Board But Not Bored

In times like these, a person does one of two things to stay sane. You keep your mind busy or you keep your hands busy, and often, these coincide. My husband has the busy hands. I have the busy mind. Mine feels a lot less productive. Since the busy mind is a bit of a weird place, we’ll stick to the topic of Michael’s busy hands.

The first thing I have to say about Michael’s hands is that, thanks to my relentless but warranted nagging backed by CDC guidelines, they are usually well washed. He tends to leave the sink prior to the 20 second mark, but I’m sure to remind him.

In the last four months, a lot has happened. We finished out our boathouse. We had winter. We birthed a baby. We had a flood in the winter (strange). We finished our bathroom and finally have a working shower. The snow melted, and spring came (kinda). We fell in love with being parents. We finished out our kitchen. The pandemic came. I started work again. We had the spring floods and have to boat everywhere, a lovely or treacherous portion of my commute depending on the day. The snow came again (classic Minnesota). And most recently, we (Michael) built our deck and established entry by means of a spiral staircase. Michael’s hands have been busy. Mine help intermittently when my boobs aren’t busy but breastfeeding is truly a full time job.

I bet you wonder why I talk about floods so often. Well, we base our activity around the rise and fall of these waters. We adjust the ropes that hold our home to shore accordingly. We plan if we can walk our asses to the parking lot. If we can walk there, we debate wearing knee high boots or waders. If it’s a job for waders, perhaps we just go by boat. We park the boat in different spaces according to the river level.

We like to park at “LIPS”- Latsch Island Phone Service, where the one phone for the whole island once existed. It was the island’s central station for socializing. It still is as Neighbor Ernie greets us with a smile and stories whenever we dock, and on sunny days, multiple boathouse dwellers cross paths as we navigate our boats around each other (six feet apart of course).

The water is high enough now that we boat through “Bathtub Slough”, a cut through a cluster of boathouses tucked behind the ones that line the channel. We duck under a communication line at the entrance and greet Pirate Pat on the way. We have to raise the motor in the shallows and navigate around the cement bases that used to hold up the railroad bridge. As Neighbor Polly explained this route to us, she said, “It’s actually pretty fun.” It really is… except in the sleeting rain at midnight.

Back to the busy hands that built our deck. Knowing the flood was coming, a few days were spent schlepping boards for our top deck: 146 to be exact, some as long as 26 feet.

The twelve posts sticking out of our roof were scaled, cut level, and long boards spanned the whole way to connect them. More boards were attached to connect those boards. Finally, the top deck boards were applied. (Insert “bored” during quarantine joke here.)

As we wondered how to best access the deck, Michael consulted his trusted friend Craig. Craig has this list that Michael is very fond of. On Craig’s list is where we bought a boat, perused for fire towers, found this very boathouse (well, the former one that lived here), purchased our land up north, found the van that we outfitted into a moving apartment, and now, we found the answer to our deck access dilemma- a steel spiral staircase. Craig, you slick son of a gun, you’ve done it again.

As does everything in this lovely flood season, the staircase needed to travel by water. To make this happen, we would use our boat as a pusher and our neighbor Polly’s dock as a platform to carry the stairs. Michael strategically attached a few boards to the front of our boat to protect it and keep everything straight when pushing the 8ft x 20ft platform. Michael connected the platform with rachet straps that spanned from the boat’s two front cleats to the platform’s back two cleats.


Michael navigated this 40ft caravan through Bathtub Slough and up to shore where the spiral staircase was waiting on a flatbed trailer.

Before the 1000lb staircase was tied down to the trailer, Michael laid sheets of plywood underneath so when the dock met the trailer, he could use more rachet straps as winches to more easily slide the staircase onto the platform.

As he pushed the platform downstream toward our end of the island, Michael’s floating spiral staircase was a site to behold.

Erecting the staircase was the sketchiest part, and like many sketchy endeavors, the most fun.

 On the deck, we (Michael) used a 15 to 1 pulley system with a rock climbing belay device as brake. With the dock butted up to the downstream corner of the boathouse, we (Michael) tied the pulley system to the far end of the staircase and started pulling.

