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.

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

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

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!

 

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.

The Spring Feels

With the spring season, I am overwhelmed with nostalgia. I’m not sure why. Spring is not my favorite season, not by a long shot. Sorry spring, don’t take it personally. I reminisce on this nostalgic feeling, looking for a cause. I’m not sure I found it, but I will ramble here anyway. After all, it’s stormy outside and I’m aboard and alone without my distractingly handsome mate.

This is the beauty of Minnesota. Just when you get to know yourself in a certain space at a certain time, your environment flips the switch. You are reminded that time is not a statue. It is not something concrete that you can go back to and touch or relive. Time is fleeting.

Spring reminds me of tilled fields, running in the rain, and of more recent nostalgia, coming home. Three years ago in April, Michael and I came home from nearly six months of travel. We loved every moment of these months, but we missed something tangible. We missed the seasons. We completely skipped winter and all that comes with winter – reading extra books, snowstorms, bundling up to go outside, movie nights in, the holidays with our families, etc. We had Christmas at a McDonalds for gosh sakes. They had free Wifi. You take what you can get. We didn’t notice until we returned how valuable these seasons are. They balance your innards (like your soul and stuff).

The change of season is a faithful reminder that you better get to living now because now is all you’ve got.

So back to the spring feels. It seems crazy to say that this is our third year of living aboard. It seems like just yesterday we were spending full days grinding down our boat, repainting it, and living in our van all the while. Time flies.

Thanks spring for the in your face reminder that you are here; for startling us with thunder and showering us with oversized hail this week; you play dirty. I write this as tornado watches and warnings beep all over the state. Spring is beauty and pain at its finest.

We bought the boat prior to our travels, not knowing how the world would change us and if we would even like each other when we got back. Spoiler alert: We came back not in dislike or like, we came back nearly obsessed with one another and filled with a love for genuine souls and joy in any strange experience that would come our way. You could say that this marina fit into our lives perfectly for the strange and genuine souls we would meet in those weeks are like our family now. Roger knows our schedules down to the hour and is a constant on the dock, looking out for us all and always there when we need a hand. You know summer is well underway when John has his flags out and his music is heard from down the dock. Diane is the one you go to for a good conversation; she listens intently and has the best insight. Wally starts the bonfires and tries to share his blue mixed drink with you. I won’t dare share his secret cocktail recipe but I’ll let you know it contains three different kinds of alcohol and nothing else; I’ve had it once and never again. I won’t go on and on about these people although I could. I hope that someday, these people I love will let me share them through story but that’s for another time. Anyway, this is all a part of the nostalgia thing.

I have a feeling that spring will always remind me of those May days three years ago. From sun up to sun down, we were working on that boat. Michael had a grinder for a hand while I, who finds painting to be very therapeutic, had had enough therapy to cure the craziest of minds and then make them crazy all over again. We were in a constant state of sweat and van life certainly didn’t help our hygiene. Our future neighbors would stop by to meet us and bear wisdom or ideas for this or that adding to our to-do list and allowing us to quickly fall in love with this quirky place.

Wow spring, you are actually raining so hard right now that I can no longer hear myself think. What are you trying to say, that you’re not all flowers and Mother’s Day!? I get it. Okay guys, Mother Earth wants me to tell you that spring brings the feels, but they’re not always good. You might meet a spring that makes you miss someone or like I’ve noticed, a spring that reminds you that time is not a statue; you can’t go back to it. Spring might make you feel old or like you’ve left something behind.

Spring brings storms. They’re scary sometimes… especially now when Michael is at the cabin and here I am stuffing towels into crevices to remedy unexpected leaks and refreshing my weather app to see if there’s a tornado in my midst. Hmm… I hope our bilge pump works…

Okay, she chilled out now. That was intense. I’ll check the boat for hail damage later. It’s the funniest thing to watch the river’s response to hail; jumping all around, a perfect representation of my nerves at the time. It’s crazy how your mood syncs with the weather. Spring, you are a powerhouse…you make us feel oh so alive. You shower us (quite literally today) with all sorts of sensations. You remind us that time is fleeting while surprising us with new life. You startle us with thunder and then bring a rainbow. Spring, you’re a bit bipolar but I like you. Ya know, after writing this, I just might call you my favorite season… don’t tell summer I said that.

 

 

 

 

We live on a boat… and why

“Why?”… I suppose this is a logical response to telling someone that we live on a boat although I am surprised at the question each time and have yet to come up with an eloquent response. I usually end up saying something about living with less is actually more and I immediately regret sounding like a cheap life coach. Sometimes I say “well I grew up along the river”… as if this explains the choice fully.

