Greatriver.com Houseboat Review
Huck's Houseboating Vacations
La Crosse, Wisconsin, La Crosse Municipal Harbor.
Text and Photographs © Pat Middleton
May not be reproduced in any format without the permission of Great River Publishing, Content Providers for the Mississippi River.
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It has long been apparent from inquiries to Greatriver.com that the adventures of Huckleberry Finn on the Mississippi River remain deeply ingrained in the American psyche. The allure of drifting along a slow, wide river--insulated from the constant demands and responsibilities of real life--is timeless. Surrounded by miles of placid river, national wildlife refuge, and an unbroken border of wetland forest, the biggest decision of the day for the Upper Mississippi River houseboater is which sandbar to land at--or determining which deck will provide the balmiest breeze, and what to pull out of the double-refrigerator for lunch!
Huck never had it so good as we did during a recent four-day jaunt with Huck's Houseboat Vacations between La Crosse and Trempealeau, Wisconsin. Our rental boat, "Huck #6," was a 15 x 58 footer, intimidating for sheer size when we first saw it at the La Crosse Municipal Harbor. We found a full crew buffing, scrubbing and polishing boats between rentals in preparation for the 5 p.m. training session.
The green and white boats were virtually new, delightfully roomy, well- ventilated and well appointed with comfortable cast-iron patio chairs and a Weber gas grill on the patio deck, a water-slide curving down off the sundeck, and padded oak dinette chairs inside.
Necessary pans, silverware, plates, and other kitchen ware including dish towels were already on board.
Microwave, toaster, coffeemaker, stove, TV, CD player, air conditioning, and double refrigerator rounded out the brand new kitchen area. We needed only our own food (don't forget salt & pepper), drinks, linens (sheets, pillowcase, and towels), toiletries (including toilet paper & Kleenex), a change of shorts and shirts, and our music. Each of Huck's boats have four comfortable staterooms complete with air conditioning and fans (useful when the generator is shut down at night.). All windows were screened, which given the mayfly hatch that weekend provided welcome relief from river insects. Be sure to bring insect repellants!! The only thing I found lacking on the vessel were hangers for clothes.
Our training session included a practice run with landing and launching experience at a nearby sandbar. It was enough to get us over the trepidation with which we viewed being responsible for a vessel that was undoubtedly valued at $150,000. We learned the importance of keeping ropes out of the water--our prop promptly sucked in a dangling rope and seized the engine. This could be a $200 to $500 mistake, depending on damage to the propeller and motor--if it had happened under our watch.
Since we were in training, Huck's promptly removed the propeller blade and cut free the rope at no cost to us. We "graduated" in time to return to the sandbar on our own before a blazing sunset sank behind the bluffs. We soon became proficient at embedding our beach anchors so that we easily withstood two big "blows" that struck about 4 a.m. each morning later in the week.
The joy of being on the Mississippi was IMMEDIATE, despite the fact that we were just moments from the city limits of La Crosse. The only artificial lights on our sandbar came from the cozy interior of our own water-bourn home or passing towboats. There is a decided opportunity for local residents who can be "on vacation" at a world-class destination within moments of leaving home!!
Once landed at our private sandbar, we set our beach chairs in the sand, feet dangling in the warm river water. A turtle which had been laying eggs skittered down the steep sand bank into the river, startling us. Once we knew what to look for, we found turtle trails everywhere in the warm sand. This might easily be the Caribbean, except for the 600' high bluffs which cascade out of sight along the river.
Zebra mussels littered the shoreline, and the 2001 "drawdown" left many mussel-encrusted native clams drying on the beach. Click picture to see mussels "up close."
Several times, we spotted swimming snakes, mostly bull snakes with their dark brown patterns, but they quickly decided to find more secluded spots where they might come to shore. It was apparent from tracks in the sand that deer and coyote also visited the islands, but we never saw any. We did identify bald eagles, pelicans, and egrets.
Dinner was served later every night as we slipped into "river time" -- staying up late to watch towboats passing in the night or parking and rearranging their fleets. We rose early for the sunrise and caught up on our sleep during the hot midday. As the moon rose, the river became a luminous path beneath the stars.
Every dinner was grilled on the bow deck… brats, steak, potatoes, chicken. Our beds were queen sized and comfortable. The master bedroom opened out onto the stern patio… so it is the early risers who should sleep back here. On our boat, the only sun-deck access was through this master bedroom. Our generator and air conditioners would have kept all the rooms perfectly cool, but concern for carbon monoxide poisoning is very real among houseboaters, so we relied on the fans at night for cooling.
We towed Rich's 17 foot fishing boat and were glad to have it for "running about" -- dropping someone off at a marina, picking up more cream, etc. Like a Class A motorhome, the houseboat was meant mainly for the "long haul" and the particular comfort of camping for the evening (and well into the morning) at the island sandbars. Huck's boats all had sturdy towbars which made pulling the "runabout" extremely convenient. When available, run-abouts can be rented along with the houseboat at Huck's for the duration of the rental.
