July 25 to August 6 Sabula to Red Wing

Leaving Sabula, we continued passing through the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Reserve.  This reserve stretches from Rock Island, Illinois to Wabasha, Minnesota, a 260-mile stretch of the Mississippi River.  It is an important element of the Mississippi Flyway, a migration route for roughly 40% of all migrating North American shore birds and waterfowl.  I read that Asian Carp are also migratory, but I suspect that the reserve was not actually intended to benefit them!  National Wildlife Refuges provide management of over 560 tracts of land and wetlands in the USA for conservation, management and even restoration.  I was surprised to see that hunting and fishing are permitted in these areas, with appropriate permits.  One hopes that the various ducks, game, and the fish have read the fine print before they decide to take up residence.

A calm morning on the River

As we made our way north, I noticed a warning note on my chart alerting us to the danger of unexploded ordinance.  The note suggested that it might not be a good idea to anchor there…

The signs warn boaters of unexploded ordinance

We passed a prominent wing dam.  These are barriers that extend out into the river, usually created using spoil from dredging, but also tons of rock may have been brought in to create the barrier.  A few are visible above the surface, but most are underwater.  Their purpose when built was to increase the flow, and therefore the depth, in the main channel, while calming the areas between the wing dams and the shore.  Since the construction of the lock system, they are not being maintained, but they are almost all still in place.  They are a huge hazard to boaters.  Some may be just one or two feet below the surface, and since they are made of rock, not mud or sand, hitting one is going to be a big headache for the unwary boater.  Wing dams show up on charts as a thin black line stretching into the river.  Interestingly, they do not all show on all charts.  Dick and I use two charts.  He has Navionics on Nine Lives’ chartplotter, while I have AquaMaps on an iPad.  This gives us two perspectives for navigation.  Often wing dams only show on one or the other chart, not both.  The lesson of course is, stay in the channel!  Not only as marked on the chart, but also using your eyes to see where the red and green channel markers are placed.  Just to make things a bit more exciting, occasionally markers are missing, or worse, they have been moved off station by the force of the water, so one needs both the chart and the markers for careful navigation.  Running aground will always ruin your day, even if the bottom is sand or mud.

A wing dam

The wing dams were built as part of the first efforts to control the flow of water and create a reliable channel for commercial traffic in the Mississippi River.  In spite of several construction campaigns, increasing the initial channel depth of 4 feet to 6 feet, by 1918, barge and passenger companies could not compete with the railways, and river traffic essentially died.  After a campaign by commercial interests and farmers, the 9-Foot Channel Project was included in the 1930 Rivers and Harbors Act.  This project increased the river depth to a reliable 9 feet, by construction of 29 locks and dams between 1931 and 1954.  As did other major infrastructure programs, the first part of the project provided jobs during the Great Depression.  Skilled workers were paid $1.20 per hour, while common labourers got $.50 an hour.  Jobs were given first to workers who were married and had families to support.  The system stretches between Minneapolis and Granite City, Illinois (just north of St Louis).  Unfortunately, one of the negative impacts of the lock and dam system is that some of the migratory fish can no longer move freely up the river to spawn.  As a result, stocks of sturgeon, paddlefish, and skipjack herring, among others, have decreased considerably.

Dredging a narrow channel. Note the position of the red marker behind us, we would normally pass that on the other side, but there was no room!
Lock 7 and the scenery of the Driftless Region

One of the interesting features of locks in this part of the River, is the specially constructed public viewing platforms at each lock, with easily accessible parking.  Further south in Missouri and Illinois, we noticed that access to locks was mostly restricted or made difficult for the public.  On one of his outings, Dick enjoyed watching the full sequence of locking through a tow with 15 barges, requiring the lock-through to be split into two parts.  We are usually stooging below the locks when split tows go through, and it always seems to take forever (it does take a minimum of 1 ½ hours, and often longer).  Having seen it up close, it is easier to understand just how complicated the operation really is.

