Houseboating on the Mississippi River
Setting Sun on the Mississippi River
We know we are on the
Mark Twain said, in "Life on the
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 (www.hucks.com) just a few hours ago, and remain in Pool No. 8 (an exceptionally wide area of the river) outside of
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
There are a few companies that operate houseboat rentals on the Upper Mississippi. We've chosen Huck's
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
Another hazard to consider is the wing dams -- a pile of rocks placed in the water by the
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
"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
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
The river water here is completely different than what the
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
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
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?
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(c) 2010 Cindy Ross
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