The Real Houseboats of the Mississippi
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
Benjamin Carter Grimes
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.
"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.
There's also the most basic appeal of a houseboat: the simple economics of it. Getting onto a boat costs less than getting into a house: Houseboats can range from $500 for an engine-less fixer-upper to $250,000 for a historic two-story. And the living's cheap: Live-aboards don't pay property taxes, and their slip fees — the marina equivalent of rent — come in around $5,000 annually for an average-sized boat.
"You do get some people that look at it as a cheap lifestyle," says Roger Anderson, the manager at the SPYC. "Frankly, you get some bums."
But in Anderson's 16 years running the marina, he's also come to see the kind of people who are drawn to houseboats as he would a diverse city block.
"You have wealthy people, you have poor people, you have people at the high end of society and people that are barely surviving, you have mentally ill people, you have handy people, you have helpless people," he rattles off. "It's a microcosm of the world at large."
For most of the about 50 people in the Twin Cities' houseboat community, the attraction of the live-aboard life is little bit of all those things, but also something else — something less easy to put a finger on.
Kramer's own explanation is in his boat's name. The bow reads, in proud gold lettering, "Carl G. Jung," after the psychiatrist who pioneered the study of dreams.
MacLeod hasn't yet painted a name on the side of his boat, but he knows what he calls it: Sanctuary.
When Bruce Klaenhammer walks down the dock at the SPYC, he waits for his neighbors to wave first.
That's the informal rule about greetings in a neighborhood where boats float port-to-starboard with each other: To preserve some privacy, the person on the boat chooses whether to say hello.
"It's a gauntlet to go down the dock, petting dogs and talking to people and seeing how their guitar playing is going," Klaenhammer says. "You don't find that in most neighborhoods."
In the marina, one person's business is everyone's business: A live-aboard can hear his neighbor turn on his sink, or watch his neighbor's TV as easily as his own. On nights when Dancing With the Stars is on, the women at the SPYC cluster on one of the boats to tune in together, while the men stream over to a separate boat to have a drink.
"You're living in a neighborhood that is more closely knit than a trailer park," says JP Lindrud, the manager at the Watergate. "Your boat is literally three and a half feet from your neighbor. That's a tiny yard."
For Virgil Amsden, his neighbors in the marina have come to be more important than the boat or the water.
Amsden has had boats as long as he's been married — 52 years — but since 1987, he has anchored at the Watergate. Most of the time, his boat doesn't leave its slip.
"The thing to me now is certainly not the boat ride," Amsden says. "It's the gathering of the community, and the friendships that we've developed over the years."
Instead of getting out on the water, Amsden organizes events for the Watergate's yacht club (mascot: the Watergator), leads boating safety classes, and enjoys people-watching on his dock.
His sons grew up on his boat and now have boats of their own. His daughter died of breast cancer a few years back. At her funeral, the Amsdens' dock neighbor — a pastor whose boat is named "Holy Bucket" — gave the eulogy.
Like Amsden, Klaenhammer likes a lot of things about life in the marina. He knows the "crazy little birds" that come by and eat the spiders that burrow into the dock, as well as the mama and baby beaver, and the stray kitty who lives in the pile of logs on Raspberry Island. But above all, he likes the people.
"You can live this close and still be left alone," he explains. "But I wouldn't think that it would anything less than appropriate for me to join a neighbor's party."
Klaenhammer's had boats for "50 years," he guesses, starting with a block of Styrofoam with plywood glued to the top that he and a buddy used as a swimming platform after they realized it didn't sail. He moved aboard in 1993 "to live a simpler life," he says, though he later mutters something about a woman.
The boat he's on now has 38 feet of length, 160 square feet of living space, and a round bottom conducive to rocking in the marina's river harbor. "Feel that?" Klaenhammer asks, as his house sways. "That's the positive buoyancy."
On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Klaenhammer sits on his back deck sipping white wine, overlooking the downtown skyline, and demonstrating that no rule is hard and fast.
"Hey, Peter!" he shouts when his neighbor appears on his deck with a book. "Want some cheap wine?"
On the coldest nights during her first winter at the Watergate, Dawn Brodey's equipment and insulation weren't enough to keep ice from forming around the boat's fiberglass hull.
