Remembering The Nightcrawlers

I love bad weather. I love that it knocks us off our routine, makes us uncomfortable, and bring us Minnesotans/Wisconsinites together in a collective “What the hell is up with this?” kind of way. I have to include Wisconsin in my posse now that we’re living out on the river somewhere in no man’s land between the two dairy-loving, football-crazed, lake-loving, hardy-living states. Also, I love the cheeseheads.

Two days ago, on October 20, it snowed multiple inches all over the place. (That is exactly the sentence I would say if I was hired to be a weatherwoman.)

Today, I woke up to a gray yellow sky which is a color that makes no sense. It felt otherworldly.

My neighbor texted me to watch out for an alien invasion. Allegedly, there have been multiple encounters with former residents on this island, and today looked like the set for exactly that. My mind wandered and made up stories as the eery energy eminating from the sky and off the oddly calm waters infiltrated my system. I then heard a clunk clunk against the boathouse and jumped with the flashing thought of a landing spaceship. It was just a log brushing against the barrels, and it is a noise that happens here every 3.5 hours. My imagination got the best of me.

Shortly after my stint of imaginating aliens, Michael called me. He is rained out from work. Reason #5 that I can appreciate a little bad weather: we will now have the rare day off together.

I think I like bad weather in the same way I like the dark. It heightens my senses and allows me to feel fully present. You can bet that I am paying attention to every broken branch, every print, every sound, and every motion as I walk through the woods late at night. For those five minutes on my walk home, I don’t think about what my patients are going through, about Covid and about missing many of my favorite humans, about politics, about anything outside of my present experience in these woods. It’s enlivening and so necessary. Also, when I’m most alert, the neighorhood beaver slaps it’s tail at me and makes me pee my pants, so there’s that.


If you think back on the last year, I guarantee that some of your most vivid memories include inclement weather. They do for me.

I remember bringing Hutch home from the hospital during a winter flood. The icy water was up to our knees and I yelled to Michael, “as long as it doesn’t reach my stitches!”… uffda. We stayed at our neighbor’s house that night after discovering that our heat went out.

I remember the hip deep snow at the cabin- Hutch’s first time there. It was such a challenge just to move through, and it provoked plenty of fall-related laughter.

There were the hot days that I submerged Hutch in his bathtub while I lived in just my underwear.

There was the mid-summer tornado that skirted around us. It was mighty and dark as we tracked it’s path just south of us. I remember the warm air, the whipping wind that switched directions ten times a minute, and the maternal worry that pulsed through my body as I asked Michael, “Should I put Hutch in a life jacket?”

I remember the wet and humid days walking through the island. I felt transported to a rainforest- a wild place so green and isolated.


As I walked home in the dark on Monday, I thought, “Why do I love this so much? Why do I love this dark walk that also feels both cold and wet?” I dug into that wonder until I remembered gathering nightcrawlers with my dad as a very young kid. It felt just like this night. I might have done this thirty times or maybe just once, but my body remembered the thrill.

I would have never dug up this memory had I not tried. Our minds are cluttered with so much.

The brain begins to carry only what we exercise; this is science. I see it in practice as my stroke patients must repeat actions to strengthen a neural pathway that they lost. If they repeat a thought over and over or an action over and over, that pathway will regenerate and grow stronger and more accessible with repeated input.


If we exercise gratitude over worry, our minds will land their first. If we perseverate on the flaws of a person, our minds will execute that negative thinking the next time we consider them; the same goes for positive thinking. If we start to stereotype, those connections will only grow stronger with each practiced thought until every person we meet or every experience we have gets put into it’s prescribed box.

But, if we relive the nights with the nightcrawlers, if we remember the thrill of being wet and in the dark way past bedtime and this is learned to be fun and not scary or uncomfortable, we will start to carry those kinds of feelings in the forefront of our cluttered minds. If we take time to enjoy bad weather or humorously entertain stories of aliens or perseverate on what is so good in each person we meet, the neural pathways in our minds will grow stronger toward these inclinations. We will feel enlivened.

So today, when I catalog the gray yellow sky in my memory, I will remember Hutch crawling on me at 7am and the neighbor’s dog visiting and licking both of our faces into a smile. I will remember a day off with my family with nothing planned. I will think about aliens, ya know, just for fun.

 

Board But Not Bored

In times like these, a person does one of two things to stay sane. You keep your mind busy or you keep your hands busy, and often, these coincide. My husband has the busy hands. I have the busy mind. Mine feels a lot less productive. Since the busy mind is a bit of a weird place, we’ll stick to the topic of Michael’s busy hands.

The first thing I have to say about Michael’s hands is that, thanks to my relentless but warranted nagging backed by CDC guidelines, they are usually well washed. He tends to leave the sink prior to the 20 second mark, but I’m sure to remind him.

In the last four months, a lot has happened. We finished out our boathouse. We had winter. We birthed a baby. We had a flood in the winter (strange). We finished our bathroom and finally have a working shower. The snow melted, and spring came (kinda). We fell in love with being parents. We finished out our kitchen. The pandemic came. I started work again. We had the spring floods and have to boat everywhere, a lovely or treacherous portion of my commute depending on the day. The snow came again (classic Minnesota). And most recently, we (Michael) built our deck and established entry by means of a spiral staircase. Michael’s hands have been busy. Mine help intermittently when my boobs aren’t busy but breastfeeding is truly a full time job.

I bet you wonder why I talk about floods so often. Well, we base our activity around the rise and fall of these waters. We adjust the ropes that hold our home to shore accordingly. We plan if we can walk our asses to the parking lot. If we can walk there, we debate wearing knee high boots or waders. If it’s a job for waders, perhaps we just go by boat. We park the boat in different spaces according to the river level.

