When You Have To Boat To Your Boat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 2019 Stats To Remember:

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

The Real Deal Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay low-key-cool Minnesota.

Love Always, Your Neighbors Aboard

About That Boathouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boathouse Gymnastics

Hank At Work

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

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

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

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

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

River Jump (includes life jacket swag by me)

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

Latsch Island News Report

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

Strategy Lives Here

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

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

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

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

Cheers!

 

Boathouse Build (Month One)

We wake to our alarms signaling our impending 4:30am departure. I struggle with this but am eventually invigorated by Michael’s joy in a project weekend. We make our typical Kwik Trip stop right outside of the city for a large dose of caffeine.

The air is thick with humidity & it’s reminiscent of time in another more tropical slice of the world. This comparison fills me with excitement as I remember all the early morning departures we’ve had in lands far away- getting the van going in New Zealand before sunrise so we wouldn’t get in trouble with where we parked, rising before the heat in Thailand to get our morning run in, and packing our bags in the dark to catch a train in Europe. My bones are alive; my spirit is ready.

The sun rises over the dense clouds along the Mississippi River as we drive south on highway 61- my favorite drive in the world. It’s soon battered by rain, and the sound of rain makes my eyelids heavy. I lay my head on Michael’s lap as he drives. I wake as we park next to the river. My mom and dad have the boat ready. We are off.

The rest of the morning goes something like this:

1. Tie the boat to the half demolished boathouse & release it from its anchored points on the island.

2.Realize the boat has no control to actually turn the boathouse upstream. This is the first moment that I question our sanity.

3. I wonder, “How did we not plan for a rescue boat… or at least an extra anchor?”

4. We correct our course by pushing the boathouse off the boat and maneuvering it many times this way until pointed upstream toward our destination.

5. We soon approach three bridges. We narrowly miss one, bump the side of the other, and pass through seamlessly on the last.

6. Our rope begins to fray. We reinforce with a second rope.

7. Jeff approaches us on his fishing boat. I feel relief that we’ve stumbled upon a very capable and willing rescue boat.

8. We are going slowly but surely. In other words, it’s going very well.


9. I’m pretty sure the dudes get bored with our efforts moving along so flawlessly. They decide to get Jeff involved. Surely two boats will be better than one…


10. Strategizing happens. Should the boats be staggered? Where should they anchor? Mom and I, the poor souls on the boathouse at the mercy of their decisions, wonder why we’re changing what’s working here. Well Ma, let’s sit back and watch this; it’s gonna get good.

11. We pick up speed and right as Mom says, “This is actually working pretty good”, the entire right side of the boathouse gets tugged off; we’ve lost a valuable anchor point. Michael yells out, “Maybe we should just go with one boat!”… ahh, yeah dudes.

12.Scott joins the forces right as we approach our destination. We now have three boats involved; one to tug and two to rescue, watch, advise, etc. If you know river people, you know they can’t sit out on a good adventure.

13. Our ropes break just before pulling in and somehow, someway the boathouse floats perfectly in to place on shore. We’ve made it.


Our buddies show up in the afternoon and everyone is quickly put to work. We have demo to do and new frames and barrels to acquire from the farm and assemble for float. As we drive to the farm, my dad says to Michael and me, “Are you running out of friends yet?” My family has this running joke that Michael and I are bound to lose our friends as whenever we invite them somewhere, Michael is notorious for quickly putting a shovel, saw, or paintbrush in their hands. The good thing is that they know us well enough now… they’ve all arrived in their work clothes.


Have I updated you on the weather yet? Well, it’s still miserably humid and hot- a heat index of over 100. I sweat so much that I don’t pee all day. The nurse in me says a quick prayer for the well-being of my kidneys.
The demo of the old boathouse is the suckiest part. It’s full of moldy insulation, some disgusting carpet under the floor, and multiple mouse dens. My dad works crazy hard from dawn to dusk and he’s the one on the crowbar really giving her hell. He falls in the water twice. I wonder, “Is this how most people honor their dads on Father’s Day? Here Pa, lets destroy some shit together and take zero breaks in the asphyxiating heat.” He’s the best.


The treasures we find in demo include a tarot card and a rat carcass. Our friend Sam suggests we frame both. I consider framing the tarot card but I’m pretty sure it floated in to the raging bonfire… that can’t be good luck.

As if you didn’t consider the aforementioned activities super-duper fun, here comes the most exciting event- transporting the new platform (frames + barrels) in to place where the old boathouse formerly existed.

Like everything else, Michael and I spend the twenty minute drive from the farm discussing the best way to make this happen- where do we put them in the water, how many frames do we float down at once, how do we attach them, what do we use to transport, how many people are needed and where. If you imagined that it would be hard to agree on all these different variables, you are correct. We agreed on none of them at first and then compromised until we were left with one main disagreement- how many frames do we float down at once. I was adamant about one while Michael was advocating hard for three. We settled on two.


