Moving Port

It is 6:45am on Saturday, August 24, 2019: Day #2 of driving Neighbor Girl down the river to her new port of Latsch Island, Winona, MN. We beached our sturdy steel houseboat on a sandbar last night near Mile Marker 810. One lock and dam down, four to go.

The river treated us kindly yesterday. Perhaps she feared that I would flood her with my tears. We left our home yesterday. More specifically, we drove our houseboat out of her home port. We left Watergate Marina in Saint Paul, Minnesota- our home base for the last four years.

We bought our houseboat there five years ago, left the country to travel to 13 others assured that in six months, we would have this 142 square feet of living space to exist on for the summer. One summer of living aboard turned into a fall, a winter, a spring, and three more years just like that. Michael and I joyfully resided on this tiny floating home together tucked away in a quiet park marina along the floodplains of Saint Paul where even the locals don’t know we exist. (Trust me, getting an Uber pickup had about a 45% success rate.) We continued to exist there purposefully and peacefully with eight other boats year-round and countless more during the seasonable and vibrant summers.

During these last four years of life, I worked at Hennepin County Medical Center at a job that I loved for challenging every part of me and showing me the hardest and most beautiful parts of humanity. Michael and I spent weekends building our cabin up north. We got married. We made a baby. We made a whole family in this marina and some very best friends; I’m looking at you tugboat and sailors. So, as we leave port with Ken and Roger tossing our lines, it’s no wonder that the Mighty Mississippi fears I may flood her waters with these unsupressable tears that well up from the pit of my gut and burn my heart on their way up to my pathetic sniffling face.

Watergate Marina is beautiful on this day- a sky as blue as I’ve ever known it and a sun that casts down an easy 70 degrees.

Video: Leaving Port

As we slowly leave the marina, I hand the wheel to Michael and spend a minute on the stern (slightly embarrassed by the puddle I’ve become) as our home harbor disappears from sight. Michael joins me, and I tell him, “I’m not sad, I’m just so so grateful.” He hugs me and says, “me too.” We agree that there is nothing more we could have wanted out of these last four years. For us, they were perfect. When I finally clear my eyes to look up at Michael, he has two big tears living on his cheeks- a rare sight on his typically cheerful and mischievious face.

Now, on this Saturday morning, we revel in our first day of river boat journey success and last night’s very primal joy of sitting along the river’s shores with our feet in the sand and a warm campfire glow across our faces. Today, we are fresh-faced and confident going in to the biggest test that trusty Neighbor Girl has had to face in her last four years with us and likely in her 49 years of existence: the Lake Pepin crossing.

Lake Pepin is where the Mississippi River becomes it’s widest and deepest for a stretch of 22 miles. Lake Pepin widens to a distance of two miles and has an average depth of 21 feet and a maximum depth of 60 feet.

For those of you who have not done much river travel, I will enlighten you on the treachery of wing dams. The Mississippi River is lined with them. Wing dams are human constructs that were built during the 1930s and ’40s with the purpose of crafting a deeper and more reliable navigation channel. These wing dams were built prior to the present day lock and dam system as a means to control the flow of the river. Wing dams extend partway across a river channel and often go undetected depending on the depth of the water at that time. If the water is low enough, you will see a line across the water that delineates a smooth water surface upstream and a choppy water texture downstream of that wing dam. It takes a practiced eye to identify these.

Now, on to the treacherous part. Wing dams are unmarked. Boats and boat engines are frequently wrecked by these shallow lurking structures. The good news? Wing dams do not exist within the main channel which is marked by red and green steel buoys. “Red, Right, Return” means that the red marker will be on your right as you return north. Since we are traveling downstream, the green is on our right and the red is on our left, or so we expected…

At the head of Lake Pepin where the water widens considerably, the reassuring red and green channel markers suddenly become non-existent. Things had been going very well so far. With a high level of confidence, I thought, “no big deal, the whole width of the river must be open for business.” We didn’t bother to check the river charts that Michael had downloaded on his phone. Within 15 minutes of cruising cockily along the Minnesota shore, I blazed our little houseboat right into a submerged sandbar. The engines grumbled as they tried to process the run-in with sand and thick weeds. My relaxed mood shifted to “shit, shit, shit.” This was not the spot to lose an engine.. or two. Thank God we have two. I inched out of this disaster and let the engines relax. They sounded gruff for ten minutes before regaining their deep calming purr. We lucked out. Michael checked his river charts and sure enough, the elusive submerged bar was marked on there. “What the f***. If that’s been known long enough to include on a chart, why isn’t there a frickin’ marker by it?!” I exclaimed this in defense of my sweet old boat and dented captain’s pride. Michael laughed, and we chugged on.

We had 22 miles of Lake Pepin ahead of us; three hours of white crested waves beating our steel hull from all sides. We were fortunate that the day’s wind came from ahead as Neighbor Girl does not fair well in a side wind. A side wind of today’s speeds would have forced us to sit this day out, but with a head wind, we pressed on. We quickly learned that both of our bilge pumps were in working order… whew. Water was leaking in from somewhere, or everywhere as the decks were fully rinsed with each wave. Thankfully, our pumps had no trouble keeping up and expelling this intake. Neighbor Girl was doing great.

What I did not expect from our Lake Pepin crossing, besides that disruptive submerged sandbar at the start, was that the main channel crosses through the middle rather than along the shoreline; this caused us to be nearly a mile from shore for most of the venture. With the wild wind splashing from ahead, mysterious dark waters for a mile on all sides, and migrating birds overhead, we felt like true river nomads now! We cranked the music, danced at the helm, and celebrated feeling free and dry in our little moving home.

Later that night, following a celebratory dinner at Slippery’s Bar in Wabasha, we ran our boat aground once again in an attempt to beach up for the night. Neighbor Girl made it out of grounding incident #2 unscathed, and we found another, more perfect spot to make dinner and watch the sun set behind the distant bluffs.

Video: Beach Camping

As night fell, a beaver played near our boat. We did our best to keep quiet and observe his antics, but he caught a glimpse of us, slapped his tail, and dove smoothly away.

It is now Day #3 of this river boat adventure. We wake just south of Alma, WI to find that we have no maple syrup for the pancakes I have been dreaming of all night. These are the things that matter at sea- a good warm meal in the morning and a cold hard drink at night.

Since my little growing fetus disallows me from the cold hard night drink, I am living for these warm morning meals. My husband must love me or something, because we backtrack a mile to Alma’s city dock with the mission of maple syrup acquisition and a propane tank refill. We get distracted by good conversation and fresh pretzels at The Alma Bakery where we are introduced to a 50% off closing sale at The Junk Market down the street. Two hours later, we reboard our boat with propane, fresh pretzels, four wooden folding chairs, a canvas painting of a ship, some sort of antique cutting tool, and with the baker himself for more conversations on scheming and dreaming. The baker didn’t end up departing with us. I suppose he had more pretzels to make after we cleaned him out. The syrup never made it on board either. We are far too distractable to ever become pirates, at least productive ones.

We left Alma at 11:15am, made it through Lock and Dam 5 at 1:12pm, and through the final lock, Lock and Dam 5a, at 2:35pm. We were greeted on the other side of the lock by two boats- one with my parents and the other with the Brandon family. It was a lovely welcoming. We made a small parade to my parent’s cabin where my sister and more family boarded for the final stretch to Latsch Island.

