Playing captain: Even a novice can direct a houseboat on the Mississippi River

By Josh Noel

Chicago Tribune

Published: Saturday, Sept. 1 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

Sunset reflected on a houseboat on the Mississippi River.

Josh Noel, MCT

ON THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER BETWEEN ALMA, WIS., AND MINNEISKA, MINN. — They say anyone can drive a houseboat on the mighty Mississippi, and they're mostly right.

But when you gather a handful of the people dearest to your heart and rent a houseboat for a weekend in thick, leafy Midwestern bluff country, a certain daunting comes with all that floating domesticity: so much to remember, so much to do, so very much house on that boat. Anyone can do this? It's everyone's first question for a reason.

But the answer is yes, once you accept that operating a 55-foot houseboat on the Mississippi is simply like maintaining an apartment crossed with operating a large vehicle crossed with avoiding 3-million-pound barges.

See? No sweat.

Of the handful of companies offering houseboat rentals on the upper Mississippi, we opted for Fun 'N the Sun, just south of Alma, Wis., and arrived there on a Friday night. We loaded three nights of stuff — suitcases and coolers, mostly — onto our floating home, nodding happily at its comforts: electricity, running water, a microwave, a refrigerator, a gas grill on the bow and enough beds to sleep eight. We spent that first night tied to the dock, gladly watching a summer lightning show as dusk fell.

The next morning, a dreadlocked, tattooed 32-year-old named Matt showed up. He is a local guy who is, by his own account, something of a legend in the bluff country houseboating community. We flipped through the binder of instructions, flipped through another binder full of maps, and Matt turned the key. Our living space began gliding across the glassy Mississippi, and in those first moments, there was a shred of surreal joy: Our hotel room would go wherever we chose to take it.

Matt spent 90 minutes with us, discussing every conceivable detail: starting, stopping, avoiding barges, avoiding submerged rocks, passing through locks and dams, operating the CB radio and the all-important how to beach the boat at night so we wouldn't be swept into the river as we slept.

Plenty of people don't want to remember those things. They just want to be on a houseboat, beached, with coolers full of drinks. Fun 'N the Sun will do that, steering those people to one of the popular Mississippi River party beaches (accessible only by boat), then come back a few days later to return them to shore.

Others, it turns out, just can't handle driving the boat. Last summer Matt had to take the keys away from a lawyer who couldn't get his head around how to steer the behemoth.

"He was just so scared of the unknown," Matt said.

In a sense, that turned out to be the key to houseboating: Don't be paralyzed by the unknown. It's a big world out there, and the Mississippi is almost just as big. Don't be scared. The boat goes forward and the boat goes backward, and it is your home: your bedroom, your living room, your kitchen and, best of all, your pool.

Confident that I knew what I was doing — probably more than I was — Matt called a boat to pick him up. Just like that he was gone, leaving us four as the proud, underqualified renters of a houseboat. We had nowhere to be and nowhere in mind that we wanted to be. We were already there. So we shrugged and I steered the boat north, careful to stay between the red and green buoys lining the channel. Leave the channel and the houseboat could meet a few rocks.

We puttered along at about 5 mph, settling quickly into the simple joy of houseboating on the Mississippi; it's difficult to miss when every window and sliding door is open and a clean summer breeze blasts through.

I decided that I wanted to see Lake Pepin, a portion of the Mississippi about 20 miles north that is so wide they call it a lake. It involved passing through a lock at a dam — one of the more technical maneuvers we would have to execute all weekend — near the picturesque little town of Alma. I reached overhead for the white radio and probably should have said something like, "Lock Four, this is pleasure craft. Do you copy? Over."

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