With Dan and Ang at the helm of the kayak (our tug boat) and Michael, Beth, Garner, and I aboard the barreled frames with paddles, we way too easily and quickly navigated 2/3 of our new boathouse platform in to place. We were not without a rescue boat in the distance; Ma and Pa observed in the channel with country music on blast.

If you read through this whole thing without knowing what the heck we are even up to, I’m going to rewind for a minute. In the fall of 2016, Michael and I purchased a boathouse- a floating cabin on Latsch Island in Winona, Minnesota. The boathouse had been housing bats and rats for some time now and was beyond decent repair. We’ve since made new boathouse plans and this summer is our summer to execute them.


Prior to this weekend, we got our city building permit, boathouse association approval, and various supplies. One weekend was spent acquiring 100 blue barrels (which pack the platform to our boathouse allowing it to float), prepping them with dry ice (to keep them expanded), and sealing them with silicone. Thanks to Chris and Ben for that weekend! I hear it was full of really good smells since the barrels came from Watkins and held flavors like bubble gum and caramel.

The next weekend was spent picking up LOTS of wood from Menards and building the nine 30 foot frames. Thank you Sam Henninger and Kelly Brandon for assistance there along with help from cousins Chaniah and Zoe. Big thanks to Grams and Gramps for letting us use their shed for construction and storage.

The third weekend and one I could not be there for (thank goodness because this one made me the most nervous) was dedicated to cutting down part of a dead, overhanging tree that reached high in the sky over our boathouse site. The Sams (Sam Larson and Sam Henninger) were in on this one. Some demo and oversized bonfires happened then too. I can imagine that Sam H. (or “Neighbor Sam” as we endearingly differentiate him) was very involved in the tree climbing portion and Sam L. (or “Sam Sam”) in the fire tending portion as these are their bread and butters; that weekend certainly had the right humans for the jobs.

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This weekend brought Dan, Ang, Beth, Garner, and Rachel to the river for a perfect Mark Twain-esque adventure story.

Jeff and Sara Brandon and Scott Yess, three neighborhood river gurus, also helped to streamline the disgusting and difficult demo process.


After weekends like this, Michael and I wonder what we could ever accomplish without our village- our family and friends who are willing to fall in the water, climb uncomfortably tall trees, inhale bubble gum scented air all day, navigate a kayak with 30 feet of timber attached to it, and take evening swims in the river in lieu of a real shower. I wouldn’t be surprised if our friends visit for the free food- brunch at Grandma’s house or dinner by Mom, but whatever keeps them coming, we are thankful.


And finally, Michael and I talk incessantly about the blessings we have in each of our parents- the backbone to our village. On Sunday (Father’s Day), I woke up to my dad cutting up wood from the demo the day before. He had been up since 4am working on this project. He goes and goes until sunset. He doesn’t say much and at one point I turned to Michael and said, “Has Dad said anything yet today?” Michael says, “I don’t think so.” Shortly after, I hear Dad unintentionally mutter, “I’m exhausted”. As much as I ask him to rest, he never does. He also never drinks water which I find absurd. In every project or dream we come up with, he’s right in the trenches with us- always doing the dirty work, the heavy lifting, the early morning jobs, and the late night grind; he smiles at the end of an incredibly long day and I know he loves this as much as we do.

Mom is there too, every time. She’s keeping us fed, keeping our spirits high, contributing logical insight during stressful moments, and getting her hands as dirty as the rest of us. Within this process, Michael’s parents are cheering us on from out of town. They’d be right here with us if they could- before sunrise or after sunset; they know hard work and love a good project. I see them in Michael throughout all of this.


As we drive home on Monday morning, we’re exhausted but happy. Michael points out the tan lines on my shoulders and for the first time all weekend, I look in the mirror. My hair is all over the place, and I can’t believe I didn’t pack more than one headband to tame this mess. I have dirt stained legs from work this morning and sore shoulders and scattered bruises from the days before. I’m happy to carry these pieces of the weekend home with me. I look over at Michael who is coping with the idea of a work week indoors. “Make it fun,” I tell him as he drives away to work. “I will”, he yells back.

Tonight, I read Michael all of this and he tells me that he remembers what the tarot card was- the one we found in the boathouse wall. It was the “Ten of Wands”. We google this and find the following on www.tarot.com: “The Ten of this suit represents an all-out effort, an obsessive commitment to a task which demands everything you’ve got. The person shown in decks with pictures is in no position to rest until he makes it inside the stout walls of the well-defended castle in the distance. If he fails, he will become prey for the highway robbers after dark. It doesn’t matter that he’s overloaded and underfed. With this card, you have to do whatever it takes to get to completion — nothing can be allowed to interfere.”