We arrived at The Wheel House, our future floating home under construction, at 4:45pm. We docked with a bang… literally. Michael drove flawlessly up until this climatic point when he made a small but very audible dent in the side of our new boathouse. The excitement got the best of him. I’m taken back to over four years ago when we took Neighbor Girl out for her first trip. With a fresh coat of paint, newly placed engines, and not a bit of knowledge on how to drive this big box of steel with twin engines and no keel, we enthusiastically headed for open water. As brave as ever, we felt like two free birds exploring a world of new possibilities; it was a very familiar feeling that resided in us throughout these last three days. Eventually, on this day four years ago, Neighbor Girl’s maiden voyage came to an end; it was time to dock her back in the slip. Michael took the wheel, used both the wheel and the two throttles to steer (We later learned that this was the beginner’s mistake. You must only use the throttles and no wheel if you hope to park without incident.), and not-so-gently rammed in to the bowsprit of our neighbor’s much nicer boat. Luckily, only ours came out with a scar- a four foot gash through the cabin’s port side. Neighbor Girl’s beauty scar still remains today.

The Wheel House now has an upstream scar to match. These two little river homes now live side by side, each with an imperfection to remind us of the joy in our wildest ideas and new beginnings. May we never be ashamed of these scars or scared to make new ones; they each tell a great story. May we continue to live our lives being too novice, unintimidated, a little stupid maybe, and much too eager in all the new and unusual waters that come our way. May we sometimes forget the syrup and come home with pretzels and a new friend instead.

Video: Celebratory Champagne

Sixteen Weeks

“You’d think the plants would just adapt to give up,” Michael answers nonchalantly. It is our third wedding anniversary and nearly eight years of loving each other.

We’re celebrating with a hike up Brady Bluff in Trempeleau, WI. On our way down, we come across a patch of poison ivy taller than my legs. We reminisce on a few years ago when we were canoeing down the river and pulled over for the night to pitch our tent. It was early October and the fall colors were in their prime. We woke up itching like crazy and realized that we had pitched our tent in a field of red bushes- a poison ivy patch. We hadn’t recognized the plant in it’s bright red color, a drastic change from the waxy green color it possessed just weeks before. We had rashes up and down our legs for weeks.

Nature adapts gracefully, even amidst this world of rapid change. We Minnesotans all know the story. Our world is white and frozen for what feels like forever. Somehow, summer happens just months afterward with the return of our wild animals, prairies and forests proliferating with captivating colors and green growth, and the morning sound of a dozen birds trying to out-sing one another. We are just settling in to this paradise when we blink again and find ourselves with a shovel in hand trying to figure out the best way to dislodge our snow sunken vehicle; there are no bird sounds in this scene and no captivating colors except that the neighbor’s dog painted the fresh snow a light yellow. Nature adapts as appropriately as able. Humans adapt slowly; we’re more stubborn. All along, life keeps moving.

As we hike down this bluff, we stop to gawk at the overwhelming green that surrounds us now. “How do all these plants come back like this, so large and alive, after winters like ours that just kill them off?” I rhetorically wonder aloud. “Yeah, you’d think the plants would just adapt to give up,” Michael answers nonchalantly.

I touch my increasingly round belly. I am 16 weeks pregnant. An influx of thoughts flood my mind. “Thank God these plants have not given up. My baby will get to see these colors, these views; he’ll smell the fresh flowers and feel the living earth… Will he though? Will my child get to know this world like I have? Humans sure have treated Mother Earth like trash. It’s certainly not headed in the right direction. Have we come to the point of no return.. probably. There’s so much consumption and greed; thanks Trump. And what about overpopulation and depletion of resources? Why do we keep having babies anyway? We all die too. Why don’t we adapt to give up? The rest of nature would be better for it.” I sift through all of these thoughts in about two seconds. I take a breath, turn to Michael and audibly say, “That’s how I feel.”

I soon realize that these four spoken words made minimal if any sense and so I explain myself a little further. “I mean that we have no idea what the world will look like or if it will be here, but we’re still having a baby.”

So, if you have wondered what the heck we’ve been up to since my most recent blog three months ago, there it is. We made a baby which required a lot of hard work and long nights. Post baby making, I spent a month or two of my life trapped in what felt like the worst hangover ever: sleeping days away, puking off the side of our boat, and wondering why women all over the world don’t have more of a public outcry about the treachery of trimester one.

did still go to work and survive smelling all the enhanced smells that come from every human fluid and every human orifice (I am a nurse by the way. I think that is important knowledge here.). I also completed a job interview without puking on my prospective boss and subsequently received the job offer. Yay for us (me and my emesis-free boss). I am now out of that nausea-filled first trimester so you can bet I am no longer sending vomit down the fastest path to New Orleans. I’m sure my boat neighbors are also pleased. Michael and I are continuing to work on “The Wheel House”, our future floating home in Winona. I guess you could say that the pressure is on now that we have to put a roof over the head of a newborn with an ETA of sometime in the dead of winter. If he’s anything like me, he’ll be fashionably late and disorganized. If he’s anything like Michael, he’ll join us wide-eyed and too busy too sleep. Either way, we’re in for it.

Whether it’s Mother Nature who has been sorely mistreated by humankind or humans who have been hurt by circumstance or each other, we do not adapt to give up. We adapt to live as beautifully and hopefully as we can muster.

To the pregnant woman puking off the side of the boat or the silly couple who slept in a patch of poison ivy, there are brighter days ahead. To the father of my baby and my best friend, thank you for being the best part of my days and for feeding me Gatorade and crackers when I wouldn’t get out of bed.

To Baby Boy, you are my hope in a future that I don’t want to give up on. I’m sorry I only fed you simple carbohydrates and applesauce for the first ten weeks of your fetal life but I’m making up for it now; that was a spinach and berry smoothie we ate this morning.. with extra flax seed.

Baby Boy, live simply but boldly. Listen to the world around you; the waters and the trees have a lot to teach you. There are moments to adapt and moments to stand your ground. The trees are especially good at that one. You might not always recognize when the world needs each; just do your best.

Oh, and get to know what poison ivy looks like in all seasons. Trust me on this one; it will save you about three weeks of misery.

 

 

When You Have To Boat To Your Boat

“Whatchya writing about?”, says my husband as he shaves his face over the sink while sitting next to me on our bed. There are no distinguished spaces here. It is one room containing all the aspects of a home… except for no laundry machine or any sort of closet. I tell him, “the flooding”. He says, “whoa, that’s a biggins.” “I know; where do I start?”, I say, “at ten feet, twelve feet, eighteen feet?” Michael says, “Start at the bottom of the river.”

