We said goodbye to Saint Paul and began our return journey with another visit to the St Croix River. This was one of our favourite places on this trip, pretty scenery, and nice towns. It is unfortunate that one of the most interesting towns is Stillwater, now sadly lacking in accommodation for transient boaters. There are several marinas, but most have rented all their available slips on a seasonal basis, and the remaining one was in the middle of a major dredging program. Our only option was to stay at Bayport, a few miles south.
First though, we returned to Hudson, anchoring in the wide harbour for the first night. It is a very popular day spot, at least 10 boats enjoyed the afternoon, but by evening we were the only ones remaining. It was a lovely evening, with distant sailing races on the lake below the bridge, and a surprise hot air balloon passing over.
I had found a new recipe for pizza dough that I was looking forward to trying. Our early arrival in the anchorage allowed enough time for dough rising and pizza preparation. The recipe is definitely a keeper. We enjoyed a peaceful night, and were ready to move to the marina transient dock in the morning.
Three large Sea Ray fast yachts had passed us the previous day, and all had tied up at the Hudson transient dock. Dick had made our booking by phone, but apparently it had not been written down. Fortunately, the marina staff were able to shuffle the large boats a little, and move a small one to make room for us close to the shore. This required a somewhat tricky maneuver, passing between the Sea Rays and the shore, to shoehorn Nine Lives into our allotted space. Marina staff were on hand to help. As we slid carefully past the other boats, a loud siren went off. I couldn’t hear it, as I was on deck getting ready to throw lines, but Dick was quite concerned that this was law enforcement chasing after us for some strange reason, either that or a major issue with boat systems, or possibly proximity alarms. Apart from being a distraction Dick could have done without, it wasn’t anything to worry about. When we anchor, I set two alarms, one on the iPad and one on my phone. I had carefully disabled the iPad alarm before we raised the anchor, but I completely forgot the one on the phone. Since I had set a very wide radius, we were nearly at the shore before the alarm went off. I am glad to know that it works anyway. And it is Loud! As we slid past the Sea Rays, I saw heads pop up and men come up on deck. We know the feeling. Any time a boat arrives at a dock and passes Nine Lives very closely, we wonder about the experience and skills of the captain, and rush out to fend off if required! As we maneuvered carefully into our spot, the waiting dockhand commented that we were looking like a million dollars. My reply was that it would probably cost a million dollars if we messed up!
That evening we enjoyed a good meal at Black Rooster. Dick ordered pork belly, and was delighted to find that it was prepared in the European style (far more fat than I care for, but he loves it). I had a delicious and creative presentation of ricotta dumplings. Main courses were walleye for Dick, and chicken with mushrooms for me. Desserts were equally tasty.
The forecast called for rain later, and usually, carrying an umbrella will ensure that it stays dry. Not this time. We were barely out of the restaurant before the heavens opened. Here is a piece of advice, never share an umbrella with someone who walks so much faster than you that he is normally 20 feet ahead of you.
The next morning the Sea Rays left, so we were able to reposition to our preferred spot at the end of the dock. Not only does this afford a nice view of activities in the bay, it also allows for an easy undocking when we are ready to leave. Repositioning was an interesting exercise. No dock hands were available, so Dick and I each took a line and walked the 12 tons of Nine Lives down the dock. No engines required. Dick did the strongman part, pulling from the stern, while my easier job was using the midship line, as well as pushing, to keep her in position, not too far off, but not so close that she was rubbing along the dock. The moment of truth was stopping, accomplished by a quick half turn of the line around a dock cleat. It is really amazing how little strength is required to stop motion when you use the cleat effectively. A lesson that most of the (male) teenage dockhands we encounter would do well to learn. The girls figure it out very quickly.
Later we walked into town and enjoyed a little shopping at the excellent cookery shop and the bakery, followed by an interesting meal at Lolo’s. The offerings were well prepared, and quite creative.
