October on the
Upper Mississippi River
Mississippi River Houseboating with
Fun 'N The Sun Houseboat Vacations
Alma, Wisconsin 888-343-5670
Text and photos by Rich and Pat Middleton
and Walt Smanski.
Contents may not be reproduced without written permission from Great River
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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
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.
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
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 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.
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
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!
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" fishing
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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).
Playing Huck Finn on a
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.
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.
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!
Fun 'N The Sun Houseboat Vacations
Alma, Wisconsin 888-343-5670
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
Special gifts allow you to bring the
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!
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
Captain Art Wilson has a new Mississippi River novel he'd
love to send to you as well!
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
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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