I still didn’t know where to start so here we are. I began by giving you the visual of Michael inches away from me at 1:12 am while I sit cozy in bed tip-tapping away on the keyboard. We have three candles lit because our power is out. It’s been out for 22 days now. We’re borrowing Neighbor Mike’s generator because ours fell in the river last night at 4am. I know it was 4am because I wake every time the generator turns off. I’ve turned in to one of those people that has to sleep to the sound of a fan, except in my case: a generator. The whole dock hums of them at night. I met a neighbor for dinner on the dock yesterday and we yelled across the table to hear each other over the loud drone- it was lovely. Anyway, here we are. We’re off grid. Our generator is in pieces to “dry out” on our boat’s floor. There is six inches of snow on our dock. We have to kayak to and from our boat to traverse the flood waters. And Michael shaves his face at 1am while I try to process these last few weeks of Minnesota madness.

Spring isn’t always like this. We usually don’t get flooded out of our parking lot. Our power has never been turned off. We’ve never received an email from the city to evacuate our floating homes due to major flood levels… how strange that none of us checked our email that month.

One month ago, the marina started buzzing with the information that this would be a year of historic flood levels. Would it be something like 2014- a river crest of 20.13 feet? Many neighbors were familiar with this year and smiled as they shared stories from it. It was one year before Michael and I made the marina our home. Could it be something akin to 1965, the highest waters here in recorded history? The river crested at 26.01 feet then.

I’ll quickly brief you on the river levels. The river depth here in Saint Paul, MN is about 9 feet deep. There’s a ton of history on how the 9 foot navigable channel was established. The Upper Mississippi River was not always navigable, not even close, but humans have knack for manipulating nature to suit our wants. I read a book recently that brilliantly goes through the history of our local river: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I highly recommend it: “The River We Have Wrought” by John O. Anfinson. Anyway, back to river levels. The action stage is 10 feet, the flood stage is 14 feet, the moderate flood stage is 15 feet, and the major flood stage is 17 feet.

In the week leading up to the river’s rise, the harbor’s waters remained frozen, and the summer’s boats lined the parking lot just waiting for the spring thaw and eventual release to their dock slips. This year, this transition from dry dock to water would not happen naturally or smoothly. It would require a 65 foot barge pushed by a tug to break up the frozen ice. It would require volunteers to chip away at snow and ice surrounding the stands that held the seasonal boats on land. It would require hundreds of different maneuvers to get the seaworthy boats (boats that can float) in water and the not so seaworthy ones on high ground. The parking lot was going to flood, maybe six feet high. This meant that all the boats safely stored on the lot for winter would not be so safe anymore; they would be floating away… and fast.

This year’s flooding was already different from that of 2014. In 2014, the flooding happened in June- a rather pleasant time of the year to hassle with extra water. Now, it’s March; it’s cold and everything’s frozen. We are understanding these things: we’ll soon be off grid as the power will be turned off before the water reaches the breaker box, we’ll be kayaking to and from our boat as the parking lot is sure to flood significantly, and if all the boats on shore can’t get in the now frozen harbor, they will float away, sink, or surely be damaged. I’m not sure we’ll be telling stories of this flood with a smile on our faces.

Letters were written to the city officials, and the marina acted quickly and with minimal rest. They got that barge to come in and break up the marina’s main channel. Volunteers came forward in impressive numbers to break up the ice within the dock slips and where the barge could not reach. The marina employees worked tirelessly to slip in 48 boats in a span of three days. The boats would be safe.

The water rose quickly, and when we arrived from a weekend away, the liveaboards were in full flood mode. A dinghy dock was established, Neighbor Sam purchased a new motor for his dinghy while Neighbor Mike purchased a new generator, Neighbor Roger lended me his neighbor kayak for the flood season, Neighbor Sam gifted us gimbaled oil lamps for the weeks of power outage to come, and Mystery Neighbor delivered my rain boots directly to Neighbor Girl’s door. As evidenced over and over again, lots of looking out for each other seems to happen here when conditions aren’t fabulous.

Weeks have come and gone now- more than three of them. We are still off grid. Roger’s still letting me use his kayak. We’re getting our day time warmth from the sun (if it’s out that day) and our night-time warmth primarily from candles or our solo propane heater that kicks off frequently for no good reason. We gave up trying to power our fridge, so we’re consuming a hardy amount of dry goods and making more frequent trips to Mickey’s Diner.

We are caught up to the present now. Just when we got settled in to this off-grid flood life, the 5th biggest April snowfall on record blasted us with nearly 10 inches. As temperatures dropped in to the twenties and the wind picked up to 20 knots sustained and 51 gusting, our generator landed in the river at 4am. Michael retrieved it, but it hasn’t been able to be revived. We woke up to one cold boat being tossed back and forth by the unrelenting winds. With my winter coat on, I packed a bag with three days worth of clothes. I impulsively determined that I would find somewhere to stay until this wintery spell seceded. I stormed off the boat in my knee high rain boots in to the snow and across the flood waters. In that moment, I thought I’d be gone until summer.

My rage did not last long. That night, I was back on the boat with my three days of belongings put away and a borrowed generator for heat. It is now 1:12 am. I’m cozy in bed, loving this boat again in all her resilience and charm. “Whatchya writing about?”, he says… I write without really knowing I guess. I start with one small thing, event, person, and I wring it free of all the sensations it has to offer. I write to understand this life all over again; to feel it fully. It goes too fast otherwise. I write to share the beauty in life and the funny in it. I write to honor the very essence of living stripped from all the extras. “The flooding,” I say. I’ll start there. Of course, I start the story talking about him. I can’t help it; it’s just where I feel the most.

If you’re wondering how we (Saint Paul, MN in the year of 2019) ended up in the historical flood contest. The river peaked at 20.19 feet. Yes, 20.19 feet in 2019; I bet you won’t forget that now. It’s the seventh highest in recorded history. The river was higher (and colder!) than 2014, but not as high as in 1965. What a year to have two floating homes on this mighty Mississippi.. uffda. We’re not out of the woods yet, but so far, both are surviving. I wouldn’t say thriving but definitely surviving; I’ll take it.

Since I started this story with Michael, I’ll end with him too. I like to bring things full circle. Since Michael and I work evenings and not always the same evenings, the commute home during flood season has involved a kayak trip from dinghy dock to boat between the hours of midnight and 2am, either alone or together. At first, I though I would dread this after a tiring shift at the hospital. It morphed in to one of the favorite parts of my day (except when that April blizzard hit; screw kayaking in that mess). The water was the most calm at night. It looked like glass, and the moon shine would light our path home. On my nights alone, Michael would always text me things like, “wear your life jacket” or “paddle over the parking lot; it’s more shallow there”. We also debated nightly on which was the best exit point at the dock. I liked to venture straight to our dock finger where a ladder dipped in the water to meet me. Michael preferred to go up the walkway at the dock’s end; it was a gradual slope up and one he insisted was less risky. The water is still icy cold, so any fall in could be dangerous.

One morning, I woke up to Michael blasting through the boat’s door in only his underwear. I didn’t have my contacts in or glasses on, so this was just a strange, blurry vision at first. He had fallen in the water, swam to the dock, got assistance from our neighbors to fish the kayak out, and then stripped his wet clothes off and hung them outside to dry. (The clothes were later found to be frozen stiff.) I couldn’t help but to laugh at him as this blurry image shared his story. “And you always tell me to be careful,” I said, “how ironic.” So, for the official record of Mississippi River fall-ins over four years of life aboard: you can tally Michael’s at a whopping three, while I sit cockily here at zero.

