A Boathouse Summer

As the weather changes to frigid and life slows down a bit, I have a little more time to write again. While I was able to share our hiking, camping, and raspberry picking along the Superior Hiking Trail, we also had plenty of good weather (and bad weather) moments from our home base- the boathouse.

As a refresher- Michael, Hutch, and I live off grid in the boathouse we rebuilt over two years ago. We live on the Mississippi River on an island in Winona, MN among 100 other boathouses but only a handful or two year-rounders like us.

We have “tea” with our neighbors on Thursdays when the weather is right. Tea might include tea. It might include Tullamore Dew whisky. On special occasions, Tea will be an entire bloody mary bar. Whatever beverage Tea is serving, it always includes good company, interesting conversation, and a couple of neighborhood dogs (not ours) and one neighborhood toddler (ours).

Living off the grid means no bills but arguably more chores. In the winter, these chores are tedious. In the summer, they are fun. The boathouse chores include but are not limited to: refilling propane tanks, refilling drinking water, refilling our 55 gallon drums of water used for showering and sinks, and the occasional emptying of our compost toilet. In the summer, we are fully powered by solar energy. In the off seasons, we may need occasional help from a friend- the Honda generator.

In the summer, chores are done by jon boat. We get our water from the local marina which is a quick jaunt upstream. We can also transfer our propane tanks by boat to vehicle to gas station and back again with much less effort than the sled pull technique that winter provides.

The only downfall of summer chores is when the fruit flies make their way into our toilet and proliferate like… like flies I guess. That cleanup is a dreadful job, and one that Michael has taken on 100% of the time. For the record, I did take care of the maggot situation we once had in our cloth diaper bin. This was a lesson not to leave dirty cloth diapers outdoors, and to potty train immediately- which is going quite well.

Some summer highlights on the boathouse include the following: the sunsets, watching our neighbor Gerty cruise by via boat no less than 3-4 times per day- almost always with his dog Banksy in tow (Hutch loves the doggies, he loves Gerty too but Banksy more), watching the Steamboat Days fireworks on the deck, using the boat as our primary transport (to the grocery store across the river, to “daycare” aka Grandma and Grandpa’s cabin on the river, or just to the parking lot which is a solid five minute walk otherwise), jumping off the deck into the river (diving board coming next year, already purchased via Craiglist ad), and e-bike rides to town or to the adjacent wildlife refuge… so many e-bike rides, 2,200 miles to be exact.

This year also brought us some roommates for a couple months.

Our friends Sam and Patty took up residence in our houseboat Neighbor Girl, the little steel hulled houseboat we lived in for four years before moving in to our current river residence.

You may remember Neighbor Sam from being a neighbor of ours when we lived in this boat in Saint Paul, MN. Sam had an adorable tugboat that he acquired from Lake Michigan. He also lived on his boat for four years.

Together, our boats and our selves navigated four wildly different seasons in an elusive wooded marina smack dab in the middle of the cities.

Now, having Sam & Patty here allowed us to revive Neighbor Girl as she had slowly become a glorified tool shed over the last two years.

Their presence also brought a lot of fun, a welcomed sense of community with shared meals and game nights, and new memories together like co-parenting an abandoned duckling, mastering “patty boarding”- pulling a kite surfing board behind the boat (named after Patty as we accomplished this on her birthday), and assisting in the capture of a fugitive.

Okay, I will share the fugitive story… It started on a blissful sunny afternoon when Patty, Michael, Hutch, and I boated to the boat landing to pick up Sam so he did not have to walk that treacherous five minutes across the island. Sam was briefly chatting with a stranger drenched in river water when we arrived. The stranger was frantic upon our arrival and requested a ride “down river”. I asked multiple questions like “are you okay?”, “what’s the matter?”, and “where do you need to go?” The stranger eluded my questions and became increasingly demanding that we give him a ride.

Meanwhile, Michael spotted a police officer pulling up to the landing and asked the stranger if this had anything to do with the cop over there. Michael got the cop’s attention, and the cop hurriedly made his way to the landing. The stranger became frantic as Michael started to pull the boat away from the dock. The stranger jumped onto the front of our boat. He slipped around with his wet feet as Michael gunned it in reverse. The stranger fell in the water. We were caught between the police officer coaxing the stranger to “just make it easy on yourself and come on in” and the stranger saying “I’m trying but I can’t, the current!” while the current was indeed aiding him in the officer’s direction.

We hung around as either a rescue or a capture boat but luckily, neither was needed. The stranger swam in and was arrested as a fugitive with a history of sexual assault. When I told my coworker this story, she asked “What is up with you running into criminals this year?” She was referring to my vehicle being stolen on Superbowl Sunday and being found outside the scene of a homocide… Well, let us hope 2022 brings less crime and more patty-boarding.

While one of our 2021 summer goals was to hike the Superior Hiking Trail, our other family goal was to take a few days to navigate our jon boat downstream and simply take in the Mississippi River in all of it’s raw and unassuming glory.

