Remembering The Nightcrawlers

I love bad weather. I love that it knocks us off our routine, makes us uncomfortable, and bring us Minnesotans/Wisconsinites together in a collective “What the hell is up with this?” kind of way. I have to include Wisconsin in my posse now that we’re living out on the river somewhere in no man’s land between the two dairy-loving, football-crazed, lake-loving, hardy-living states. Also, I love the cheeseheads.

Two days ago, on October 20, it snowed multiple inches all over the place. (That is exactly the sentence I would say if I was hired to be a weatherwoman.)

Today, I woke up to a gray yellow sky which is a color that makes no sense. It felt otherworldly.

My neighbor texted me to watch out for an alien invasion. Allegedly, there have been multiple encounters with former residents on this island, and today looked like the set for exactly that. My mind wandered and made up stories as the eery energy eminating from the sky and off the oddly calm waters infiltrated my system. I then heard a clunk clunk against the boathouse and jumped with the flashing thought of a landing spaceship. It was just a log brushing against the barrels, and it is a noise that happens here every 3.5 hours. My imagination got the best of me.

Shortly after my stint of imaginating aliens, Michael called me. He is rained out from work. Reason #5 that I can appreciate a little bad weather: we will now have the rare day off together.

I think I like bad weather in the same way I like the dark. It heightens my senses and allows me to feel fully present. You can bet that I am paying attention to every broken branch, every print, every sound, and every motion as I walk through the woods late at night. For those five minutes on my walk home, I don’t think about what my patients are going through, about Covid and about missing many of my favorite humans, about politics, about anything outside of my present experience in these woods. It’s enlivening and so necessary. Also, when I’m most alert, the neighorhood beaver slaps it’s tail at me and makes me pee my pants, so there’s that.


If you think back on the last year, I guarantee that some of your most vivid memories include inclement weather. They do for me.

I remember bringing Hutch home from the hospital during a winter flood. The icy water was up to our knees and I yelled to Michael, “as long as it doesn’t reach my stitches!”… uffda. We stayed at our neighbor’s house that night after discovering that our heat went out.

I remember the hip deep snow at the cabin- Hutch’s first time there. It was such a challenge just to move through, and it provoked plenty of fall-related laughter.

There were the hot days that I submerged Hutch in his bathtub while I lived in just my underwear.

There was the mid-summer tornado that skirted around us. It was mighty and dark as we tracked it’s path just south of us. I remember the warm air, the whipping wind that switched directions ten times a minute, and the maternal worry that pulsed through my body as I asked Michael, “Should I put Hutch in a life jacket?”

I remember the wet and humid days walking through the island. I felt transported to a rainforest- a wild place so green and isolated.


As I walked home in the dark on Monday, I thought, “Why do I love this so much? Why do I love this dark walk that also feels both cold and wet?” I dug into that wonder until I remembered gathering nightcrawlers with my dad as a very young kid. It felt just like this night. I might have done this thirty times or maybe just once, but my body remembered the thrill.

I would have never dug up this memory had I not tried. Our minds are cluttered with so much.

The brain begins to carry only what we exercise; this is science. I see it in practice as my stroke patients must repeat actions to strengthen a neural pathway that they lost. If they repeat a thought over and over or an action over and over, that pathway will regenerate and grow stronger and more accessible with repeated input.


If we exercise gratitude over worry, our minds will land their first. If we perseverate on the flaws of a person, our minds will execute that negative thinking the next time we consider them; the same goes for positive thinking. If we start to stereotype, those connections will only grow stronger with each practiced thought until every person we meet or every experience we have gets put into it’s prescribed box.

But, if we relive the nights with the nightcrawlers, if we remember the thrill of being wet and in the dark way past bedtime and this is learned to be fun and not scary or uncomfortable, we will start to carry those kinds of feelings in the forefront of our cluttered minds. If we take time to enjoy bad weather or humorously entertain stories of aliens or perseverate on what is so good in each person we meet, the neural pathways in our minds will grow stronger toward these inclinations. We will feel enlivened.

So today, when I catalog the gray yellow sky in my memory, I will remember Hutch crawling on me at 7am and the neighbor’s dog visiting and licking both of our faces into a smile. I will remember a day off with my family with nothing planned. I will think about aliens, ya know, just for fun.

 

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.)

 

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.

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