They’re at Home on the River
Like Huck Finn, these independent spirits have found a home (and a little adventure) on the Mississippi River.
IT IS DUSK ON THIS WILD STRETCH of the Mississippi between the high bluffs of southern Minnesota and Wisconsin; the air is hot and thick with the smell of the river and the hum of insects. Along the edge of Latsch Island, where the green darkness of the woods meets the reflected light, little boathouses squat in the water, pressed against the island like roosting ducklings.
In one of those boathouses, a naked six-year-old boy named Moses dances to a children’s song coming from a battery-powered CD player, his feet falling in a haphazard rhythm on the wood floor. His father, Solomon Simon, a 33-year-old carpenter and self-taught river ecologist, sips lemonade on a small deck that looks out over the river toward the bluffs of the Wisconsin side, while Gunther, a three-legged golden retriever, lies at his feet.
The river is busy: A great blue heron manages the miracle of getting its awkward form airborne, calling out in a guttural voice as it skims over the water. A family of ducks paddles by within a couple of yards of the boathouse, followed a little later by a muskrat that leaves v-shaped ripples in its wake. The sun’s pale orange afterglow fades as the first stars make their appearance in the night sky, reflected in the glassy swells of the water.
“I really love the river,” says Simon. “Life is an adventure here. If Huck Finn were alive, this is where he would live, right here.”
“Yup,” echoes Moses, looking like a miniature of the storybook hero, with his big brown eyes and tousled hair. “This is where he would live.”
WHILE THERE ARE ABOUT a hundred boathouses here, only a couple dozen hardy souls call Minnesota’s Latsch Island home, and theirs is the last year-round boathouse community on the upper Mississippi.
The mile-long island is part of the mess of wooded islands, backwater channels, and sloughs created by the meanderings of the river as it piles up sediment in one place and cuts new paths in another.
Although the island hosts a marina and is located just a few hundred yards from the Winona waterfront, the boathouse community exists in its own little world, a place that manages to combine elements reminiscent of Twain, Thoreau, and Peter Pan.
There is no highway sign noting Latsch as a point of interest to motorists crossing the Mississippi on the interstate, not even an exit sign marking the ramp that curves down from the bridge. At the bottom of the ramp is an asphalt road that tums to dirt and then terminates in a crude parking lot at the edge of a woods, forcing a visitor to continue on foot.
A little way into the woods, the faint paths among the trees converge at the edge of the channel that divides the island. A footbridge made of boards laid across floating steel barrels links the two halves; it is narrow and precarious. On the other side of the bridge, in a tangle of tree branches and vines, is a hand-carved signboard:
Wolf Spider Island
The boathouse community gave this name to lower Latsch Island, hoping the reference to the large, hairy spiders would make the island seem less appealing to outsiders.
Aside from the sign, they’ve given the place an almost playful atmosphere. Bells, wooden chimes, and a plank swing hang from branches along the paths leading to the boathouses, which look like kids’ treehouses. Most are made of secondhand materials. They come in one size — small — but take on numerous shapes, from almost suburban to geodesic dome.
LESLIE EATON’S BOATHOUSE, which she describes as barnlike, was given to her for free because of its dilapidated condition. Wasps and carpenter ants had riddled the wood, the skylight leaked, and the pontoons were rusted out, a fact she was made aware of when the whole house suddenly sank during a repair job. Since her arrival on Latsch Island four years ago, she’s worked on six “fixer-uppers.”
Before coming to the island, Eaton was a wanderer, living in chicken coops and cars, a hippie who never found her way into mainstream society.
“I’d had ideas about trying to move onto some land someday and trying to grow gardens and stuff, but once I got out to the river, I just sort of forgot about all that,” she says, making a stirfry dish on her propane stove. She looks very much at home, barefoot and wearing a batiked ankle-length dress.
“People just happen to live here, and our lifestyle is what binds us together. I’ve been very happy here. I’ve got a lot of friends, and I feel like there’s finally someplace where I fit in — you know, all the neighbors are as offbeat as I am,” continues Eaton. “If you’re kind of a restless person, you can relax here because the house is always moving.”
Actually, her boathouse is tethered to several sturdy trees. A floating walkway, called a stand-off, keeps it from crashing into shore, and 50-gallon barrels, serving as pontoons, keep it afloat. However, her home moves every time a large boat goes by. The rocking chair starts rocking, and everything hanging from the rafters — a collection of straw fans and hats, coffee cups, river bird feathers, and baskets of potatoes — starts swinging.