April 2019 Stats To Remember:

  • The 7th highest river crest with a height of 20.19 feet.
  • The 5th largest April snowfall in history.
  • An astounding jump in the river fall-in count with Chelsi securing a 0-3 lead. Booyah.

The Real Deal Winter

As Minnesotans, we’re known for winter. We’re also known for Prince and “uffda” and lakes. That’s about where the list ends. I’ve come to believe that we’re on to something here: keeping our state low-key-cool. We don’t tell them about the perfect summer temperatures and the kickass small town festivals that go with it or the stuff heaven is made of in a Boundary Waters getaway. We don’t clue them in on the magic of the North Shore, that our cheese curds are better than Wisconsin’s, or that people are, like, super nice here. We’ll just let them (whomever “them” is?) go on believing that we’re all Grumpy Old Men with unbearable winters and sports teams that suck.

There is another secret tucked in to the upper Mississippi River valleys; one that even the locals haven’t heard of. No, it’s not the ancient paddlefish (as I’m sure you all were thinking). It’s the little pockets of liveaboards who dot the river’s shores. There’s not a lot of us but bye golly good gosh molly, we’re here alright- rain or shine, snowy or fine… (that sentence got weird). Anyway, the cat’s out of the bag: Minnesota has humans that live on boats all year; yes, winter included.

If there is ever a winter to look back on and think “man, that was the real deal”, it was this one. Winter of 2018-2019 was a beast. It had it all: the week-long negative 40 degree stretch and the record setting snowfall in the month of February. Then, out of nowhere, right before the spring equinox… boom, the melt! FYI: record setting snow one month and a fast melt the next = major flooding. More on that next time.

As far as weather goes, it takes a lot to shock a Minnesotan. We’re a hardy bunch that have bonfires in the winter, sit on buckets on frozen ponds with a pole in hand for fun, and shovel the driveway in shorts as soon as 30 degrees hits. In December, Michael observed a group of five die-hards surfing along the icy shores of Lake Superior…that’s some next level hardiness.

However, somehow, I never fail to surprise a fellow Land of 10,000 Laker when I tell them, “I live on a boat.” There’s always a strange pause like they’re trying to gauge if I just made a weird joke. The most common follow-up question during this winter season: “but you can’t live there now?” In an almost scripted way, I rattle off a cliff notes version of answers to all the questions I know will be asked next. Those include: is it actually in the water, does it freeze, how do you stay warm, is it warm enough, do you have water, do you have electricity, do you have a bathroom, and always, always, always, at the very end of the conversation: “huh, I didn’t know you could do that.”

Yesterday, I frantically helped my neighbor disassemble his ice rink and warming huts when he told me “The city got a barge to come break up all this ice; they’re coming within the hour.” They came in twenty minutes.

As we watched this barge demolish two-foot-thick ice, a woman named Linda came by. She wore a canvas vest like mine and was about thirty years my senior. I liked her instantly as she was curious and candid with an obvious wealth of river knowledge. She did puff hard on a cigarette as we spoke, but hey, no one’s perfect. As we talked, I found out that she lived aboard her boat year round in this marina for ten years. She still comes by to walk her dog and see how things have changed, or haven’t. We talk about the change of seasons, and we exchange the same ideas about the peace and calm of winter and the slightly overwhelming feeling that takes over as the boats get slipped back in for the summer. I laugh when she says, “You have to allow an hour for the five minutes it should to take you to walk to your car.” I had said that exact sentiment to a friend of mine that morning. I had explained to her that “yeah, summer is great with all the people back and all the energy, but as each boat drops in, a bit of our winter serenity leaves with it. In the summer, you have at least half a dozen people to talk to between you and your vehicle; you need to allow an extra forty minutes to walk down the dock.” Summer is a blast, but in the winter, the vibrant human energy leaves for land, and the marina belongs to the wild of Mother Nature again. Linda gets it.  

So, this winter had it’s usuals: the motley crew of ten boats that house thirteen people, three dogs, and one cat. We saw each other only rarely as we scuttled from boat to car to bathroom to boat to grocery store to boat to work to boat. We mustered the occasional outing: a bonfire on New Year’s Eve or a walk in the woods. Neighbor Eric was the star of getting out in the elements with his pond hockey team lighting up the far side of the marina on even the coldest nights. The winter wildlife sightings also included the usuals: beavers playing above and below the ice shelves, a coyote’s deer kill in the middle of the river’s frozen main channel, and bald eagles perched in the cottonwoods. There was also this big debate: was that a coyote or a wolf that Brody (Neighbor Mike’s German Shepherd) was playing with in the woods? As we eat chicken pork seafood gumbo on Ben and Pam’s boat after an icy sunset kayak session, a consensus is made. It was either a robust coyote well fed from easy dumpster food or a young wolf lost in the big city. So, the consensus was that there was no consensus.

This winter also had many unusuals. The unusuals included a morning so icy that Neighbor Sam couldn’t get his truck up the hill to get out of the marina. He had to walk up the hill and Uber to work. Then there was January’s polar vortex deal that handed us wind chill temperatures down to 60 below. February brought us the snowiest February to date with 39 inches falling on Saint Paul. It was the fourth snowiest month of all months in recorded history here.

So, how does boat life fare in these conditions?… perfectly alright. A small place has small needs. We have two electric heaters and one propane heater aboard. We used all three once on the very coldest night, but one or two of those usually did the trick. Eight of the twelve windows were covered with Reflectix, a double bubble reflective foil that works to keep the heat where it belongs. The other four single pane windows were left as is so we didn’t feel like cavemen. Mental health matters when you exist within ten feet of your spouse for four good months.

The most popular questions regarding winter life aboard revolve around intake and output: do we have access to water and how do we expel that intake. In other words: how are we drinking and where do we shit. Before the freeze hits, all water sources are turned off except for one hose or series of hoses that lies deep below the water’s surface where it won’t freeze and runs across the whole of the marina to reach us. It would be about three hundred feet of hose.  The hose runs up to the middle of the dock to meet the needs of all thirteen humans, three dogs, and one cat. The hose must be left on to trickle just enough water through to prevent the hose from freezing to a stop. There are two things that can and have gone wrong with this one and only hose, the hose we all depend on for our sole life-giving water source. The first of these happened last winter when someone turned the water completely off after use and left the hose to freeze shut. Just like that, the whole community was waterless until the spring’s thaw. The second thing that can go wrong with our precious well is that someone can simply drop the hose in to the dark abyss of the Mississippi waters never to be recovered. We had a close call like this in November when I came home to four of my neighbors gathered around a dock finger fishing around with boat hooks. I walked in to a tense situation in which someone had dropped the hose in. The group knew approximately where the drop occurred and had been fishing around for some time. One neighbor asked why it was moved in the first place when it was originally secured tight elsewhere. Others were in quiet desperation, hoping this wouldn’t end our water supply already when winter had hardly even started. In a moment of good fortune, the hose was recovered and tied tight again with a pact amongst us all not to move it. The boat owner’s own hose must be brought to the anchored hose and connected there rather than detaching the precious anchored hose which would risk another drop-in and result in a community-wide water famine.