We like to park at “LIPS”- Latsch Island Phone Service, where the one phone for the whole island once existed. It was the island’s central station for socializing. It still is as Neighbor Ernie greets us with a smile and stories whenever we dock, and on sunny days, multiple boathouse dwellers cross paths as we navigate our boats around each other (six feet apart of course).

The water is high enough now that we boat through “Bathtub Slough”, a cut through a cluster of boathouses tucked behind the ones that line the channel. We duck under a communication line at the entrance and greet Pirate Pat on the way. We have to raise the motor in the shallows and navigate around the cement bases that used to hold up the railroad bridge. As Neighbor Polly explained this route to us, she said, “It’s actually pretty fun.” It really is… except in the sleeting rain at midnight.

Back to the busy hands that built our deck. Knowing the flood was coming, a few days were spent schlepping boards for our top deck: 146 to be exact, some as long as 26 feet.

The twelve posts sticking out of our roof were scaled, cut level, and long boards spanned the whole way to connect them. More boards were attached to connect those boards. Finally, the top deck boards were applied. (Insert “bored” during quarantine joke here.)

As we wondered how to best access the deck, Michael consulted his trusted friend Craig. Craig has this list that Michael is very fond of. On Craig’s list is where we bought a boat, perused for fire towers, found this very boathouse (well, the former one that lived here), purchased our land up north, found the van that we outfitted into a moving apartment, and now, we found the answer to our deck access dilemma- a steel spiral staircase. Craig, you slick son of a gun, you’ve done it again.

As does everything in this lovely flood season, the staircase needed to travel by water. To make this happen, we would use our boat as a pusher and our neighbor Polly’s dock as a platform to carry the stairs. Michael strategically attached a few boards to the front of our boat to protect it and keep everything straight when pushing the 8ft x 20ft platform. Michael connected the platform with rachet straps that spanned from the boat’s two front cleats to the platform’s back two cleats.


Michael navigated this 40ft caravan through Bathtub Slough and up to shore where the spiral staircase was waiting on a flatbed trailer.

Before the 1000lb staircase was tied down to the trailer, Michael laid sheets of plywood underneath so when the dock met the trailer, he could use more rachet straps as winches to more easily slide the staircase onto the platform.

As he pushed the platform downstream toward our end of the island, Michael’s floating spiral staircase was a site to behold.

Erecting the staircase was the sketchiest part, and like many sketchy endeavors, the most fun.

 On the deck, we (Michael) used a 15 to 1 pulley system with a rock climbing belay device as brake. With the dock butted up to the downstream corner of the boathouse, we (Michael) tied the pulley system to the far end of the staircase and started pulling.

When the staircase was at 45 degrees, we were able to funnel the base in place with some strategically affixed scrap boards. After plenty of pulling and lots of lines tied off in every direction to keep the 1000lb mass from swinging side to side, the staircase was finally home.

Boathouse living is certainly made for busy hands and for busy minds too. There are always ropes to retie, barrels to replace, unexpected weather conditions to navigate, floating trees or other surprises to dislodge, off grid ideas to bring to life, or creative solutions to maximize small spaces. This 24ft x 24ft space is no barrier to busyness or joy or fulfillment or intrigue; it provokes and nurtures all of these.

At the end of the day, it is time to put busy hands and busy minds to rest. This little floating home is especially good for this. It’s 7pm as I write this. Michael is making a ruckus on the deck as he works on the railings. He’s been at it all day. A boat zoomed by and left a wake that makes me feel slightly tipsy. I admire the bold and distinguished colors that fill the feathers of the neighborhood mallards. The ducks fly west from John’s house; they make a splash as they settle on the water in front of me. The water rhythmically flows in the other direction as if to bleed off the colors of the setting sun. I let my busy mind settle down on these simple things.

Alright, it’s time to get Michael off the damn roof. Stay busy if you must but stay rested too. This is a weird time. At the end of the day, settle down on the simple things. (If you say this final paragraph twice, you’ve washed your hands for 20 seconds.)

 

The Warm Glow

We build a fire from the scraps that built our home. We smile in it’s warm glow… If that’s not the metaphor I need right now, I don’t know what is.

We are in the midst of wild times. Trust me, my maternity leave ended in the thick of a global pandemic. I had to trade in the comforts of my mom robe and slippers for evening shifts donned in scrubs and uncertainty. But tonight, I don’t work, and tonight, my husband built a fire for our little family of three: a fire fueled by the unusable scraps, the broken pieces, and the unnecessary slices of a former whole. In less metaphorical language- he was burning up the leftover trim.

I do this thing sometimes where I try to capture moments with mental snapshots. I focus on the present and all the tangible pieces it provides- the warm glow on Michael’s face, the still but crisp air when I step away from the fire, the variety of colors that the flames provide- darker at the base and lighter as it rises, how Michael set up the chairs on pieces of wood so they won’t sink into the mud, our boot imprints in that mud, the outline of our boathouse over the still water, the way the lights of Winona glare through the cottonwood trees, the secure feeling of holding Hutch close to me as he sleeps so peacefully in my arms.

I started this practice of capturing mental snapshots years ago when Michael and I were traveling around the world. We didn’t have cellphones to capture every second, and I didn’t want to forget how good some of those moments felt or smelled or looked or sounded. It’s now become a form of meditation, a source of calm in wild times.

I am a nurse. I talk to a patient about his upcoming surgery as he coughs on my face. He later has a fever. After this shift, I go home to sleep next to my husband and baby. A nearly debilitating amount of fear accompanies that experience.