It was a very short trip up-river the next morning to the marina at Bayport. In hindsight, the anchorage across the river from Stillwater would have been a better choice for that first night, allowing a much shorter dinghy ride to the town. Instead, we had a four-and-a-half-mile trip in choppy conditions with many criss-cross wakes to the town dinghy docks. As we see so often, the docks have been almost entirely given over to sightseeing passenger boats, leaving very few spaces for visiting boaters to access the town. Dick thought the dinghy ride had been fun. My thoughts are not to be repeated in polite company.
Stillwater looked like a nice town, with some interesting boutiques and lots of cafes and restaurants, definitely a tourist destination. However, given the distance, and a choice between a long bike ride on busy roads, or another dinghy excursion, we were not able to visit when the shops were open. We went to a Serbian restaurant and wine bar. Dick’s filet steak was delicious, and I enjoyed my risotto with mushrooms and beef tips. The wine list included very nice choices, including quite a few sold by the glass.
The bouncy return dinghy ride required the application of an extra-large glass of whisky once we were safely back on Nine Lives. Dick managed to restrain his impulses to shout “Yeehaw” at intervals during the passage.
In 1837, treaties were signed between the U.S. Government and the local Ojibwa and Dakota tribes, to allow settlement of the St Croix River Valley. By 1843 a settlement was founded when four partners formed the Stillwater Lumber Company. In what seems to me to be a rather odd division of responsibilities, Stillwater, Saint Paul, and Minneapolis were each given important public institutions. Saint Paul was made the capital of the new State of Minnesota, Minneapolis got a university, and the short end of the stick went to Stillwater, in the form of the territory’s first prison. The city didn’t even get to keep that dubious honour, as in 1914, the Minnesota State Correctional Institution was moved a few miles south to Bayport. Putting the town on the map for another reason, in 1921 Charles Strite invented the automatic pop-up toaster in Stillwater.
We spent a quiet day. Dick rode his bike the five miles to the grocery in Stillwater. Rain was on and off, and unfortunately it was very much on just a few minutes before he got back to the boat. That evening we chose to walk the 1.5 miles to the restaurant rather than risk riding bikes in the rain. We stopped to chat with a couple who were refitting a very nice-looking classic centre-cockpit sailboat. They were getting ready to move her to Pickwick Lake, and we were able to offer suggestions for marinas and routes. They are also thinking about doing the Great Loop one day.
We enjoyed our meal at Manger, a very authentic French restaurant. Dick tried the duck, and I enjoyed my ravioli. Fortunately, the rain held off, and the forecast heavy thunderstorms with 60mph winds waited until 9pm to pass over. It had been forecast for 2 hours earlier, and would have been most unpleasant if we had been out in it. (although I had brought my own umbrella in anticipation of the worst case)
In addition to being the site of the relocated Minnesota State Correctional Facility, Bayport is also host to the maximum-security prison of the same name. Beginning as three small settlements on the St Croix River, in 1873, the St Croix Railway Improvement Company incorporated them as the village of South Stillwater. The name proved to be confusing, and was later changed to Bayport. The early economy was centered around lumber, and the Andersen Lumber Company moved to Bayport to take advantage of the railway lines. Eventually becoming the largest window and door manufacturing company in the world, the Andersen Corporation is still headquartered in Bayport.
The next morning we filled up with fuel. Prices are definitely improving. It was $1.75 a gallon less than our last fill at La Crosse. Dick took time to ride to the headquarters of Andersen Corporation in the hopes that he could speak to someone about our missing order for replacement windows for our Hilton Head home. They were initially ordered in November, arrived damaged in March, and we have been unable to get any information since. Sadly typical of large companies, the front desk was manned by a security guard who had no access to the internal phone directory or knowledge of who Dick should ask for. A phone number was eventually offered, but it was the wrong person. She helpfully suggested a different number, but that resulted in a circular routine that ended with a hang-up. So, a wasted effort on Dick’s part. Fortunately, the fuel fill and pump-out took long enough that Dick had already returned from his fruitless quest before they were complete, so we did not lose any time.
