look the river, along through this region, charm one with the grace and
variety of their forms, and the soft beauty of their adornments.” With
charts in hand, we took off.
MODERN ENGINEERING & A TRIP BACK IN TIME
At the revitalized Port of Dubuque, we docked in the protected Ice
Harbor inside the floodgate, where courtesy docks make stopping
off easy. Near the National Mississippi River Museum is an extensive
riverfront plaza, and the Diamond Jo Casino and gaming complex.
Back on the water, just three miles from the start, we had our first
lock-through, at Lock and Dam 11, along with one man on a jet ski.
He wasn’t the least bit surprised when we told him we were headed to
Minneapolis. “I took the trip last year with my sons in an aluminum
fishing boat,” he told us, “and we camped along the way.”
The idea of locking through was initially daunting, but we breezed
through it, grabbing lines from a friendly lockmaster to steady our
boat against the concrete wall. When Twain saw the river, it was
untamed – even, he speculated, untamable – by the United States
River Commission (predecessor to the Army Corps of Engineers). In
the 1930s, though, the Corps of Engineers began the 9-Foot Project
to revive and improve the navigation on the Upper River, creating 29
locks and dams, from Minneapolis to St. Louis, by 1964. Today, more
than 90 million tons of cargo move by barge on the upper Mississippi
River annually. Recreational boats and commercial vessels share the
locks on a first-come, first-served basis.
The heat and humidity of the first hours gave way to oppressive
stillness and dark skies and soon a drenching Iowa downpour, with
sheets of rain pelting us as we steered toward shore, reminding us of
the respect the mighty river exacts from those who travel it. Twain may
have had a similar storm in mind when he wrote, “People boast a great
deal about Alpine thunderstorms; but the storms I’ve had the luck to
see in the Alps were not the equals of some I’ve seen in the Mississippi
Valley. I may not have seen the Alps do their best, of course, and if
they can beat the Mississippi, I don’t wish to.” We must’ve been quite
a sight from the Arrowhead Marina bar, as we struggled to dock and
zip on the plastic sides to the Bimini top. Only hours into our first day,
and we needed to change our soaking-wet clothes already.
After drying out, we continued on to Marquette, Iowa, where we
tied up at the Lady Luck Casino docks. The town, with only two or
three streets stacked between the river, the railroad, and the base of
the bluffs, had a small grocery so we picked up a few supplies and
headed to the casino buffet, where the entire county was lined up for
the Friday night crab-leg special.
Saturday morning we crossed the state line between Iowa and
Minnesota, then stopped for a break in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and
again in Trempealeau for fuel. Three states in just a few hours. While
waiting for the green light at Lock and Dam 8 in Genoa, Wisconsin,
we watched an Amish family fishing and wading on the eastern bank,
the women’s long gray dresses held above the water. A straw hat hung
from a tree branch.
Though marinas dot the shores of many river towns, camping is
popular, with boats tucked onto the sandy beaches, up and down
the river. Campsites with picnic tables are available, and on this June
weekend, many were filled despite the overcast skies. We docked for
the night back on the western shore, at Lake City Marina in Lake City,
Minnesota, the largest marina on the Upper Mississippi, with a breath-taking two-mile panorama of the river and Lake Pepin.
When we called home Saturday night, I promised our young granddaughters that I’d read the Little House on the Prairie books to them
and we’d return by boat to Pepin for hands-on learning. On Sunday,
we detoured from the river at Prescott, Wisconsin (Mile 811.4), and
traveled up the St. Croix River. The lower area, known as Lake St.
Croix, is designated a National Scenic Riverway. Busy but beautiful, it
was boater heaven. The sandy shores were lined with boats, bow ladders extended to the ground, people swimming and barbecuing. We
opted for a slip at the St. Croix Marina where we could easily walk to
the shops and restaurants in the village of Hudson, Wisconsin.
Twenty-two miles of lake back to the Mississippi, we continued
north to Minneapolis. The wilderness gave way to a landscape marked
by industry, then skyscrapers, as we approached the Twin Cities. We
stopped at the St. Paul Yacht Club (Mile 839) and were shocked to
see the fuel dock closed. Luckily, the friendly dockmaster came down
after a phone call, as there were no services available upriver.
OUR RIVER’S END — WORK BOOTS & WATERSKIING
Minneapolis is a city of bridges, the first built in 1855, in the spot
where the current Hennepin Avenue Bridge is located. We reached
the top of the navigable Mississippi River at 3 p.m., after exiting Lock
1 and the two Anthony Falls locks – the only waterfalls on the entire
Mississippi. Downtown Minneapolis looked cosmopolitan, but there
was no place to dock, so we started back downriver. Leaving the big
city in our wake, we ventured back into rural America at the Red Wing