On Old Man River

The water was dead calm, smooth as glass, without a ripple. Our host, Phillip, and his wife Tammy, had offered us a ride on their pontoon boat on the Mississippi. We met at the boat landing in Wabasha, MN at 10 a.m. Monday morning. The sky was partially overcast. We could sit socially distant and not risk sunburn. We left the dock for a ride on Lake Pepin, a wide spot in the Mississippi. The conditions couldn’t have been better. The air was still and warm until the boat began to move, then the breeze was cool and comfortable. The pontoons were faintly warm when I rested my arm on them. This was heavenly compared to last week’s ferocious heat.

There weren’t many boats out as we headed upstream. You can see why the river is considered a “lake” through here. The water is backed up behind a dam that creates this large pool of water. Parks, beaches, and campgrounds line Lake Pepin.

Our trip took us about halfway up the length of Lake Pepin to Lake City, MN, where a forest of masts in the marina hints at how many sailboats are on the water on weekends. From there we turned downstream to visit the lock and dam at Alma, WI.

Boats that are traveling longer distances use the locks at each end of Lake Pepin that raise and lower them to the next stretch of river. There are about thirty locks on the Mississippi between its starting point in Lake Itasca, MN, and the St. Louis area. The southernmost lock lies at the entrance to the Chain of Rocks canal, a 17-mile-long detour around rapids. Below St. Louis the river is too wide for locks and deep enough that they aren’t needed.

Philip, our host, grew up along the Mississippi near Wabasha, and could name every channel, showing us some that connect to oxbow lakes. He hunted and fished along the river in his teenage years, and he pointed out places like the inlet where he went duck hunting. His work is in real estate, so in addition to knowing the name of every point and inlet, he knew which clusters of houses are summer camp rentals, and which are condos.

We decided not to hike up one of the huge mounds of sand on the shore. Visitors often take on that challenge for a photo, and to slide down afterward. The mounds are sand from dredging. Tributaries dump sand into Lake Pepin, and though it won’t fill in for a very long time, dredging keeps the central channel open for barge traffic.

One downside to living along the Mississippi in either Minnesota or Wisconsin is the fact that the railroads arrived first, and there are tracks laid close to the river on both banks. Phillip and Tammy described sitting down to delicious ribs at a riverside restaurant one weekend afternoon. Just as they were enjoying their first bites, a freight train bore down on them, passing just a few feet from where they were sitting on the restaurant’s screened porch, and rattling everything and everyone. “I should have known,” Phillip laughed. “The railroad is right there, but you forget.”

By the time we finished our circuit of the region, we had seen four bald eagles. They perch along the river waiting to spot fish to catch. In recent years, visitors find that eagles will approach their boat if they toss a fish into the water. Eagles have become partly habituated and don’t immediately fly off when approached by boat, they are waiting to see if they’ll get a snack.

We had such a good time that I suggested Phillip consider putting together a day trip on the Mississippi as an Airbnb “Experience.” Take our boat ride, add a stop to take a dip, and have a picnic, and you’re had a pretty terrific day.

Around noon, when we were heading back to the boat ramp, we started to be passed by large rental houseboats. These looked like a lot of fun, too. We particularly liked the ones with two water slides off the back. Maybe we’ll be back for another visit.


Published by winifredcreamer

I am a retired archaeologist and I like to travel, especially to places where you can walk along the shore or watch birds. My husband Jonathan and I travel for more than half the year every year, seeing all the places that we haven't gotten to yet.

2 thoughts on “On Old Man River

  1. My Japanese friend, Megumi, has seeing bald eagles in the wild high on her travel wish list. Tell your landlord that she looked up Minnesota on the map after reading your post and would be a good customer for his tour someday, if we can ever travel far again.


    1. I will tell Phillip about your friend, and why he should start individual tours. It’s only the intercontinental barriers to travel that we have to overcome…


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