneducated boy sailing down the Mississippi River with a runaway slave named Jim.

“I connected with that story so powerfully because I had grown up on the Mississippi River,” Kisting said. “It was my first experience with literature where I realized literature could be both pleasurable and intellectually very deep.”

Mississippi River. Adventure. Freedom.

“I remember distinctly in high school saying, ‘I really want to build a boat and go down that river – especially at night sometime,’” he said.

Inspired by his newly-found love for literature and his fascination for Huckleberry Finn’s story, Kisting was ready to face the Mighty Mississippi.

“Glorified Creek”

North America’s second longest river starts as a “glorified creek” as it flows out of Lake Itasca.

No wider than 30 feet. No deeper than 3 feet.

As if unsure of where it’s going, the small stream zigzags for miles before straightening out its course and eventually reaching its final destination in the Gulf of Mexico, meandering just like the ideas that pop up in Kisting’s mind before he turns them into reality.

It was 2004 when 24-year-old Kisting went to that spot, where the Mighty Mississippi is born.

He wasn’t there just to visit.

He was there with a friend, finally beginning his Huckleberry-Finn adventure paddling down the Mississippi River on a cedar-strip kayak he built from scratch.

Initially, the two friends wanted to paddle the whole length of the river, from Minnesota to Louisiana.

But Kisting didn’t have time.

His interest for literature had taken him to grad school, and in only two weeks, he would have to go back to the University of Iowa.

So the two friends settled to end the trip in Dubuque, Kisting’s hometown, more than 600 miles down the river.

They paddled 12 to 14 hours a day for 12 consecutive days.

“We’d get up with the sun; we would lift those paddles all through the day and maybe stop for lunch,” Kisting said. “A level of energy I don’t know where I got.”

They spent all but one night in tents.

That day, Kisting got dehydrated and talked his friend into spending one night at a historic hotel in a small river town.

“We stayed at the most luxurious room ever because the woman on the front desk took pity on us and let us rent the room for, like, one third of its value,” he said.

In those river towns, he and his friend also experienced something new.

“When people see you paddle up to their shore in a wooden boat… Wooden boats are like magic,” he said. “They are fascinated by the idea that you can build a boat…. And they engage you in conversation.”

But the river didn’t just provide the duo with good experiences.

“The trip took a toll on our friendship,” Kisting said.

Paddling 40 to 50 miles per day, they traveled fast but not fast enough. At that pace, Kisting knew they wouldn’t reach his hometown in time for him to go back to school.

He wanted to paddle faster – to get farther – but his 34-year-old friend had reached his limit.

“I think it was a humbling experience for him,” Kisting said. “He kind of hit a breaking point at some point, and we parted ways. I literally left him on the river.”

After 12 days and 560 miles, Kisting had gone as far as he could. With classes starting the next day in Iowa City, he called his dad to pick him up at the Iowa border.

He had failed his first challenge but still wanted more of the river. Reaching his hometown by water, however, would have to wait another year.

Kisting's garage houses both his workshop and his boat. Photo by Phil Jones.
Kisting’s garage houses both his workshop and his boat. Photo by Phil Jones.

Meeting the Mighty Mississippi

Kisting’s first journey paddling down the Mississippi River may have ruined a friendship, but gave him the idea to move another one forward.

During a stretch of that first trip, a thought began to flow in his mind. What if he proposed to his girlfriend Anna?

As the river widened as far as a mile in some spots – forming what seems to be huge scenic lakes – and began to move more decisively through land, Kisting made up his mind

When he came back from his journey, he proposed to Anna.

She said yes.

His proposal, however, came with a second, less conventional proposal.

Still obsessed with conquering his challenge and wanting to share his river experience with Anna, Kisting asked his now fiancée to journey down the Mississippi River with him…as their honeymoon.

Anna was on board.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked her over and over again.

He did not want her to feel obligated to spend their honeymoon that way. After all, paddling down the river had already caused him to lose a friend.

For this second trip, however, Kisting had a different plan.

“I was never going to say for her honeymoon, she had to kayak down the river,” he said.

So he and Anna built a 14-foot sailboat that had a cabin, lights and running water. It barely fit in the garage of their apartment complex.

Like a wooden kayak in a river town, the Noah’s-Ark-looking boat drew people toward them.

“We met every neighbor in that area of the apartment building we were living in,” Kisting said. “Everybody was so fascinated to see us roll it out of our little storage garage.”

