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'Rivers are magical places': Floating circus plans stop in Stockton

A "ramshackle raft," a group of circus performers, and a man with a dream will stop on the San Joaquin River for a free floating circus show in Stockton.

STOCKTON, Calif. — An unusual sight is getting ready to make a splash on the San Joaquin River near Stockton's Louis Park this Fourth of July weekend.

A wooden "ramshackle raft" called the "Flotsam" will float down the river giving a unique circus show on the water.

While it might sound odd, for the show's creator Jason Webley, the uniqueness of the Flotsam is what brings people together.

"I like promoting events and putting on shows and trying to make magical things happen," Webley said. "It's pretty cool to see it working again."

Webley, who lives on a houseboat on Washington's Snohomish River, started the Flotsam in 2019 by gathering a group of "musicians, puppeteers and circus performers" and assembling a modular raft that can be constructed and broken back down.

"Traveling on this raft from place to place by river -- I think there's something magical about it that really resonates with people and it's interesting," Webley said "The first tour was in 2019 on the Willamette River in Oregon. And then in 2020, we were going to do the Ohio River -- a big tour -- but COVID messed up everything."

While the turbulent waters of the COVID pandemic sunk Webley's idea of a big tour in 2020 and 2021, the river kept him inspired.

"I think that rivers are magical places, that they're the arteries of the earth and that the initial settlements all around the world and around this country, all followed the rivers," Webley said. "The rivers don't inform how we see things geographically so much anymore, but I think there's still this energy and charge there."

Channeling that energy and charge, Webley decided on moving forward with a plan to bring his floating circus on its first northern California tour after the pandemic.

The tour started with shows on the water in Old Sacramento on June 25 and 26. The Flotsam then made its way to Walnut Grove, Rio Vista and Bethel Island, where shows were held throughout the week.

The largest advertisement Webley made was a Facebook post, relying on word of mouth to spread the message about the free circus show.

"The word just kind of spreads and tumbles and grows," Webley said. "Our show last night in Walnut Grove, like, there were hundreds of people there somehow in this tiny little town on a Tuesday night."

Webley, his circus crew, and the Flotsam will stop on the San Joaquin River at Louis Park Saturday and Sunday for a 7 p.m. show before heading to Richmond, Oakland, and ultimately San Francisco.

"There's just something about watching these people filter down, coming close to the river to come see the thing that just really lifts my spirits," Webley said.

While the shows are free, the river circus relies on donations, which they accept on their website.

At the end of the day, Webley hopes his efforts will bring people to the rivers for an experience that can inspire.

"I can just imagine me as a 10-year-old, getting taken to the river and seeing this crazy boat," Webley said. "Knowing that it had come by the river, and I was watching this show, and then it was going to go away on the river, I think it would have turned a little key in my brain and kind of changed my ideas of what's possible in life."

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