So, having a working water source, that is step one. We have a twenty gallon holding tank under our bow that we fill with this water. A water pump transports that water to the five gallon water heater and to our sinks. To get the water from the holding tank to our mouths or dishes or wherever also has it’s problems. If it’s less than ten degrees outside, the water pump does nothing. If it’s above ten degrees but below freezing, the pipes might be frozen as the water pump tries to push water through. We’ve had a pipe bursting incident twice this way. If we do get water from the sink but the ice or snow is frozen around the through hull were the sink water exits, our sink fills with water until we break the ice and unfreeze the water sitting in the exit pipe. Basically, we have a fully operating water system for about 35 percent of the winter months.

Alright, next question. “How do ya shit?” It’s a common liveaboard practice to avoid poops aboard altogether. It’s ideal to have a system that can handle all butts and everything that comes out of them, but even if you do, it lands in a contained system that requires a pump out. If you have a moving boat, pump outs are a breeze. You go to the gas dock, buy a touch of gas so you’re pump out is free, and get the pump hooked up to your holding tank’s deck fitting to suck out all the good stuff. In the winter, it’s not as accomodating. Our marina offers pump outs that come to you every few weeks but that pumpout date might not land on or near the date that your holding tank is full and starts to smell, and it costs two hundred dollars for the season.

Our holding tank recently had a particularly stinky issue with a malfunctioning venting system. Basically, our toilet burped up every smell that went into it. So, Michael and I made the decision to avoid boat poops altogether, and instead, hike our butts to the port-a-potty or to the marina’s shop to take care of business. Basically, our daily deliverance require much more forethought these days. After a stint of peeing into a pickle jar (I don’t want to talk about it), we changed our output system altogether. We didn’t want to rely any longer on the bi- or tri-weekly pumpout, and we were not loving the poorly ventilated system that burped back at us. We decided on a more primitive but less dependent situation. We got a five gallon portable toilet with a flush feature for seventy bucks. When the waste compartment is full, it’s emptied in to the port-a-potty up the dock: easy peasy, cheap, and no stink. Perhaps it’s the pickle jar experience talking, but to me, this is luxury.

Well, now that we got the intake and output talk out of the way, where do we go next? I mentioned Neighbor Eric’s killer ice rink within the marina. I’ve never been a hockey player nor can I really skate but his pond hockey situation makes me think that I’m missing something. He’s got lights that surround the rink and a warming hut that has beer and the ambiance of a cozy Irish bar. He skates from boat to rink every night. Sometimes, I fall asleep to the sound of hockey which I love. Other nights, I fall asleep to the sound of someone chipping ice around their boat. Fiberglass boats can’t freeze in or their hull would be done for, so winter requires a bubbler that keeps the water moving and an ice chipping tool (a 2×4 with a rope tied to it is a popular one around here) to augment the process. We are fortunate to have a steel hull on our boat which means we freeze right in; no problem.

So, here’s the conclusion. Winters in Minnesota suck and are also awesome. They make us hardy. They make us grateful. Minnesotans can surf Lake Superior in the winter, and, if we so desire, we can live on a boat in the winter. We can live in a house too, with a driveway that we shovel while wearing a pair of shorts. We can cheer on sports teams that suck and have a good time doing it. We can be nice but sometimes grumpy. We can say “uffda” or whatever word we want in whatever language we want when we wake up to a foot of snow on our car. We can always find a river or lake, but sometimes, it will be frozen. We’ll fish on it anyway. We might have a real deal winter like this one that brings days where we sleep with a scarf on or pee in a pickle jar… am I losing you now? Anyway, let the world believe we’re Grumpy Old Men with shitty sports teams. I like it that way.

Stay low-key-cool Minnesota.

Love Always, Your Neighbors Aboard

About That Boathouse

Oh, hey there. I do realize that my last post was on June 27, 2018. As my GrandPapa Larson would say… Uffda. If I had fans of this blog who knew me in no other way than as dedicated online readers, those readers might believe that Michael and I abandoned the boathouse project, got swallowed by the unforgiving current of Old Man River, or decided “ya know what, forget about this little life on water and woods, let’s move in to a high rise and focus our energy on interior design and the Food Network”. Well, all my loyal online fans out there, breathe easy. None of the above have occurred, although I do really enjoy the Food Network. It’s really less about the network and more about the food; I love food. Anyway, I guess it’s good that I don’t have a horde of assuming internet fans but rather real life friends and family who take a moment of their day to see what little old me and crazy Michael are up to now. Well, my dearest humans, allow me to tie up some loose ends and update you on where we landed on the five month old cliffhanger from June 27, 2018- that boathouse.

Boathouse Build Month Two (July) looked something like this: rain, rain, rain, water rises, island floods, no progress. Easy recap there.

Boathouse Build Month Three (August). I kick myself now for not writing notes as I sift through my brain catalog of memories that happened five months ago. It’s funny what your brain holds on to though- less about the construction materials, the building plans, whats, whens, and hows, and more about the feelings, the sore muscles, the visitors, the joy. Actually, I guarantee Michael’s brain processes this month entirely differently. His rendition would include a bunch of numbers and timelines, and I just do not have the right energy to be transcribing that kind of concrete information right now, so I will proceed with my less useful version:

I vividly recall how the feeling of the Mississippi River air changed from dawn to dusk. It was so crisp in the morning- energizing and cool. It paired nicely with the hot coffee that radiated through the thermos I held tight to my chest as we darted downstream via boat to misty Latsch Island.

The cool morning air settled over the warm Mississippi water like it was trying to shake it awake it from it’s deep slumber. The river resisted, staying calm and centered. The water only livened with the weekend boat traffic many hours after our start time. Boats would cruise by mid morning eager to find a sandbar on which to spend a fine summer’s day. The waves would frequently rock our construction site and a small piece of me would get frustrated, like “hey, can’t you see we’re working here!”, but then I’d laugh at myself (internally, because lol’ing would just be weird) for expecting the boats to know that there’s a little construction site over here dealing with their waves. Interruption by waves- a unique factor indeed.

As the sun heightened, it saturated the sky before it permeated my skin. With the sun high in the sky, the day’s hunger would kick in, and we always forgot to pack food. Over and over though, Mom to the rescue with some good sandwiches and cold drinks.

In the afternoon, the work would become more playful, like we had settled in to who was doing what and now we could afford the energy to be goofs.

Boathouse Gymnastics

Hank At Work

The summer afternoons carried youthful nostalgia for me. A brief touch of wind, obscure smell, or splash of the river could easily transport me back to dirty kid Chels climbing trees, swimming in the creek, playing in the woods, and running barefoot everywhere- grass-stained from head to toe. I look down at my bare feet here, tanned by the sun and as dirty as ever. They are happy to be like this again- useful, playful, strong.

In the evenings, the river carries the warm air like a heavy blanket, tossing it across me as I move around the floating platform. The air became lighter with each passing hour until it feels cool, the day’s heat stripped away with the sunset. The sun would set fast at night. On many days, too fast. On other days, I would thank the sun for rushing us as my dear husband would never stop working until every inch of it had had dipped beneath the upstream horizon.

Our eyes adjusted, and finally, when we could see no more, we hopped in the boat to head home. It was then that we saw our progress from the river, from the eye of a jumping fish or a hungry eagle. This moment, looking back at the now sleepy island where our hard work and dreams lived, was my favorite part of the day.

