The Big Trip

Published in the May 2019 Issue April 2020 Own Emily FitzPatrick

What do you do when you come from a low-income family in the middle of nowhere in central Wisconsin? According to houseboater and actress Dawn Brodey, you camp. This is how Dawn’s family spent their summer vacations from the time she was a young girl. However, she distinctly remembers one summer where they almost took a chance on a different kind of adventure.

“We were going to get a houseboat. I was five or six,” recalls Dawn. “I remember asking, ‘Sorry, what?’ and they told me it was a houseboat or basically a house that floats. It sounded like something that only exists in Disney cartoons. And then we went so far as to tour one. I remember being completely mesmerized by the fact that you could have a kitchen and a bathroom and a living room on a boat. It just blew my mind.”

Even though her family ultimately decided to go camping again instead of renting a houseboat, the experience stayed with Dawn all the way into her college years. When the University of Minnesota opened a job position on their new showboat, the recent alum jumped at the opportunity to finally experience time on a houseboat.

Slow-Moving Adventure

However, working aboard the showboat didn’t go as expected. No one in the area had interest in the boat as the university had thought, so Dawn’s job as a secretary became unimportant and she ended up spending most of her days getting to know the people who hung around the docks, or the “River Rats.” Instead of answering the many phone calls she was expecting to rain down on her, Dawn, got to hear stories of adventure that captivated her.

“I would listen to them tell me these impossibly romantic and exciting, dangerous stories of living on the water and taking trips up and down the river,” Dawn reminisced. “I had just graduated from college, 9/11 had just happened and I was now divorced. Life was crazy. And that was when I decided I was going to do it. It’s stupid and impractical. It doesn’t make any sense, but if others can do it, I can do it.”

And so Dawn did.

The First Boat

When Dawn turned 27 she decided she was ready to buy her first houseboat. She called one of the “River Rats” who had given her a lot of advice over the years, especially tips on what life on the Mississippi River is really like. With the help of his advice she purchased a fiberglass, 1974 Nautaline for $20 thousand.

“I was an actress. I didn’t have a lot of savings,” Dawn shares. “I was telling people this fiberglass boat was going to be my full-time house in St. Paul, Minn. I remember the banker sort of laughing at me and asking why? And he would ask me questions such as, ‘Why would you want to do this?’ and I told him because it’s my dream and it sounds like fun.”

Dawn’s purchase of her used Nautaline, which she named The Road, was her first big introduction to life as a houseboater. On the newly-purchased boat, she learned not only the basics of boating, but also how to weather the winter months in St. Paul. Although the winter months were difficult, requiring her to conserve water and adjust her lifestyle, it didn’t scare her away.

“I loved that first boat like you love a dog or a horse or your first car,” Dawn admits. “It’s hard to articulate and cynics will roll their eyes, but it’s more than just a boat. And I loved her. There’s a reason why you give them names and genders. When I started to see she wasn’t going to be able to house me indefinitely I remembered the idea of taking the big trip down to the Gulf. It was something I always wanted to do.”

The Big Trip

Dawn decided it was time to fulfill her dreams and give The Road one last big adventure before “putting her to pasture” or at least the boat version of that. Even though the houseboat was literally falling apart, Dawn knew she would kick herself if she didn’t at least try to make it to the Gulf. But she was pretty sure they wouldn’t make it. After all, how could she expect her old boat to make such a rough journey? Still, something pushed her forward anyway.

Dawn took off in October of 2012 with Andrew Melby who would later become her husband, unsure of where her journey would end, but hoping it would be at their final destination – Louisiana. Still, it seemed like such a long shot that [The Road] would actually make it that she didn’t bother packing what some would consider necessities such as river charts. Instead she waited to purchase them until it became absolutely necessary as they progressed on their trip.

“We never quit and the boat never died, so we just kept going,” Dawn said. “And then it started to get warmer and we started to get a little wiser. Our technical difficulties were ridiculous, exaggerated by the fact we were ill-prepared heading out. But the kindness and generosity of strangers was way more than what I expected. So it balanced itself out.”

One thing that all of the River Rats and anyone else she ran into emphasized was the necessity of stopping by Poppy’s Marina just south of St. Louis, Mo. So she made it a must-stop on her trip.

“Poppy and his wife Bern were almost like the Gandalf of the river. When we got there, we’re all sort of standing around and she sits down like a queen and says, ‘I’ll see the charts now.’ So we ran to our boat and we came back with our charts and our pencil and we’re trying to take notes as quickly as possible and she’s saying things like, ‘When you get down to mile marker 185 you go hard to port behind the gazebo and you go up river.’”

Bern and Poppy knew every inch of the river thanks to the boaters who constantly stopped by to relay what they’d seen during their travels, making them more reliable guides than any river chart available. Help like theirs and that of other boaters made their adventure to the gulf all the more memorable.

“I’m a liberal,” Dawn states. “And a lot of these folks are as politically divergent as we can be and we didn’t even know each other’s politics, and we ended our trip on Election Day 2012. It’s not like politics weren’t in the air. And it just dissolved out there. None of it mattered. It was just like you’ve got a line tied around your propeller, you need help, that’s it.”

Toad Hollow

After the big trip, it was time for Dawn to return home to her new houseboat, Toad Hollow. The 1969 Gordy Miller houseboat was built specifically for life on the Mississippi River. There are many rumors about the history of this boat, such as it was a drug den and a floating whore house. What Dawn knows for certain is that it was part of an off-grid community called the Third World before making its way into her hands. Her days of living full-time as liveaboard would soon be behind her, but just like [The Road], Toad Hollow was Dawn’s home. It was also party central.

As an entertainer, it delighted Dawn to throw parties for her friends and some of her favorite memories aboard the vessel include watching her friends dangle from the side like a scene from The Muppet Show.

Today, Dawn lives in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband and a new addition to their family – a baby girl. Though they don’t currently live on the houseboat they continue to rent out Toad Hollow to ensure it is well cared for as they hold onto the many memories they’ve created on the water, hoping to one day pass them on to their little girl.


For more information, check out Dawn’s blog here.

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