Did I mention that this is a crazy time? I’m sure you’ve noticed. It’s uncertain and scary. It’s also many other things. Let us not forget that we are still very much alive. I still sit in front of a warm fire. I cuddle my smiling baby. I watch the birds migrate right outside my front windows. I read books unrelated to the chaos. I drive my boat under the moonlight on my way home from work. Sometimes, less preferably, I drive my boat in the freezing rain on my way home from work. This is a crazy time but there’s beauty too. Believe it or not, sorrow and joy are not mutually exclusive.

We build a fire of the scraps that built our home. We smile in it’s warm glow. The pandemic will pass. It will not pass without some loss. We have been forced to strip down- to only buy the basics, to eliminate our social calendar, to limit our interactions to only our household (and if you’re not doing this one yet, you must; it’s critical), to go nowhere or do nothing with our extra time, to just sit by the fire or watch the birds migrate.

We will be changed. Things that seemed to matter before may not so much matter again; they may become mere scraps of our newly built selves. This pandemic will pass. We will sit by a fire again with all the ones that we love. We will burn the parts of a former self  that no longer serve the foundation of a good and meaningful life. We will smile in it’s glow.

It Takes A Village

Belonging. Love. Acceptance. No matter what human you come across, that human desires each of these things. We all do. The crabby coworker, the drunk uncle, the friend who never returns your calls, the introvert, the extrovert, that guy in The White House who tweets nonsensical criticisms, and everyone you love or despise, they all want these: belonging, love, and acceptance. I will refer to these three desires as “a village”.

In 2018 until the spring of 2019, over 300 tents accumulated in a small area alongside Highway 55 in Minneapolis. These tents became a village of homeless people who now made a place they could call home. I drove past this community on my way to work and often pondered the good and the bad of a place like this. Of course, living in a tent in winter was unsafe, drug use was prevalent, and sanitation was challenging. However, people who once felt alone and vulnerable to dangers on the street now had a village- people nearby that would support them, check in on them, or simply accept them. I get it.

After passing the hundreds of tents and pondering a life experience outside of my own, I get to work. I’ve been a nurse for eight years now and four of them have been in the area of rehabilitation- rehab of trauma, stroke, burns, amputations, spinal cord injury, etc. I have found that the two factors that most contribute to quick progress and good outcomes are these: the patient’s health prior to injury (the healthier then, the better they heal now) and their village or the amount of support and involvement that surrounds them now. Do they have a horde of family or friends or at least one or two tried and trues that check in daily, bring food, decorate their room in photos and cards, make them laugh or let them cry in company? Without doubt, that patient will heal better and faster.


Belonging. Love. Acceptance. Having a village and contributing to one too. These are human necessities. Forget our modern society’s idea of necessities- a big house, new car, or big paycheck. I’ll take my little floating home, rusty old truck, and part time schedule any day. It’s the village I can’t live without. I need my family, my friends, and my neighbors to stay sane, healthy, and quite literally afloat. My baby boy needs them too.

I gave birth to Hutch on January 9. On the evening of January 11, it was time to go home. I fed him at the hospital as Michael packed up our stuff and brought in the carseat. After Hutch was fed and bundled up, I put him in the carseat. Eager to get on the road, Michael quickly fastened the carseat latch at Hutch’s chest, and the plastic latch broke. Michael tried to repair it to no avail. He showed the nurses. After they asked why the latch looked melted (part of Michael’s repair attempt), they told us we would need to get a new one. Michael drove to WalMart (a store we recently vowed to boycott which is a whole other story) to get a new carseat. An hour later, Michael was back. We opened the “new” carseat and put Hutch in it. It wreaked of cigarette smoke… WTF. We ruefully continued with our departure, hurrying home to get Hutch out of this cigarette basin as soon as possible.


What Michael and I did not know is that the river level had risen two feet in that single day. Our life on the water revolves around the attitude of the river and for the last five days, our focus was diverted to meeting and loving our little boy. We forgot to check in with Ol’ Man River. The river height was 10.8 feet this day when it usually sits around 7 feet.

Ice dams had caused the rise. As we carried Hutch across the island in the dark in 12 degree weather, we came upon the flooded center portion of the island. One of our neighbors had left a canoe for himself and the other islanders to traverse this section. Hutch very quickly had his first canoe ride. We came upon another flooded portion. We didn’t have our headlamps but the moon was full. We thought we could walk this part. I had my knee high boots on; Michael did not but felt fine getting his shoes and pants wet. We went separate ways, each believing one way would be better than the other. We both got soaked. The water went past our knees, into my boots, and after this, we could not wait to get into our warm little home.

Another unexpected circumstance greeted us as we opened the door to our boathouse. The batteries had drained down to nothing, and the usually cozy boathouse was sitting at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. I wanted to cry. I was exhausted and holding my bundled and hungry baby while feeling like the worst mom to ever walk the planet. First, he had to ride in that disgusting carseat. Now, we didn’t even have a warm home for him.


It was 7pm when we got to our cold boathouse. It would take the rest of the night to charge the batteries and reheat our home. In that moment, we were wet and without warm shelter, but we were not without our village. We could have traversed the island again to stay with our land-dwelling relatives or we could walk the 30 feet to our neighbor John’s house.

We called John. As always, he was there for us. He happily put us up for the night- a night that involved many instances of baby cries, lots of breastfeeding- something I was still getting used to and was quite the process, and a full takeover of his main room with a bassinet set up, diaper supplies, etc. We were welcomed and warmed.

I recently read a book by Sebastian Junger titled “Tribe”. It discussed the value of a village and the detrimental effects of not having one. As always with books read, I wrote down some of my favorite quotes.

The following two quotes ring true to me as I recall comfortably sitting on Neighbor John’s couch feeding Hutch as he watches the Tennessee Titans upset the Ravens in the divisional playoff game:

“Some people are generous. What made him different was he had taken responsibility for me.”

