“It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable.” Mark Twain's words are as true today as when he wrote them. The Mississippi's lure is so strong that some foreign travelers list it as one of the top three things they want to see.
Besides its romance and history, it is statistically impressive as the third largest river system in the world. “The Father of Waters” flows approximately 2,500 miles from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. It is one of the world's greatest migratory bird routes for over 200 species.
Old Man River has two distinctly different personalities. The Lower Mississippi begins where the Ohio River joins it at Cairo, Ill. From there south, it is a wild, remote, twisting, free-flowing river where tow boats with 10,000 horsepower push up to 50 barges. It is no place for pleasure boats.
But the Upper Mississippi that runs 857.6 miles north from Cairo offers tremendous boating opportunities.
A series of 29 locks and dams runs from just above St. Louis at Alton, Ill., all the way to Minneapolis, Minn. These separate the river into smaller pools that calm the flow for easier navigation. The channel is marked with red nun buoys on the left descending side and green can buoys on the right descending side. It is kept at a nine-foot depth by the United States Army Corps of Engineers.
Both the navigation charts and Google Earth show the incredible number of backwaters, sloughs and lakes between the shores.
Beginning in southwest Wisconsin and northeast Iowa, you enter a unique area of the Upper Mississippi River Basin known as the driftless and coulee regions. There is a rugged landscape that also runs through Minnesota.
It is characterized by steep narrow valleys and tall bluffs, some wooded and some of sandstone and limestone. At one point in Wisconsin, there is a campground on top of a 500-foot limestone bluff.
For 261 river miles, the shoreline is part of the Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. Along that and on some islands are many sand beaches. Some of these may appear one season and disappear the next, but many are created by the Corps from dredged material and are more permanent.
In addition, there are coves off the channel also created by the Corps as temporary sites for holding dredged material. These calm, lagoon-type areas are boaters' favorites.
So whether in a cove or on a sandbar, people fish, swim and have beach fires surrounded by majestic bluffs. They watch the abundant wildlife that includes a tremendous number of bald eagles and white pelicans as well as tows and excursion boats. For a change of pace, they cruise to courtesy docks at numerous friendly and historic river towns.
A great way to discover life on the Mississippi is to rent a houseboat. There are four companies offering a variety of boats from McGregor, Iowa at Upper Mississippi River Mile (UMRM) 634 to Alma, Wis., UMRM 754. Each is a bit different, but all make sure renters understand the basics of boat handling and river navigation.
Their training includes helping people understand there is a slow but steady current that affects boats so they teach pilots to land going upstream.
They explain how to read the navigation charts that show the channel and identify navigation structures such as wing dams. These are underwater rock piles that run from shore toward the channel to direct the water flow. The wing dams are marked on the charts and renters are taught how to visually pick them out and easily avoid them while beaching, which is another skill taught, frequently by the hands-on method.
Renters who want to travel to different pools are taught the simple procedures for locking through. The locks in this area raise or lower the water levels between five and 11 feet.
The companies have different types of boats with a variety of amenities and pricing. All rent secondary boats, but many people are happy without one.
They use low-, medium- and high-season pricing and there are specials as well as military and senior discounts. Their policies about smoking, pets and pre-boarding all differ slightly. One potential renter was a grandma who wondered if her college-aged grandchildren would be interested. The company told her that based on their experience, “If you pay, they will come.”
The company that is the farthest south is Boatel’s Houseboat Rental in historic McGregor. It is the second-oldest houseboat rental company in America and was owned by one family until 2012 when it was purchased by a new owner. The previous owner built the four pontoon houseboats they rent.
These are basic models with different themes favored by cost-conscious customers, many of whom return year after year to anchor out in the many backwaters and lakes in the area. They have long rented to youth camp groups and hunters in the fall.
Their boats range from 46 to 57 feet and all have single outboards. While you can smoke on them, they prefer you don't go through a lock.
SS Houseboat Rentals
Upstream at UMRM 662.5 Right Descending Bank (RDB) in Lansing, Iowa is SS Houseboat Rentals. They have been in the same location and family for 55 years and have one customer who has booked trips each of the last 50 years. They pride themselves on their reputation and also note there are over 100 active eagle's nests in their pool. Their four boats are full-hulled aluminum models custom built by major manufacturers. Ranging in size from 16 by 50 feet to 16 by 62 feet, all are twin IOs and have different levels of amenities. Their Assisted Rental Program offers a cheaper alternative for each boat. They will drive the boat to a beach, secure it, then return and drive it back at the end of the rental. They also offer houseboat lodging at their docks.
Fun N’ The Sun
Further north in Alma are two companies. Doing business out of the Great River Harbor at UMRM 747.9 LDB, is Fun N' The Sun Houseboat Vacations. With 12 boats, they are the largest company with a wide variety of pricing, size and amenities. They have been in business since 1990 and note they have an A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau. They have two smaller 'couples' boats at 12 by 32 feet and 13 by 38 feet, then go up to 18 by 61 feet. All are full aluminum hulls except the 32-footer.
The bigger boats are all custom built, wide bodies outfitted and decorated like private boats. Propulsion is a mix of singles on the two smaller ones then IOs and twin Honda outboards. Some of their customers venture up to Lake City, Minn., on Lake Pepin, the largest lake on the river at 21 miles long and averaging almost two miles wide. Others hit the numerous beaches in the area or stop at any number of river towns. Larry Hebbring from Milwaukee is part of a group of 12 to 16 guys who have rented from Fun N' The Sun since 1990. He says it’s a nice getaway that combines friendship and camaraderie with “the absolute beauty of going up and down that part of the Mississippi.” Fun N' the Sun also tends to get a number of international travelers who want to experience the Mississippi.
Great River Houseboats
Just upstream and above Lock and Dam 4 is Great River Houseboats at the full service Alma Marina, UMRM 754 LDB. They have been in business for 40 years and their location gives their customers an open 44 miles going upriver before another lock. It is an area that is not densely populated, but has all necessary services.
They like to say their five boats are all unique and not just “cookie cutter” models. Their 12-by-36-foot model is a 'couples only' boat, while their others range from 12 by 40 feet to 14 by 59 feet. Hull material, style and propulsion vary. Their customers also tend toward being cost-conscious.
Renting a houseboat on the Mississippi can be a grand adventure. You can cruise, hang out at a beach, swim, fish, visit large and small river towns, watch eagles and pelicans and other bird species or just sit and watch the river and an occasional towboat and excursion boat roll by.
That activity becomes even more memorable at night when the tow boats use their 1,000 watt Xenon searchlights to scan the shoreline and search for buoys. At 80 million candlepower, they can locate one five miles away. When you see that light penetrating the night, it is, as one riverman says, “like someone turned on the sun.”
Following one rental, a patron approached the folks at Fun N' The Sun and made sure they knew she was a highly experienced world traveler. She wanted them to know she felt her time on the river was the best vacation she ever had.
They weren't surprised, however, because they hear that all the time.