The Real Houseboats of the Mississippi

Floating with the live-aboards at the Watergate Marina and the St. Paul Yacht Club

The Real Houseboats of the Mississippi
Benjamin Carter Grimes
Dawn Brodey and Andrew Melby moved aboard this classic Gordy Miller houseboat, Toad Hollow, after they sailed Brodey’s original houseboat more than 1,600 miles down the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico

Gazing out on the Mississippi River in downtown St. Paul, you can easily miss them: the group of boats nestled under the Wabasha Street bridge, like a small, floating town in the heart of the city.

There's the wood-shingled two-story that wouldn't seem out of place on a suburban block, and the rickety blue boat flying a peace flag off its terrace. There's the neighbor whose tomato plants spill out onto the dock, and a handful of boats with additions that look like they would sink if they left the harbor.

At 5 p.m., the boats' owners start streaming home for the day. Steve takes his customary perch on his front deck where he can wave at neighbors coming in the gate, while nearby, Jackie prunes the garden bursting out of flowerbeds on the dock.

Benjamin Carter Grimes
Don MacLeod and his dog, Eva, recently celebrated their one-year anniversary as live-aboards at the Watergate
Benjamin Carter Grimes
Don MacLeod and his dog, Eva, recently celebrated their one-year anniversary as live-aboards at the Watergate

"I haven't killed mine yet, Jackie," Steve shouts, gesturing toward the second pot of flowers she's given him this season. "I'm trying to water them this time."

Charles and Diane — the marina's "royal couple," the joke goes — stroll down the dock hand-in-hand, each wearing a brightly colored printed shirt. They met when Charles moved onto the boat next to Diane's, and before long, they'd moved onto one boat together.

In a neighborhood where every house is five feet from its neighbor, community forms quickly. Here at the St. Paul Yacht Club, 23 houseboat owners — in marina parlance, "live-aboards" — stay in the harbor year-round, navigating the close quarters, brutal winters, and other challenges of river life.

People have lived on boats in the Twin Cities since at least the days of Pierre "Pig's Eye" Parrant, the original river rat who tied up on the Mississippi 150 years ago. Hippies made their home at the Lilydale Marina near St. Paul in the 1970s and '80s. Hermits holed up in the delta of islands above the Hastings dam — one island community even had a solar-powered TV — until they were unmoored in the Great River Clean-Up. And renegade houseboaters found shelter in the shadow of the old NSP Power Plant at the Third World Marina, which disbanded when St. Paul broke it up in 2004.

But today, just two places to anchor remain. The first is the SPYC, a member-owned institution that's been a staple of St. Paul's riverfront for 101 years. The second is its foil: the Watergate Marina, a secret even to most of the residents in the Highland Park neighborhood adjacent to it. The northern-most marina on the navigable Mississippi, the Watergate is home to about six full-time live-aboards.

Since 2006, Dawn Brodey, a redheaded actress with twin anchor tattoos curling up her forearms, has been one of them.

"When people find out you live on a boat," Brodey explains, "they ask the exact same five questions, and almost unwaveringly in the same order. 'Where?' St. Paul. 'Do you live there year-round?' Yes. 'What do you do in the winter?' I suffer. 'Why do you do it?' Because it's what I've always wanted to do."

Brodey pauses to scratch her dog, Dorothy, a dark-brown lab mix on the lookout for beavers on shore.

"Then they ask me," she continues, "'How can I do it too?'"

People who live on boats tend to be there because of something that happened on land.

"A life change usually puts people on a boat," says Peter Kramer, an architect in wire-rimmed glasses who has lived at the SPYC with his wife, Bonnie, on and off since 1990. "Many of the people here are single people who have had their hearts broken, and the only thing that would help was to fall in love with a boat."

When Don MacLeod's wife of 28 years died, he decided to re-start his life at the Watergate, and settled on a bona fide yacht in order to do it: 80 feet long, 18 feet wide, with more than 1,400 square feet of deck space.

He's been slowly renovating the place himself, adding bamboo floors and stainless-steel kitchen appliances. From the master bedroom, through two sliding glass doors, MacLeod falls asleep to a view of Pike Island.

But it's not all glamorous. "Sorry it's a little odiferous in here," MacLeod explains to visitors. "I flush with river water."

MacLeod, a recently retired book dealer, always wanted a boat: He was born on the coast of North Carolina across the street from a marina and caught the bug young.

But his wife, Ellen, didn't see the appeal. Whenever he would raise the idea, he remembers, she would say, "something along the lines of, 'No way.'"

In 2009, Ellen was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. By April 2012, Don was yet again talking to her about his houseboat dream.

"For the first time in 10 years, she went, 'Oh I get it, that does sound really nice,'" Don says.

Three weeks later, on May 14, Ellen died. By the end of July, Don had moved aboard his first boat.

For some, a houseboat is a transition, a five-year layover between selling a downtown apartment and retiring to warmer climes. For others, it's a romance — a chance to be part of a lineage that stretches back to Mark Twain. For still others, it's rock bottom, a place to heal, or an adventure. More than one live-aboard says it's simply a place to wake up to the mist burning off the river and the overhead migration of the finches, loons, and warblers.

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