“Robert Frost famously wrote that home is the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”


In an increasingly individualistic society, I choose to rebel in small ways. I choose to be vulnerable and allow others to do the same, to keep my door open and lack hesitation in entering the open door of another, to live minimally and buck the culture of consumption, and to share experiences, stories, and life with a village of people both similar to and different than myself.

I choose to raise a son in this ever-growing village of love, belonging, and acceptance. I hope to allow him the priviledge of knowing a plethora of human experiences outside of his own. It takes a village. It always has.

Instrumental Jazz Construction Zone

As I write this, I am newly 31 years old… on December 31st, 2019- the last day of a decade and my golden birthday. As I write this, I sit at the butcher block counter top of our new boathouse, the one that we have spent the last 1.5 years demolishing, designing anew, and building from the riverbed up. I sit at the butcher block counter that we lathered last night with lubricant laxative “for occasional constipation”… mineral oil from the pharmacy section that is. Apparently, this is the equivalent to the mineral oil used for “butcher block treatment” only incredibly cheaper. At 31, I’m still learning these very important things.

I think back to a decade ago. It was my 21st birthday. A wonderful group of friends and family gathered together for dinner and music. We then went to all the bars in Winona.. yeah I said it: all of them. I rang in the 2010 year by puking into a toilet for multiple hours while my sister’s dog licked my leg. It was lovely… It actually was quite lovely until the puking part, but again, we’re always learning. The birthdays ahead in the 2010 decade included nights spent at work, out and about in Minneapolis, in Hudson, WI, in New Zealand watching fireworks over the Pacific Ocean, in our small northwoods cabin with a dozen best friends, and at the marina last year when we had a bonfire and mule rides in -5 degree weather.

So, as I was saying, I started this decade by hanging my head in a toilet and getting slobbered on by a bulldog. I end it now drinking raspberry leaf tea listening to “Relaxing Instrumental Jazz Cafe” on Spotify while my child, who is still in utero despite his due date three days ago, kicks me in the guts. My husband is using a drill in the other room doing god knows what. I guess you could say that my vibe right now is “Instrumental Jazz Construction Zone”. It’s perfect.

To go back in time one decade is quite daunting. I’m happy to report I’ve maintained a village of family and friends that could never be replaced. I found a husband who is equal parts mischief and equal parts love and entirely my perfect match. I have fallen in love with humanity in multiple ways: in my work as a nurse, in taking time to travel slowly and purposefully inside and outside of the country that raised me, in living with with friends in college and in the middle of uptown Minneapolis where I met “Neighbor Boy”- that equal parts mischief/equal parts love I didn’t know I needed, with my cousin in a cabin on a lake in WI, with my sister and brother-in-law and husband before any of us were married or sure about much, and in a boat in a marina with other liveaboards who demonstrated inexhaustible interest in the world around them.

Michael and I built a cabin in the northwoods of MN, traveled the world for six months of time, took many road trips in the van that Michael converted into a camper van, lived in a houseboat for four years in the middle of the Twin Cities, got married on my grandparents’ farm where my parents and sister had also done so, and bought a boathouse to renovate into our current floating home on a river that we love in a place that feels so peacefully a part of my soul; and now, I sit here cramping across my pelvis because this is the time of the night when Baby Hutch likes to kick like a madman against all of my insides. I am making a human- one that doesn’t want to arrive on time apparently… like mother, like son. To think about all that a decade has done for me is beautifully, overwhelmingly, and magically daunting.

I acknowledged “all that a decade has done for me”. After I wrote that part, I leaned back in my chair– both to alleviate that pain of a presumably oversized watermelon baby moving in a small space but also to reflect on the rebound thought, “Have I done enough for the world?” I sure have received more than my fair share. I try to remember that we give back in small ways. We can’t all be Greta Thunberg, although my ideal self will try. We pick out small moments that arise and capitalize on them; we create greater moments where we can. We might give some change to that homeless guy, or better yet, we stop to talk to him on our way home from work. We learn his name, hear about the life he had in Alaska, bond about our love of nature and sleeping outside, share a common interest in libraries and journal writing, give him some health care advice, and yes, eventually ask about his teardrop tattoo. This man was a face that made me smile often in this decade as I passed him on the same corner for three years of my commute. He told funny stories, reflected on the simple joys of his day, shared his art work, asked about my family and how work was going, and once, when I told him “sorry, I don’t have any money today” after feeling bad about not giving him anything for the last handful of visits, he started pulling out some cash and said, “how much do you need?” I suddenly realized that I’m not this kind man’s benefactor. I’m his friend. So, again, “have I done enough for the world?” because it sure feels like I gained here too.

I started a new birthday tradition a couple years ago. I spend some hours of the day at a bookstore and inevitably walk out with 1-6 books. I walked out with three today. One of these is “Upstream” by Mary Oliver. I’ll leave you with a few wise words from this great poet to start off your new year, your new decade, and your same wonderful you.

“In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed. I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it, before I knew at all who I was, what I was, what I wanted to be.” -Mary Oliver

“Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do… Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms. Attention is the beginning of devotion.” -Mary Oliver

“You must never stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life. I don’t mean it’s easy or assured; there are the stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all the years, a bag of stones, that goes with one wherever one goes and however the hour may call for dancing and for light feet. But there is, also, the summoning world, the admirable energies of the world, better than anger, better than bitterness and, because more interesting, more alleviating. And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe- that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.” -Mary Oliver

Now, no matter how you started this new decade, whether you spent it with your head hung in a toilet or while drinking tea in a more upright position, whether you were surrounded by friends or all alone, there is no telling what ten years of time has in store for you. You cannot plan a life or a decade but you can create small moments of a day. You can choose how many smiles you give in that day or don’t. You can read for an hour of that day or scroll on your phone for that same time. You can stop to visit with your neighbor. You can meditate, pray, go to church or walk outside; you can do none of those things and still know yourself and the power that moves you. You can stretch your mind with whatever book, media, or conversation you put yourself in. You can love the ones around you no matter what they do with their moments. These moments make days. These days become a decade. The decades create your life.

