River Rats Reunion
Stingray Boats
River Rats Reunion

Go Boating - June 2002

Three trailerboating families
tackle the Mighty Mississippi

It doesn't get much better than this. On the first afternoon of our four-night, five-day cruise along the Upper Mississippi and St. Croix rivers, we beached our flotilla of three trailerboats on a broad sandbar. To moderate the 90 degree Fahrenheit July temperature, we slathered on more sunscreen and parked the lounge chairs in chest-high water.

cheers — Lisa and Jay McCool (seated) toast to good times with their cruising friends (standing, from left) Ken Flowers, Lynn Neith, Mary Flowers, and Thom Neith. The scenic spread is of the winding backwaters of the Mississippi River, seen from the vantage of Queen's Bluff at O.L. Kipp State Park in Minnesota.


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 amusement park.

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 kids.

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

Travel Back in Time to Historic River Towns

by Jay and Lisa McCool

On our five day trailerboat adventure along the Upper Mississippi and St. Croix rivers, we learned to appreciate the historic river towns along the way. We noticed that when visiting these little river communities, you never feel like you're a stranger in town.

One example is Trempealeau, Wisconsin, located about 18 miles upriver of La Crosse. With a population of just over 1,300 people and founded in 1851 by French explorers, it maintains a wonderful, laid-back atmosphere.

The marina, built in 1990 behind Lock and Dam #6, offers transient dockage and is an easy walk uptown to the historic Trempealeau Hotel. We explored the hotel and enjoyed great views of the river and surrounding 500 foot bluffs. The hotel has an excellent food and a wonderful vintage bar where you can stand up and enjoy a cool one. We understand that the town's annual Catfish Days festival -- held on the second weekend in July -- is a huge party that features bands from our glory days, such as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

In contrast, Las Crosse is a big city of 50,000 and provides nightlife galore downtown. An 18-year-old New Yorker named Nathan Myrick settled it in 1841. It is still a river hub and tourist-style steamboats roam the area. A taxi ride into town from the marina gave us access to a diversity of great restaurants, including Buzzard Billy's and the Freighthouse, which was built in a renovated railroad depot. In addition, there are bars, shops and antique stores. Here, we happened on the annual Riverfest Celebration. On our way upriver, we were actually stopped by the law enforcement until the air show over the river was finished.

Red Wing, Minnesota, is another small community that capitalizes on its turn-of-the-century history. We had a great time visiting the Red Wing Shoe Factory, which includes a number of neat, little shops and a small museum that shows how the company made boots back in the old days. The women also really enjoyed the Red Wing pottery factory where they could watch the artists work their magic spinning pottery.

The towns and cities along the rivers are very proud of their heritage. Everything that the locals do seems to revolve around the river in one way or another. We thought this was really cool.

Contacts

Mall of America
(952)883-8800

Mississippi River Home Page

Treasure Island Resort & Casino
(800)222-7077 or (651)388-6300
fax (651)385-2560

Twin Cities WorldWeb Travel Guide

Local Chambers of Commerce

Hastings, MN
(888)612-6122 or (651)437-6775
fax (651)437-2697

La Crosse, WI
(608)784-4880
fax (608)784-4919

McGregor, IA
(800)896-0910 or (319)873-3795

Minneapolis, MN
(612)370-9100
fax (612)370-9195

Prairie du Chien, WI
(800)732-1673 or (608)326-8024

Red Wing, MN
(800)762-9516 or (651)388-4719

St. Paul, MN
(651)223-5000
fax (651)223-5119

Stillwater, MN
(651)439-4001

Trempealeau, WI
(608)534-6780

Wabasha, MN
(800)565-4158 or (651)565-4158
fax (651)565-2808






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