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Up a lazy river

Charlie: All this fool talk... goin' down the river.

Rose: What do you mean?

Charlie: I mean we ain't goin' to do nothin' of the sort.

Rose: Why, of course we're going! What an absurd idea!

-"The African Queen" (1951)

Steamboaters seem to quote "The African Queen" a lot, probably because, to many of them, the Hollywood movie's star attraction isn't really Humphrey Bogart or Katherine Hepburn-it's the film's river steamboat, The African Queen. For steamboat hobbyists, the classic film captures the adventure and romance of river steamboating.

New England and Middle Atlantic States members of the NASBA or North American Steam Boat Association hauled their "retro" steam launches over hill and dale to Vermont's Otter Creek. Sixteen elegant steamboats-modeled after their Victorian and Edwardian-era predecessors-along with 30 individuals, steamed up and down the Otter Creek between Lake Champlain and the Vergennes Basin, as part of a second annual gathering at River's Edge Cottages and Campground last week.

"As you can see, we love steamboats," said Russ Steeves of Chlemsford, Mass., skipper of the fetching S.L. Redbud. Steeves is a retired aerospace engineer who loves to tinker with mechanical things. "Well, technically our boats are called steam launches or S.L. for short."

Steeves was proud to give this reporter a cruise up and down a portion of the Otter Creek to demonstrate the retro, dare I say steampunkish, ways of a 21st-century reincarnated steam launch.

Complete with a brass-trimmed wood-fed boiler, locomotive-like steamboat whistle, a mini blackpowder cannon for signalling the social hour, mahogany-teakwood deck and gunwale, as well as upholstered Victorian bench seats, the S.L. Redbud would be the ideal vehicle for a neo Bogart and Hepburn to explore the mist-shrouded Otter.

"Our members' steam launches are really new boats made to look old-many use fiberglass and wood-but some have a few antique fittings here and there," Steeves said. "Overall, our boats are evocative of a vanished era when river and lake travel was slow, measured-without the loud noise of modern boat engines."

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