So in the middle of the night, she woke, bundled up, and grabbed a 30-pound steel pole to smash the ice and push the chunks away from her boat to keep them from re-freezing. After the 40-minute ritual, she slid herself underneath the plastic wrap around her boat to climb back underneath her frozen blankets and try to catch some sleep.
"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.'"
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.
One legendary river rat used to have cards that proclaimed him "Captain Crazy Carl's Classic Car Company, Seven Seas." Everyone just called him Crazy Carl.
Carl lived at Lilydale and hung around the Watergate, patrolling the river with his ukulele, patchwork pants, and hair down to the middle of his back. In the winters, he drove his two cars — a 1956 Ford Ranchero station wagon and a 1963 Cadillac El Dorado — out to Bozeman, Montana, to make a living playing guitar for the season.
To get them both out there he leapfrogged for two weeks: Take the Ranchero to Fargo, hitchhike back to the Cities; take the Cadillac to Minot, North Dakota, and then hitchhike to Fargo to get the Ranchero. Once in Bozeman, he lived in the Ranchero and used the Cadillac to get around town.
In the summer, Carl did the same thing on the return, then spent the warm months crafting houseboats out of cheap plywood.
"He'd nail these things together and he'd dump a quart of used motor oil in the bilge to make them waterproof, and then he'd put a 5-horsepower motor on the back," says Halter, who knew him in those days. "They were works of art."
Over his years working the river, in roles ranging from barge pilot to diesel engineer, Halter has seen the live-aboard communities expand and contract. He regards them today with a sense of nostalgia.
"Even in the late '70s, Crazy Carl would say, 'The river's going to hell,'" Halter recalls. "'All these people in plastic boats are just ruining the river.' And I said, 'Carl, the river you're thinking of exists only in your mind.' I think he had some idealized version of guys in wooden houseboats, but that never existed either. The river's still the river."
There's one thing less
frequent around marinas these days: younger adults, people in their 20s and 30s, discovering the dream of the river for themselves.
"The younger generation, they're not getting into boating the way my generation got into it," muses Mark Sauer, a master shipwright who runs St. Paul Shipwrights out of the Watergate. "The average age of a boat owner down at the St. Paul Yacht Club is probably 65, and 30 years ago, they were all boating and they were 35."
Sauer speculates that the pressures have changed for adults today. He sees his nieces and nephews "all out working their butts off," without the time to tie up at some hidden islands over on the St. Croix and live rent-free, as he did one summer in his 20s.
When Halter first started working on the river, everyone else working the Mississippi was his age, and "we used to go out in our johnboats at night and just raise hell."
Now, he says, "the river's become so gentrified that the real characters are gone."
There's less action on the river today than there once was. It's become more a body of leisure than of industry. Thirty years ago, eight companies did the freight shipping work now done by one. Commercial navigation on the upper Mississippi has been on the decline since the mid-1990s.
At the same time, the national trend among marinas has been to institute rules about how much time marina members can stay on their boats — curfews, in other words, that make living aboard impossible. The fact is, houseboaters can be a hassle.
Lindrud, the manager at the Watergate, describes one of the functions of his job as "adult daycare." Down at the SPYC, Anderson says that his 23 live-aboards demand more of his time than the rest of the nearly 200 seasonal boaters.
"Many marinas are turning away from live-aboards," Anderson says.
But for now, the mythology of the Mississippi continues to call some to live on its banks.
People like Brodey. At 34, Brodey has friends who did follow a certain template of the millennial generation: go to a good school, get a good job, live in a manicured neighborhood. But she wanted to find her own way to live in the city.
"I looked at that and was like, security doesn't interest me as this really fun thing," she says. "I sort of feel like I snuck into the party on this one."
She curls up on her deck, leaning against skull-and-crossbones pirate pillows, and starts thinking about Jonathan, her name for her favorite of the Watergate's resident beavers.
"Jonathan doesn't know how close we are to 10 Bath and Body Works," Brodey says. "At night, even though the airport is so close, I can lay up on the roof and hear nothing but birds and crickets. I don't know how that's possible. Maybe it's magic."
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