What is stooging, you ask? Well, this is a highly technical nautical term. It essentially means going nowhere while keeping the engines engaged. Having had a very unfortunate experience last year, when we anchored instead of stooging, we prefer the latter, tiring though it may be. The captain has to keep making minor adjustments as the wind and currents push the boat away from the chosen waiting position.

The first section of barges has been pushed out of the lock, while the second section is being pushed in
the tow pushes the barges into the lock
At last the barges have been lashed together again and the tow pushes the whole lot out into the channel

We arrived in Dubuque Marina at 3:15pm.  The marina is protected by a levee and huge gates, that are normally open, but can be closed if the River floods.  This is a “full service” marina, with a severe shortage of actual service.  Apparently, it is now only staffed between 11am and 3pm (and we had already discovered that the phones are not answered when it gets close to quitting time).  We had hoped for a pump-out on arrival, but instead we had to wait and get it done the next day.  Untying and retying Nine Lives is not a trivial exercise, so it is irritating to have to go through it unnecessarily.  We knew our dock assignment, because the marina has the best booking system we have seen, but we had to call a different number from the main marina phone to get the code to let us back through the security gates after visiting the town.  The showers require a key card, so no joy there until the single staff member arrived the next day.

A cruise boat arriving in Dubuque marina, passing through the huge gates
Dubuque Marina with the museum, and Nine Lives at dock
Dubuque sunset

In spite of lack of marina staff, Dick and I were very impressed with Dubuque.  This is just as well, as I am going to have to stay there by myself for about a week on our return trip.  The historic downtown and the revitalized waterfront are spotless and undergoing major improvements, much already complete.  Old warehouses are being repurposed to both dining and living options.  The marina is surrounded by a major museum. A large casino, a resort hotel, and an extensive business park have been built south of the main downtown area.  It was an easy and safe bike ride for Dick to an excellent grocery and a good hardware store.

Dubuque Courthouse

Our back door latch has been giving trouble, with the door suddenly flying open while underway.  Just before Dubuque it gave up entirely, remaining firmly shut regardless of how much twisting and tugging was applied to the handle.  Fortunately, we have two side doors with zippered entries, so we weren’t trapped!  Eventually Dick did manage to get the door open, and for a brief while we had to use a piece of string to hold it in place (the low-tech option for sure).  Thanks to the useful Dubuque hardware store, and after some considerable fiddling once the latch mechanism had been taken apart, Dick managed to find the correct one of 50-odd ways the pieces could go back together, and the door is working again.  We are treating it like the precious, delicate, and valuable almost-antique it is, knowing that the repair was temporary at best, and until Dick can get a replacement latch mechanism.

Our first evening we walked across the bridge over the railway tracks to a downtown hotel and had a mediocre meal in their dining room.  The Jalapeno maple glazed shrimp were unusual and tasty, but the rest of the menu was uninteresting.  The next evening, a longer walk brought us to Brazen, where we had an excellent evening.  We brought back a lot of boxes, because the waiter explained that theirs is a “sharing” menu.  I didn’t take pictures of the desserts, pot de crème for Dick and Basque cheesecake for me, but they were some of the best we have had.  Both were very “grown up”, in other words, not sweet but very flavourful.  Interestingly, the desserts were also true single portions.  We are definitely going back when we return to the city!

Jalapeno maple glazed shrimp
Dick loved the duck confit at Brazen
I tried the delicious smoked trout pate, with the best house-made chips I have ever had
Fried chicken at Brazen for Dick
I added a few shrimp to the signature pasta dish at Brazen

The next morning, with a relatively short trip and only one lock, we were able to make a more civilized start at around 9am, instead of this trip’s more usual 7:30.  There was zero rain in the forecast, but just as we pulled into the lock the heavens opened, making it a very wet transit for Dick.  My responsibilities in the lock are indoors at the helm, and I was delighted to see the lock doors open and the sun coming out just when it was time for me to get outside and pull in the fenders!

