October on the Upper Mississippi River

Mississippi River Houseboating with Fun 'N The Sun Houseboat Vacations
Alma, Wisconsin  888-343-5670 or  www.funsun.com

HH01518A.gif (838 bytes)Text and photos by Rich and Pat Middleton and Walt Smanski. Contents may not be reproduced without written permission from Great River Publishing

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    This was not our first houseboating vacation on the Upper Mississippi River. That  was nearly twenty years ago when three Middleton families traveled with four kids ages 7-12 out of Lansing, Iowa. Then some years ago, we enjoyed a summer cruise several years ago with one of the kids, now grown to age 23 and some good friends out of La Crosse. Our most recent journey began near Alma, Wisconsin. Another of the kids, now married, and an assortment of good friends traveled with us. We again enjoyed the company of a 12-year old, and, now, we are the age of grandparents!

    We were conscious of a couple of things on this most recent 4-day journey, which we combined with a visit to La Crosse over the October 1st weekend.

1)     Always invite a younger generation on board. What a wonderful way to educate them about what you love best about the Mississippi River! I have never known a young person who was not enthralled with steering the boat, teaming up with mom to prepare or clean up a meal for 10 people, trying their hand at fishing, or exploring a sandy river island. If a youngster is not already part of the plan, invite a neighbor child!

2)     If like us, you've suddenly reached grand-parent age, be sure to make a couple strong young men part of your party. Setting anchors and holding the ropes during a lock-through seem a little less daunting when there is a strong and nimble deckhand available!

3)    Take the opportunity to see the Mississippi River in October. Fall color on the river adds another dimension to the journey. Pelicans, cormorants, herons, eagles, and sandhill cranes still inhabit the islands and meadows along the shore. It is also your best chance of experiencing absolute solitude on whichever island you choose to land on. Recreational boating has just about ended, and the best fishing has just begun!






    Our houseboat adventure with Fun 'n the Sun Houseboat Vacations began at Great River Harbor, north of Cochran and about 3 miles south of Alma, Wisconsin, on Hwy 35, Wisconsin's scenic Great River Road. The Harbor is home port for Fun 'N the Sun Houseboat Vacations... and home port for Capt. Art Wilson who waited up for our evening-before arrival and then took responsibility for making us river-worthy before we departed the next day.

Capt. Art, to the right, is dead serious about his training regime.    Capt. Art is a coast-guard certified Master for all Western Rivers. He took our training program seriously. By the time we had watched a video and completed an on-the-water training run, we had invested more than two hours into getting to know our 15'x 56' vessel. Capt. Art reviewed river charts with us, navigation markers and most importantly, the wing dam situation around islands where we might want to beach the boat for the night.

A close encounter with a towboat pushing 15 barges will bring everyone on board to attention very quickly!  Photo by Walt Smanski.



He also pointed out that unlike other areas of the river further south, river bends in this pool are frequent, which means there is not a lot of warning before a 15-barge tow suddenly appears just ahead of the houseboat in the channel. We would cherish our thorough preparation when we had our first encounter with a 15 barge tow at a river bend!


      He emphasized safety, especially with anchoring at a sandy beach and organizing ropes on board. It was a practical lesson that made dealing with anchors and ropes manageable at a time when there seemed to be lots of fine points to remember.

        Then suddenly, training was over, Capt. Art had hopped off and it was just us and the main channel of the Mississippi River. We double-checked our location on the river charts, assigned lunch preps, and started doing what river rats do best... find a quiet spot, get a cup of coffee, and just soak it all in. We never had any problem at all with landings, or navigation.

  The first duties of the day went to the Cap', who was responsible for steering, and the navigator, who was in charge of determining a good destination beach for our first night on the river. Every beach seemed to provide a "perfect" setting, but the Navigator was on the hunt for "wing dams" -- they are magnets for houseboat propellers and we were determined to stay clear.






For the rest of us, river watching was all we had on our agenda!

American White Pelicans and double-crested cormorants often share the same sand spits.

Birding is always a favorite activity for boaters. Large waterfowl congregate as they gather for fall migration, or stop to rest on route. American White Pelicans are on the river almost until the end of October. Ten years ago they were a rare sight, but today can be seen in huge "rafts" fishingAmerican White Pelican, photo by Walt Smanski on the water or wheeling through the air. In the photo above, pelicans and their close relative, the cormorant, gather on an invisible sand spit.

Nests of American Bald Eagles are frequently spotted along the shore. These are often HUGE nests. Adults can usually be spotted nearby or on Eagle snags.

Adult eagles are easy to spot because of the distinct white head and tail feathers. Watch for them on dead trees overhanging the river. These eagle "snags" are often claimed by a specific eagle from year to year.



Normally, the white head and tail feathers of the adult American Bald Eagle stand out distinctly in trees or dead snags conveniently tilting over the water. The nests are huge dark structures high up in a three-forked crotch of a tree. Eagles add new branches to their nests every year. The nests can reach many hundreds of pounds before finally collapsing. Female bald eagles are larger than the males. Juveniles lack the white head and tail feathers of the adults so they look larger than the adults, but that is an optical illusion.  There are now hundreds of nesting eagles along the Mississippi River.