I reminisce on the long day of attaching deck boards with Pops. It was a tedious task and something that I thought would only take a couple of hours. It took all day. It was a test of patience, something my dad excels at and something I have no business pretending I have. I loved this day with my dad though. We talked about small things, funny things, thoughtful things, and sometimes we didn’t talk (that’s actually his specialty). We were simply content and just really happy in this beautifully mindless pursuit of deck board application.

I delightfully recall a finished platform (barrel racks attached, insulation in, plywood over, deck boards on), and Michael and I’s celebratory jump in to the river. It was particularly hot that day. It was a long day that included cold drinks, fishing breaks, and music to keep spirits high and dehydration at bay. Brother Sean jumped in too and took little nephew Hank in for his first river swim; he hated it or maybe he hated the very over-sized life jacket. Like it does for his aunt and his mama, the river will someday evoke all the good feels of a childhood summer.

River Jump (includes life jacket swag by me)

I remember neighbors stopping by- Gerty bringing us cold La Croix in his runabout. Friends and family stopped by to work or laugh with us, and strangers stopped by to ask what the heck we’re doing (always a great question). The visitors were fun. They gave us a chance to take a break, share ideas, and have a chuckle.

Latsch Island News Report

It was a month of long and sweaty days back to back on a floating construction site that relied heavily on at least okay weather and good-to-the-bones people. It was hard work. It was laughing, arguing, saying a lot or saying nothing at all. It was planning and improvising. It was mistakes and accomplishments. There were minor injuries, sketchy maneuvers, second guesses, lots of Menards stops and boat trips, and some of the best times I’ve ever had.

Strategy Lives Here

Boathouse Build Months Four and Five (September and October). It’s colder now (duh, it’s fall in Minnesota). The island is quieter. The days are shorter. The birds are migrating overhead. The weather is less predictable and often unpleasant. It’s crunch time.

Michael and I are thinking about the boathouse around the clock, and any moment we can be there, we’re there. We know the windows, doors, and roof need to go on before winter yields it’s mighty middle finger. With the impending freezing waters, we will lose our shuttle boat capability. Oh Minnesota, the constant dance we have with your tricky seasons; never allowed to play coy with the elements.

But guess what… with a little help from our village of good-to-the-bones people, we did it! The boathouse is closed in, tied meticulously to shore, and left to the wild of winter.

Stay tuned for the next post in which it is fall/winter and one of us purchases a 116 foot fire tower on an online auction for a grand total of five dollars. If any of you are thinking, “wow what a deal, great idea” (which I highly doubt you are), please understand that this steel tower must be manually removed from it’s Wisconsin ridge within 90 days of purchase and during a season when a coat of frost, or if we’re really lucky, a blast of snow settles on this big, huge, heavy, massive, overwhelming, sturdy, seemingly permanent structure. As GrandPapa Larson would say… UFFDA.

Cheers!

 

Like Berries On Ice Cream

I am finding that life is far more fascinating than I ever imagined. It is not the dramatics that amuse me but the simplicities. It is one good conversation with a stranger. It is the cool breeze rolling off the river and slipping right through my open window as I fall asleep. It is a good meal with a neighbor.

Meet Bob.

Bob and his husband Yader joined our quirky community when they docked their 1976 Carver Mariner across from ours one year ago. In this quick but full year, I hold memories of Yader and I dipping our feet in the waves with Bob at the helm; this quickly turned in to us getting soaked and laughing heartily at our fortunate misfortune. Warning: waves may be larger than they appear. I fondly recall salsa dancing with Bob on the dock on Cinco de Mayo and Yader later leading an impromptu Zumba class; looking back, dance class on the dock seems like a hilarious accident waiting to happen.

Bob loves his boat as obsessively as the rest of us, and I’ve observed many nights of Bob diligently working on one boat project or another. Bob’s favorite form of exercise has become kayaking at dusk- a favorite and often shared activity among the whole dock; this is almost always followed by the nightly ritual of beaver, deer, and bald eagle or blue heron stories as observed whilst at paddle. Sometimes our dock is fortunate enough to hear Bob playing the fiddle as the sun slowly falls behind the trees. As evidenced by these previous paragraphs of goodness, Bob and Yader fit perfectly in to our strange little floating society.

I get this question often- how do you cook on your boat? Our mainstay is the cast iron skillet. We specialize in stir fries, curries, and egg scrambles. We do not have an oven although some boats do; and for the record, no boat actually uses them. We do have a grill but rarely use it; other boat neighbors use the grill religiously. One guy uses his pizza oven for everything. Our friends on a sailboat actually have an outdoor solar oven since they anchor out at all times. My husband makes weird green smoothies comprised of kale, garlic, and beets; it tastes like someone smothered your face in the dirt. Our neighbor Sam makes a similar looking smoothie that I once mistook for the water he rinses his paintbrushes in.

Back to Bob.

Bob is the kind of guy that warms the soul of each person he meets. He tells good stories, plays good music, and listens with an honest intent to learn about another. Bob loves people. He loves his boat, and he loves food. It’s no wonder he would want to combine all his loves in one place- a cookbook for boat people.

I go to Bob’s boat this morning as he prepares “a basic breakfast hash with cowboy caviar”. This is not the first time Bob has cooked for me. He often grabs a neighbor to share a meal with. I love this about him. He has Appalachian music playing lightly as I come aboard.

Bob is coming to his boat a few times a week now to cook a meal in preparation for his upcoming cookbook. Bob has a vision. He wants to appeal to those who want to cook on a boat or in small spaces and do so creating good food with a fresh flavor. Bob plans to complete his vision by next summer, and his neighbors’ bellies are all benefitting in the meantime.

So what about Bob?

Bob works as the Regional Marketing Director for Bon Appetit Management Company; he has worked there for some time now, but he wasn’t always in the food business. Bob first received a degree in Social Work; he did this for seven years but found himself unfulfilled on this path. Bob described going on home visits at a reservation in New Mexico where he would find himself cooking with the kids in the kitchen. He realized his passion lived here- with good people congregated around good food.

As a child, Bob looked up to his mother who cooked from scratch and has fond memories of cooking with Patty, a family friend who threw “amazing dinner parties”. Patty remains an important influence to Bob; she even sang at his and Yader’s wedding. At the age of 30, Bob went back to school- to culinary school in St. Louis. He worked closely with a great chef during this time and soon found himself writing a food column called “Dinner and a Movie”. He later managed a restaurant and helped this restaurant grow to seven restaurants; this evolution pushed him toward marketing. Now, here we are. Bob is preparing the best breakfast hash of my life while I sip espresso on the stern of his boat soaking up the morning sun. Thank you Patty!

Bob’s cookbook will include a pantry list of supplies for the reader to always keep on hand. Each meal will combine what the reader already has with a few additional fresh and local ingredients to make the meal flavorful and unique. He will also have a basic bar section because what is boating without the occasional cocktail?

In finding his calling to food, Bob remembers his first “ah-ha” moment. In this moment, Bob is a child at his grandparents’ house. Little boy Bob has a handful of freshly picked, warm raspberries; he brings them in the house and puts them on ice cream- the raspberries melt the cool ice cream surrounding them. Bob tells me that this taste is “that moment that you’re always chasing”.

