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Houseboating a Real Challenge on the Mississippi

July 24, 1988|BARRY ZWICK | Zwick is a Times assistant news editor.

HANNIBAL, Mo. — My head was gone in a moment; I did not know which end I stood on; I gasped and could not get my breath; I spun the wheel down with such rapidity that it wove itself together like a spider's web.

From "Life on the Mississippi"

by Mark Twain

When the young Samuel Clemens was a river-boat pilot just before the Civil War, navigating the Mississippi was like threading a needle. There were no dams or dredges, the river changed course every few weeks and new reefs popped up like weeds.

Clemens had to dodge eddies, shoals, rapids, whirlpools and rampaging logs, twisting an enormous pilot's wheel with both hands and both feet. The current was so strong that for days at a time no steamboat could go upstream. Statues at the banks stood in tribute to pilots who went down with their boats.

Bear this in mind when you rent a houseboat on the Mississippi. It will comfort you in the days ahead.

If you want a vacation in the slow lane, stick to the Sacramento Delta or Lake Havasu. Houseboating on the Mississippi is a real challenge, but the rewards will overwhelm you.

Sheer beauty, for one. Clemens' favorite part of the river (as author Mark Twain) runs from Hannibal north to Minneapolis, with towering lush green bluffs on either bank, wildlife pools where bald eagles soar and deserted islands where you can play Huck Finn.

Sleep Under the Stars

You can beach your houseboat wherever you please. The islands are public property, and so are most of the banks. Barbecue a walleye, build a sandcastle, swim out to the buoys, hunt for wild strawberries, sleep under the stars in silent serenity.

Exploring the quaint and friendly towns along the river is easy, with free public marinas wherever levees prevent you from beaching your houseboat. At the river's edge, hundreds of towns from Red Wing, Minn., south to Hannibal look much as they did a century ago.

In Iowa's southeast corner, dock your houseboat in front of the giant statue of Chief Keokuk of the Sac Indians, and wander down Grand Avenue, where you'll find block after block of Victorian mansions.

Admire the homey art show at Rand Park and join the kindly natives over the charcoal grills, where they'll roast ears of corn for you to nibble on while they quiz you about their kin in Long Beach.

At Winona, Minn., tie up in front of the statue of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. You're going to have lunch at Finn & Sawyers Bar & Grill, so cute that it'll make you say, "Aw, shucks." A complete Cajun chicken dinner with a huge salad bar costs $7.95.

Downstream at La Crosse, Wis., try dinner at Piggy's just beyond the 25-foot carved wooden Indian at the river's edge. This is a huge rib house and fern bar with a spectacular river view. You'll get out for less than $10, even with a glass of wine.

For a boisterous, flashy, all-American song-and-dance show, drop into the Molly Brown Dinner Theater one block from the Mississippi in Hannibal, just down the street from Twain's boyhood home. The show is built around the life of the Unsinkable Molly Brown, a Hannibal native who for 7 1/2 hours helped row passengers from the sinking Titanic to safety.

A warning: Members of the audience are collared and forced to perform. I buried my head in my shirt during these moments, hoping no one would notice me, only to be hauled up for the finale to polka on stage with a strange woman.

As dawn breaks over the Mississippi it's time to check your oil, flip a few pancakes and then steam down to town to stock up on provisions. Wabasha, Minn., caters to houseboaters. They'll even give you a hot private shower so you can conserve the water supply on board your houseboat. There's not much left of the public pier, however. My wife ran our houseboat over it.

"Hey, Mom," my 11-year-old son said, "you think this thing has wheels?"

While buoys floating at least 90 feet apart clearly mark the navigable portions of the river, the swift currents of tributaries flowing into the Mississippi, as well as high winds and whitecaps, make it difficult to keep on course. I lost control of the wheel three times, and my 12-year-old daughter made me turn it over to my wife.

Just when my wife seemed to be getting the hang of it, she cried out, "That green buoy is coming right at us!"

The mysterious moving buoy smacked us head-on, and we prepared to abandon ship. Miraculously, the buoy bobbed up at the rear of the boat and left us without a single ding.

We headed for our home marina to buy a case of beer. My wife steered us into what looked like a jungle and headed straight for the trees. There, tinkering with a motorboat, was the son of the houseboat's owner. He chased out after us and yelled: "Don't ever go in that channel again! The water is only two feet deep!"

We turned the wheel over to our son, a sixth-grader. This is a kid who refused to read "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," a kid whose English teacher said he would grow up to hash potatoes at Taco Bell.

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