Oh Glory, we're doing it.
As I write this, it is the afternoon of the 5th day and we are docked in the lovely Mid-Town Marina in Dubuque, IL. We knew from the first that we would be stopping here to see our friends Doug and Chris Schmitz who used to live next to me on J-Dock in St. Paul. Doug (I call him Cap'n D) is my River Daddy. He tought me to drive The Road, he showed me how to prepare for winter, and has broken ice around the hull with me on countless below-zero nights. And his wife, Chris, has a knack for handing a hot bowl of soup to a cold, hungry, and broke Dawn, at just the right moment. In short, I love them.
What we had imagined as a pleasant pit-stop, however, quickly became a desperate landing. When the starboard engine went out on Day #3 we knew we'd be limping into their marina and be in need of a mechanic... But I'm getting ahead of myself. First things first:
Day #1: Our initial plan was to begin the trip on Sunday, October 7th - first thing in the morning. However, by Friday afternoon we were informed that was not going to happen. A last-minute once-over of The Road revealed a bad carburetor on the starboard engine and our mechanic, Eric, said he just didn't feel right about us heading out. The fix would only take half a day, but it wouldn't happen til Monday morning because of parts and his schedule. A bitter pill to swallow, sure, but good medicine none-the-less. My initial disappointment was quickly calmed by the understanding that necessary repairs are... well, necessary. And I had to give extra credit to Eric who was giving me news he knew very well I didn't want to hear.
And it proved more than just a necessary repair, but necessary time for Melby and I to pack and get ready for the trip. Ultimately, we were grateful for the delay and to push the departure back to Columbus Day felt appropriate somehow.
We finally pulled out of the Watergate Marina (MM: 845) at about 3PM on Monday, October 8th. It was cold and breezy, but the swell in our hearts trumped all. We knew that with a stunted day we would only get 30 or 40 miles down river, but progress is progress. After about two hours, Melby and I looked at each other and realized that we were both as far down river as we've ever been. As a result, every stretch and every turn from Grey Cloud Island, on down, has been totally new and unexpected.
The Road has two helms, one inside, called the cabin bridge; and one up top on the roof, called the fly bridge. They have identical controls - in fact you can see them moving like a player piano if your looking at the vacant one. I always prefer to drive from the fly bridge because you can see more and, frankly, it's more fun. The cabin bridge, however, is protected from the wind and rain - and we've had plenty of both.
Whichever helm we're at, however, we have the same things close at hand - our 'tools'. These items that were novelites before we left, have quickly become more sacred to me than food, phone, or dog. The charts, the Quimby's guide, the captain's log, binoculars, and the radio. One or all of these things are needed every few minutes; and when they are not in immediate reach, panic creeps in.
We cruise at about 10-12 miles per hour which means that most of the time one has gads of time to look and think ahead. All the same, however, when trying to calculate how to pass a barge, every minute counts and knowing how many miles you have to get around them before you reach a lock can make all the difference... A lesson we learned the hard way.
Day #1 was also when we went through our first lock! Lock #2 on the Mississippi River is located in Hastings, MN and we got through with no problems. We've both been on countless boats going through locks, but neither of us have ever navigated or caught a boat in a lock ourselves. To understand something conceptually and doing something practically, however, are two very different things. There are 30 locks on the Upper Mississippi River, and we'll be going through 27 of them by the time we get to Cairo, IL.
The sun was setting after we came out of Lock #2 so we cruised into a picturesque little marina off the right side of the channel, and settled in for the night.
With full power, shore water, and friendly neighbors, we ended our first day feeling very optimistic.
Day #2 began with a chilly wind, but very full hearts. The sky was overcast all day, but the River opened up before us and we finally got into our stride. While I piloted past the junction of the St. Criox and toward Lake Pepin, Melby made breakfast on the grill and Dorothy began to accept that she was, in fact, going to be on a boat. Again. All day.
90 minutes into the trip we reached lock #3. The wind was gusting and we looked exactly like the amateurs we were. I was driving and hit the lock wall. Many times. Fairly hard. We sustained no damage and got through successfully - in fact, one bump actually straightened a previously bent rail.
*Incidentally if the you're wondering why we have no pictures of the locks, it's because we're too fucking busy to take pictures. Eventually, we'll be good enough at it to spare a hand or two for documentation...
About 44 miles later, we reached Lock #4 in Alma, MN and had an equally terrible time. More gusting winds, more wall-banging and indecent language. The lock master openly lauged at us and I couldn't blame her. Additionally, Dorothy was outright whining and so after we got through the lock, we pulled over to a municipal dock to walk the little darling. By 4:30PM, we were back underway and convincing one another that we were up to the task and all would be well. And we were right about that... eventually.
We had waited at the Alma lock for a barge (a fat, audacious bitch of a barge named the Mary K.) and should not have been suprised that we waited for her yet again at the next lock - lock #5 in Minnesota City. Some barges enter and exit a lock the same as any other boat. Some barges, however, cannot fit in the lock along with their load - they're too big. So it can take hours for the load to lock down, then the lock has to fill; then the barge itself has to lock down, then the lock fills again etc. And if another barge is locking up - boaters like us may have to wait the better portion of a day.