We thoroughly enjoyed the "luxurious" comfort of our boat. Overhangs at both stern and bow meant we could generally find a breeze. The sky bridge was an elegant place for the pilot to enjoy our first sunset cruise and to view barges at night working on the moonlit river (feet up on the rail). One of the houseboats ("Almost always rented!") has a Jacuzzi on the sun deck.
Is there bad weather on the river? Yes, indeed! We experienced two major "blows" which made us sit up and take notice--and be grateful for our good training in setting our anchors properly. Even rain on the river is a joy to experience. We parked at a sandbar just south of the Trempealeau Lock & Dam, where a storm bank completely engulfed the cascading bluffs looming in the area then exploded into wind and driving rain all around us. That's drama! But our boat held solidly in place and the short storms both led to beautiful sunny days within an hour or so.
Abundant sandbars and islands on the river are available for camping at no charge, but we appreciated the map provided by Huck with specific sandbars identified because they promised deeper water right up to the landing spot. Some sandbars extend so far out under the water that the water is too shallow for landing the boat. A good rule of thumb is that the visible bank of the island will be similar below the water line. So steeper banks mean better water depth for landing.
The two youngest of our six crew members debarked at the landing in Trempealeau (they had previously left their car there, less than a 1/2 hour drive from La Crosse). Three couples made operating the boat easy on everyone. With just two couples, all four of us kept busy when "locking through", launching and setting anchor. As a foursome, we did fine releasing the anchors, winding in rope, cleating it, and backing out into the main channel. We had no problem "locking through" the dams, negotiating the swinging railway bridge or following the channel.
Cocky with our boating success, our thought was, "Who needs the kids!"
Their thought on leaving was, "Well, they have to grow up sometime!"
"Great to be addressed as 'Cap' by the lockmasters!"
"The carpeting, comfortable patio furniture and dining room table and chairs made the boat feel like a condo on a sandbar."
"The amenities of the boats were great! Air conditioning was great, even on the worst days. Four staterooms gave us lots of room to spread out."
"Suggestion: a raft of some type would have been nice to accompany the waterslide. And there were roomy closets, but no hangers. Be sure to wear life vests in the water. Visitors may not be familiar with big river currents, the varying nature of water depths, and the amount of debris that might be just under the surface."
"We had a fresh fish dinner! Catfish, walleye, bluegill, and rock bass. We caught the walleye trolling in a slough with the runabout. Bring your fishing gear! If you don't have gear, try the fishing float just south of the Trempealeau Lock & Dam. Floats are located 'where the big ones are.' Ask Huck how to flag down the boat that takes you to the float."
"The runabout was a useful addition. Used it to pick up food, drinks, bait, etc."
"Readers living along the upper Mississippi River must appreciate that there is a world class vacation available to them not 5 minutes out from their local marinas. That is the main lesson of our experience!!"
"The training manual was terrific--we referred to it when going through locks, landing at the sandbars, when we couldn't remember how to start the generator. In any event, we were never really ALONE... the marine radio made it easy to ask questions of Hucks, the marina or the lockmaster."
"By all means, take advantage of the opportunity to board the night before for training. Huck wants you out on the river and it's great to wake up your first morning at a sandbar, rather than loading supplies at the harbor!!"
"Some special notes on what to bring... be sure to bring good binoculars for watching large waterfowl and the towboats at work. Bring fishing gear, the chances of catching enough for dinner is excellent."
If you decide to go:
Visit Huck's website at http://www.hucks.com
The site had all the information we needed to know in advance including rental prices, floor plans, amentities (like the waterslide, towbars, etc.), and other frequently asked questions (FAQ).
Huck's Houseboat Vacations is located at the La Crosse Municipal Harbor in La Crosse, Wisconsin. We were easily able to travel leisurely from La Crosse through the most spectacularly scenic portion of the Upper Mississippi River (La Crosse to Fountain City) in the four days allotted for the trip.
We have also review Fun 'N Sun Houseboat Vacations (click to visit) on a cruise from Alma, Wisconsin, to Winona, Minnesota. This Octoberfest holiday provides an entirely different experience of the river.
Make the most of your once in a life time adventure by ordering any of the following recommended books available at http://greatriver.com/order.htm
Discover! America's Great River by Pat Middleton, is available in three volumes, Upper, Lower, and Middle Mississippi. It is the premier guide to heritage, natural history and recreation on the river. $15.95 ea.
The River Companion will tutor you on the special "Rules of the Mississippi River Road." Learn to identify various navigational aids you'll see and use on the river. $7.95
Poster-sized map of the entire Mississippi River $5.50
Official Upper River Chart $25.00 (Not at all required for the trip, as Huck's will have adequate charts on the boat.) But recommended for the real river rat, who likes to identify all navigation aids, river miles, obstacles, etc. etc.
One Man and the Mighty Mississippi - If you are enthralled with the life of a riverboat pilot, we recommend this new autobiography by Captain Norman Hillman who spent 60 years as a riverboat pilot. $19.95
Looking for a good read on the history of Steamboating? Enjoy WILD RIVER, WOODEN BOATS by historian Michael Gillespie.
The Internet's best selection of river books http://greatriver.com/order.htm
For more information on traveling the Mississippi River and America's Great River Road, visit the Mississippi River Home Page at http://greatriver.com
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