We spent one night in Guttenburg Marina, an excellent example of a well-run but essentially unstaffed marina.  It shows this is possible.  After booking online we received an email with dock assignment, wi-fi code, and shower code.  A follow up phone call was made, a few hours before we arrived, to make sure that we had received all the information.  The marina is quite small, maneuvering is tight, and it would have been tricky if the second space on the transient dock had been occupied.  The shower facility was spotless. Dick explored the town, returning to report that although it is clean and has nice parks, there is little to see or do.  One of those nice places to live but not so much for a visit!

Guttenburg marina

It was a very short run to McGregor.  We arrived before noon, and then had to hold in the channel while a workboat pulled several logs out of our assigned slip.  That marina is just about the most rickety we have ever experienced.  It has wobbly wooden docks, most with no rubber, and the whole marina is a magnet for debris.  New owners are trying to make improvements, but a lot more money and time is needed to bring it up to any reasonable standard.  The staff were friendly and helpful, but that was it.  Various pieces of rope and an old rag were trip hazards on our dock, not to mention a large weed rake left right in the middle, tines facing up.  The railway line is just 30 yards away, and trains blow the whistle because the town has a level crossing.  Why is it called a whistle when it is in fact a very loud horn?  I don’t know.

McGregor Marina

We explored the town.  McGregor was once a thriving community, began when Alexander McGregor started a local ferry service.  By 1870, it was the busiest port west of Chicago.  As we are seeing everywhere, it is clean and old buildings are being renovated, but this one has farther to go than most.  One interesting item, McGregor is where Augustus Ringling’s sons, the Ringling Brothers, got their start by giving penny shows to the townspeople.  The house they lived in is still there.

McGregor downtown
A pretty, somewhat neglected, garden in McGregor

There are more boats out on the River than we have seen until now.  We went through Lock 8 with 2 fishing boats, a speedboat with drunks on board, and a jet ski.  Above the lock were probably 100 fishing boats, all speeding (and throwing large wakes) toward a small marina and motel off the main river.  Apparently it was a large annual college fishing tournament.

Spiders love boats. If I forget to spray the lines when we tie up, they invade.

6 years ago, when we drove across the country, we stopped for one night in La Crosse, Wisconsin.  We liked it very much, and have been looking forward to returning.  The La Crosse Boat Club is across the river from the town.  The marina is well protected from waves and currents, and is very active, with boaters coming and going all the time.  They also have a very popular onsite restaurant.  The Boat Club is a short dinghy ride across the Mississippi to the town courtesy dock.  I say courtesy dock, they charge $10 to tie up!  Usually these docks are free, encouraging visitors to stop and enjoy the shops and restaurants.

Dick pays $10 for the La Crosse town dock
Downtown La Crosse
La Crosse waterfront park

We returned to the Charmant Hotel, where we stayed before, and enjoyed an excellent meal in their restaurant.  It was so nice to find that standards hadn’t slipped, in fact they are even higher.  Dick’s starter was the creatively named “Ants on a Log”.  It was escargot (without the shells) arranged on large split pork bones with marrow.  I enjoyed my more traditional chicken pate.  The rest of the meal was equally good.  The hotel is in a repurposed and sympathetically renovated former candy factory. 

The beautifully restored candy factory that is now the Charmant Hotel
“Ants on a Log” I am told it was delicious
I enjoyed a more conventional chicken pate
Duck for Dick and trout tartine for me at Charmant

Our visit to my favourite Duluth Trading store was disappointing.  This season apparently has nothing on offer that is my taste, and most of the old standbys that serve me so well are apparently no longer being made.  We hoped that the Red Wing shop has better offerings.

The next evening, we walked a little farther to Le Chateau, a beautifully restored 19th century mansion.  We started with drinks in the basement bar, accessed by a scary, although gorgeous, spiral staircase.  All wines and drinks for the dining room are dispensed from the basement, and staff use the spiral staircase even when carrying trays of glasses and drinks!  Dinner was delicious.

