St. Paul river rats bid farewell to their private paradise

In 1990, Terry Kriesel was bracing for an early death. A few years earlier, Kriesel had tested HIV positive. Now he was facing more trouble--a diagnosis of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. After a grueling course of chemotherapy, Kriesel's doctor advised him to draft a will. Kriesel was spent. He was depressed. He didn't know what to do.

As a kid, Kriesel had always loved mucking around the wild parts of the Mississippi River in the vicinity of St. Paul's West Seventh Street neighborhood. Then it hit him: He would spend his final days on the river. That fall, Kriesel left his home, wife, and kids and moved into an old houseboat he'd bought a few years earlier for two grand.

It wasn't fancy--a couple of 40-foot-long pontoons topped with a custom-made, thank-God-for-Menards one-room cabin.

Live-aboard Bob Varley enjoys a final afternoon at Island Station
Mike Mosedale
Live-aboard Bob Varley enjoys a final afternoon at Island Station

Kriesel didn't care that his boat wouldn't blend in with the luxury cruisers that occupy the slips at the expensive marinas along the urban stretches of the river. He had already found a mooring where his boat would fit in just fine, a funky little houseboat colony located by a shuttered coal plant a mile upriver from downtown St. Paul.

The owner of the 11-acre property, a developer named John Kerwin, called the place Island Station. The occupants jokingly referred to it as the Third World Marina, and only partly in reference to the dilapidated condition of some of the resident boats. The amenities were limited: A place to park cars. A dumpster. A port-a-potty. And a few docks, half-sunk and cobbled together from scrap lumber and carpet remnants.

But in the essential regards, Island Station was perfect. Unlike other marinas on urban stretches of the Mississippi, it has no harbor. Houseboats at Island Station are anchored in the river channel. It is an arrangement that makes the vessels vulnerable to waves and high water. But in return, the occupants get an incomparably intimate connection to the rhythms of the river. And a spectacular view.

Over the course of the next 13 years, Kriesel never got around to dying. Instead, he carved out a new life for himself. Like the other half-dozen to dozen Island Station residents (the population of the colony constantly fluctuates), Kriesel learned to relish the challenges of life on the river. The people at Island Station look out for each other. They learn how to get along--with each other, with the river, with the river's other users. Until a few years ago, there was a homeless camp under a nearby railroad trestle. Sometimes as many as 60 people stayed there. And yet, Kriesel reports, there was seldom any friction with the transients.

Before their most recent troubles--troubles that promise to displace the houseboaters--the floods provided the biggest challenges to the river dwellers. "If you leave it alone long enough, a boat's natural position is on its side and on the bottom. That's where they like to be," Kriesel says with a wry little laugh.

A slightly built, middle-aged guy with soft eyes, Kriesel breaks out of his customary monotone as he recalls the excitement of the floods. It's exhilarating to survive a flood; the sights and sounds are intense. Once, he saw a live cow, evidently washed off the banks of the Minnesota River, drift by in the waters, mooing all the way. Another time, after the Coast Guard had ordered all pleasure boaters off the water because of flooding, he spotted "a couple of gray-haired ladies out in their kayaks."

In the last big flood in spring 2001, two boats at Island Station sunk. But more often than not, the folks at Island Station have been scrappy enough, and innovative enough, to avert disasters. A few years back, when the city of St. Paul ordered that electric service be cut off to the houseboats (a safety concern, it was said), Kriesel and his fellow residents invested in generators, wind turbines, and solar panels.

When Bob Varley bought a boat and moved to Island Station two years ago, he wasn't sure what to do come winter. His boat, a converted day cruiser, has a fiberglass hull, which can't withstand a hard freeze. Varley's solution: He purchased an electric trolling motor, which he hooked up to the dock; it moved just enough water to prevent ice from forming. This winter Varley discovered another technique for keeping the ice at bay during the coldest days. He bought a 50-pound bag of day-old bread and scattered crumbs on the water. The resident waterfowl, mostly Canada geese and mallards, swam laps around the boat, and the water remained open.

"They got so tame Bob was able to pick up one of the male mallards. The geese let him pet them," recalls Kirsty Erickson. Erickson, Varley's girlfriend, lives in a boat adjacent to Varley's. Their homes are a study in contrasts. His is high-tech, with two computers, internet access, satellite TV, and a digital keyboard. Hers is decidedly more rustic. When Erickson bought her home a few years back (for $200), it was half submerged, a rusty steel hull that other Island Station residents were using as a makeshift dock. Now, it's downright cozy, with warm wood paneling and assorted homey touches. At first, Erickson didn't have electricity. She used kerosene lanterns for lighting. She later tapped into Varley's electric supply, but still heats with a wood stove.

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