When the staircase was at 45 degrees, we were able to funnel the base in place with some strategically affixed scrap boards. After plenty of pulling and lots of lines tied off in every direction to keep the 1000lb mass from swinging side to side, the staircase was finally home.

Boathouse living is certainly made for busy hands and for busy minds too. There are always ropes to retie, barrels to replace, unexpected weather conditions to navigate, floating trees or other surprises to dislodge, off grid ideas to bring to life, or creative solutions to maximize small spaces. This 24ft x 24ft space is no barrier to busyness or joy or fulfillment or intrigue; it provokes and nurtures all of these.

At the end of the day, it is time to put busy hands and busy minds to rest. This little floating home is especially good for this. It’s 7pm as I write this. Michael is making a ruckus on the deck as he works on the railings. He’s been at it all day. A boat zoomed by and left a wake that makes me feel slightly tipsy. I admire the bold and distinguished colors that fill the feathers of the neighborhood mallards. The ducks fly west from John’s house; they make a splash as they settle on the water in front of me. The water rhythmically flows in the other direction as if to bleed off the colors of the setting sun. I let my busy mind settle down on these simple things.

Alright, it’s time to get Michael off the damn roof. Stay busy if you must but stay rested too. This is a weird time. At the end of the day, settle down on the simple things. (If you say this final paragraph twice, you’ve washed your hands for 20 seconds.)

 

The Warm Glow

We build a fire from the scraps that built our home. We smile in it’s warm glow… If that’s not the metaphor I need right now, I don’t know what is.

We are in the midst of wild times. Trust me, my maternity leave ended in the thick of a global pandemic. I had to trade in the comforts of my mom robe and slippers for evening shifts donned in scrubs and uncertainty. But tonight, I don’t work, and tonight, my husband built a fire for our little family of three: a fire fueled by the unusable scraps, the broken pieces, and the unnecessary slices of a former whole. In less metaphorical language- he was burning up the leftover trim.

I do this thing sometimes where I try to capture moments with mental snapshots. I focus on the present and all the tangible pieces it provides- the warm glow on Michael’s face, the still but crisp air when I step away from the fire, the variety of colors that the flames provide- darker at the base and lighter as it rises, how Michael set up the chairs on pieces of wood so they won’t sink into the mud, our boot imprints in that mud, the outline of our boathouse over the still water, the way the lights of Winona glare through the cottonwood trees, the secure feeling of holding Hutch close to me as he sleeps so peacefully in my arms.

I started this practice of capturing mental snapshots years ago when Michael and I were traveling around the world. We didn’t have cellphones to capture every second, and I didn’t want to forget how good some of those moments felt or smelled or looked or sounded. It’s now become a form of meditation, a source of calm in wild times.

I am a nurse. I talk to a patient about his upcoming surgery as he coughs on my face. He later has a fever. After this shift, I go home to sleep next to my husband and baby. A nearly debilitating amount of fear accompanies that experience.

Did I mention that this is a crazy time? I’m sure you’ve noticed. It’s uncertain and scary. It’s also many other things. Let us not forget that we are still very much alive. I still sit in front of a warm fire. I cuddle my smiling baby. I watch the birds migrate right outside my front windows. I read books unrelated to the chaos. I drive my boat under the moonlight on my way home from work. Sometimes, less preferably, I drive my boat in the freezing rain on my way home from work. This is a crazy time but there’s beauty too. Believe it or not, sorrow and joy are not mutually exclusive.

We build a fire of the scraps that built our home. We smile in it’s warm glow. The pandemic will pass. It will not pass without some loss. We have been forced to strip down- to only buy the basics, to eliminate our social calendar, to limit our interactions to only our household (and if you’re not doing this one yet, you must; it’s critical), to go nowhere or do nothing with our extra time, to just sit by the fire or watch the birds migrate.