Le Chateau
Le Chateau cheese plate to start
Le Chateau filet steak
Le Chateau elk chop
Le Chateau desserts

We spent a quiet Sunday.  Dick did some small jobs, including replacing some lights in the salon and the bedroom that had been flickering.  I took care of some laundry, and after Dick went round with the vacuum cleaner I managed to get rid of some of the dirt in the cockpit.  It has been just too hot to tackle that cleaning until now.  The eisenglass is still filthy, but that is a major scrubbing job still to do.  We had dinner at the Boat Club.  It was basic fare, but good, and they did have cheese curds.  These delectable morsels do not seem to have migrated far from Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota. A great tragedy.  Cheese curds are usually encased in batter and deep fried, served with a sauce, perhaps marinara, or ranch.  Even Dick suspends his health-conscious objections to most fried food and is happy to share an order when they are on offer. We order them whenever we find them on the menu, but they have proved to be very difficult to photograph.  They disappear before I am able to get the phone out to take the picture!

disappearing cheese curds

Monday we set off with no sure destination.  There are 2 marinas in Trempealeau, and the one that Dick had chosen did not answer any phone calls or emails, or return messages over several weeks.  Their website says they have space for transients, but apparently it needs a revision.  The second marina only answers calls on weekdays during regular business hours.  We were able to make a booking there while we were on the way.  We were the second transient booked that evening, and sadly for us, the other boat got the better dock.  Theirs had full rubber, and was slightly further from the railway track, while ours had one end tilted and nearly under water.  We were about 60 yards away from the tracks this time, and with another level crossing, the horns were blowing all night.  While listening to the blaring of the horns and the clack-clack of the cars rushing past, I couldn’t help but think about photos one has seen of train derailments.  I wondered whether two jackknifed cars would reach Nine Lives….

One of many trains passing the marina at Trempealeau

There are very few places on this trip that we have not been very close to trains, on both sides of the river.  We have seen no passenger trains, only freight.  Dick read that the freight companies in this country own all the tracks, and give priority to freight.  They will not allow a passenger service to keep a schedule.  Friends took a cross-country train trip a while ago, and the delays were so bad that all the scenic parts of the trip were travelled during the night, and the train even ran out of food!  On the waterways, passenger vessels have top priority, followed by freight, and pleasure craft (that would be us) are lower in the pecking order.  On the Illinois River we observed that the lockkeepers would keep pleasure craft waiting for hours (some Loopers have experienced 10 and 12 hour waits), unless they were travelling in a group.  Here on the Mississippi, we have been very glad to find that we are treated fairly, and never made to wait for a tow if we are first to arrive.  Lockkeepers seem to be more used to locking through fishermen and pleasure boats, and they are almost always friendly and helpful when Dick calls.

We passed huge dunes of sand, many of them not natural.  These piles are created from spoil from dredging the river, and the sand is used in winter for gritting the roads.  An information sign at one of these giant sand piles tells readers that anyone can take the sand and use it for free.  They even suggest additional uses, such as general fill, aggregate for concrete, sandboxes, road building, and habitat rehabilitation projects.

sand dune created from dredge spoil

As we travelled north on the River, and thanks to one of the interesting information boards that Dick enjoys reading, we could see how geology has shaped this part of the Upper Mississippi Region.  This area is called the Driftless Region.  During the last ice age, a small part of the region was left untouched by glacial erosion and deposits.  While the surrounding lands were leveled to plains and rolling hills, no glaciers entered this small area, leaving it as the last remnant of the formerly rugged terrain that once spanned the whole of the Upper Midwest.  Tall, tree covered bluffs in this upper stretch of the River remind me very much of the Rhine (without the castles).