As we left the St Croix River and moved into the Mississippi, there was a distinct colour change in the waters. Blue water from the St Croix stayed separate from the brown waters of the Mississippi for a surprising distance. I guess we know why one of the nicknames for the Mississippi is Big Muddy.
We had planned to stop on the Wisconsin side of the River, across from Red Wing. Once again, that marina is operated by a restaurant, and although their website indicates that they welcome transients, they neither answered the phone, nor returned calls or emails. As we went past the next morning, we could see no empty spaces on the docks, so one presumes they had rented all their slips for the whole season. Our plan B was the free town dock, but the town website made it clear that there is no overnight docking allowed. We returned to the marina we stayed at on our outbound journey. It was just as well, as it was blowing a gale and we would have been pounded against the docks, and very uncomfortable if we had been docked on the waterfront.
Eating on board allowed another experiment. We had bought some cheese curds, with the idea of trying them on board. I don’t deep fry, and I really don’t care for oven chips, so I made crispy roasted potato wedges. They were topped with the cheese curds, and brown gravy, to make a dish I am going to call Nine Lives Poutine. I liked it. Dick didn’t think it was worth bothering with, although he did eat the leftovers the next day.
It was a short run again the next day across Lake Pepin to Wabasha. This is the town where Grumpy Old Men was filmed. The waterfront pub, Slippery’s, makes much of the connection, but reviews suggest that the food has gone badly downhill in recent years. We made a point of having a drink on their verandah, but ate dinner at the local Irish Pub instead. Dick was in Celtic heaven with 2 pints of Guinness, and pot roast with mashed potatoes and carrots. My food was not enjoyable, and the seating was backless bar stools, very uncomfortable.
Dick admired some real Midwest ingenuity. A clearly home-made travel lift was positioned at the end of the marina dock. Readers may remember seeing my pictures of Nine Lives being taken out of the water in the more usual travel lifts at the beginning and end of each season. This lift was steel beams welded together, with the required slings and wheels at the base. What Dick found intriguing was the use of an old Ford truck, set on a large wheelbase that had clearly been taken from a tractor trailer with the frame shortened. The cab was set backwards so that the driver can sit in the seat and be facing the lift. The whole thing is powered by the Ford truck engine, with a generator driven from the front of the engine to power the hoist electric motors.
As we walked into town, we were surprised to see a white squirrel. They are apparently very rare colour variants of the Eastern Grey Squirrel. If you see a white one, it might be albino, which is caused by a congenital disorder. Our squirrel was leucistic. This is a partial loss of pigmentation caused by a recessive gene. Eye colour is not affected, so they do not have the distinctive red eyes of albinos. More famous examples of leucistic mammals are white tigers and lions. The white squirrel we saw seemed very healthy, foraging in a garden.
Wabasha downtown is attractive and clean, but too many of the stores are occupied by professional businesses, doctors, and lawyers, leaving little scope for shops or restaurants. The town was preparing for its annual month long SeptOberfest. The main attraction, and the reason we stopped in Wabasha, was the National Eagle Center. This year it is completing a major renovation and upgrade. It was well worth the visit, in spite of a mile walk on the hottest day of the week.
The National Eagle Center began as Eagle Watch, in 1989, a volunteer organization dedicated to assisting visitors to Wabasha with eagle watching on the Mississippi River. They opened a storefront in town, in the year 2000, and took on the care of their first two injured eagles. Eagle Watch conduct annual surveys of migrating Golden Eagles. By 2007, they were able to open a 15,000-square-foot interpretive center on the river bank, and in 2022 a $27 million expansion and renovation project is nearly completed.