“That moment you’re always chasing”… I like this. I reflect on “ah-ha” moments- the simplicities that make life fascinating… the good conversation with a stranger, the cool breeze as you fall asleep, or the warm raspberries on your ice cream. Perhaps we should all chase our “ah-ha” moments. If we live a life or work a career full of “ah-has”, I think we’re on the right path. I think about my career “ah-has”- seeing my patient walk again after many weeks of therapy, being asked by a family to pray with them before their mother goes to surgery, a burn patient singing to Mariah Carey as we do his full body wound cares, and discussing life goals with a woman exactly my age who has just become paralyzed. These “ah-has” are not always wonderful but they show me life; they have confirmed that I am walking the path I was meant for. Of course, I have personal “ah-has” as well. As a child- dancing in the milk barn or swimming in the cold creek with my cousins. More recently- anchoring our boat out for the first time or sleeping on the plywood floor next to candlelight in our half built cabin.

“Ah-has” are simple moments with big impact; we must recognize them as such and use them as a compass. Like warm raspberries on ice cream, it is the simplicities of this life that are utterly fascinating, delicious, and small signs toward a life well lived. Cheers!

 

Getting Along Well Enough

Last week was one year of marriage for Michael and me. We celebrate it doing one of our favorite things- an unplanned road trip. We aim west and soon find ourselves in Colorado.

As we hike The Colorado Trail, I think about being married, a critiqued choice these days (and rightfully so given the failure rate). As I sweat my buns off and see that cutie hiking ahead of me, I realize that hiking is something like marriage. You start strong- excited, optimistic, with big ideas. You start together. You prepare for this. Some prepare more than others but in the end, I wonder if preparation matters more than innovation and intent… I lean towards the latter. Some hikes face challenges early, some later. Some hikes turn out harder than expected. You might think you’re totally ready for this hike but then find yourself surprised by the altitude or the incline or your own physical and mental capacity to handle this. Sometimes, one cannot keep up to the other; one might need to slow things down for a minute so you can stick together.

At some point, you come to a fork in the trail. Michael wants to go one way, but I want to go the other. I think my way is better and try to convince Michael of this but he’s stubborn too; he thinks his way is better. We could go separately on our chosen paths, but we don’t. We picked each other for this journey; we go together.

Our packs start to get heavy. Michael’s is heavier though; he always chooses to carry the heavy one. I recognize this and offer to switch for a bit; I want to share the load. I don’t want this marriage, I mean this hike, to be one-sided. We find that this hike is challenging- lots of ups and downs; the best hikes often are. It’s so rewarding to get through that together, to share the valleys and the views, to high five at the summit.

Sometimes, when people do a long hike, they think they’re better off going alone, and some people are. I think about doing this hike alone… I know I’d be weaker without him. I’d have less fun too. I think about the campfire; I like it best when it reflects off Michael’s blue eyes. I like to talk about the stars together and theorize on what exists beyond us. I’d appear crazy if I talked to myself about this. Also, who would I laugh at? I’m not that funny on my own.

I may not have as much for myself when I hike with Michael. We’re almost out of water, and we overestimated the size of this blanket. I wake up 20 times during the night to fight for my half of this inadequate covering. We laugh at this in the morning until we realize we’re out of coffee; now that’s no joke. Maybe preparation does trump innovation; at least when it comes to coffee.

Michael points out things on the trail that I wouldn’t have noticed alone- a big black slug, a tree we couldn’t identify, and a beautiful prairie on top of a distant ridgeline. I find that we frequently ask how the other is doing- if the other needs a rest or a drink of water. Thunder rolls in the distance as we enter camp.

We made it back just in time. I look at Michael and love him more now than at the start of this hike, more than yesterday, more than one year ago. You guys, I think I said something wrong at the start of this. I described hiking as being strongest at the start; I went on to compare hiking to marriage.

My dad, a man of few words, wrote this in our anniversary card: “Just keep lovin life and each other and it will be a Good Life”.

My mom and dad had their 30th wedding anniversary this year. He has loved my mom and life every day that I have watched him live. I cannot recall an instance in which he complained about either of those; I only know my dad as happy. Ever since I can remember, my dad would say “life is good” and his daily actions never led me to believe otherwise. My parents have shown me that if treated right, marriage gets stronger and better with time.

And how to treat it right? This is what I’ve learned: love each other shamelessly. Don’t let sadness, pride, hardship, or anything else take that away. The world challenges your love, and for some reason, people might to.

Michael, when talking about living on a small boat, someone recently asked me if we actually like that lifestyle and if we “get along well enough”. “Get along well enough”… what a strange phrase. Does this mean we are supposed to say excuse me when we move around each other? Should we politely take turns filling the water tank? Should I come home from work quietly and leave the lights off so as not to wake you? Do we divide our tiny, tiny fridge so you have half the space and I have the other half? What about our “closet” which happens to be a five foot long space below our bed, should that be 50/50 too?

Do we “get along well enough”? While not totally understanding this innocent but bizarre question, I shrugged in response and said “well, yeah”. That probably didn’t sound convincing. Michael, I talked about you fondly the other day. It must have been too fondly because the recipient of my conversation followed up by saying “well you’re still in the honeymoon phase”. I laughed and said “I suppose”. Michael, sometimes I wish I wasn’t cursed with this Minnesota Nice thing; maybe then I would have told her that “the honeymoon phase” is a stupid catch phrase someone invented to make up for their diminishing behavior toward the one they promised forever to. Hmm… that sounds a bit intense. I’ll stick with my first response- “I suppose”.

So Michael, do we “get along well enough”? Is spanking your butt when I’m trying to move around you polite enough? Should I fill the water tank the next five times to even out the score? Do I need to ditch my books so they don’t overflow in to our 50/50 “closet” space? My Love, I only turn on the lights and kiss your face when I get home because… well, I don’t know… I missed you.

Michael, it is certainly a small space aboard. I tell people that all the time. I say “for one person, it’d be perfect but for two it gets a little tight”. Why do I say that? The truth is this- the boat feels too big without you, too empty, too quiet. Today on this hike or when I’m home on the boat while you’re away, I am reminded of this- my life was not made to live without you. You are not just the person I found to “get along well enough” with. Michael, we certainly argue, disagree, or get frustrated with the other. Our world is not perfect, but you are my soul; my bold, hard-headed, stinky-farting, perfect soulmate. So Mr. Get Along Well Enough and Ms. Honeymoon Phase, I politely ask you to shove it, for this love is my favorite part of me.

Dreamers At Work

I got home from work at 2:30am last night. Working as a nurse in downtown Minneapolis is anything but monotonous; it can be a little chaotic and a lot of crazy; it is challenging and fast moving. I love it, but by the time my shift is over, this is where I want to be. At this time of night, the docks are quiet, the water surrounding them is still, and my neighbors are tucked away in their floating homes. As I enter the wooded marina, I breathe easier and move slower. While the sound of call lights continues to ring in my head, my lone footsteps on the dock finally quiet them.