Unprepared, for this situation we had to circle Lock #5 for almost two hours. We tried to catch a wall, hoping to power down and not burn gas while we wait, but 7 attempts and a dropped boat hook later, we concluded it just wasn't in the cards. The winds either wanted to slam us into the wall or push us away, and it proved easier to keep the engines running. Job one, focus on not hitting shore, the lock wall, or going over the dam. But this touchy situation was not the biggest problem.
The biggest problem was that it was sunset, the winds were still gusting, and it was now about 31 degrees. When the lock doors finally opened for us at 7PM, we drove out into total darkness. No moon. So lights past the lock - just a wall of blackness. Was there an island ahead? A deadhead? Where was the channel? It felt like cruising off the top of a rollercoaster. With no knowledge of the River here and no radar, we had to improvise. So Melby (who was smart enough to bring a winter coat) climbed up to the brim and operated the spot light while I piloted from inside. Red buoys mark the channel on your port side as you're going downriver, and green buoys mark the starboard. Daymarkers indicate wingdams and mile markers and, theortically, if one just stays between them there is nothing to worry about. They're reflective, but not lit, so Melby scanned the shoreline and illuminated buoys while I tried not to puke or weep.
After about 5 miles of this (40 minutes), Captain D had told us there was "The Fountain City Dock". This dock proved to be an unlit, unreflective stretch of floating boards about 10 yards from the railroad tracks. And god help me, I've never been so happy to see anything in my life. And finding it was a bit of divine intervention. Even by daylight you could miss it. We were running low on gas, we'd been navigating for over 10 hours, and we were both shivering from a combination of below-freezing temperatures and pure terror. I turned the boat upstream to take advantage of the current and the wind and we managed to dock with some amount of grace. An hour later, with the generator running, soup cooking, and the dog sleeping - I finally began to feel human again.
And Melby caught some unbelievable pictures:
Day #3 began with the first beams of sunlight we'd seen the whole trip. And despite our hellish night before - or perhaps because of it - we felt capable of handling anything the day had in store. And the first thing was a very loud, very uncooperative starboard engine. It wouldn't go above 1500 RPM's and sounded like shit. With a surprisingly calm resolve, we smiled at one another and shrugged. We'll navigate on one engine and have a mechanic lined up in Dubuque. Just get to Dubuque. Everything will be okay if we can just get to Dubuque... That safe harbor, however was over 150 miles away which means that one little engine was going to have to take us our maximum distance each day in order to get there by Thursday night.
We entered Lock #5A shortly after leaving Fountain City and locked through like champs. Even with a limping engine, we had gained a certain savvy that has worked well for us ever since. A few miles down from the lock was Dick's Marine and some much-needed gas. Also, there was Steve who was very kind, nice to Dorothy, and gave us loads of helpful advice.
Advice that helped us navigate a really successful day. We made it through 3 more locks - 4 total for the day - and all of them were a breeze. We travled almost exactly 70 miles and through some jaw-dropping landscapes. The bluffs and cliffs of southern Minnesota were vibrant with fall colors and although the cold air could still bite at times, the sun made it all very bearable.
By sunset we pulled into a very pretty marina right off the channel in Lansing, IA. Full power and full water all in a protected slip?!? Compared to the night before, we felt like royalty. The feeling was heightened by the fact that we were only two blocks from a local bar called The River's Edge. We drank. We ate. We got warm for the first time in days - and we got to know Eliza, the bartender, who gave us a very under-charged bill.
Day #4: For me, waking up on Thursday morning felt like the worst of an adolescent morning in high school. Bed was warm, out of bed was cold. Slip was safe, River was scarey. To a half-conscious mind I just couldn't figure out why I would get up... it would all be downhill from here.
And true as that may have been, downhill was also downriver. And downriver was where Captain D (and a mechanic) waited for us. If we had any hope of getting to them before sunset, we had to be diligent. As it stood, we were attempting 83 miles that day - the most yet; and 3 locks - wildcards, each.
Our exit from Lansing wasn't our most impressive departure, but we were on schedule and all was well. Especially well, perhaps, because we didn't pay anybody for the night's slippage. No, we didn't sneak out. Indeed, to sneak anywhere in a loud-ass 43' houseboat with a thumping engine is unlikely; but more than that, we have no interest in generating devious karma on this trip. We had called ahead and they knew we were coming; also, they confirmed that someone would be there to pay in the morning. When we pulled out at 8:30AM, no one was there. I pushed a note under the door with our phone numbers and emails and haven't heard anything back. Awesome.
