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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

Instead, I said, "Uh — Lock Four? Hello?"

"Lock Four, over," came the reply.

"This is a pleasure craft wanting to pass through. Is that, uh, possible?"

Pause.

"Over!" I said.

That would be no problem, she said. We slowed to a crawl alongside Alma and waited for the lumbering gates to open. We pulled alongside a wall, where the lock operator tossed down a couple of ropes so we could steady the boat as water poured into the lock. Ten minutes later, the other side opened and we puttered out.

Up the Mississippi we went. I gave my father a couple turns at the wheel, and comfortable now, we listened to music, some easy, breezy stuff fit for the river. We cut through the bluffs, craggy and green and rolling.

Lake Pepin was so wide and empty that I could cut the engine and ignore the wheel. I threw on my bathing suit and launched myself into the brown Mississippi. It was warm, then cold, then warm, then cold. I swam around the boat, getting pushed where the current wanted me. After a couple of trips down the water slide, we fired up the engine again to head back south.

When the sun started to dip, we found ourselves a slice of beach on the Minnesota side of the river and set the weighty metal anchors into the sand just as Matt had shown us. We threw steaks and veggies on the grill.

On our second day we headed south, back through Lock Four, and this time, I called out my intentions like a pro. I was even called captain over the radio. I had arrived.

While my passengers were happy to sun themselves, read and watch the sights, I was happiest driving the boat. Music playing, a soft drink at my side, it was a slow, rhythmic joy, the green bluffs slowly dragging by. We spent the whole day like that.

That second night we beached in a bend in the river that allowed a long view toward watery infinity to the south. We got our anchors out and squared away just in time for the storm. Wind kicking up, river turning angular and wavy, the current picked up and clearly wanted to take the boat with it. But our anchors dug into the sand, keeping us just as steady as they should.

Secure, we turned our attention to a thick rain drumming the river just outside our back door. Half an hour later it was gone, replaced by a rainbow to the south, an orange sherbet sky to the north and miles of placid Mississippi in between.

If you go …

Fun 'N the Sun (S2221 Highway 35, Alma, Wis.; 888-343-5670; funsun.com) rents houseboats on the upper Mississippi River between mid-May and mid-October. It has 13 boats of various sizes that sleep two to 14 people. Costs range from $600 to $3,395 for three nights based on size of boat and time of the year. All boats are equipped with electricity, water, a full kitchen, a gas grill, air conditioning and heat.

Other options include S&S Houseboat Rental in Lansing, Iowa (800-728-0131; ssboatrentals.com), Mississippi River Rentals in La Crosse, Wis. (608-317-7990; mississippiriverrentals.com) and Huck's Houseboat Vacations (920-625-3142; hucks.com), also in La Crosse.If you go ...

Fun 'N the Sun (S2221 Highway 35, Alma, Wis.; 888-343-5670; funsun.com) rents houseboats on the upper Mississippi River between mid-May and mid-October. It has 13 boats of various sizes that sleep two to 14 people. Costs range from $600 to $3,395 for three nights based on size of boat and time of the year. All boats are equipped with electricity, water, a full kitchen, a gas grill, air conditioning and heat.

Other options include S&S Houseboat Rental in Lansing, Iowa (800-728-0131; ssboatrentals.com), Mississippi River Rentals in La Crosse, Wis. (608-317-7990; mississippiriverrentals.com) and Huck's Houseboat Vacations (920-625-3142; hucks.com), also in La Crosse.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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