Easing ourselves down onto the chaises and careful to hold our drinks above water level,our
three-family reunion of six adults (if you want to call us that), relaxed in the river. Meanwhile
the three kids in our gang, including a 6-year-old "river rat," Danielle Flowers, splashed and
swam about like regular Huck Finns. We glanced at one another and "clinked" our soda cans
together in a toast.
Sharing our home territory with good friends, who also love boating, made all the planning
and preparation worthwhile for this long-awaited 400-mile round-trip expedition, which began in
Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, and would take us as far north as Stillwater, Minnesota.
Jay and I bought our 220 Stingray bowrider, Enuff Stuff, new three years ago. Since
then, we have enjoyed flotilla cruises and several solo week-long trips up the Mississippi
River. However, for this particular trip, we decided to reconnect with some old friends from
Jay's "river rat" days. The guys grew up playing together during summer vacations at Lakeview
Resort just north of Prairie du Chien. Now they have boats and families of their own, so we
invited everyone to join us for a 20-year reunion cruise.
Jay's friend, Thom Neith and his wife, Lynn, of Elk Run Heights, Iowa brought their 18 foot
Bayliner, Remedy. His other pal, Ken Flowers of Hampshire, Illinois, towed along his 232
Rinker Captiva, Proper Medicine, and accompanying entourage. His brood included his wife
Mary and their children: 6-year-old Danielle and 15-year-old Kenny Jr. Kenny also brought his
friend, D.J. Engels.
Our four kids are grown and busy working, so Jay and I are totally thrilled with cute little
Danielle. What a little trouper. I think she could eat sand and still be happy — she loves
the water so much.
Provisioning for Our Trip
To prepare for this trip, we relied on information gathered from our first cruise up the
Mississippi in 2000. We surfed the Web for local chamber of commerce sites, which informed us a
great deal about our various destinations, and even provided dates for various summer festivals.
Since we intended to run about 75 miles each day, we researched the towns and marinas en route,
which made it easy to make reservations the four nights we needed lodging.
We purchased essential river charts through the Mississippi River Home Page, as well as the
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers publication, "Upper Mississippi River Navigation Charts." The charts
provided details on all the tricky navigation spots, including "wing dams," (riprap built to
maintain channels), and helped us spot channel markers and respect no-wake zones around towns.
They also showed where the various locks are located and how to contact them.
Speaking of locks, we locked through seven locks in each direction. We found that it was a
good idea to call the lockmasters on VHF radio (Channel 14). All the lockmasters were
accommodating and friendly, and several times, they managed to slip us in between commercial tows
so we didn't have to wait. When we knew we had a 90-minute wait, all three boats would run off to
a nearby sandbar for lunch and a dip or waterskiing. We also found that cellular phones and
family radios were a great help coordinating activities between the three boats, as well as with
the outside world.
The second night out, we decided to rough it on a sandbar north of Wabasha, Minnesota. From
our previous year's experience, we had learned it was important to bring lots of wood for the
bonfire, makings for s'mores, mosquito juice, camping gear (tents, sleeping bags), water toys
(kneeboards and skis) and an extra cooler for "munchies." We also brought raingear, tools and
a spare prop. And, yes, we employed that spare after we smacked a rock when leaving La Crosse,
Wisconsin, on the return leg.
A Surprise Around Every Bend
While we are happy just pulling up to a sandbar and relaxing in the sun, we were a little
apprehensive about planning enough activities for three families. As it turned out, we could have
spent two weeks exploring the same waters.
The entire Mississippi River is much cleaner than in decades past, and the upper portion
boasts even clearer water than the lower. From McGregor, Iowa and Prairie du Chien to our first
night's stop at La Crosse, dramatic, 400-foot-high limestone bluffs reined in the meandering
river. We spotted several bald eagles hanging out over sandbars.
It was a real treat to learn that these majestic birds are making a comeback. DDT
contamination nearly wiped out the species east of the Mississippi years ago. We counted about
a dozen bald eagles by the end of our trip.
Another cool thing about the Mississippi is that there is such a variety of scenery and
recreation. We have observed that each pool between locks is different. The lay of the land and
rock formations are always unique. In addition, the little towns that dot the shoreline are all
quite historic. Several times a day we would tie up at a marina (most have public restrooms with
showers) at colorful communities such as Trempealeau, Wisconsin and Red Wing, Minnesota. From
the marinas, we would walk or take a taxi into town, where the women enjoyed a little antique
shopping while everyone else focused on ice cream cones.