“Have I done enough for the world?” is an incredibly broad inquiry. I’ll just start with finishing this tea, thanking my husband for hooking up the sink in the bathroom as I write this, walk around for ten minutes to give my son and my guts some extra space and exercise, write down my intentions for tomorrow, and text a friend back. After that, I’ll grab those ginger beers and meet Michael on the couch for our 10pm movie date. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll give him a foot massage instead of asking him to fork one over to his super pregnant birthday wife… Nah, that’s overkill.

Moving Port

It is 6:45am on Saturday, August 24, 2019: Day #2 of driving Neighbor Girl down the river to her new port of Latsch Island, Winona, MN. We beached our sturdy steel houseboat on a sandbar last night near Mile Marker 810. One lock and dam down, four to go.

The river treated us kindly yesterday. Perhaps she feared that I would flood her with my tears. We left our home yesterday. More specifically, we drove our houseboat out of her home port. We left Watergate Marina in Saint Paul, Minnesota- our home base for the last four years.

We bought our houseboat there five years ago, left the country to travel to 13 others assured that in six months, we would have this 142 square feet of living space to exist on for the summer. One summer of living aboard turned into a fall, a winter, a spring, and three more years just like that. Michael and I joyfully resided on this tiny floating home together tucked away in a quiet park marina along the floodplains of Saint Paul where even the locals don’t know we exist. (Trust me, getting an Uber pickup had about a 45% success rate.) We continued to exist there purposefully and peacefully with eight other boats year-round and countless more during the seasonable and vibrant summers.

During these last four years of life, I worked at Hennepin County Medical Center at a job that I loved for challenging every part of me and showing me the hardest and most beautiful parts of humanity. Michael and I spent weekends building our cabin up north. We got married. We made a baby. We made a whole family in this marina and some very best friends; I’m looking at you tugboat and sailors. So, as we leave port with Ken and Roger tossing our lines, it’s no wonder that the Mighty Mississippi fears I may flood her waters with these unsupressable tears that well up from the pit of my gut and burn my heart on their way up to my pathetic sniffling face.

Watergate Marina is beautiful on this day- a sky as blue as I’ve ever known it and a sun that casts down an easy 70 degrees.

Video: Leaving Port

As we slowly leave the marina, I hand the wheel to Michael and spend a minute on the stern (slightly embarrassed by the puddle I’ve become) as our home harbor disappears from sight. Michael joins me, and I tell him, “I’m not sad, I’m just so so grateful.” He hugs me and says, “me too.” We agree that there is nothing more we could have wanted out of these last four years. For us, they were perfect. When I finally clear my eyes to look up at Michael, he has two big tears living on his cheeks- a rare sight on his typically cheerful and mischievious face.

Now, on this Saturday morning, we revel in our first day of river boat journey success and last night’s very primal joy of sitting along the river’s shores with our feet in the sand and a warm campfire glow across our faces. Today, we are fresh-faced and confident going in to the biggest test that trusty Neighbor Girl has had to face in her last four years with us and likely in her 49 years of existence: the Lake Pepin crossing.

Lake Pepin is where the Mississippi River becomes it’s widest and deepest for a stretch of 22 miles. Lake Pepin widens to a distance of two miles and has an average depth of 21 feet and a maximum depth of 60 feet.

For those of you who have not done much river travel, I will enlighten you on the treachery of wing dams. The Mississippi River is lined with them. Wing dams are human constructs that were built during the 1930s and ’40s with the purpose of crafting a deeper and more reliable navigation channel. These wing dams were built prior to the present day lock and dam system as a means to control the flow of the river. Wing dams extend partway across a river channel and often go undetected depending on the depth of the water at that time. If the water is low enough, you will see a line across the water that delineates a smooth water surface upstream and a choppy water texture downstream of that wing dam. It takes a practiced eye to identify these.

Now, on to the treacherous part. Wing dams are unmarked. Boats and boat engines are frequently wrecked by these shallow lurking structures. The good news? Wing dams do not exist within the main channel which is marked by red and green steel buoys. “Red, Right, Return” means that the red marker will be on your right as you return north. Since we are traveling downstream, the green is on our right and the red is on our left, or so we expected…

At the head of Lake Pepin where the water widens considerably, the reassuring red and green channel markers suddenly become non-existent. Things had been going very well so far. With a high level of confidence, I thought, “no big deal, the whole width of the river must be open for business.” We didn’t bother to check the river charts that Michael had downloaded on his phone. Within 15 minutes of cruising cockily along the Minnesota shore, I blazed our little houseboat right into a submerged sandbar. The engines grumbled as they tried to process the run-in with sand and thick weeds. My relaxed mood shifted to “shit, shit, shit.” This was not the spot to lose an engine.. or two. Thank God we have two. I inched out of this disaster and let the engines relax. They sounded gruff for ten minutes before regaining their deep calming purr. We lucked out. Michael checked his river charts and sure enough, the elusive submerged bar was marked on there. “What the f***. If that’s been known long enough to include on a chart, why isn’t there a frickin’ marker by it?!” I exclaimed this in defense of my sweet old boat and dented captain’s pride. Michael laughed, and we chugged on.