We will be changed. Things that seemed to matter before may not so much matter again; they may become mere scraps of our newly built selves. This pandemic will pass. We will sit by a fire again with all the ones that we love. We will burn the parts of a former self  that no longer serve the foundation of a good and meaningful life. We will smile in it’s glow.

It Takes A Village

Belonging. Love. Acceptance. No matter what human you come across, that human desires each of these things. We all do. The crabby coworker, the drunk uncle, the friend who never returns your calls, the introvert, the extrovert, that guy in The White House who tweets nonsensical criticisms, and everyone you love or despise, they all want these: belonging, love, and acceptance. I will refer to these three desires as “a village”.

In 2018 until the spring of 2019, over 300 tents accumulated in a small area alongside Highway 55 in Minneapolis. These tents became a village of homeless people who now made a place they could call home. I drove past this community on my way to work and often pondered the good and the bad of a place like this. Of course, living in a tent in winter was unsafe, drug use was prevalent, and sanitation was challenging. However, people who once felt alone and vulnerable to dangers on the street now had a village- people nearby that would support them, check in on them, or simply accept them. I get it.

After passing the hundreds of tents and pondering a life experience outside of my own, I get to work. I’ve been a nurse for eight years now and four of them have been in the area of rehabilitation- rehab of trauma, stroke, burns, amputations, spinal cord injury, etc. I have found that the two factors that most contribute to quick progress and good outcomes are these: the patient’s health prior to injury (the healthier then, the better they heal now) and their village or the amount of support and involvement that surrounds them now. Do they have a horde of family or friends or at least one or two tried and trues that check in daily, bring food, decorate their room in photos and cards, make them laugh or let them cry in company? Without doubt, that patient will heal better and faster.


Belonging. Love. Acceptance. Having a village and contributing to one too. These are human necessities. Forget our modern society’s idea of necessities- a big house, new car, or big paycheck. I’ll take my little floating home, rusty old truck, and part time schedule any day. It’s the village I can’t live without. I need my family, my friends, and my neighbors to stay sane, healthy, and quite literally afloat. My baby boy needs them too.

I gave birth to Hutch on January 9. On the evening of January 11, it was time to go home. I fed him at the hospital as Michael packed up our stuff and brought in the carseat. After Hutch was fed and bundled up, I put him in the carseat. Eager to get on the road, Michael quickly fastened the carseat latch at Hutch’s chest, and the plastic latch broke. Michael tried to repair it to no avail. He showed the nurses. After they asked why the latch looked melted (part of Michael’s repair attempt), they told us we would need to get a new one. Michael drove to WalMart (a store we recently vowed to boycott which is a whole other story) to get a new carseat. An hour later, Michael was back. We opened the “new” carseat and put Hutch in it. It wreaked of cigarette smoke… WTF. We ruefully continued with our departure, hurrying home to get Hutch out of this cigarette basin as soon as possible.


What Michael and I did not know is that the river level had risen two feet in that single day. Our life on the water revolves around the attitude of the river and for the last five days, our focus was diverted to meeting and loving our little boy. We forgot to check in with Ol’ Man River. The river height was 10.8 feet this day when it usually sits around 7 feet.

Ice dams had caused the rise. As we carried Hutch across the island in the dark in 12 degree weather, we came upon the flooded center portion of the island. One of our neighbors had left a canoe for himself and the other islanders to traverse this section. Hutch very quickly had his first canoe ride. We came upon another flooded portion. We didn’t have our headlamps but the moon was full. We thought we could walk this part. I had my knee high boots on; Michael did not but felt fine getting his shoes and pants wet. We went separate ways, each believing one way would be better than the other. We both got soaked. The water went past our knees, into my boots, and after this, we could not wait to get into our warm little home.

Another unexpected circumstance greeted us as we opened the door to our boathouse. The batteries had drained down to nothing, and the usually cozy boathouse was sitting at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. I wanted to cry. I was exhausted and holding my bundled and hungry baby while feeling like the worst mom to ever walk the planet. First, he had to ride in that disgusting carseat. Now, we didn’t even have a warm home for him.


