By Mary Bergin
Few river systems in the world are longer or more ecologically diverse than the Mississippi, whose 2,350 miles skirt ten U.S. states. This major highway of water is best known for its barge traffic, moving roughly 175 million tons of freight per year.
It’s also a great vacation destination. Think beyond Mark Twain’s tales of perilous river rafting, or quaint shoreline marinas with amuse-bouche bistros. This is the Mighty Mississippi.
For 25 summers, Darcy Dunn and up to 11 others headed to the Mississippi River for their annual girlfriends’ getaway. What they booked was not an afternoon cruise or waterfront lodging but a three-night houseboat rental.
“In the early years it was pretty rough,” Dunn recalls. “One year there was a bad storm. Mayflies were terrible for several years.” But what the women gained and appreciated was the freedom to truly get away. They typically sought a sandbar across from Wisconsin’s Wyalusing State Park, 100 miles west of their Madison homes, and – in Dunn’s words – “beached our boat for the weekend.”
Taking the River Road
Houseboats continue to lure thousands of others to rivers and lakes for unique, get-away-from-it-all vacations. The slow-moving vessels sleep up to a dozen passengers and are equipped with many amenities of modern living, such as ovens, refrigerators, toilets, hot showers, gourmet kitchens and bedrooms with linens. Some houseboats look downright luxurious, albeit somewhat compact.
Cost depends on location, time of year, length of rental and houseboat size. What might be $1,000 per night, or more, during summer could dip to one-half of that near a rental season’s beginning or end (typically the end of May and the middle of October). Expect to add payment for fuel and insurance. If you’re really into luxe travel and have an extra bedroom on your boat, it’s always possible – with a bit of foreplanning – to hire a chef happy to prepare meals while you enjoy swimming and sunshine.
Navigating Old Man River
When I visited S&S Houseboat Rentals – in business 60 years in Lansing, Iowa – the Mississippi’s main channel averaged 13 feet of depth and towboats pushed barges at 3 or 4 mph between lock and dam numbers 8 and 9. The river moves faster on the Lower Mississippi after Granite City, Ill., some 400 miles south because there are no locks or dams. The faster, free-flowing river also means there are fewer houseboats.
Various websites say it’s easy to pilot a houseboat, but a rental is not a casual commitment. Damage a propeller and it’s $150 to repair and $275 to replace at S&S. “We go through a lot of props in a season,” admits Scott Schoh, who helps son Blake and daughter-in-law Amanda run the family business.
“The biggest thing is that the Mississippi is always changing,” Schoh says, during hands-on instruction to customers about how to operate their 60-foot-long, four-bedroom houseboat. “It’s a working river.”
Stay between buoys: Barely underwater in tributaries are logs, rocks and sandbars. Veer away from the main channel only when coming ashore or if a barge approaches (they have the right of way). Four to six barges might pass through per day.
Beaches north of Lansing, Michigan are plentiful, and that’s where Schoh directs visitors. “You can park and swim,” he says, in early autumn, shortly before S&S closed for the season. “You will find eagles everywhere.”
Instruction ends with Schoh guiding the new pilots to a sandbar and showing them how to anchor properly. Spooked by all the instructions? “We can have someone come and take you to another beach” on the next day for no extra charge. Or pay to hire a captain for six to eight hours of river wandering.
“You’re here to enjoy the river,” he emphasizes. “Don’t make it stressful – enjoy yourselves.”
It’s tempting to just stay put. This part of the Mississippi has no docks with easy access to restaurants or nightlife, other than at the starting point of Lansing.
What to expect when houseboating depends on where you roam, but the natural world’s geography, flora and fauna are the biggest draws. Photo by Le Boat
Le Boat is an England-based company whose houseboats accommodate groups of two to 12 in nine countries, including Canada, where two routes provide a mix of small-town and natural-world charms. New this year is a rental base in Ottawa that allows vacationers to start and/or end their voyage in the capital city.
The company operates along the 125-mile Rideau Canal in Ontario too. The canal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, extends from Ottawa to Kingston and the St. Lawrence River.
Other Le Boat rentals are in Belgium, England, France, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Italy and Scotland. The company’s work began more than 50 years ago.
Back in the U.S., Lake Powell is billed as America’s Best Houseboating Destination because of the stunning scenery in southern Utah and neighboring Arizona. The lake is among the nation’s largest manmade reservoirs: Think 2,000 miles of shoreline, hundreds of private beaches and 96 side canyons.
Also in the area: Rainbow Bridge National Monument, the world’s largest natural stone bridge.
The largest rental at Lake Powell Resorts and Marinas is the 75-foot-long Excursion Houseboat, which accommodates 14 people and has five queen-bed rooms, plus convertible dinettes, bathrooms, a hot tub and flat-screen TV with stereo.
The company also offers active and passive itineraries for customers who are uncomfortable about wandering on their own. Bring the makings for your own meals or let the marina staff do the shopping.
Travel a bit further West and you’ll find Lime Saddle Marina at Lake Oroville State Recreational Area about 75 miles north of Sacramento, California. Here you’ll find houseboats of 50 to 70 feet traversing the state’s second largest reservoir. There’s plenty to discover. Lake Oroville has 167 miles of shoreline and 15,000 acres for hiking, swimming, fishing and other recreation.
Adjacent to the reservoir is the nation’s tallest dam (size it up from a viewing tower). Fishing, especially for bass, is popular.
“When you compare the cost and time required to make travel arrangements plus plan meals and entertainment plans for a group of 10, 12 or more – houseboating not only is more relaxed but can cost substantially less than most vacations,” the marina contends.
The scenery is different in Florida as is the aquatic life. Between Daytona Beach and Orlando in Florida is Deland, where Holly Bluff Marina rents houseboats at the end of a St. Johns River peninsula. The waterway is where manatees winter, and other species – including exotic birds and alligators – live year-round.
“You will experience a Florida light years away from the glitter of Disney World,” owners Judy and Rick Armstrong promise online. “A cruise upon the St. Johns is a return to the original natural Florida.”
Besides state parks and other wildlife-rich areas, “the river features scattered pockets of civilization with small communities, fish camps and boat docks.” Laid-back fish camp restaurants serve alligator tail, fresh blue crab and other somewhat unusual delicacies.
What setting seems perfect to you? Choices seem endless, and one way to contemplate the range is through houseboating.org, which matches customers with houseboats throughout North America.
“Cruise gentle waters surrounded by forests or sheltered by dramatic red rock cliffs,” the website suggests. “Enjoy a luxury houseboat with all the amenities or a comfortable more compact houseboat. Rent personal watercraft or speed boats to experience even more of our lakes.”
Regardless of location or vessel, here lies an opportunity to temporarily disconnect with life as you know it while reconnecting or discovering the rhythms of nature in real time.
Midwest writer Mary Bergin (@maryinmadison) likes staying on top of travel trends. Her most recent EWNS articles described comforts being added to economy seating and the dearth of charging stations for EVs.