This page goes on to say, “The Ten of Wands in this position advises you to remember the true, simple heart of your youth and all the idealism it held. Now may be the time to reach deep into yourself and identify your purest, most wholesome impulses. As you do this, allow your optimistic and honorable side to see what’s good about the world.”

“Make it fun,” I tell him as he drives away to work. “I will”, he yells back.

 

Not Too Little, Not Too Much

Lagom. It’s a Swedish word meaning “not too little, not too much, “in moderation”, or “enough”.

My birthday is on New Year’s Eve. There are certainly perks to this. For example, I pretend the whole world is partying in my honor- the ball drop, the dressing up, the good food, the midnight kissing, the whole thing- my elaborate birthday party. Because NYE is a holiday and I’m a nurse, I’m destined to every other birthday with my patients; this year was one of those years. I still pretend that the world is partying for me; I just don’t attend the party, and you know what- it’s awesome. I get to wear scrubs, I don’t eat or drink too much, I laugh a lot, there are no expectations, and most importantly, I get to celebrate life in the rawest form.

As a nurse, you know a patient’s whole story. You know what they like to eat, their bedtime routine, who their favorite family member is (and their least favorite), what gets them through the hardest of days, and what their shit (figuratively and literally) looks like. I know… TMI. Welcome to nurse life. In every patient, I see a bit of myself, my family, or a friend- in the homeless guy who got hit by a bus, the woman my age who is now a paraplegic, the grandpa who had a debilitating stroke, and the mechanic who suffered extensive burn injuries, these people are my people. My patients remind me that life is incredibly precious; quite simply- today is all you get; so, on my birthday, I am ecstatic to be with these dynamic individuals who have faced tragedy prematurely and face this day, my day of birth, with such grace, strength, and inevitably true joy because for all of us, today is a blessing.

To be honest, I got distracted back there. I was going to talk about lagom which made me think of the book that Michael bought me on my birthday, which made me think of my birthday, and then made me realize, “damn, that was a good birthday”. Okay, back to lagom.

The book I read is titled “Lagom: The Swedish Art of Living a Balanced, Happy Life” by Niki Brantmark. The book touches on de-cluttering, the art of listening, eco-friendly living, the morgondopp (morning dip), work-life balance, fika (a break with coffee and a treat), sauna, and even foraging. As I often do with books I love, I read it aloud to Michael during our morning fika. We come to realize that lagom is really life as we know it. It is perfectly enough… except we need a sauna.

You guessed it. He built a sauna. Alright, you probably didn’t guess it, but it’s true. In the days leading up to a big project like this, Michael is a much quieter presence in our little boat. His mind is working on the logistics, notes are being scribbled, Youtube videos are being watched, and Craigslist is being scoured through for discounted materials. Michael is truly a student of the process. I adore him for this. Michael is thinking of measurements, materials and timelines while I’m like “can’t we just get a day pass at the YMCA sauna?”… not the same.

It’s two days of obtaining materials, two trips to Hutchinson where Michael has his dad as a mentor and his shed as tool heaven, six hours of constructing the perfect jig for dovetail joints, twenty minutes per cedar board dedicated for dovetail carpentry, and multiple nights of staying up until midnight with the coolest and kindest welder at work who helps complete the homemade wood stove. With only wood, stainless steel, a small amount of stone, and lots of gained knowledge, a sauna is made.

What is next on our lagom to do list… the morgondopp (a morning dip in the local swimming hole)? I step outside the boat and shiver at the thought of falling off the dock in to the thick dark mass of nearly frozen river water. While a good chunk of my winter neighbors have experienced this fateful event and come out looking like scared, wet cats, I’ve walked carefully along the dock to avoid such disaster. My heartbeat quickens, I tighten my scarf and decide that on the scale of “not too little to not too much”, the morgondopp is simply too much. I’ll just fika instead.

So, how to live a life of lagom? Live a life of “enough”. It’s living for what matters and not indulging in what doesn’t. I possess eight pairs of pants and twelve shirts but enough books to sink our through hulls. I love work but spend more time not at work. The process is what makes you; a sauna does not build itself; the food you eat does not grow itself; a maple tree will not tap itself; the process matters more than the outcome so enjoy every moment of every process you can be a part of.

Be a contributor, a listener, and a lifelong learner. Dedicate time to activities that enrich you, not distract you. Be outside; remember that you are a part of this world and this world is a part of you. You are not superior to the trees that give you air.

Spend your birthday doing small things with great intent; in fact, spend every day that way. Give, give, and give. Please, stop taking so much. You will be happier with just enough. Finally, be yourself wherever you are; understand that you are not too little and you are not too much; you, just as you are, are exactly enough.

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!

 

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.