It was 7pm when we got to our cold boathouse. It would take the rest of the night to charge the batteries and reheat our home. In that moment, we were wet and without warm shelter, but we were not without our village. We could have traversed the island again to stay with our land-dwelling relatives or we could walk the 30 feet to our neighbor John’s house.

We called John. As always, he was there for us. He happily put us up for the night- a night that involved many instances of baby cries, lots of breastfeeding- something I was still getting used to and was quite the process, and a full takeover of his main room with a bassinet set up, diaper supplies, etc. We were welcomed and warmed.

I recently read a book by Sebastian Junger titled “Tribe”. It discussed the value of a village and the detrimental effects of not having one. As always with books read, I wrote down some of my favorite quotes.

The following two quotes ring true to me as I recall comfortably sitting on Neighbor John’s couch feeding Hutch as he watches the Tennessee Titans upset the Ravens in the divisional playoff game:

“Some people are generous. What made him different was he had taken responsibility for me.”

“Robert Frost famously wrote that home is the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”


In an increasingly individualistic society, I choose to rebel in small ways. I choose to be vulnerable and allow others to do the same, to keep my door open and lack hesitation in entering the open door of another, to live minimally and buck the culture of consumption, and to share experiences, stories, and life with a village of people both similar to and different than myself.

I choose to raise a son in this ever-growing village of love, belonging, and acceptance. I hope to allow him the priviledge of knowing a plethora of human experiences outside of his own. It takes a village. It always has.

Instrumental Jazz Construction Zone

As I write this, I am newly 31 years old… on December 31st, 2019- the last day of a decade and my golden birthday. As I write this, I sit at the butcher block counter top of our new boathouse, the one that we have spent the last 1.5 years demolishing, designing anew, and building from the riverbed up. I sit at the butcher block counter that we lathered last night with lubricant laxative “for occasional constipation”… mineral oil from the pharmacy section that is. Apparently, this is the equivalent to the mineral oil used for “butcher block treatment” only incredibly cheaper. At 31, I’m still learning these very important things.

I think back to a decade ago. It was my 21st birthday. A wonderful group of friends and family gathered together for dinner and music. We then went to all the bars in Winona.. yeah I said it: all of them. I rang in the 2010 year by puking into a toilet for multiple hours while my sister’s dog licked my leg. It was lovely… It actually was quite lovely until the puking part, but again, we’re always learning. The birthdays ahead in the 2010 decade included nights spent at work, out and about in Minneapolis, in Hudson, WI, in New Zealand watching fireworks over the Pacific Ocean, in our small northwoods cabin with a dozen best friends, and at the marina last year when we had a bonfire and mule rides in -5 degree weather.

So, as I was saying, I started this decade by hanging my head in a toilet and getting slobbered on by a bulldog. I end it now drinking raspberry leaf tea listening to “Relaxing Instrumental Jazz Cafe” on Spotify while my child, who is still in utero despite his due date three days ago, kicks me in the guts. My husband is using a drill in the other room doing god knows what. I guess you could say that my vibe right now is “Instrumental Jazz Construction Zone”. It’s perfect.

To go back in time one decade is quite daunting. I’m happy to report I’ve maintained a village of family and friends that could never be replaced. I found a husband who is equal parts mischief and equal parts love and entirely my perfect match. I have fallen in love with humanity in multiple ways: in my work as a nurse, in taking time to travel slowly and purposefully inside and outside of the country that raised me, in living with with friends in college and in the middle of uptown Minneapolis where I met “Neighbor Boy”- that equal parts mischief/equal parts love I didn’t know I needed, with my cousin in a cabin on a lake in WI, with my sister and brother-in-law and husband before any of us were married or sure about much, and in a boat in a marina with other liveaboards who demonstrated inexhaustible interest in the world around them.