We pushed our one precious engine more than we would have liked for the first couple hours of the morning because we had seen a big, fat barge called The Wisconsin roll by shortly after we woke up. As we had a huge distance and all those locks ahead, to get stuck behind her now would be disastrous to our schedule for the day. And, of course, we have to do all in a head wind strong enough to create whitecaps. Guh. With every smack of the keel on water, I felt the hull snapping, and heard the gurgle that would mean the end of us, all our stuff, and the journey sinks unceremoniously to the bottom of the River. All was myth of course, and I tied myself up in the worst-case-scenario for nothing. Yet another watery end that wasn't. This futher boistered my sense of hope and we made it through the next lock like god damn pros! No shit, one lock master actually said - 'Nice job manuvering in there.' My heart swelled. Might we actually make it all 1,700 miles, into the ocean, to New Orleans? Good god, it's possible.
33 miles later, the second lock (#10 - MM: 615) was also a breeze and on account of making good time and seeing no barges on the radar between us and the next lock, we pulled over at a gas dock in Guttenberg, IA. We didn't need gas yet, but it was a bargain ($4.29/ gallon compared to $4.50 in most marinas) and the landing looked colorful.
Dorothy emptied, we filled.
The skies were grey and the breezes were uncomfortable, but we passed an especially enchanted stretch earlier in the day - near MM: 629.2. It is here that The Wisconsin River and the Mississippi River merge. And I care about that because I grew up in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin - named after it's location on that River. But more specifically - I grew up on 85 acres of land at the end of Neitzel Road; and it is through that land that Moccosin Creek runs. It was in that creek that I spent summers with my feet in the water - hoping I would become someone who had adventures; and always with me was my first dog, Patty. Moccosin Creek eventually empties into the Wisconsin River. So, at MM: 629.2 it hit me. From this point onward to the ocean, the road that is her namesake now flows under The Road. I felt at home on this boat from the day I walked aboard, but the feeling flooded me anew.
Shortly before sunset, we approached lock #11 just upriver of Dubuque. Only 3 miles to go to Cap'n D - and he had called us to give very specific instructions on how to enter the Marina. It's up a back channel and because of the drought, it's narrow and hard to navigate... and the starboard engine had all but completely died during the day. I was only turning it on when I needed it to get in and out of the lock and even so it would stall nearly every minute.
The sky was still pink when we limped in. And limp we did, but when Capt'n D and Chris caught our line - it was like they had the rope which hung to us in the bottom of a pit. Our saving line. Mercy, we made it. The hugs were hard, the drinks were strong, and the hot meal was home-made and already set.
We spent the night toasting and sharing war stories. Doug and Chris have lived on a houseboat for over 10 years and have made The Big Trip downriver themselves. They went a few years ago, but to Florida instead of New Orleans, and have a first hand understanding of everything we'll see. In addition to a hot meal and beer, they gave us a hand-held spotlight, a trolling motor for our skiff, a warm jacket and alllll the left overs.
The next morning a mechanic was coming down to give us the scoop on our engine. We didn't know what to be prepared for but worked through a few scenarios. We decided that there was a dollar amount we couldn't go above - but if it came to that, we would continue the trip on one engine. Maybe we will need to get a small outboard or something to help us in tricky navigation - but this needn't be the end of the trip. We've come 300 miles. To far to toss aside, not far enough to say we'd given it our all.
Day #5: Ron, the mechanic at Mid-Town Marina was coming down at 10AM. A little later in the day than we had hoped, but we've grown accustomed to time working differently on the River. I took Dorothy on a walk around the marina, and down along an inlet in the neighboring nature preserve. We saw trees eaten by beavers so characteristically that a hollywood movie set would have tossed it out as too perfect
When I got back, Ron was there and he and Melby were working things out. We were both encouraged by the fact that Ron didn't appear distressed, confused, or worried for us. Spark plugs, a choke - all relatively easy simple-sounding things, and a comparatively short timeframe. Done by this afternoon, certainly.
Chris offered me the use of her car for the day so I drove her to work in downtown Dubuque (The Historic Opera House which is amazing) and ran a few errands. Among the most vital - taking Dorothy to the local dogpark to wrestle with other dogs. She is enjoying the trip, but most of her hours or curled up in a loud, cold boat. The off-leash run did good for all of us.
The repair was done at almost the same instant the forecast for tomorrow came in. Every forecast, from the radio to the apps, predicted some serious weather tomorrow. At least thunderstoms, at most hail and tornados. Today, frustratingly, was sunny and perfect for boating. All the same, if we had left the instant we could, we'd only be 20-30 miles when the weather hit and who-knows-where? I've gained too much understanding from the experience already to throw ourselves into something so blindly. We decided to stay in Dubuque, go to dinner with Capt'n D and Chris, and see what the specific forecast is in the morning. I'd like to be in St. Louis by the 18th - which is 6 days - but we get there no quicker by trying to anchor in an unknown channel in 30 mph winds.
Overall, this trip is proving one of balance. A balance of diligence and flexibility, focus and tuning-out, optimism and realism.
And good god, it's a lot of fun.
Tomorrow we either hunker down in the marina bar, riding out the storm and watching a Hawk Eye's Game (or rerun). Or we hit the River on the heels of another near-miss. Either way, I'm in.
Below: The cabin helm. Right: Lock #2 with Dorothy supervising...
Above: The morning after hell. Fountain City, MN Right: The end of the dock in Lansing, IA.
Below: The Road's grin.
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