There were a lot of information displays, not just about the eagles, but also a section on the symbols of eagles, particularly in the military, and another section on Native American associations. The Center currently houses 5 birds, 4 bald eagles, and a red-tailed hawk. All the birds were injured in such a way as to prevent their return to the wild. I enjoyed the aviary, watching the two birds that were present, and asking questions of one of the keepers, while Dick read all the interpretive boards and exhibit explanations.
Some of the information on the displays and at the lecture we attended was fascinating. Newly hatched bald eagles are fully grown in just 12 weeks. At that point they leave the nest, but their parents do not teach them how to survive. 50% of juveniles do not make it to adulthood. Dick wondered whether this is due to teenagers making bad decisions. It is, but only in part. It takes 5 to 6 years for them to reach adulthood and develop the distinctive white head and tail. Juveniles are a mottled brown, and are easily mistaken for Golden Eagles. The further north eagles are bred, the larger they are, so eagles from Florida are considerably smaller than those found in Alaska. This was explained as the extra size needed to survive in cold temperatures. Bald Eagles are a type of Sea Eagle, and eat fish and carrion. They do not hunt live prey apart from fish. They certainly do not hunt small dogs and cats, although they are quite happy to eat what other predators such as coyotes have left. The biggest causes of death (including for the juveniles) are vehicle encounters, and lead poisoning. Their stomach acids are so strong that they dissolve lead in a matter of days. Lead in fishing tackle and/or lead shot in carrion may be eaten and when it has dissolved, lead poisoning will kill the eagle in just a few days.
As we browsed the shop, Dick ignored my increasingly strong hints and declined to buy an ever-so-slightly tacky, but interesting, eagle mug. However, a t-shirt with a bald eagle’s head and “Tough Old Bird” proved irresistible, and I will wear it with pride.
We made an early start the next day in anticipation of transiting 3 locks. The first, Lock 4, was our first time floating free instead of taking a line. It was a very still morning, so we were not blown about, and I was able to hold the boat in place with the engines. Even so, we drifted close to the lock wall, not a problem, as we had put out fenders. Although we are offered the choice of floating free or taking lines at most locks, I would not want to float free in even light wind, and we expect to continue to request a line.
We tied up overnight at Winona town dock, which allows 24 hours free dockage. Our lines were caught for us by a lady who had been sitting on the wall enjoying the sunshine and reading a book. She turned out to be a Gold Looper. She and her husband did the Loop in 2015, although at the time they were not yet retired. We enjoyed a very nice chat, and we regretted that our visit was too short to issue invitations for docktails.
As we sat at the dock in the evening, a large Viking cruise ship passed, certainly the largest passenger vessel we have seen on the River. Dick later found a news report about the voyage. Unimaginatively named, Viking ‘Mississippi’ was running empty as she passed Winona, on her way north to Red Wing, where she would pick up crew. She would then travel to Saint Paul, where she would embark on her maiden voyage down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Viking Mississippi holds 386 passengers in 193 staterooms and carries 148 crew. The voyage from Saint Paul to New Orleans will stop at 12 cities, and take 15 days. At some point we knew she would overtake us, but we thought we would be unlikely to see her again, as it she would probably pass us at night.
We had an outstanding dinner at a restaurant called Nosh. Dick asked, in the words of Billy Joel, “man, what are you doing here?” This was one of the most sophisticated fine dining restaurants we have been to on this trip, certainly it would hold its own in any big city. My caprese salad was probably the best I have ever tasted, and Dick’s warmed beet salad was delicious. Dick enjoyed an authentic paella, while my lobster and shrimp roll was excellent. The desserts were also outstanding. I tried their salted cheesecake with caramel sauce, and Dick loved his peach crumble.
Winona has beautiful architecture, but there is a sad mix of tattoo parlours, professional offices, and very few small shops spread over too many downtown streets. These small towns and cities really need a visionary, as well as a consistent, long-term strategy to pull it all together. They also need a focal point to bring in outside visitors.