Michael and I built a cabin in the northwoods of MN, traveled the world for six months of time, took many road trips in the van that Michael converted into a camper van, lived in a houseboat for four years in the middle of the Twin Cities, got married on my grandparents’ farm where my parents and sister had also done so, and bought a boathouse to renovate into our current floating home on a river that we love in a place that feels so peacefully a part of my soul; and now, I sit here cramping across my pelvis because this is the time of the night when Baby Hutch likes to kick like a madman against all of my insides. I am making a human- one that doesn’t want to arrive on time apparently… like mother, like son. To think about all that a decade has done for me is beautifully, overwhelmingly, and magically daunting.

I acknowledged “all that a decade has done for me”. After I wrote that part, I leaned back in my chair– both to alleviate that pain of a presumably oversized watermelon baby moving in a small space but also to reflect on the rebound thought, “Have I done enough for the world?” I sure have received more than my fair share. I try to remember that we give back in small ways. We can’t all be Greta Thunberg, although my ideal self will try. We pick out small moments that arise and capitalize on them; we create greater moments where we can. We might give some change to that homeless guy, or better yet, we stop to talk to him on our way home from work. We learn his name, hear about the life he had in Alaska, bond about our love of nature and sleeping outside, share a common interest in libraries and journal writing, give him some health care advice, and yes, eventually ask about his teardrop tattoo. This man was a face that made me smile often in this decade as I passed him on the same corner for three years of my commute. He told funny stories, reflected on the simple joys of his day, shared his art work, asked about my family and how work was going, and once, when I told him “sorry, I don’t have any money today” after feeling bad about not giving him anything for the last handful of visits, he started pulling out some cash and said, “how much do you need?” I suddenly realized that I’m not this kind man’s benefactor. I’m his friend. So, again, “have I done enough for the world?” because it sure feels like I gained here too.

I started a new birthday tradition a couple years ago. I spend some hours of the day at a bookstore and inevitably walk out with 1-6 books. I walked out with three today. One of these is “Upstream” by Mary Oliver. I’ll leave you with a few wise words from this great poet to start off your new year, your new decade, and your same wonderful you.

“In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed. I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it, before I knew at all who I was, what I was, what I wanted to be.” -Mary Oliver

“Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do… Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms. Attention is the beginning of devotion.” -Mary Oliver

“You must never stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life. I don’t mean it’s easy or assured; there are the stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all the years, a bag of stones, that goes with one wherever one goes and however the hour may call for dancing and for light feet. But there is, also, the summoning world, the admirable energies of the world, better than anger, better than bitterness and, because more interesting, more alleviating. And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe- that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.” -Mary Oliver

Now, no matter how you started this new decade, whether you spent it with your head hung in a toilet or while drinking tea in a more upright position, whether you were surrounded by friends or all alone, there is no telling what ten years of time has in store for you. You cannot plan a life or a decade but you can create small moments of a day. You can choose how many smiles you give in that day or don’t. You can read for an hour of that day or scroll on your phone for that same time. You can stop to visit with your neighbor. You can meditate, pray, go to church or walk outside; you can do none of those things and still know yourself and the power that moves you. You can stretch your mind with whatever book, media, or conversation you put yourself in. You can love the ones around you no matter what they do with their moments. These moments make days. These days become a decade. The decades create your life.

“Have I done enough for the world?” is an incredibly broad inquiry. I’ll just start with finishing this tea, thanking my husband for hooking up the sink in the bathroom as I write this, walk around for ten minutes to give my son and my guts some extra space and exercise, write down my intentions for tomorrow, and text a friend back. After that, I’ll grab those ginger beers and meet Michael on the couch for our 10pm movie date. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll give him a foot massage instead of asking him to fork one over to his super pregnant birthday wife… Nah, that’s overkill.