We had 22 miles of Lake Pepin ahead of us; three hours of white crested waves beating our steel hull from all sides. We were fortunate that the day’s wind came from ahead as Neighbor Girl does not fair well in a side wind. A side wind of today’s speeds would have forced us to sit this day out, but with a head wind, we pressed on. We quickly learned that both of our bilge pumps were in working order… whew. Water was leaking in from somewhere, or everywhere as the decks were fully rinsed with each wave. Thankfully, our pumps had no trouble keeping up and expelling this intake. Neighbor Girl was doing great.

What I did not expect from our Lake Pepin crossing, besides that disruptive submerged sandbar at the start, was that the main channel crosses through the middle rather than along the shoreline; this caused us to be nearly a mile from shore for most of the venture. With the wild wind splashing from ahead, mysterious dark waters for a mile on all sides, and migrating birds overhead, we felt like true river nomads now! We cranked the music, danced at the helm, and celebrated feeling free and dry in our little moving home.

Later that night, following a celebratory dinner at Slippery’s Bar in Wabasha, we ran our boat aground once again in an attempt to beach up for the night. Neighbor Girl made it out of grounding incident #2 unscathed, and we found another, more perfect spot to make dinner and watch the sun set behind the distant bluffs.

Video: Beach Camping

As night fell, a beaver played near our boat. We did our best to keep quiet and observe his antics, but he caught a glimpse of us, slapped his tail, and dove smoothly away.

It is now Day #3 of this river boat adventure. We wake just south of Alma, WI to find that we have no maple syrup for the pancakes I have been dreaming of all night. These are the things that matter at sea- a good warm meal in the morning and a cold hard drink at night.

Since my little growing fetus disallows me from the cold hard night drink, I am living for these warm morning meals. My husband must love me or something, because we backtrack a mile to Alma’s city dock with the mission of maple syrup acquisition and a propane tank refill. We get distracted by good conversation and fresh pretzels at The Alma Bakery where we are introduced to a 50% off closing sale at The Junk Market down the street. Two hours later, we reboard our boat with propane, fresh pretzels, four wooden folding chairs, a canvas painting of a ship, some sort of antique cutting tool, and with the baker himself for more conversations on scheming and dreaming. The baker didn’t end up departing with us. I suppose he had more pretzels to make after we cleaned him out. The syrup never made it on board either. We are far too distractable to ever become pirates, at least productive ones.

We left Alma at 11:15am, made it through Lock and Dam 5 at 1:12pm, and through the final lock, Lock and Dam 5a, at 2:35pm. We were greeted on the other side of the lock by two boats- one with my parents and the other with the Brandon family. It was a lovely welcoming. We made a small parade to my parent’s cabin where my sister and more family boarded for the final stretch to Latsch Island.

We arrived at The Wheel House, our future floating home under construction, at 4:45pm. We docked with a bang… literally. Michael drove flawlessly up until this climatic point when he made a small but very audible dent in the side of our new boathouse. The excitement got the best of him. I’m taken back to over four years ago when we took Neighbor Girl out for her first trip. With a fresh coat of paint, newly placed engines, and not a bit of knowledge on how to drive this big box of steel with twin engines and no keel, we enthusiastically headed for open water. As brave as ever, we felt like two free birds exploring a world of new possibilities; it was a very familiar feeling that resided in us throughout these last three days. Eventually, on this day four years ago, Neighbor Girl’s maiden voyage came to an end; it was time to dock her back in the slip. Michael took the wheel, used both the wheel and the two throttles to steer (We later learned that this was the beginner’s mistake. You must only use the throttles and no wheel if you hope to park without incident.), and not-so-gently rammed in to the bowsprit of our neighbor’s much nicer boat. Luckily, only ours came out with a scar- a four foot gash through the cabin’s port side. Neighbor Girl’s beauty scar still remains today.

The Wheel House now has an upstream scar to match. These two little river homes now live side by side, each with an imperfection to remind us of the joy in our wildest ideas and new beginnings. May we never be ashamed of these scars or scared to make new ones; they each tell a great story. May we continue to live our lives being too novice, unintimidated, a little stupid maybe, and much too eager in all the new and unusual waters that come our way. May we sometimes forget the syrup and come home with pretzels and a new friend instead.

Video: Celebratory Champagne

Sixteen Weeks

“You’d think the plants would just adapt to give up,” Michael answers nonchalantly. It is our third wedding anniversary and nearly eight years of loving each other.

We’re celebrating with a hike up Brady Bluff in Trempeleau, WI. On our way down, we come across a patch of poison ivy taller than my legs. We reminisce on a few years ago when we were canoeing down the river and pulled over for the night to pitch our tent. It was early October and the fall colors were in their prime. We woke up itching like crazy and realized that we had pitched our tent in a field of red bushes- a poison ivy patch. We hadn’t recognized the plant in it’s bright red color, a drastic change from the waxy green color it possessed just weeks before. We had rashes up and down our legs for weeks.

Nature adapts gracefully, even amidst this world of rapid change. We Minnesotans all know the story. Our world is white and frozen for what feels like forever. Somehow, summer happens just months afterward with the return of our wild animals, prairies and forests proliferating with captivating colors and green growth, and the morning sound of a dozen birds trying to out-sing one another. We are just settling in to this paradise when we blink again and find ourselves with a shovel in hand trying to figure out the best way to dislodge our snow sunken vehicle; there are no bird sounds in this scene and no captivating colors except that the neighbor’s dog painted the fresh snow a light yellow. Nature adapts as appropriately as able. Humans adapt slowly; we’re more stubborn. All along, life keeps moving.

As we hike down this bluff, we stop to gawk at the overwhelming green that surrounds us now. “How do all these plants come back like this, so large and alive, after winters like ours that just kill them off?” I rhetorically wonder aloud. “Yeah, you’d think the plants would just adapt to give up,” Michael answers nonchalantly.