Early businesses in Winona were based on lumber, wheat, steamboating, and railroads. The architecture of the downtown shows the level of craftsmanship of the immigrants who were attracted to the area during its heyday in the late 1800’s. As early as 1969, the town governments began to try to counter the effects of large retail stores opening outside the city by pedestrianizing part of downtown and encouraging shopping. Unfortunately, the results were mixed, and the pedestrian mall closed in 1993. In the 1970’s, enthusiasm for urban renewal resulted in many blocks of 19th century buildings and local landmarks being razed. Just ten years later, federal funding encouraged redevelopment of the remaining old buildings. Second and third floors were remodelled into residences, in hopes that people would move back to downtown. More efforts are clearly needed.
A two-lock day got us into La Crosse by 2pm. We were a little concerned about the weather forecast, as we were again docked at the marina across the river from the city. We had planned to have dinner at Lovechild, the top-rated restaurant in the La Crosse. The food was delicious, and so well presented. Dick started with arancini, and I had piping hot and delicious triple cooked fries with horseradish sauce. Lamb shank was on the menu for the first time in a while, to Dick’s great satisfaction, and I enjoyed my shrimp and arugula spaghetti very much. We shared peach shortcake for dessert. We also commented on the large number of staff in the obviously successful restaurant. We hear so many complaints that staff can’t be hired, and restaurants have to be closed several days of the week, and yet Lovechild has obviously found the formula for hiring and keeping staff.
Fortunately, the expected thunderstorms kept moving to later in the forecast, and did not arrive until after midnight. Although it didn’t rain, the River was a little more lumpy than I like, and on the return trip a large wake from a tour boat ensured that in my spot at the front of the dinghy I was completely soaked, including my shoes. Dick found this highly amusing, but managed to restrain his laughter, or at least keep it quiet.
An extended stay in a marina is always a good time for laundry, so I put through several loads of washing while Dick worked on the print version of the Nine Lives blog. We have a couple of relatives who do not use computers, so Dick takes the time to transfer my text and all the pictures into a format that can be printed and mailed. Our dinner reservation was a little later than usual, so we headed across the River at 6pm. On arrival I looked in vain for the cute muskrat that we had seen the previous evening, bustling along the riverbank before disappearing into a hole underneath a huge tree. Sadly, I didn’t have the camera ready at the time, so no photos.
We returned to The Chateau, where we had enjoyed an excellent dinner on our previous visit. Unfortunately, the earlier experience was not repeated. The food was merely okay, and the building was overly warm. The waitress let slip that the owners were out of town. The whole experience seemed to lack the special something that had made the previous meal so good. It was also quite slow, so we arrived back at the dinghy in twilight. In some ways this was the highlight of the evening. Dick was able to set up the all-round white light that is required for night boating, and we were glad that the red and green lights also worked as expected. The River was quite calm, and there was enough light from the shore to easily see, so it was quite an enjoyable experience. As the days get shorter, we are more likely to be out after dark, but the stop in La Crosse will probably be our last that requires the dinghy for getting to restaurants.
Sunday was the day to finish the laundry, and then we dinghied over to the city for dinner at The Water Front Restaurant. We were early, so first a drink in the bar, followed by our meal at a window table overlooking the River. The waiters and bartenders were all smartly dressed in black, with collared t-shirts with a logo. Slightly unfortunate, the logo read tWf. I doubt that I am the only person who reads the large letter first. Dick enjoyed his oysters Rockefeller, and I had very good giant shrimp with two sauces, the herby tarragon remoulade was delicious. Our steaks were good, but “au poivre” in this restaurant turned out to mean a black pepper crust, rather than a peppercorn sauce. It made the steaks rather dry, and the crust was unpleasantly crunchy. Peach cheesecake with home made peach ice cream finished the evening. We returned to the marina in the dark, but now that we were experienced, it was quite enjoyable.
