They say anyone can drive a houseboat on the mighty Mississippi, and they’re mostly right.
But when you gather a handful of the people dearest to your heart and rent a houseboat for a weekend in thick, leafy Midwestern bluff country, a certain uneasiness comes with all that floating domesticity: so much to remember, so much to do, so very much house on that boat. Anyone can do this? It’s everyone’s first question for a reason.
But the answer is yes, once you accept that operating a 55-foot houseboat on the Mississippi is simply like maintaining an apartment, combined with operating a large vehicle, combined with avoiding 3-million-pound barges.
See? No sweat.
Of the few companies offering houseboat rentals on the Upper Mississippi, we opted for Fun ’N the Sun, just south of Alma, Wis., and arrived there on a Friday night. We loaded three nights’ worth of stuff — suitcases and coolers, mostly — onto our floating home, nodding happily at its comforts: electricity, running water, a microwave, a refrigerator, a gas grill on the bow and enough beds to sleep eight. We spent that first night tied to the dock, gladly watching a summer lightning show as dusk fell.
The next morning, a dreadlocked, tattooed 32-year-old named Matt showed up. He is a local guy who is, by his own account, something of a legend in the bluff country houseboating community. We flipped through the binder of instructions, flipped through another binder full of maps, and Matt turned the key. Our living space began gliding across the glassy Mississippi, and in those first moments, there was a shred of surreal joy: Our hotel room would go wherever we chose to take it.
Matt spent 90 minutes with us, discussing every conceivable detail: starting, stopping, avoiding barges, avoiding submerged rocks, passing through locks and dams, operating the CB radio and the all-important how to beach the boat at night so we wouldn’t be swept into the river as we slept.
Plenty of people don’t want to remember those things. They just want to be on a houseboat, beached, with coolers full of beer. Fun ’N the Sun will do that, steering those people to one of the popular Mississippi River party beaches (accessible only by boat), then come back a few days later to return them to shore.
“Bachelor parties are good for that,” Matt said.
Others, it turns out, just can’t handle driving the boat. Last summer Matt had to take the keys away from a lawyer who couldn’t get his head around how to steer the behemoth.
“He was just so scared of the unknown,” Matt said.
In a sense, that turned out to be the key to houseboating: Don’t be paralyzed by the unknown. It’s a big world out there, and the Mississippi is almost as big. Don’t be scared. The boat goes forward and the boat goes backward, and it is your home: your bedroom, your living room, your kitchen and, best of all, your pool.
Confident that I knew what I was doing — probably more than I was — Matt called a boat to pick him up. Just like that he was gone, leaving us four as the proud, underqualified renters of a houseboat. We had nowhere to be and nowhere in mind that we wanted to be. We were already there. So we shrugged and I steered the boat north, careful to stay between the red and green buoys lining the channel. Leave the channel and the houseboat could meet a few rocks.
We puttered along at about 5 miles per hour, settling quickly into the simple joy of houseboating on the Mississippi; it’s difficult to miss when every window and sliding door is open and a clean summer breeze blasts through.
I decided that I wanted to see Lake Pepin, which involved passing through a lock at a dam — one of the more technical maneuvers we would have to execute all weekend — near the picturesque town of Alma. I reached overhead for the radio and probably should have said something like, “Lock Four, this is pleasure craft. Do you copy? Over.”
Instead, I said, “Uh — Lock Four? Hello?”
“Lock Four, over,” came the reply.
“This is a pleasure craft wanting to pass through. Is that, uh, possible?”
“Over!” I said.
That would be no problem, she said. We slowed to a crawl alongside Alma and waited for the lumbering gates to open. We pulled alongside a wall, where the lock operator tossed down a couple of ropes so we could steady the boat as water poured into the lock. Ten minutes later, the other side opened and we puttered out.
Up the Mississippi we went. I gave my father a couple of turns at the wheel, and comfortable now, we listened to music, some easy, breezy stuff fit for the river. We cut through the bluffs, craggy and green and rolling.
Taking a dip in Pepin
Lake Pepin was so wide and empty that I could cut the engine and ignore the wheel. I threw on my bathing suit and launched myself into the brown Mississippi. It was warm, then cold, then warm, then cold. I swam around the boat, getting pushed where the current wanted me. After a couple of trips down the water slide, we fired up the engine again to head back south.
When the sun started to dip, we found ourselves a slice of beach on the Minnesota side of the river and set the weighty metal anchors into the sand just as Matt had shown us. We threw steaks and veggies on the grill and cracked beers.
On our second day we headed south, back through Lock Four, and this time, I called out my intentions like a pro. I was even called captain over the radio. I had arrived.
While my passengers were happy to sun themselves, read and watch the sights, I was happiest driving the boat. Music playing, a soft drink at my side, it was a slow, rhythmic joy, the green bluffs slowly dragging by.