By Cindy Ross

Houseboating on the Mississippi River - The setting sun reflects off the Mississippi turning the water pink
Setting Sun on the Mississippi River


We know we are on the Mississippi when we stand on the upper deck of our houseboat and watch the Julia Belle Swain riverboat slice through the pink waters of the river, reflecting the setting sun. A spotlight illuminates the cherry red paddles that churn and drip. Blue and green lights highlight the shiny smokestacks, which pour forth steam, reminding us of a gigantic, floating, illuminated birthday cake. Its whistle, piercing the evening air, commands all to stand in awe at this symbol of bygone river days.

Mark Twain said, in "Life on the Mississippi," the autobiographical account of his years as a riverboat captain, and the experiences from which he penned "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "Mississippi steamboats were floating palaces. They were finer than anything on shore. They tallied with the citizen's dream of what magnificence was, and satisfied it." Watching this spectacle, we'd have to agree.

Next to come coursing down the river is a huge barge being pushed by a towboat, blowing its horn, to alert other craft like us. This one is three barges wide and five long and a quarter-mile in length! A full tow of barges carries the freight of 870 semitrailers and annually, they all haul 170,000,000 tons of freight! The pilot navigates from the pilothouse three stories above the water, but has a blind spot of 1,000 feet in front. This means he is steering his tow to a point a full mile in front of him. It will also take him a half-mile to stop his rig, not exactly on a dime, so when novice houseboat renters, like us, are in the main channel of the river, we must skedaddle fast and get out of his way.

Tonight we aren't concerned. We have secured our 55-foot Huck's Houseboat Adventure rental ( just a few hours ago, and remain in Pool No. 8 (an exceptionally wide area of the river) outside of La Crosse, Wis., and are spending the first night of our adventure close to our start. We gently steer the bow of our boat into the soft sandbar, set our anchors and quickly absorb the magic of this magnificent river -- the stage for our summer vacation.

The Mississippi River is the longest river in the world -- 4,300 miles. It is also the most crooked. No other river has so vast a drainage basin, drawing water from 28 states and three territories. The basin, containing 1,250,000 square miles, is the second great valley of the world, exceeded only by the Amazon. In Mark Twain's time, 4,000 steamboats and 10,000 acres of coal barges, and rafts and trading scows lined the river. That figure has dropped tremendously but the lure of the past is still here. So for us, traveling by houseboat, learning to navigate the channels, operate the locks, avoid the wing dams, read the river markers, and communicate with the barge captains, seems like the most ideal way to immerse ourselves in life on the Mississippi.

There are a few companies that operate houseboat rentals on the Upper Mississippi. We've chosen Huck's Houseboat Vacations out of La Crosse for several reasons. It is the only company to indulge us in a hot tub on the top deck, a sliding board to plunge into the river, and two refrigerators to handle the food and drinks of two families. As the parents lug the bags of groceries, luggage and bedding from the car trunks onto the boat, our teenagers cannot suppress their joy. They speed down the slide in street clothing, dropping four feet into the river, not wanting to take the time to change into bathing suits. That's what houseboat vacations are supposed to be about.


My husband Todd slept little last night. He rehearsed in his head all the procedures for starting, navigating, locking through, docking, etc. We had a two-hour course before heading out last night, but it was a lot to absorb. As he steers his craft down the main channel, the adults try to read the manual and become familiar with the new language and vocabulary. There are white rectangular boards identifying the mile marker and measuring the distance from the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in Cairo, Ill. The numbers correspond with the numbers on the navigational map. Unless we are docking, we are to keep our houseboat in the main channel. This is the area of water between the green buoys, which mark the Minnesota side, and the red, which mark the Wisconsin side. We are instructed to stay at least 50 feet away from these buoys, for although they are held in place by 1,500-pound cement anchors, the barges sometimes come too close and force them to move. (We quickly learn that the barges do tend to hog the channel.)

Another hazard to consider is the wing dams -- a pile of rocks placed in the water by the Army Corp of Engineers. Their purpose is to keep most of the water in the channel and prevent the current from washing away the islands. Mark Twain commented on this addition to river navigation: "One who knows the Mississippi will promptly aver ... that 10,000 River Commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame the lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it 'Go here' or 'Go there,' and make it obey; cannot save a shore which has been sentenced; cannot bar its path by an obstruction which it will not tear down, dance over, laugh at."