This would include tent camping on whatever sandbar we landed at, cooling off with a swim, and the occasional mingling with small river towns when we stopped to refill gas or groceries.

One of our greatest inclusions was to bring our e-bike along. All three of us can ride, and it was an easy way to see a town from top to bottom and side to side.

I try to keep a sort of travel journal whenever I go somewhere new. This started when we took our trip around the world and continues with trips within our own region or state. I highly recommend this practice as even the most magnificently tangible details dilute with time. Instead of trying to recollect the details of this river trip, I’ll include tidbits of the unrevised journal entries below.

Day #1

Michael has outfitted the boat nicely with a new spotlight and navigation lights, made a console hatch that locks, made a cover for the engine compartment, added our cedar chest to the front for our items, got a new prop, and strapped on our e-bike as well as our two gas cans and a water jug. We’re taking our jon boat with a bimini and the pack and play for Hutch.

We get to Lock #7 where a barge is headed upstream. I call the lock and find out it is a 1.5 hour wait. We find a sandbar nearby and hang out. Hutch runs around. We eat and drink and get in the water a bit. We find a baby turtle that Hutch is very afraid of.

I find camp just downstream across from Brownsville on Ryan’s Point. Hutch is asleep by 8pm. Michael and I join him in the tent at 9:30. I read a bit, fall asleep quickly, and wake to high winds and light rain at midnight. The tent is shaking and I’m amazed Hutch doesn’t wake. Rain starts again around 5am and sticks around until 8:30am. We play in the tent until it clears. We debate going home already as the weather forecast shows scattered storms all day and into the night. We take a gamble and keep going.

Day #2

We are glad we gambled. It is a perfect day.

We strip Hutch naked and let him play in the sand and water for at least two hours. He loves to have a cup and scoop and dump water over and over again. After two hours, I ask Michael, “How long do you think he would do this for?” Michael says, “at least a year.”

The blue herons are very active here and louder than I’ve ever heard them. I usually see them alone but here it seemed like they were playing some sort of game- calling eachother and dodging around. I love to watch them. They are my favorite birds.

We do family river baths tonight, giving Hutch a rinse with our clean water. The forecast states a 90% chance of rain tonight so we prepare for that. We are all together in the tent by 9pm.

Day #3

We never got rain last night. It is the driest year yet this year and the first time I’ve heard the word “drought” used for the state of MN, so I celebrate rain whenever it chooses to come.

Hutch woke twice in the night but very briefly. One time just to say, “mama, yup. dada, yup,” then back to sleep.

We biked around Prairie Du Chien for a good while on the e-bike. The weather was perfect in the morning but we knew rain was on the horizon. When we hopped back in the boat, a barge was ahead of us. I cruised to get ahead and get to Lock #9 first. It was 5 miles away but we did it.

The rain was headed our way from the north so we made a plan to drive just south of Lansing, park under a bridge, and visit the Driftless Area Museum while the rain poured down. We parked perfectly so the boat was spared of the 1.5 hour torrential downpour, and we enjoyed the museum.

Day #4

We wake early, of course, because Hutch always wakes early- 6am. It is already a perfectly calm day. We got on the water quickly and cut through the glass-like river. We see pelicans, a cormorant, and two eagles chasing each other in flight- a full grown and a juvenile, the juvenile chasing the full grown out of a tree.

We reach Stoddard. At the landing, there are many pickup trucks, and also a horse tied to a tree with an Amish cart nearby. We take the e-bike to explore and restock our ice.

It’s a beautiful day, a beautiful ride home. I drive us toward the sunset and play some music. We hit the last two locks perfectly- no wait time and we’re home by 6pm. I could live on this river forever with these guys… I just might.

I write about much of this as way to hold memories. Anyone who knows me knows that my memory for things, people, and events does not hold up well. Perhaps, this is why I was given a joy in writing- it is my way to to memorialize moments.

I want to remember Hutch’s unadulterated joy in watching the ducks swim by. I want to feel the swift euphoria as I jump to the river from the edge of our spiral staircase. I want to dwell in the admiration of watching our 86 year old neighbor diligently care for his boathouse, for the ducks, and for the island for over 40 years of purposeful boathouse-dwelling ¬†existence.

I want to close my eyes and see the summer sunset as it casts it’s pinks and it’s oranges across the quietude of a still river, always interrupted by the noise of a landing duck or a family splashing at the beach across the water.

I know that our boathouse winters will hold and have held memories that would be equally painful to lose. I will transcribe those again too. In the meantime, I could not let this year pass without reflecting on the spontaneous, untroubled (except for the very sweaty, unair-conditioned days), and very colorful existence that a boathouse summer provides. Thanks for partaking in my untimely contemplation of a summer passed.

Oh, and happy holidays! May your cup of cocoa have perfectly melted little marshmallows, and may someone make you frosted cut-out cookies with multicolored icing so that you don’t have too. Cheers!