Along one wall dangle strings of beads in every color, and next to those are racks and racks of handmade jewelry. Eaton’s craft is her principal source of income, and she spends hours working on her beadwork while watching the river pass by her picture window.
LIFE ON THE RIVER is not easy, however, as Eaton’s neighbor, John Rupkey, points out again and again. A former college administrator and member of a religious order, he moved to Wolf Spider Island 17 years ago in search of a simpler lifestyle. It hasn’t come without effort.
Boathouse owners must regularly haul in large drums of fuel, fresh water, food, and other supplies, and haul out waste by boat or, in the winter, by sled. Electricity comes from car batteries or, for a few folks, solar panels.
There is no air-conditioning in the summer, and in the winter it’s not unheard of for floors to ice over. Moreover, the constant battering by the river and the weather make maintenance a never-ending chore.
Rupkey takes a philosophical view of the privations. “I don’t have any of the conveniences of modern life — all the time-saving devices are gone — but I have lots of time.”
For the boathouse community, Minnesota winters can be hazardous, but spring is by far the most dangerous season. That’s when winter ice can break the silence with sharp explosions as it cracks up, sometimes sending floes the size of trucks crashing into the boathouses.
As the ice melts, the river floods, inundating most of the island. Then, to get to and from home, islanders must boat through swift currents. Those boathouses that are “iced in” — frozen to the river bottom — won’t rise with the river and are quickly filled with water.
“And just when you think you’ve seen all the Mississippi’s tricks, it’ll pull a new one on you,” Eaton says. During the big flood of ’93, she was living in a large boathouse called the Mud Rat that broke its lines and ended up on top of some submerged trees.
“When the water came down, the boathouse was hung up, and boy, it was hard to get that sucker down!” Eaton recalled. “It took lots of people chopping tree limbs.”
All who live on the island have had their own brushes with disaster, and they tell such stories with a certain amount of relish. The stories are what distinguish the boathouse people from those who live in town. They testify to the teller’s ability to survive on the river, to ride its natural rhythm.
Simon tells one story that has become part of island lore: “There was a boathouse that had caught fire farther up the river.” he says. “It was made of cedar shakes, so it was very flammable. The fire had burned through its ropes, and it started floating downriver. We woke up about two in the morning to this towering inferno descending on our house, heading straight for us.”
Boathouse residents came out in their bedclothes, long poles in hand to push the floating bonfire away. The fire eventually burned itself out downriver. Although it is a strong individualistic streak that brings most people to the boathouses, such crises have helped form a sort of loose community in which neighbors rely on each other for a helping hand.
“Everybody down here knows each other and there’s a certain friendship,” says Simon. “Even if there’s animosity over an issue, you know you have to work it out because you’re going to need each other’s help in the future, whether it’s for something to do with the floods or preserving the community from hostile outside authorities.”
IT IS THOSE “HOSTILE OUTSIDE AUTHORITIES” that are the greatest threat to the survival of the boathouse community. Local and state governments have been trying for years to get rid of boathouses, and they’ve been successful on most of the river. Now the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is attempting to enforce the rules designed to phase boathouses out.
“Generally speaking, structures, especially for human habitation, aren’t allowed on protected waters like the Mississippi,” explains Bill Huber, a state hydrologist. “The surface of the water is being usurped for private residential use rather than being used for the public. A residential subdivision just wasn’t something that was envisioned for surface water.”
The state says boathouse owners won’t be allowed to expand the houses or to repair more than 50 percent of their value, a policy designed to ensure that the boathouses will deteriorate one by one. The owners don’t have much regard for these regulations, though; they openly undertake illegal expansion and remodeling projects. Several boathouse owners have been threatened with court action.
But no one is leaving.
“There’s something about government that doesn’t like things that don’t fit in,” Rupkey says. “People out here aren’t living in the mainstream. We’re literally and figuratively living in the back channel, and happy to be there.”
Right or wrong, it’s that sort of stubbornness that sees the boathouse people through one Mississippi adventure after another, a reminder of the river spirit Twain celebrated a century ago. Perhaps it will see the boathouse people into the next century as well.
This article first appeared in the December 1995 issue of Islands magazine.