I touch my increasingly round belly. I am 16 weeks pregnant. An influx of thoughts flood my mind. “Thank God these plants have not given up. My baby will get to see these colors, these views; he’ll smell the fresh flowers and feel the living earth… Will he though? Will my child get to know this world like I have? Humans sure have treated Mother Earth like trash. It’s certainly not headed in the right direction. Have we come to the point of no return.. probably. There’s so much consumption and greed; thanks Trump. And what about overpopulation and depletion of resources? Why do we keep having babies anyway? We all die too. Why don’t we adapt to give up? The rest of nature would be better for it.” I sift through all of these thoughts in about two seconds. I take a breath, turn to Michael and audibly say, “That’s how I feel.”

I soon realize that these four spoken words made minimal if any sense and so I explain myself a little further. “I mean that we have no idea what the world will look like or if it will be here, but we’re still having a baby.”

So, if you have wondered what the heck we’ve been up to since my most recent blog three months ago, there it is. We made a baby which required a lot of hard work and long nights. Post baby making, I spent a month or two of my life trapped in what felt like the worst hangover ever: sleeping days away, puking off the side of our boat, and wondering why women all over the world don’t have more of a public outcry about the treachery of trimester one.

did still go to work and survive smelling all the enhanced smells that come from every human fluid and every human orifice (I am a nurse by the way. I think that is important knowledge here.). I also completed a job interview without puking on my prospective boss and subsequently received the job offer. Yay for us (me and my emesis-free boss). I am now out of that nausea-filled first trimester so you can bet I am no longer sending vomit down the fastest path to New Orleans. I’m sure my boat neighbors are also pleased. Michael and I are continuing to work on “The Wheel House”, our future floating home in Winona. I guess you could say that the pressure is on now that we have to put a roof over the head of a newborn with an ETA of sometime in the dead of winter. If he’s anything like me, he’ll be fashionably late and disorganized. If he’s anything like Michael, he’ll join us wide-eyed and too busy too sleep. Either way, we’re in for it.

Whether it’s Mother Nature who has been sorely mistreated by humankind or humans who have been hurt by circumstance or each other, we do not adapt to give up. We adapt to live as beautifully and hopefully as we can muster.

To the pregnant woman puking off the side of the boat or the silly couple who slept in a patch of poison ivy, there are brighter days ahead. To the father of my baby and my best friend, thank you for being the best part of my days and for feeding me Gatorade and crackers when I wouldn’t get out of bed.

To Baby Boy, you are my hope in a future that I don’t want to give up on. I’m sorry I only fed you simple carbohydrates and applesauce for the first ten weeks of your fetal life but I’m making up for it now; that was a spinach and berry smoothie we ate this morning.. with extra flax seed.

Baby Boy, live simply but boldly. Listen to the world around you; the waters and the trees have a lot to teach you. There are moments to adapt and moments to stand your ground. The trees are especially good at that one. You might not always recognize when the world needs each; just do your best.

Oh, and get to know what poison ivy looks like in all seasons. Trust me on this one; it will save you about three weeks of misery.

 

 

When You Have To Boat To Your Boat

“Whatchya writing about?”, says my husband as he shaves his face over the sink while sitting next to me on our bed. There are no distinguished spaces here. It is one room containing all the aspects of a home… except for no laundry machine or any sort of closet. I tell him, “the flooding”. He says, “whoa, that’s a biggins.” “I know; where do I start?”, I say, “at ten feet, twelve feet, eighteen feet?” Michael says, “Start at the bottom of the river.”

I still didn’t know where to start so here we are. I began by giving you the visual of Michael inches away from me at 1:12 am while I sit cozy in bed tip-tapping away on the keyboard. We have three candles lit because our power is out. It’s been out for 22 days now. We’re borrowing Neighbor Mike’s generator because ours fell in the river last night at 4am. I know it was 4am because I wake every time the generator turns off. I’ve turned in to one of those people that has to sleep to the sound of a fan, except in my case: a generator. The whole dock hums of them at night. I met a neighbor for dinner on the dock yesterday and we yelled across the table to hear each other over the loud drone- it was lovely. Anyway, here we are. We’re off grid. Our generator is in pieces to “dry out” on our boat’s floor. There is six inches of snow on our dock. We have to kayak to and from our boat to traverse the flood waters. And Michael shaves his face at 1am while I try to process these last few weeks of Minnesota madness.

Spring isn’t always like this. We usually don’t get flooded out of our parking lot. Our power has never been turned off. We’ve never received an email from the city to evacuate our floating homes due to major flood levels… how strange that none of us checked our email that month.

One month ago, the marina started buzzing with the information that this would be a year of historic flood levels. Would it be something like 2014- a river crest of 20.13 feet? Many neighbors were familiar with this year and smiled as they shared stories from it. It was one year before Michael and I made the marina our home. Could it be something akin to 1965, the highest waters here in recorded history? The river crested at 26.01 feet then.

I’ll quickly brief you on the river levels. The river depth here in Saint Paul, MN is about 9 feet deep. There’s a ton of history on how the 9 foot navigable channel was established. The Upper Mississippi River was not always navigable, not even close, but humans have knack for manipulating nature to suit our wants. I read a book recently that brilliantly goes through the history of our local river: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I highly recommend it: “The River We Have Wrought” by John O. Anfinson. Anyway, back to river levels. The action stage is 10 feet, the flood stage is 14 feet, the moderate flood stage is 15 feet, and the major flood stage is 17 feet.