It was then that Anna, too, understood the magic of wooden boats.

“She kind of became enamored of it I think the same way I was,” Kisting said. “She had never experienced anything like that.”

Nine months later, the boat was ready for their honeymoon adventure down the Mississippi River.

They started close to the stretch of the river where Kisting had decided to propose to Anna. The goal was to reach his hometown, more than 200 miles away from the starting point.

During their journey, they slept on the boat and stopped along the way to experience the welcoming river towns.

“The mood of people who live on the river, especially the upper Mississippi – they are very kind and hospitable people,” Kisting said. “When you go into a restaurant in town, you might be their first new guest in weeks, and so they kind of roll out the red-carpet treatment.”

Just like Kisting had in his first trip, Anna connected with the experience. She connected with the Mighty Mississippi.

After six days, they arrived in Dubuque.

They had sailed 230 miles together. They were still married. They were still in love.

As for Kisting, he finally conquered his challenge. Just like Huckleberry Finn at the end of his river journey, Kisting had also changed.

“That early experience just sealed in me a love of building and the way that building can connect you with people,” he said. “It kind of moved through boats for a while, but then it just became other things.”

Creative Flow

A few weeks before last Halloween, Kisting stood in his garage, staring at the lower body of his unfinished project.

“How do I attach an upper torso that looks like the cab of a semi but then also can twist in all the ways that has to for the parts to come out?” he asked himself. “How big should his smokestack be so that they look like about the right proportion when he’s in robot mode?”

He had no idea what to do.

All he had was his creativity and images of Optimus Prime he found online.

The project wasn’t even supposed to be a Transformer.

Initially, Kisting wanted to build himself a costume of the Iron Giant, the main character of an animated movie from the 1990s.

At the request of his older daughter, he changed his plans and set out to build Optimus Prime instead. After weeks of thinking about how he could fit inside a robot costume that also turned into a semi, however, he recognized the outfit would be too heavy for him to wear.

Based on a suggestion from his wife, Kisting decided to create a Transformer whose semi-mode was a wagon that he could pull his daughters around on Halloween.

Never having built a wheeled cart before, Kisting took on the challenge of making the wheeled lower body of the robot first. He started with materials he found in his garage.

“I still don’t know if I did it right,” he said. “I just took a metal rod that was the right size to run through replacement tires for a lawn mower. That’s what I used for his wheels because they seemed to be about the right size.”

The process was arduous and frustrating.

“I’m a perfectionist, so I am very hard on myself,” Kisting said. “I would be lying if I didn’t admit that there are times I swear like a sailor because I am so mad that I have this vision in my head that I can’t quite achieve.”

But little by little – and also by chance – he began to achieve what he had in mind.

It took him three weeks and more than 80 hours of work.

Once again under the curious eyes of neighbors, who started lingering at the end of his driveway, his Optimus Prime finally took shape.

His daughters loved it.

The Transformer was a hit at the trunk or treat at his youngest daughter’s school. Every child wanted to ride on it.

“And frankly, every dad, too,” Kisting said. “What I love about this project in particular is that it brings out the kid in everybody – kids and adults alike.”

Although he’s still not sure how it came together so perfectly, he loves the feeling of overcoming a challenge and accomplishing a goal.

“When I work on a project like this, there’s always this moment when I’ve beat away at this every way I can. I’ve been mad. I’ve been frustrated. I’ve hit walls. I’ve failed myself,” he said. “But then I’ve come back, and I’ve wrangled it back into shape that I feel better about…. I get tremendous satisfaction and then I’m at peace with it.”

Kisting also created the castle-styled bedroom decor. Photo by Phil Jones.
Kisting also created the castle-styled bedroom decor. Photo by Phil Jones.

It’s that same satisfaction, Kisting says, that got him into teaching.

“The pleasure for me is exactly the same. It’s all building. It’s all creating,” he said. “Part of the payoff is not just the pride of developing a good course, but all the really great experiences that it begets for the students. When my creativity can put them in a challenging situation that spurs their creativity – that’s really cool. That’s very satisfying as a teacher.”

And Kisting knows the creative flow will soon lead him to his next project.

“Whatever it is, it will be something that kind of leads to another adventure,” he said. “I always eventually come back to boats, because they can just unlock experiences for you.”

Read more about Kisting’s secret life as a Transformer builder.

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