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Castaways

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

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.

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.

 

For Erickson, the simplicity of life on the water is a big part of the attraction. Erickson came to Minnesota six years ago "for the same reason as a lot of people: treatment." Like Terry Kriesel, she is also a cancer survivor. The river, she says, has been soothing. "I think you come to the river to get healed," she offers. "There's something about water that heals people. We feel healthier when we're around water. And there's nothing like sleeping on a houseboat. It just rocks you to sleep."

 

Of course, it was all too good to last.

For years, St. Paul city leaders have had an antagonistic relationship with the houseboat colony. As one resident acidly observes, "Wherever you have houseboats, you have pissed-off bureaucrats. They had this obscene preoccupation with the idea that we were shitting in the river, which we weren't." When the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency came by to sample the waters for evidence of sanitary impropriety, residents say, they didn't find anything. At "legitimate" marinas, similar inspections revealed problems.

But in the end, it was land hunger, not municipal bureaucrats, that spelled doom for the houseboaters' idyll on the waters.

Last summer, the longtime owner, Kerwin, sold to a Bloomington-based company called Springbrook Development. At the entrance to the property, there is now a sales trailer full of well-heeled prospective owners, and little "Parade of Homes" signs stuck in the ground all over the place. Springbrook wants to build as many as 200 luxury condos and apartments on the site. The company also has plans for a 20-slip marina. But it doesn't want houseboats--and certainly no bohemian "live-aboards," as boat dwellers are called.

Last month, the Island Station tenants received the official notification in certified letters: Clear out by April 26, take your boats with you.

Everyone knew the day would come. As the Mississippi in Minneapolis and St. Paul has become cleaner in recent years, high-end residential developments have spread up and down the shorelines like some sort of gilded tumor. But the inevitability doesn't make the looming reality any less painful. "There isn't any other place like this. So unless you can afford a 300G condo, you're locked out," Kriesel complains. "It comes down to money. Those that have money can use the river. If you don't, you're out." And Kriesel, who lives on disability payments that net him about $900 a month, knows he is out.

No one at Island Station has figured out what comes next. Because of his health, Kriesel figures he could qualify for subsidized housing. But that doesn't hold much appeal. "I've got friends who live in public housing. But that doesn't offer independence. It offers institutionalization. I've been avoiding it, because I like being as independent as I can," he says. Then he repeats a favorite mantra: "I don't want to pay 550 dollars a month to live in some apartment with dirty windows looking at another apartment with dirty windows."

For Kriesel, one possibility is moving out of state. He and a friend are in the process of restoring an 80-foot houseboat on Dale Hollow Lake in Kentucky. Maybe he'll live there. "Whatever it takes, I've made up my mind that I'm going to live on the water for the rest of my life," he finally offers. Like other Island Station residents, Kriesel is holding out hope that he might be able to find moorings around the Twin Cities, if only on a temporary basis. Problem is, none of the marinas in St. Paul accept live-aboards anymore.

"I'm gonna miss this," he adds, "but I got 13 years of good memories. No one can take that away." One favorite memory comes to mind: the marriage ceremony of a former Island Station resident a few years back. The bride had a mannequin, which she put in an old wedding dress. She then hauled it to the roof of the old power plant, set it on fire, and threw it off the edge. A crowd of about 100 people cheered as the flaming dummy plummeted to the ground. "I guess that was supposed to mean the marriage was consummated," Kriesel says, cracking a smile.

 

For their part, Varley and Erickson say they are only looking for "anchorage and access"--in other words, a landowner along the river willing to provide them with a place to park their cars. "We're tidy people. We don't need much," Erickson says.

So far, the searches have proved fruitless. To Varley, whose arrival at Island Station had more to with serendipity than any plan, the prospect of departure is grim. But this is the Mississippi, and the Mississippi always offers up another possibility. "You know," he muses, "this river goes downhill all the way to New Orleans. I could be there in three or four weeks."


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