Mississippi Driftless Region

After a 3-lock day we arrived in Alma, a good town-run marina.  It was elderly, but well maintained, and Dick was delighted to find immaculate new showers.  Being well off the River in a calm backwater, there is a lot of weed in the marina.  The dockmaster was very helpful, agreed to adjust our location when we pointed out that our assigned dock was very weedy, and also could be quite difficult to maneuver in.  A bike ride into town showed that although clean, this is another town with little to offer tourists.  We ate on board as planned.

Alma marina
Somebody enjoyed building this treehouse in Alma
Shrimp Destin, a favourite dish, cooked on board

We are seeing incredible numbers of bald eagles, often in pairs.  Mature females are 25% larger than males, and the pairs we see are usually different sizes.  Juveniles take 4-5 years to develop adult plumage (white head and tail).  As we passed Wabasha, we noticed the attractive modern National Eagle Center on the waterfront.  We expect to stop in Wabasha on our return trip, so will look forward to visiting the museum.

Bald eagles
National Eagle Center at Wabasha

Just south of Lake City, the River opens out into Lake Pepin.  It is a wide lake with good depth right up to the shores, a sailors’ paradise.  We were put in the sailboat part of the large Lake City Marina, because of better depths.  This is the most sailboats we have seen in ages, hundreds of them.  I enjoyed watching them come and go for afternoon and evening sailing on the lake.  There were also a lot of rental pontoon boats from a local Boat Club.  These were some of the best rental craft I have seen, all in nearly new condition.  A great way for visitors and second home owners to enjoy the lake without the expense of maintaining their own boats.  There are more than 85 species of fish in the lake, so it is also a magnet for commercial and recreational fishermen.

Lake City Marina

In 1922, 18-year-old Ralph W. Samuelson built a pair of water skis by steaming 8-foot-long pine boards in boiling water and curling the tips.  He had first tried barrel staves, and then snow skis, being convinced that if you could ski on snow, you must be able to ski on water.  Over the next 15 years, he put on one man water skiing exhibitions, donating the money he earned to Lake City for purchasing harbor and park land.  Lake City is officially recognized as the birthplace of water skiing.

Early morning at Lake City

Beautiful houses line the shores and can be seen on the bluffs above the lake.  We had thought this would mean some nice boutiques and fine dining opportunities in Lake City, but once again, as with Pickwick Lake, we were mistaken.  The highest rated restaurant in town is a Mexican Restaurant.  The food was good, and the establishment was very clean.  On our walk back to the marina we stopped for ice cream.  The amusing board outside noted that they sell “proper” ice cream, made from real ingredients, not low fat, low calorie, or low anything.  They conclude by suggesting that if you want nutrition, eat carrots.  The ice cream was delicious, although I must say I was sad that they had only rather strange flavours, and not my personal favourite, salted caramel.  Dick is a plain vanilla man, and they did have that, so he was happy. The next night we went to a so-called Italian restaurant.  Sadly, it was actually a pizza joint with a few tables.  Trying to eat pizza from paper plates with plastic cutlery is one of my least favourite things.  Most of the shops and some of the few eateries in Lake City are only open on weekends, although there is a very good supermarket.  We can only conclude that it is not really a tourist destination, rather a place of second homes, and the residents bring their own food from the big city instead of supporting local shops and restaurants.

Excellent ice cream

We enjoyed a very short, lock-free day to Red Wing.  As he has begun to do in advance of each destination, Dick phoned the marina to request our slip assignment before we arrived.  Here on the Mississippi none of the marinas answer radios (and many are erratic with phone calls as well).  When given our slip assignment, Dick asked about the width, and was told happily that it was 15 feet.  When Dick pointed out that Nine Lives is 19 feet wide, and that this information is always given as part of the reservation, they put him on hold.  One can imagine discussions while they decided what to do, but eventually they came back and said we would be on the fuel dock.  While this is never our favourite choice, it does offer opportunities for people-watching, and in this case, there was power and water available.

