Houseboating on the Mississippi River

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

We rented a Sunstar from S and S Houseboat Rentals in Lansing, Iowa. 

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).

Costs

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.

The Experience

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.

Or.

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.

Reflections

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.

 

John shows Harrison how to check the generator filter

John shows Harrison how to check the generator filter

Boyink inspects the props.

Boyink inspects the props.

John explains the controls.

John explains the controls.

Kids being lookouts

Kids being lookouts

Number one reporting to Captian

Number one reporting to Captian

Storybird at rear sentry

Storybird at rear sentry

Harrison finding the depth

Harrison finding the depth

Anchors aweigh!

Anchors aweigh!

Upstream first

Upstream first

Running a 3rd anchor just to be safe.

Running a 3rd anchor just to be safe.

On our own at last

On our own at last

Solo at the controls

Solo at the controls

MsBoyink fills in for a quick potty break

MsBoyink fills in for a quick potty break

Successfully beached for our first night

Successfully beached for our first night

Storybird finds out why its called 'The Big Muddy' and does some jazz hands to boot

Storybird finds out why its called 'The Big Muddy' and does some jazz hands to boot

Yes, it's mud!

Yes, it's mud!

Well-deserved beer after getting this whale beached.

Well-deserved beer after getting this whale beached.

Harrison on the sundeck

Harrison on the sundeck

My only catch of the week - a Mooneye

My only catch of the week - a Mooneye

Sunset on the river

Sunset on the river

Breakfast - watching a tow come upstream

Breakfast - watching a tow come upstream

These guys are amazing

These guys are amazing

Storybird on the beach

Storybird on the beach

Lets Move

Not so fast!

Fail! Back in old spot

Success!

Overall

The experience was awesome. Memorable. Unique so far in our family story.

We’ll be talking about houseboating on the Mississippi for years to come.

The whole “bucket-list” thing has become a bit of a cliche.  However this is a certain satisfaction in being able to look at that list of things you want to do in life, and put a nice black checkmark next to one.

So what about you? Have you stayed on a houseboat somewhere? Was it a good experience?  If not, is it something you want to do?

 

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4 Comments Houseboating on the Mississippi River

  1. Picture of AlyssaAlyssa May 18, 2016

    I came across this article because I am wanting to buy a houseboat someday and travel by waterways, reading this gave me a realistic perspective on how much work it will be! But also still seems like a great adventure! Thanks for sharing :)

  2. Picture of David ClaphamDavid Clapham June 18, 2016

    Hello,

    I’m landing at Minneapolis airport, from the UK, on August 10. My plan is to reach New Orleans via the Mississippi river. If I can get a boat ride down river (all or part of the way) I would be more than happy to share travelling expenses with anyone you may be aware of who is planning a trip around this time.
    Alternatively, any help or advice regarding getting a ride would be most welcome.

    Thanks.
    Regards
    David Clapham

  3. Picture of TimTim November 12, 2016

    Yes, just like David was asking.  Are there one way rentals from North-South? Or South to North?

  4. Picture of BoyinkBoyink November 12, 2016

    You’d really have to call the houseboat providers and ask them.We’re just a family who rented one once upon a time..;)

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