At 2:30am, I am surprised to see another soul awake. It is John. He works late on his trimaran preparing it for June 8 at 5am when he and four others plan to race this not-yet-ready boat in the R2AK. It is a 750 mile race from Port Townsend, WA to Ketchikan, AK. You must sail with no motor and no support boats. With the race nearly one week away and the boat currently afloat 1,760 miles from the starting line, I’m a little nervous for them. I spend a few moments with John, and as he shows me his project successes from the night with a smile that not many people can hold up so well at 2:30am, I believe in him.

Today, May 31st, we have a perfect afternoon. It’s sunny and still. It’s a project day in the marina. With the holiday weekend and spotty storms behind us for a couple of days, every captain in this place has big eyes and working hands.

Bob across the dock is refurnishing his wood trim. Rick, one dock over, is trying to fix leaks around his windows; he says this is a problem every Chris Craft of that era has; we yell across the water as we talk about this. On our boat, we added plywood to our top deck floor to stabilize and level it. It was two day project finished today with fiberglass, paint, and parquet flooring that Michael bought on Craigslist.

As the evening moves on, I visit the trimaran and find Juan. No, I’m not just calling John “John” in Spanish… that’d be confusing. Juan is John’s friend and a fellow sailor ready to take on the R2AK. Tonight, while John is at an open house for the Lake Calhoun Sailing Club (he’s an Associate Director there), it is Juan’s turn to get this trimaran race-ready.

John and Juan are roommates. They met in college when they both went to the University of Minnesota. They met on the water of course. Like all boat people, they got to talking about how to fix one or the other’s boat problem, and before they can do anything about it, they’re buddies forever. They are both Wisconsin boys; John from Milwaukee and Juan from Wisconsin Rapids. I lived in Wisconsin once and still had to ask where this was; Juan tells me its right in the middle of the state. Juan was born in Mexico; his family moved here when he was one year old. As Juan tells me more about who he is, I feel akin to him. His outlook is familiar.

Juan sailed for the first time when he was 10 years old. Then, like me and so many others, the teenage years brought distraction. He was in to sports, hunting, and girls. In college, Juan got a degree in chemistry. When I ask what he originally went to school for, Juan says “for knowledge mostly”. I don’t know why but the choice to get a degree in chemistry surprised me a bit… maybe because we just spent the last ten minutes talking about travelling and for some reason, being in a lab and being out in the world seem like two different animals. Juan told me about taking a few semesters off to backpack in national parks, play music, and spend time WWOOFing on a vegan permaculture farm in California. I related to him on these experiences, except on the music thing; in this, I lamented to him about my ongoing failed harmonica attempts. Juan plays harmonica, drums, guitar, and some ukulele. I’m jealous.

Juan told me that at one point he wanted to be a farmer. This, I understood. Michael and I talk of this often- having our own small farm. I watch my dad and my grandparents find ultimate peace and joy in this work. I ask Juan why he got a degree in chemistry. He tells me that his initial idea was to get educated in environmental water chemistry. Aahhhh… this makes sense to me now. Juan is smart and ambitious. I’m sure you’ve gathered this by now. He spends time with our waters and doesn’t want to just use the resource, he wants to preserve it too. I understand this. In this small revelation, I am proud. During a time when much of the world would rather look away from the environmental problems at hand, I find others my age that care. Juan is one of them. I see this same inspiration in my marina neighbors who gather garbage from the waters when they go out kayaking. I see it in my parents who love their land, my dad out “cleaning the woods” to make it the best habitat for what lives and grows there. I see it in my husband who adores the small details of what we have in our waters and woods; who lights up when he sees a new plant, tree, or animal.

Juan tells me that studying environmental water chemistry was “actually kind of depressing”. I don’t even ask why; I know the answer. I think back to yesterday when I walked in to work behind a lady who threw a half cigarette to the ground right before she entered the building. I wasn’t sure why this set me off. I see cigarettes on the ground all the time and of course, there are bigger problems than one cigarette on the ground, but observing her total disregard for her surroundings must have done it for me. There was a garbage can right next to where she threw it; she didn’t even look at it. I picked up the cigarette, put it out, and threw it away. I continued to feel pissed off for the next hour. As I sat in work reviewing my patients’ charts, I wondered “why is this still bugging me… let it go Chels”. Now, in talking to Juan, I am reminded that it matters. To have an environmentally conscious chemist out there, I am thankful. To be an environmentally conscious nurse, this matters. To maybe someday be environmentally conscious farmers, this is huge.

At this point, I ask Juan how old he is. He’s my age- 28 years old. I only met Juan today; brought together by the water. It is how I’ve met so many people that inspire me; people that care about our world, how we treat it, and how we treat each other. My neighbors on this water are creative, smart, bold, and unafraid. They live in the environment because they care about it.

I once had a friend throw a piece of garbage out of her car. I said something and picked it up. She responded “oh yeah, I suppose you live in the environment”. This was over a year ago now and it has stuck with me. We all live in the environment. What is going on that not everyone feels this way? How do people not see the impact our habits have? How do we fix actions that are so commonplace, so dismissed; like throwing your cigarette to the ground with a bunch of people watching? I still don’t know the answers to all of these questions but I think about them every day. I hope this is the first step to something.

I help Juan hold the electrical panel as he cuts around it to fit the wall. We drink beer as we talk. Todd throws us two more Hamms from the dock. Juan works at Rahr Malting where he is a QC Project Manager, Micro-Maltster, and Assistant Brewer. He’s a bit of an expert in beer so I’m surprised in his gratitude for the Hamms. I invite Juan over for dinner. Michael made steak and asparagus. Juan says he ate already today and when I ask him if he’s on a one meal per day diet, Juan says that lately he is. With the time crunch of getting this boat ready while still working full time, Juan has been getting five hours of sleep and one meal per day. I am thankful that Juan finally agrees to eat after we put the food in his hands.

 

It’s Wednesday; the trimaran gets hauled out on Friday; I know he has a lot to do so I appreciate how present Juan is when we talk. His looming projects include getting the electrical situation squared away, mounting the solar panels, setting up the rigging, and attaching steering platforms. Juan tells me that at this point, the boat is not seaworthy and the five of them have yet to sail together as a team. Whether or not they are ready and able to do the race eight days from now, they will still sail to Alaska, get to know the terrain, and be more than ready for the race next year. I ask Juan about his future. Water will always be a part of his life; he loves sailing. He’ll probably stay around here for a while. He’s ready to set some roots. I realize I feel akin to him because of where he’s at in his life. He has stretched his legs out, carried a backpack around the country, and ponders on what he can do to be good for the world. In all of his exploration, he has found that making a difference where he stands makes the most difference.

As the sun sets, the dock gathers together to unwind from the project day. We finish dinner, drink beer, and talk about what was accomplished. Somehow, conversation turns to plumb bobs and we discuss these for what feels like an hour. It’s surprising how many jokes sprout from this conversation on plumb bobs. I am educated on the variety of plumb bobs that exist. It’s soon 10:30pm, and I retreat to the boat with plumb bobs on the mind. Alright, I’ll let you go before I babble on. It’s time for me to go to bed and time for you to google what a plumb bob is. Also, Michael wants you to google “plumb barbara”; do so at your own risk. Goodnight now.