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

“Do You Know What You’re Doing?” (the tower tale)

So, Michael just bought a fire tower today…
That’s correct. For a whopping five dollars paid to the Wisconsin DNR, Michael purchased a 116 foot lookout fire tower- the kind that looms above the tree line to see as far as the birds. I woke up this morning to Michael shaking me awake and saying, “five minutes left (in the online auction) and the tower is ours!” I try to process this insane project with my mind still halfway in dreamland… I cannot. We watch as the minutes tick away (Michael excitedly, I with a sense of impending doom), and then suddenly we own a humongous fire tower somewhere in Wisconsin. Michael shares his thrill in a text thread where he starts recruiting his buddies for all weekends over the next 90 days (the time allowed to remove the tower before we get fined). Sam immediately responds, “Nope”; this is definitely a logical response. Calli volunteers Chris to which Chris readily agrees with the clause “just don’t kill me Mike!”. Neighbor Sam has been encouraging this idea all along and told me yesterday “if Michael buys that tower, I’m in”. The answers are varied, and I don’t know what to think.

I think back to cutting down the looming tree limb at the boathouse spot. The neighbor downstream asked Michael, “do you know what you’re doing?”. I know Michael well enough to know he said, “oh yeah, this will be no problem” or something that similarly instills a maybe false but certainly reassuring confidence. I hope I’m not revealing too many of my husband’s secrets here. I haven’t figured out if he truly believes he can do anything, or if he just wants us to buy in to what’s happening here. Either way, the b.s. he’s putting out has yet to fail us. I wouldn’t have half of these adventures without him.

You may be wondering what one does with a 116 foot lookout tower. From my understanding, one looks out from it and that’s pretty much the gist. I’m sure there will be stories to come on how this massive structure makes it’s way from Eau Claire, Wisconsin to Two Harbors, Minnesota. I can’t quite wrap my head around the process but Michael claims he’s got it all figured out… typical.

As Michael’s off to the bank to get that five dollars where it needs to be, I’m here writing and reminiscing. I think about the question “do you know what you’re doing?” as so logically asked by our neighbor. I wonder now, do any of us really know what we’re doing? If we truly know what we’re doing each step of the way, are we doing it right? If there’s no challenge or uncertainty, are we doing enough? I can imagine that the ones who’ve made waves before us- ambitious souls like Thomas Edison, Martin Luther King Jr., and Amelia Earhart- did not make waves without failure, uncertainty, and fear. One of my favorite quotes is this by Thomas Edison: “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” I’m certain that Amelia Earhart got asked over and over again, “what are you doing?”; she certainly stepped outside of the box she was put in, and controversy and fear were no match for MLK’s tenacity. Now I know that I’m comparing MK (Michael Kahl) to greats like MLK here but just go with it. Apparently, I put my husband on a pretty high pedastal. Don’t worry, I kick him in the ego once in awhile too; I believe in a balanced life.
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I scribbled out the above on the day that Michael bought the tower: August 20, 2018. Since that date, the hourglass was flipped- the tower must be down in 90 days or we will be fined ten dollars per day; that is two large extra shot lattes per day or one week’s worth of laundry at the laundromat- both washed and dried. I began to wonder- will I have to budget out coffee or clean clothes if this thing doesn’t get down in time? I wouldn’t know which to choose. I still had no idea how Michael planned to remove this looming steel structure. It was tall, heavy, and seemingly permanent in it’s place. While the tower did cost $5, I soon realized that the extras would add right on up. First, gas money. It would be a 170 mile round trip at least once per week. Also, we were finding that on more days than not, one of our two trucks wasn’t running right for one reason or the next. The removal required an insurance policy (understandably so), so Michael called our buddy Paul who also happens to be an insurance guy; he was crazy or kind or both of those enough to insure it. The work also required multiple Menards trips and a trailer that would exist in Eau Claire for three months (thanks Neighbor Sam). A storage shed rental near the removal site was also necessary, oh and time.. lots of time.

