Jim Seida  /  MSNBC.com
Ike Hastings is a renaissance river man who has built more than 40 boats by hand as well as an experimental amphibious biplane.

The 79-year-old Ike Hastings is a true Mississippi River renaissance man – an accomplished boat builder who has hand-built more than 40 watercraft; a river pilot, builder of an experimental amphibious biplane, a master mechanic, a jeweler and probably just about anything else he puts his mind to.

The retired art teacher has crafted all types of boats since building his first rowboat with his father’s help at the age of 7, ranging from simple skiffs to his crowning achievement, the Audubon Ark (formerly the Lilly Belle).

The diesel-powered stern paddle-wheeler, which Hastings built in 1958, is currently a roving public-education facility for the Audubon Society’s Upper Mississippi River Campaign.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Hastings is currently working on a 98-foot stern paddle-wheeler built on a customized single-piece aluminum barge, which he expects to complete by next year.

To satisfy his yearning to wander, Hastings also built a Seahawk amphibious plane out of Kevlar and fiberglass, which he would land on the river and then pluck onto the deck of the Lilly Belle with a boom.

A World War II veteran who fought in the Pacific campaign at the side of his older brother, Hastings went to the University of Wisconsin intending to study mechanical engineering, but switched to art and then teaching because it allowed him to spend summers on the Mississippi.

The true vagabond among the river characters we met on our trip down the river, Hastings doesn’t like to drop anchor in one place for two long. “I’ve always liked it on the river,” he told us. “It’s about the last place where you don’t have someone running the radar clock on you or telling you … what you can do. If you don’t like your neighbors you can always cut the line and drift on down a ways.”


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