In the week leading up to the river’s rise, the harbor’s waters remained frozen, and the summer’s boats lined the parking lot just waiting for the spring thaw and eventual release to their dock slips. This year, this transition from dry dock to water would not happen naturally or smoothly. It would require a 65 foot barge pushed by a tug to break up the frozen ice. It would require volunteers to chip away at snow and ice surrounding the stands that held the seasonal boats on land. It would require hundreds of different maneuvers to get the seaworthy boats (boats that can float) in water and the not so seaworthy ones on high ground. The parking lot was going to flood, maybe six feet high. This meant that all the boats safely stored on the lot for winter would not be so safe anymore; they would be floating away… and fast.

This year’s flooding was already different from that of 2014. In 2014, the flooding happened in June- a rather pleasant time of the year to hassle with extra water. Now, it’s March; it’s cold and everything’s frozen. We are understanding these things: we’ll soon be off grid as the power will be turned off before the water reaches the breaker box, we’ll be kayaking to and from our boat as the parking lot is sure to flood significantly, and if all the boats on shore can’t get in the now frozen harbor, they will float away, sink, or surely be damaged. I’m not sure we’ll be telling stories of this flood with a smile on our faces.

Letters were written to the city officials, and the marina acted quickly and with minimal rest. They got that barge to come in and break up the marina’s main channel. Volunteers came forward in impressive numbers to break up the ice within the dock slips and where the barge could not reach. The marina employees worked tirelessly to slip in 48 boats in a span of three days. The boats would be safe.

The water rose quickly, and when we arrived from a weekend away, the liveaboards were in full flood mode. A dinghy dock was established, Neighbor Sam purchased a new motor for his dinghy while Neighbor Mike purchased a new generator, Neighbor Roger lended me his neighbor kayak for the flood season, Neighbor Sam gifted us gimbaled oil lamps for the weeks of power outage to come, and Mystery Neighbor delivered my rain boots directly to Neighbor Girl’s door. As evidenced over and over again, lots of looking out for each other seems to happen here when conditions aren’t fabulous.

Weeks have come and gone now- more than three of them. We are still off grid. Roger’s still letting me use his kayak. We’re getting our day time warmth from the sun (if it’s out that day) and our night-time warmth primarily from candles or our solo propane heater that kicks off frequently for no good reason. We gave up trying to power our fridge, so we’re consuming a hardy amount of dry goods and making more frequent trips to Mickey’s Diner.

We are caught up to the present now. Just when we got settled in to this off-grid flood life, the 5th biggest April snowfall on record blasted us with nearly 10 inches. As temperatures dropped in to the twenties and the wind picked up to 20 knots sustained and 51 gusting, our generator landed in the river at 4am. Michael retrieved it, but it hasn’t been able to be revived. We woke up to one cold boat being tossed back and forth by the unrelenting winds. With my winter coat on, I packed a bag with three days worth of clothes. I impulsively determined that I would find somewhere to stay until this wintery spell seceded. I stormed off the boat in my knee high rain boots in to the snow and across the flood waters. In that moment, I thought I’d be gone until summer.

My rage did not last long. That night, I was back on the boat with my three days of belongings put away and a borrowed generator for heat. It is now 1:12 am. I’m cozy in bed, loving this boat again in all her resilience and charm. “Whatchya writing about?”, he says… I write without really knowing I guess. I start with one small thing, event, person, and I wring it free of all the sensations it has to offer. I write to understand this life all over again; to feel it fully. It goes too fast otherwise. I write to share the beauty in life and the funny in it. I write to honor the very essence of living stripped from all the extras. “The flooding,” I say. I’ll start there. Of course, I start the story talking about him. I can’t help it; it’s just where I feel the most.

If you’re wondering how we (Saint Paul, MN in the year of 2019) ended up in the historical flood contest. The river peaked at 20.19 feet. Yes, 20.19 feet in 2019; I bet you won’t forget that now. It’s the seventh highest in recorded history. The river was higher (and colder!) than 2014, but not as high as in 1965. What a year to have two floating homes on this mighty Mississippi.. uffda. We’re not out of the woods yet, but so far, both are surviving. I wouldn’t say thriving but definitely surviving; I’ll take it.

Since I started this story with Michael, I’ll end with him too. I like to bring things full circle. Since Michael and I work evenings and not always the same evenings, the commute home during flood season has involved a kayak trip from dinghy dock to boat between the hours of midnight and 2am, either alone or together. At first, I though I would dread this after a tiring shift at the hospital. It morphed in to one of the favorite parts of my day (except when that April blizzard hit; screw kayaking in that mess). The water was the most calm at night. It looked like glass, and the moon shine would light our path home. On my nights alone, Michael would always text me things like, “wear your life jacket” or “paddle over the parking lot; it’s more shallow there”. We also debated nightly on which was the best exit point at the dock. I liked to venture straight to our dock finger where a ladder dipped in the water to meet me. Michael preferred to go up the walkway at the dock’s end; it was a gradual slope up and one he insisted was less risky. The water is still icy cold, so any fall in could be dangerous.

One morning, I woke up to Michael blasting through the boat’s door in only his underwear. I didn’t have my contacts in or glasses on, so this was just a strange, blurry vision at first. He had fallen in the water, swam to the dock, got assistance from our neighbors to fish the kayak out, and then stripped his wet clothes off and hung them outside to dry. (The clothes were later found to be frozen stiff.) I couldn’t help but to laugh at him as this blurry image shared his story. “And you always tell me to be careful,” I said, “how ironic.” So, for the official record of Mississippi River fall-ins over four years of life aboard: you can tally Michael’s at a whopping three, while I sit cockily here at zero.

April 2019 Stats To Remember:

  • The 7th highest river crest with a height of 20.19 feet.
  • The 5th largest April snowfall in history.
  • An astounding jump in the river fall-in count with Chelsi securing a 0-3 lead. Booyah.