The Real Houseboats of the Mississippi

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

"My arms were massive, and my hands looked like a Disney witch, always curled up," Brodey remembers. "My pipes had frozen, so I was showering up at the marina office, and I'm up every four hours breaking ice."

But she didn't have a choice. Brodey couldn't swing a backup apartment on land, and that first winter, she couldn't even afford a furnace.

"I was like, 'All right, dummy, if this thing sinks, you're fucked,'" Brodey remembers. "You have nowhere to live. You're going to have to move into a basement and respond to people who are like, 'I heard your house sank.'"

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

The gawkers who line the Wabasha Bridge to look at the SPYC's houseboats in the summer don't stop to check them out in the winter months. In exchange for not having to worry about lawn mowers and basement mold, live-aboards get their own set of challenges. That includes ice in the harbor, spring flooding, and the fact that all boats want to be submarines. They sink.

Steve Cherveny, a gregarious man with a thin mustache and a penchant for printed shirts, has lived at the SPYC for 17 years and has seen plenty of neighbors dredge their boats up from the bottom of the river. When he goes away in the winter, he puts an inflatable bubble on top of his boat so that the snow will slide off and not push his house into the yawning deep.

His worst winter was when the sewage pump froze. On a boat, toilets don't flush the way they do in a condo. Instead, every few weeks, residents hook up a hose to their sewage tanks to "pump out." And one balmy November, someone on the dock forgot to drain the pump when he was done. The next person who went to use it found it frozen.

"We put propane heaters around it, we did everything we could," says Cherveny. "But nothing worked."

Until a brief February warm spot two months later, no one could use the bathroom in their house, and a line of live-aboards ran down the block to the Holiday first thing every morning.

Spring isn't a guarantee of smooth sailing either. The seasonal thaw can create a marina's other major natural challenge: flooding.

On a normal day, the boats at the SPYC sit below a hill, at the bottom of a ramp that runs across a beach and connects them with the parking lot. But during flood season, that arrangement can reverse, with rising water levels lifting the boats as much as 22 feet. Some springs, live-aboards find themselves gazing down at the parking lot from above the tree line.

"Usually if you fall in the water, you stand up and wipe yourself off," Cherveny explains. "But if you fall in during a flood, the current will take you."

During one flood in 2011, some of the live-aboards worried they might float away. At the marina, spud poles — big iron stakes planted in the river bed — anchor the docks, and when the water level changes, the docks move up and down on them.

The poles at the time were 26 feet tall, but the flood forecast suggested that a surge could surpass that and carry the docks off and away with it.

Right before the storm, Anderson, the SPYC manager, masterminded a welding project that involved waiting for the water level to get just high enough that he could reach the top of the poles and attach extensions. Just in time for the storm, he increased their flexibility to 30 feet.

"There became a point where we couldn't get out," Cherveny remembers. "We set up a rowboat on a line, and would go by boat across the parking lot arm-over-arm until we hit dry land."

The Mississippi River has always been a place where anything can happen.

John Halter, a man with the gruff voice of a captain, started working on the river when he was a 23-year-old fresh out of the Coast Guard, living on a boat at the SPYC.

As a riverboat pilot, he took his boat past the Omaha Road Bridge every day, and radioed five or six times daily with the bridge-tender who ran it, a woman who "looked like Joan Baez," Halter remembers. She lived on a houseboat too, over at the old Lilydale Marina.

Both of them got off their shifts at midnight. At 2 a.m., they hopped in their canoes and paddled down the river between their houseboats, three miles right through downtown St. Paul.

Thirty-five years later, they're still married.

"Back then, it was not uncommon for something like that to happen, or to do something like that," Halter says.

Halter is the most seasoned kind of river resident, even though he officially moved off of a boat before he and his wife had their first son. He's the type some in the marina call by a name other than live-aboard: a river rat.

After a man has lived on a boat for years — decades, even — his beard and his hair grow together into a shaggy gray mass, and he becomes both anonymous and distinctive, people in the marina say.

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