I guess if I had the time and the forethought, I’d start at the beginning- being a kid. As little humans, Michael and I were always outside. We had everything if we had time and blue skies or fresh waters. Joy was in the little things; it still is. While at play, my sister and I would stay hydrated by drinking water from our grandparents’ creek while, unbeknownst to us, the cows were shitting in it up the stream. Maybe that’s how I should answer the question next time. They: “Why do you live on a boat?”… Me: “Because I drank shit water as a kid”… I’m afraid this might miss the point. The point is that water and the wildness surrounding water represents home.

Fishing with my dad and my sister in the creek while donning my lucky fish pants is when I felt invincible. Jumping in inner tubes with my cousins and floating for hours down that same creek was my first thrill of adventure. Pulling leeches off the leg of my childhood friend was perhaps the first nurse-like thing I ever had to do and just like doing wound cares on my patients now, I enjoyed it much more than most. That was probably another weird example but drinking shit water and pulling leeches off your friends are small but true examples of life’s stuff. I bet each of us can think of something that we thought was a good, refreshing, and logical lifestyle choice but later found out it was shit water. Although we may look back in disappointment and wonder “why didn’t anyone tell me this was shit water?”, the experience didn’t kill you, and you probably wouldn’t change it; after all, that experience is a part of you and you are who you are… shit water and all.

So why do we live on a boat? The answer in one sentence: it’s more home than a house filled with stuff. Our boat is small and while I cannot get away from my husband’s farts, I know that life is too short to be separated from blue skies, moving waters, and each other. By ridding our lives of more walls, more things, and more distractions, we are home.

We are home as the boat pounds against the wooden dock on a windy day or when it rocks just ever so slightly so that our guest thinks they’ve gotten tipsy off of one sip of beer. Home is waking up to our neighbors chipping away ice at 5 am on a winter morning or seeing stars as bright as diamonds while still in city limits.

This home has the best neighbors; the kind that provide an old water hose as housewarming gift or babysit your kombucha brew when you’re out of town.

These neighbors would jump in the freezing water for you… and they have… more than once. These neighbors chip ice together on the coldest winter nights and meet at the fire pit on the more seasonable ones.

You can never use the excuse “I’m out of beer” because before you finish that sentence, the nearest neighbor will have placed a cold one in your hand.

The mallards, beavers, and fox are your neighbors too. And that occasional loud fish will startle you right off the dock.

You feel the world when you live here; the river rocking you to sleep, the moonlight casted across your bow porch, and the sound of geese flying overhead. If I had to drink shit water to get here, I’d do it again.

Our Three Small Spaces

Neighbor Girl

In 2011, a boy and a girl from two different and smaller parts of the state found themselves as young 20 somethings in the big city of Minneapolis in the same apartment building we’ll call “The Phoenix”, mostly because that was the building’s real name.

On the girl’s move in day was when she first saw the boy. He was drunk and smoking cigarettes on the front stoop with his loud friends; how can you not fall in love with a scene like that? Despite this special first impression, the girl got to know and love these boys; they became like the brothers she never had; well, except for one… because that would be weird. That one was Michael. While Michael lived only three floors away, it took three months for them to truly meet again. The rest is history.

Michael was special in a way this girl knew nothing about. It was an easy love and five years later, they were married. In that first year at The Phoenix while still playing it cool, the boy referred to the girl as “Neighbor Girl” and his friends, family, and coworkers soon knew her as such.

In year three, after backpacking around the world for six months, this boy and girl came back to Saint Paul, Minnesota and mustered up some change to buy their first home together- a steel hull beauty of 32 feet in length and 10 foot in beam. They named her Neighbor Girl and this couple’s tiny living love affair was underway.

The Northern Post

Minnesota’s north shore and nearby woods is the most spiritually invigorating place we have ever been to. After Michael’s daily trolling on obscure property sites, we found the perfect 40 acres of wild near the north shore town of Two Harbors.

Over one year and with no road in, we hiked in all the supplies needed to build an off grid, one room cabin.

Shout out to the amazing family and friends who got coaxed into this madness; it was not a walk in the park but often times a trudge through knee deep snowfall.

After 1.5 years and a completed cabin, this 40 acres continues to be our spiritual haven and our home base of creativity and wild ideas.

The Wheel House

In the unassuming southeast corner of Minnesota lies the hidden gem and natural wonder of Winona… a place where brilliant minds and creative hands are born. Okay, I may be biased. Winona is my (Chelsi’s) hometown; it is where I fell in the love with the wild Mississippi and the people that line its shores.

In the heart of Winona, you will find an island of nearly 100 boathouses, an established community of funky folks that has existed for over a century and after going to battle for legal legitimacy in the 1990s, was finally grandfathered in and legally accepted as livable in 1997. While the city will not allow new boathouses to moor, the roughly 100 boathouses that exist today will continue to have the legal right to moor at their designated site on the island. When the opportunity arises to purchase and restore a piece of your hometown’s history, it’s an obvious choice; you gotta do it. This one was definitely in our wheelhouse ;). The rebuilding / remodeling of our backwaters boathouse has just begun. Stay tuned to be a part of the madness.