Each wing dam is a different length, height, and configuration. They generally run from the shore to the edge of the channel and are marked by buoys, represented on the navigation map as short black lines drawn at different angles. "Coming in contact with a wing dam can sink the boat," our manual says. Although the Mississippi River is many miles wide in some places, especially where natural lakes have formed, the channel is deceivingly narrow, with a swift and often unpredictable current. Sweat beads up on the captain's brow. It's a lot to absorb but navigation certainly isn't boring. I read him a quote from "Life on the Mississippi":

"A pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived in the earth. Your true pilot cares nothing about anything on earth and his pride in his occupation surpasses the pride of kings." He rolls his eyes and proceeds to head into shore on a 90-degree angle to avoid the wing dams, and allow a sprawling barge to pass."

After we figure how to lock our gigantic floating house through Lock No. 7, ("All hands on deck, throw that rope, tie it secure") we relax and enjoy the principle reason we have chosen this stretch of the Mississippi to explore.

The majestic bluffs overlook the river along this region. The base of their verdant slopes jut steeply from the water's edge and are topped with broken, turreted rocks, lining the riverbanks like sentinels. For 70 miles, beginning 9 miles south of La Crosse, sandbars (and the bluffs) are plentiful. The sandbars provide an excellent place to spend the night or play during the day. Crater Island with its 70-foot sand hills is a giant sandbox and provides great views of the far-stretching river.

The river water here is completely different than what the Mississippi is noted for, which is mud. The river annually empties 406 million tons of mud into the Gulf of Mexico. Mark Twain wrote, "It is said that there is nutrition in the mud, and a man that drunk Mississippi water could grow corn in his stomach if he wanted to." But here in the Upper Mississippi, the river is clean and green and coaxes you to pull over to a sandbar and swim.

At first our children race down the sliding board on their butts. Then on their bellies, arms first. Then they take to jumping off the deck. "Come on Dad, try it," my son Bryce coaxes my husband. "You'll be sorry the rest of your life if you don't. It's so much fun, it's not scary." This man who navigates our monster boat with very little previous experience down the busy Mississippi, is timid about sliding into the river. After he is convinced, we have to work on our friend Steve, the remaining father. (We moms are right there with the kids.) Steve takes even more coaxing but soon we have both dads screaming with glee and throwing their arms in the air, as they become airborne like the kids they used to be.

Tonight in the hot tub, my son asks, "Why does that happen, this reluctance to have fun and be a little daring? What happens to adults?"

"Something happens between childhood and adulthood. You forget how to forget yourself. You forget how to have fun. You have to work at it and some of us work harder at it than others."

"Huck's Houseboats sure make it easier," Steve admits, smiling.


It's raining on our last day. The river is gray and foggy and it's nice to see it wearing a different personality. The kids play cards on the lower deck, and enjoy one of the gifts of living together in a somewhat confined space. You become like family. We're returning the boat today, as we only rented it for a three-day weekend. It is much too short. There are so many scenic river towns to explore. Had we brought along our kayaks, we could have toured the quiet coves in search of wading birds and wildlife. Next trip.

A tug and barge approach and Todd confidently calls the captain on the radio and asks which side of the river he prefers us to escape to. Todd tucks the houseboat in-between two wing dams like a pro. We watch with continued disbelief how the tug captain steers his monster of a raft, loaded with grain.

His voice comes over our speaker after he passes, "Many thanks to Huck's Houseboat. You just made my day a whole lot easier." Captain Todd has come a long way in a short amount of time.

At lunch, the kids light the 55 candles on Steve's birthday cake and we all sing a lively "Happy Birthday."

"That's too many candles, too many years," he muses.

"Who cares," our teenagers comment. "Not if you're doing things like sliding down boards and taking adventures in houseboats on the Mississippi."

That's the message Mark Twain tried to convey through "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." In his forward Twain wrote, "Part of my plan was to remind adults of what they once were themselves." It's all about perpetual youth -- on the river, having adventures. Who cares then, how many candles you have?


© Cindy Ross

Travel | Houseboating on the Mississippi River