Have I said how much I love my husband? I really would do anything for the guy but this whole tower thing… it stretched my limits. One night, with the 90 day cutoff date looming and half the tower still remaining, we sat in Happy Hollow Tavern guzzling a beer and a hamburger after a cold and long day picking at the tower piece by piece. I was exhausted and thoughtlessly spilled out the sentence, “Michael, you bit off more than you can chew on this one.” He was quiet and thoughtful and said “If I could go back in time, I would have never bought it.” This sentence broke my heart. He said this in response to a fatigue and frustration that he knew I was feeling and that was inevitably rubbing off on him. He said this after a very long weekend in abnormally cold fall weather. He said this with a very hungry stomach. Michael had talked about deconstructing and reconstructing a fire tower for YEARS, multiple years. While I’m aware that this is a very odd and specific goal, it was one that never went away. Michael kept showing me towers on Craigslist, admiring towers on road trips, and dreaming about the day he would work on one. Believe it or not, I vetoed a handful of towers for sale before this one fell in our shopping cart. So when this one came along, one that was accessible by road and cost thousands of dollars less than the others, I decided to keep my mouth shut and let him live this one out, for better or worse. That is what I promised, right? “For better or worse, richer or poorer, fire tower debacle or not.” Now, here we were at Happy Hollow Tavern and Michael was confessing to the notion that this project might be over his head. I immediately wanted to backpedal, reverse my negativity, swallow that phrase “you bit off more than you can chew”, and encourage him, cheer him on, slap him on the butt and say “you got it slugger”.. or something like that.

After that brief exchange of guilt or regret or whatever, we did what all the great drunks of past and present do, we left those tortured emotions on the barstool and never looked back. Well, actually, a drunk would probably go back. Also, we’re not drunks… bad analogy. Anyway, we moved forward and moved forward fast- 90 days to remove a tower with no heavy equipment. The tower came down the old fashioned way- bolt by bolt, piece by piece, in both good and foul weather. It had too, or I was going to have to give up extra-shot lattes and clean laundry.

Our 90 day cutoff date was on the horizon when Michael got a phone call. A woman from the DNR office called to say, “We checked the site and it looks like you’re making a real honest effort”… she extended the deadline. Magically, we had three more months. With a ton of help from Neighbor Sam, I am happy to report that the tower did come down in it’s entirety. With climbing harnesses strapped on, ladders rigged with ropes, tool belts tied tight, a grounds crewman or crewwoman to detach and load up the beams, and Kwik Trip pizza for lunch always, the tower removal was a complete surprise.. I mean success. With the extended deadline by the grace of the Wisconsin DNR, the fire tower was removed in time and somehow, someway, without injury. I think back to the night when Michael said “I would have never bought it”… he had never said anything like that before that or after that. I know he never meant that for himself; he meant it only for my sake. He knew I wasn’t utterly jazzed up about the tower idea and the takedown took longer than planned. But Michael, he was never intimidated, never scared, never uninspired. Michael dug in to this project like he does everything else- tenaciously and without regret. While I outwardly hated (not to sugarcoat it or anything) this tower from the beginning, Michael loved everything about it- the challenge, the planning and forethought it required, the heights, the often inclement weather, and the physicality and guts required to reach, unbolt, tie, and maneuver while strung up high in the sky. I have to admit something here: the tower project was a lot of things but the most unavoidable of those things- it was a lot of fun.

At the time Michael purchased his, the Wisconsin DNR attempted to sell eight fire towers. They only sold one. That’s right. Only one human in Wisconsin and the surrounding states decided they would buy a fire tower; that human is my husband. So what do you say when someone asks, “do you know what you’re doing”? I think it’s less about what you say and more about what you do; you do it anyway- tenaciously and without pause, without regret, without internalizing the doubt that the world, and even your wife, might eagerly offer. You might only know what you’re doing when you find 10,000 ways to do it wrong, or you might get lucky- your big humongous looming steel tower might just come down without a hitch.

After I read this blog to Michael, he informed me that, “I don’t really like Thomas Edison though.” When I asked him why, he let me know that Edison didn’t actually invent the lightbulb… I’ll have to fact check that later. Michael went on to share a favorite quote of his that he finds more applicable to his experience, and I have to agree- it’s better than Edison’s. His preferred quote is this: “Good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement” as stated by writer and activist Rita Mae Brown. So, allow me to revise my ending: You might only know what you’re doing when you find 10,000 ways to do it wrong, or you might get lucky- your big humongous looming steel tower might just come down with a bit of bad judgement, a lot of experience, and seemingly… without a hitch.