I can’t remember where the idea came from. But years I’ve wanted to rent a houseboat and take the family for a week-long “camping on the water” trip.
Why Houseboat on the Mississippi?
There are many places to rent houseboats. Websites like Houseboating.org will help you find the different destinations.
There was just something attractive about being on the Mississippi River rather than in a lake.
Maybe it’s my life-long love of the writings of Mark Twain (our GPS is named “Mr. Ferguson” after the tour guide figures in Innocents Abroad, our newest Kindle is named “Twain”).
Maybe it was the idea of passing by or stopping at different river towns while in the boat.
Maybe it was experiencing the locks & dams that help control the river and still allow boating traffic to go up and down.
Houseboating on the Mississippi just sounded more adventurous than being on a lake, constrained by a circular shoreline. We could actually go somewhere.
So how did it go?
It was definitely an adventure.
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Where & What We Rented
Why I Chose Them
After a web search, I called a few rental providers on the Upper Mississippi.
Between the more informative website (pictures, floorplans, lists of what to bring, etc) and my phone experience with Sue at S&S I felt comfortable with them.
My requirements for the boat were a flybridge to drive from, a waterslide, and a private bedroom for MsBoyink and I. S&S were wonderful to work with, accommodating, interested in our story, and didn’t make us feel rushed at all. I’d highly recommend them if you are looking to rent a Mississippi Houseboat (tell ‘em we sent you).
Between the rental fees, extra insurance and fuel costs (driving an estimated 65 miles and running the generator approximately 10 hours) we spent just under $3000 for our week.
That doesn’t include:
- Food (since we have to eat anyway)
- Camping (we just tied up in different places on the river)
- Dock services (we lasted the entire week on the provided fuel, propane and fresh water)
Learning the Boat
We parked our fifth-wheel right next to the gangplank to the S&S dock on a Thursday night and began the process of moving aboard.
We slept onboard that night and in the morning met John who was our trainer. John is a retired Science Teacher and had a good style & manner in working with us.
We learned how to:
- Go through the engine starting routine
- Identify the channel in the river
- Use the depth-pole to check for the 4’ of water the boat needed
- Beach the boat
- Set the 2 anchors
- Watch for the long river Towboat/barge setups (called “Tows” for short)
- Use the marine radio to hail Tows or contact the locks.
- Check the filter on the boat’s generator (which is cooled by river water)
On Our Own in the Boat
Training took most of the morning, so we hung at the marina for lunch & then got our start.
We decided to head upriver from Lansing as there looked like more camping options and we were also interested in experiencing going through a lock.
Driving a boat of this size and shape was definitely a new experience. I’ve driven boats before but the largest was a 28’ pontoon.
At lower speeds keeping the houseboat on course was largely a process of steering, waiting for the boat to react, and then correcting. I felt like was usually driving in a zig-zag fashion (later I learned that going a bit faster made things easier by causing the boat to react faster).
With its twin engines the boat was actually fairly nimble and able to come about quickly when needed. I was also able to use one engine and the steering to keep the boat straight against the bank while beaching and getting the anchors set.
Still, I was glad most of our early time in the boat was during a quiet time on the river. We didn’t meet any tows, saw no other houseboats, only a few fishing boats.
Moving around in a boat like this is definitely a team-event. Visibility from the inside pilot station is very limited, so I relied upon my lookouts to tell me about oncoming boats.
I also relied heavily upon MsBoyink’s excellent navigation skills (Men, if you have daughters please teach them directions, wayfinding and map-reading skills. Your future son-in-laws will thank you endlessly).
MsBoyink sat next to me with the provided map, marking progress against the channel markers and daymarkers, and noting the locations of wing-dams.
Harrison did an excellent job depth-finding with the pole and setting/retrieving the heavy anchors. Miranda helped route ropes and move deck furniture as needed.
For me the experience broke down into two pretty discreet categories: either I was totally relaxed, loving the isolation and immersion in nature, the photographic opportunities, and lack of artificial lights.
I was kind of stressed. At times really stressed. The more traffic there was around me the more stressed I was.
The videos below tell the story of one such episode. Our first time going through the locks was another as it was quite windy and the wind pushed us around and tested my novice boat skills.
Our final leg back to the marina mixed together wind and encountering both a Mississippi Steamboat and Tow. I’ve never steered anything as much as I steered the boat on that leg - constantly having to course and wind-correct.
We saw another rental with a hot tub on its roof and that would have really been nice to relieve the tension I was feeling by the end of the week.
I would rent a houseboat again. But I might actually enjoy a lake more - assuming the navigation & beaching would be easier.
It would be nice to share a boat with some friends. I could share the driving duties and the kids would have friend to go do stuff with. The thought of good conversation around a fire on a beach with some other adults would be nice.
I had this idea that we could just drop anchor anywhere and spend a night out on the open water or in one of the off-channel sloughs. We couldn’t do that with this boat because the water in many of those places isn’t deep enough and the anchors aren’t on winches so pulling them up by hand might be impossible. I also think the rental agency just knows you’ll be safer up on a beach somewhere.