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Almost the golden age of steam boating

  • Blog Post by: Kerri Westenberg
  • September 24, 2012 - 8:27 AM

Good morning, Iowa! I awoke this morning in Dubuque, where I’ll see some Grant Wood art and visit the historic Mathias Ham House, which the American Queen brochure says evokes the glory days of the steamboat travel.

I’d say these are the glory days, except that wi-fi is spotty. I wrote what follows yesterday, as we were departin La Crosse, Wisconsin. I’ll post it now instead, with apologies for not getting it out on the internet yesterday.

If I have a connection, I’l write again this afternoon....

I awoke this morning to a shock: As I poured myself a cup of coffee in the Front Porch of America, aboard the American Queen, I witnessed Mark Twain use a smart phone.

The person I saw--with his curly grey hair and mustache, wire-rim glasses and suspenders--will be tomorrow’s performer during “Showtime in the Grand Saloon,” and I trust he’ll keep the cell phone turned off for the event. That nightly show is one of many ways you can pass time on the boat, beyond eyeing the shoreline for wildlife.

Days on board have a routine, of sorts. In the morning, awake in a new port. There, you can either hop aboard a free bus that brings you to interesting sights in town, take one of the “premium” tours for which you pay (an $89 trip to Norskedalen Heritage Center from La Crosse was on offer today), or strike out on your own. I spent the time in La Crosse on an hour and a half boat tour through the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge with Mississippi Explorer Cruises. Venturing into the shallow backwaters of the Mississippi, we saw a beaver dam, got up close to an eagle’s nest with it’s winged architect perched nearby, and had a surprise visit from a kingfisher.

Once back on board, there’s lunch. And then a collection of activities of your choice. Bingo is on tap for tomorrow afternoon. There’s a spa where you can be pampered with the likes of massage, facials, manicures and pedicures. The “riverlorian” gives a chat every day about the river system and the history of steamboats. There are games, movies and non-stop cookies in the grand communal space known as The Front Porch of America at the front of the boat. Anytime of day or night, you can descend the stairs from the Engine Room Bar into the bowels of the boat to learn how steam is created using Mississippi riverwater and harnassed to turn the paddlewheel.

Mostly, though, I like to take my laps around deck four (seven times around makes a mile), watch the passing scenery and enjoy a leisuely dinner. Tomorrow, though, I’m definitely going to his Showime in the Grand Saloon to see the Mark Twain impersonator. I’ve spied him around. He’s always wearing Twain-esque stuff such as suspenders and longjohn shirts. And I promise not to scold him for using a cell phone aboard the American Queen. After all, I’ve been told that the real Twain embraced technology. His was among the first homes in America to have a telephone--the old fashioned kind.

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