We were constantly amazed by the friendly, helpful "river people" we met a marinas or in
towns. Our first night out in La Crosse, some locals recommended a place called Buzzard Billy's,
where we feasted on some incredible blackened walleye.
Another highlight of the trip was our second night out, the one we spent camping on a sandbar.
The only downside was that it turned out to be the hottest, muggiest night of the summer. Also,
after the fire died down, the mosquitoes turned nasty. Still, everyone, including Mary, who
relishes regular showers, cheerfully ignored the insects, sweltering heat and the poor night's
sleep because we were all having so much fun.
Not that we didn't have our fair share of mishaps along the way. Earlier on the second day,
between Lock #5 and the sandbar, Jay decided to jump into the river to cool off, but he forgot
to take his glasses off. The next morning, I had to captain the Stingray from the sandbar across
Lake Pepin, Wisconsin to Red Wing, where we bought Jay some new glasses.
We were all relieved that the transit across 22-mile-long Lake Pepin turned out to be a cinch.
We had heard so much about how the lake can get pretty rough by afternoon, that we were thrilled
our "Pepin paranoia" was unfounded. Our small boats handled it just fine.
Much-Needed Rest Stops
After our visit to Pearle Vision in Red Wing, we headed north where we spent the third and
fourth nights at nearby Treasure Island Resort & Casino on the Prairie Island Indian Reservation.
Our plan to make the resort our base of operations worked out perfectly and offered all three
families many options. For example, while Mary and the kids opted to enjoy the resort, the rest
of us took the Stingray upriver for further exploration.
Thom, Lynn and Ken joined us for a day cruise up to the confluence of the Mississippi and the
St. Croix rivers at Hastings, Minnesota. Here we could see where the muddy Mississippi and the
crystal-clear St. Croix come together into one great waterway. The last leg of our northern
exploration included a 25-mile run up the St. Croix to Stillwater, Minnesota. Everyone was pleased
with the many state parks that line the St. Croix. They were also agog at the full-service marinas,
beautiful homes, hardwood forests and clean sand beaches.
Although we didn't get to visit St. Paul or Minneapolis, Minnesota, both places are definitely
worth checking out if you have the time. The Twin Cities bustle with entertainment, cultural
productions and professional sporting events. Nearby, in Bloomington is the Mall of America,
which is a shopper's paradise, as well as a huge attraction for kids. It is the largest mall in
the country, boasting an overwhelming 520 outlet stores, a giant walk-through aquarium and an
On the last full day of our trip, we traveled south 120 miles. For a break from the down-river
run, we stopped at Slippery's in Wabasha, where one of the scenes from the movie "Grumpy Old Men"
was filmed. By 7 p.m., we arrived in La Crosse, where we once again spent the night at a convenient
waterfront motel and marina. Everyone was still in good spirits the next morning when we concluded
our trip back to Prairie du Chien riverbank.
Join the River Rat Gang
No question that careful planning helped ensure that everyone had a good time during our extended
family reunion cruise. It came as no surprise that Enuff Stuff, which is outfitted with a
5.7 liter, 350-hp V-8 MerCruiser stern drive, handled both rivers with ease, as did the other two
vessels. Each held tons of gear and performed well at varying speeds, including running downriver
at 35 to 40 mph. Our small boat flotilla is proof that you don't need a big cruiser or cuddy to
make this trip.
Jay and I were also happy to discover that our five-day trailerboat vacation was really quite
a bargain. The entire trip for two people, including motels, fuel ($130), food, drinks and
gambling, ran around $600. By planning the trip during the week, we were able to capitalize on
reduced boat traffic and uncrowded marinas.
While the cruise was relatively inexpensive, the real significance of this trip is that it
made an ideal "quick getaway." Boating is the best way we know of to forget all of our everyday
stresses. It's amazing how therapeutic it is to relax by a campfire or play in the water with
After being "christened" in the mighty Mississippi, Jay and I do have one recommendation for
anyone interested in making this trip. Adding friends into the boating equation definitely made
our cruise even more memorable.
By Jay and Lisa McCool, as told to Leslee Jaquette
Go Boating Magazine