This week, Carolyn Lambert began her three-month pontoon adventure for what she calls "the perfect linear narrative" -- stories of the Ohio River and the people who depend on it.
The Carnegie Mellon University Studio for Creative Inquiry is partially sponsoring the trip of its fine arts graduate of 2005, a sculptor and performance artist. She will visit at least 60 towns and cities and interact with about 500 people between Pittsburgh and Cairo, Ill., where the Ohio meets the Mississippi.
Ms. Lambert, a native of New Hampshire, will record and film the stories of people who use the river, from barge owners to people who fish and swim in it. Stops include Ambridge; Marietta, Ohio; Ravenswood and Huntington, W.Va.; Cincinnati; Madison, Ind.; Louisville and Paducah, Ky.; and Cairo.
"There's a romantic version and a practical version," she said. "I'm mainly interested in the history of this river as a working river."
In preliminary interviews, she said, many stories resonate whether they are five or 500 miles from each other.
"For me, the documentary will be a tool to connect voices from Pittsburgh to Cairo," she said of her Ohio River LifeBoat Project.
She will have a skipper for all but two weeks of her journey, but, although never having done it, she isn't nervous about steering her own course. She has never made a documentary, either, she said, "but I'm coming to it with my own skills and tools. I know about video and sound and engaging people."
She found a pontoon with a trailer for $800 and began fixing it with help and advice from boat people. The partially homemade boat is as eco-friendly as possible, she said. It has a four-stroke engine for low emissions, a composting toilet, a salvaged helm wheel and protective tarps that used to be ad flags from a supermarket -- a watermelon starboard aft, a hot dog above the stern.
"The idea of living on the river came to me in August. It was so hot and humid, and the inaccessibility of the water became a sort of ... not an obsession, but a dream. I started making houseboat models in my studio" in Garfield, she said.
"So many people get drinking water from the Ohio. I imagined what it would be like to swim in the river, but people tell you it's not safe to swim in it. Some people might think that's a problem, and I did. It's our natural resource. I thought this boat could be a forum for talking about that."
On her fluid itinerary, she is still filling in the names of people and places: a campground, the Ohio River Museum, a barge company, a towing company, boat clubs, friends of friends. A potluck on Vienna Island, offshore from Vienna, W.Va., is already planned for sometime around or before mid-July.
Ms. Lambert will test her pontoon on river stops in the Pittsburgh area through the end of the month, from her home base at the Allegheny Marina in Lawrenceville. On July 1, she expects to be at McKees Rocks and, by the Fourth of July, in East Liverpool, Ohio.
To follow her progress, log onto www.ohioriverlifeboatproject.org.