         Since it was October, we were also especially on the hunt for fall color. Most river trees are water-tolerant soft-woods, like cottonwood and willow which turn yellow rather than red as the season progresses. The reds/browns may be small oaks, maples, and especially, sumac.  

  Identifying and implementing navigation aids is another meaningful pastime on the river. Some of the buoys have numbers on a white board that correspond to river miles on the charts. This was our buoy marking the channel for Great River Harbor... 747.9

Channel marker with river miles. Photo by Walt Smanski   Other buoys, seen more frequently, are channel markers seen as red or green cans anchored to the river bottom. As long as the boat is between the channel markers, the river depth will be at least 9 feet and clear of underwater obstacles.

     Since commercial traffic on the river continues throughout the night, some buoys are "phototrophic."  As we camped, the flashing of phototrophic buoys activated by towboat spotlights looked like giant fireflies along the dark shore of the river.

Other buoys have simple reflective tape on them so that pilots can spot them with spotlights as well. The red channel markers are called nun buoys while the green channel markers are called cans. Note that nuns have pointed tops and cans are flat... so that in the dim light of dusk, or in the event of fog, pilots will be able to make out the SHAPE of the buoy if not the color.Even in poor visibility conditions, the shape of the red nun buoy is clearly distinct from the green can buoy in photo at right.

Need a little jingle to help you remember which can goes on which side of the houseboat?  "Red right Return" reminds the pilot that the red nun is on the right of the boat as he returns home from the sea (or up river).

Towboat in the night, photo by Walt Smanski. The low rumble of a passing towboat through the night will catch the imagination of any latent adventure spirit. Where is it headed? What is it pushing in those 15 barges? How can they navigate so well in the dark? What is it like to be alone in the night at the wheel like that?



Playing Huck Finn on a River Island!


Photo by Walt Smanski

It is settling-in on a deserted river island that provides some of the most memorable memories of a houseboat cruise.

This kind of pure sand island is formed from "spoil".... sand dredged up from the bottom of the river channel by the Army Corps of Engineers."Serenity." Photo by Walt Smanski.




Campfire at Night. Photo by Walt Smanski




The sweet silence and the total darkness of night on a Mississippi River island make the campfire a memorable moment . Orion's Belt and the Big Dipper shine like beacons in the night.


Fishing is a favorite pastime for everyone... And we caught fish! Rock bass in this case (or small mouth?) Crappy were also biting at the buoys. Catfish, walleye, northern, or sauger could show up at any time in the fall. The later, the better. Or visit the fishing barge just below the dam at Alma.

    Scenery viewed from the river is always great. The Mississippi has eroded through nearly 600' of limestone. The whitish rock is sedimentary, composed mostly of shells collected at the bottom of an inland sea some 250-600 million years ago. Redder rock is sandstone.

Dotted Sky... photo by Walt Smanski

Steering from the top of the vessel provides a whole new perspective of the Mississippi River on a warm fall day. Great River Harbor is one of the river's prettiest harbors--more secluded and natural than any you'll find on the river... especially in the fall!

If You Go....

Fun 'N The Sun Houseboat Vacations
Alma, Wisconsin  888-343-5670 or  www.funsun.com

When you contact Fun 'N The Sun Houseboat Vacations, they will send you a very thorough packet of information on the variety of houseboat vacation options. Several different boats are available depending on your group. Our 16x56' boat was plenty big enough for 8-10 people. Rentals are available for 3 day, 4 day, or seven day trips. Prices range from $850 for a 15x42' boat in the off seasons (like October!) to $2,800 for a 18x58' boat in high season (late June to late August). Visit their website, telephone, or email them at funsunboat@aol.com

Hand painted reproduction of 1858 map by Lisa Middleton. See www.greatriver.com/oldmaps/


Special gifts allow you to bring theShop online at www.greatriver.com/order.htm Mississippi River home with you!   Click on Shopping cart to visit our secure shopping service.

Antique, handpainted maps will make a great Christmas present for the river buff.  Maps must be ordered by November 20th for Christmas delivery!Volume 1, DISCOVER! America's Great River Road by Pat Middleton

 Don't leave for the Mississippi River without the appropriate volume of  DISCOVER! America's Great River Road. Order online, or phone 888-255-7726.

 If brown river water is flowing in your veins, we suggest: COME HELL OR HIGH WATER, True Tales of Steamboating on the Mississippi River.  Order online, or phone 888-255-7726.

Beautiful real-photo Mississippi River notecards

Captain Art Wilson has a new Mississippi River novel he'd love to send to you as well!


A River CompanionThe River Companion will tutor you on the special "Rules of the Mississippi River Road." Learn to identify various navigational aids you'll see and use on the river.   $7.95

Poster-sized map of the entire Mississippi River   $5.95



Additional Resources:
Make the most of your once in a life time adventure by ordering any of the following recommended books available at http://greatriver.com/order.htm


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