Not too long after we arrived and got settled, a large (60ft?) Hatteras arrived in the marina, and I could clearly hear an indignant “He’s in my spot!” from the captain.  There followed much negotiation with dock hands and various others, while the boat moved majestically into the slip between the two gas docks.  The engines were left running for over half an hour while people scurried about and, I presume, the owner tried to arrange (without success) for us to be moved elsewhere.  Eventually the engines were turned off, and the boat stayed there for the rest of the weekend.  Marinas double booking the few docks that are usable for large boats has not been uncommon on this trip, another good reason to arrive early when we can.

Red Wing sunset

Like many American cities, Red Wing began as a native village.  Over many years, the village chiefs were always named Red Wing, and carried a staff topped by a swan’s wing dyed scarlet.  The first white settler arrived in 1849, and the village was named Red Wing in honour of the Dakota chiefs.  By 1870, Red Wing had become one of the primary wheat markets of the world, shipping over one million bushels annually.  The waterfront is still dominated by huge grain terminals.  The early years of Red Wing featured a variety of industries.  In addition to the expected flour mills, breweries, maltings, and lumber, there were also vinegar works, and button, cigar, shoe, and hat factories.  The Boots on the Bridge exhibition features a series of decorated fiberglass boots, created in 2005 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Red Wing Shoe Company.  Started in 1905, The Red Wing Shoe Company made boots for workers.  Over the years they branched out, including making military footwear for the US Army.  Their first womens’ footwear was a pair of incredibly elegant hiking boots that featured an ankle-breaking heel.  Red Wing Shoes still concentrate on work boots, hiking footwear, and short, soft boots they call mocs.

We took the dinghy to downtown.  This one was the nicest we have seen since St Charles, with shops and restaurants in restored buildings, and an attractive waterfront park.  It was River Days weekend, so the parks were full of tents, food trucks, and an incredible number of bouncy blowups for kids.  There was also a sound stage with live music.  Fortunately, the music was not so loud that it was annoying, but on the other hand, it was not quite loud enough to enjoy from the boat.  We felt sorry for the organizers of the annual event, because it rained all weekend, but we did see that the car park was nearly full, so they did get a fairly good turnout.

Downtown Red Wing
Former Iron Works, now an attractive apartment complex
One of the Red Wing downtown churches
Another interesting Red Wing church

Duluth Trading was again a disappointment, obviously this is not my year for shopping!  Dinner at a downtown restaurant was merely okay.  They put us at a small table in the front window, and the waitress couldn’t see us.  She kept forgetting about us, and I had to wave at the hostess for attention.  We could clearly hear the “Oh!  I forgot them!” from the waitress after we had waited a long time to order, but she continued to forget us for the rest of the meal as well.

Instead of covered boat slips, some marinas in this area allow boaters to build houses for their boats

The next day was very wet indeed, so plans to explore downtown more fully were cancelled.  Dick dodged raindrops and walked into town to the bakery to find some nice fresh bread.  He did manage to do a little exploring, in particular, he noticed that Red Wing seems to have arranged for all the churches to occupy the same 6-block area in the city.  Some interesting architecture.  In the evening we crossed the bridge over the railway tracks, admiring the Boots on the Bridge Exhibition on the way.  The pub had cheese curds, and other tasty pub food, and the forecast rain held off so we didn’t get wet.

Boots on the Bridge
The Boots were originally created to celebrate the 100th birthday or Red Wing Shoe Company
At last, a photo of cheese curds before they disappear!
The last cheese curd
The July summary

Above is the July summary of Nine Lives Voyage. The green bits are where we travelled at “normal” speed, red and yellow are where we speeded up!

2 thoughts on “July 25 to August 6 Sabula to Red Wing”

  1. Hi Louise and Dick,
    It is wonderful reading about your journey up the Mississippi. Thank you for sharing!
    Love the pictures, especially the wildlife and the fabulous dinner courses!
    Hope the temperatures have cooled a little.
    All the best,
    Betsy

    Like

  2. Louise and Dick, Somehow this was lost in my in box. What a very interesting segment of your trip. I hope all is well. Take care, Fred

    713 542 7390

    >

    Like

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