Monday morning we booked a Segway tour. As we headed over to the dinghy dock, we were surprised to see Viking Mississippi docked on the levee. Up close, we could see just how huge she is. We were the only guests on the Segway tour, which made it very enjoyable and a little more informal than usual. The tour included the waterfront park, and a nice ride around the marsh. The marsh was very pretty, with purple loosestrife and reeds at the edge of still water with duckweed. Plenty of birdlife. I didn’t get an opportunity to take pictures. From the marsh we went through the very clean and modern University of Wisconsin-La Crosse campus, then the best part of the tour was seeing some of the lovely turn of the century homes in the older part of town.
La Crosse is named for a game with sticks that was observed being played by Native Americans when the area was first visited by the white man. As did many of the settlements in the area, the city began as a fur trading post. By the middle of the 19th century, it became a centre for lumber, brewing, and railroads, and was one of the largest cities in Wisconsin. By the 20th century it also became a centre for education, with 3 colleges and universities. In the fall, La Crosse hosts the one of the largest Octoberfest celebrations. It has the dubious distinction of having broken the Guinness Record for having the most bars on a single street. They are also proud of having more bars per capita than any other city in America.
As we returned to the marina, we saw Viking Mississippi making her majestic way down the river. Later, we returned to the dinghy dock for our last evening in La Crosse. As we crossed the river, I was wondering what the large black something was, that I could see on the levee where the cruise ship had been docked. Then we heard a lot of sirens. After docking we had to walk that way through the park, and we could see that an SUV had come to rest with its front wheels overhanging the river. The driver was still inside, and there were at least 5 fire engines, plus ambulances and a lot of police cars, and even a police boat on the water. I don’t take pictures of accidents, but later, as we left for the evening, I did take a picture of the vehicle recovery in progress. The SUV had been winched back, but you can imagine how terrifying it must have been to be in that car when the wheels were over the river. For the driver, it was a bad day, or a good day, depending on how you look at it.
Dinner at the Charmant started with great traditional American style onion soup. Dick ordered steak frites. The fries were outstanding, and there were plenty for me to enjoy half of them! I liked the chicken pate that I had on the previous visit.
We left fairly early the next morning for a long but uneventful trip, with no delays at two locks, to Marquette. Autumn colours are starting to show, and the bluffs of the Driftless Area are looking very attractive. There is mist on the River in the early mornings, and beautiful reflections in the still waters. We shared one lock with a man on a long distance kayak voyage. He had foot paddles instead of using a conventional paddle.
We docked at Marquette on a tour boat dock that allows transients on a first come first served basis. There was no power or water available, but it was a vastly better option than returning to the awful facility at McGregor. Dockage was not supposed to be free, but there is nobody there to take your money from Monday through Wednesday, so we couldn’t pay. Dick explored the village, and enjoyed a brief stop at the local winery, tasting, and buying a couple of bottles of red. However, this village has noting to recommend it, unless you enjoy a casino. Prairie du Chien, across the River, is a larger and more interesting town, but there is no easy access for larger boats like Nine Lives.
Another early start for a long run to Dubuque, with two locks to transit. On this occasion we were not quite as lucky, and had a long wait for lock 10. Fortunately, the weather was fine and almost no wind, so stooging at the lock was less tiring than usual. We are still seeing lots of bald eagles, as well as white pelicans and the usual cormorants. We passed the docks for Pattison Sand, a large mine/quarry that produces silica and limestone. As we move south, the landscape will be getting flatter, and the scenery will become more industrial. We arrived in Dubuque just after the staff were finished for the day, but Dick had been able to speak on the phone to the attendant, so we had the gate codes, and they left the key card for the washrooms tied to the cleat on our dock. We will be in Dubuque for an extended stay. Dick will be renting a car and driving to Ontario to help to move his Mum to assisted living. I will remain on the boat, and have plans to visit the extensive Maritime Museum and Aquarium.