Cruising The Upper Mississippi River

By Paula Yantorno

Traveling the upper river in Mark Twain's wake, these cruisers see a side of America that will stay with them.

Photo of sunset over the Port of Dubuque Marina in IowaSunset over the Port of Dubuque Marina in Iowa. (Photo: Digital Dubuque)

Mark Twain called the upper section of the Mississippi "the finest part" of America's great river. My husband Paul took his cue from the famous author when he planned our voyage. Inspired by the opportunity to travel several hundred miles by boat, Paul plotted a weeklong course from Dubuque, Iowa, to Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Photo of Navetta on the roadNavetta on the road.

This was a new kind of boating for us. We'd owned a 52-foot Viking Sport Cruiser — luxurious, spacious, powerful — and used Bramasole to travel the East Coast of the U.S., completing the Great Loop in 2007. But living in landlocked Colorado, yearning for the water, we realized that a smaller boat would allow us more freedom to travel to different destinations. Forget the expense and time it took to reach Bramasole in Florida. We'd just hitch the new boat and trailer to our Ford F-350 pickup and take off. Navetta is Italian for "little ship," an apt name for our reliable 27-foot Monterey cruiser. Though half the size of Bramasole, Navetta proved to be a cozy nest for our adventures.

The journey began with a 14-hour road trip from Denver, Colorado, to Dubuque, Iowa, a historic town that's recently been transformed into one of the Midwest's most modern cities. Our goal was to follow the Mississippi from Dubuque as far north as possible to Minneapolis, then return downriver. From Dubuque to Minneapolis, we'd travel 275 nautical miles and go through Locks 11 to 1, plus the two Anthony Falls locks, a manageable distance for our time frame, and one that put us in the heart of Twain's favorite stretch of the river.

There are many full-service marinas and boat-launching facilities along the Upper Mississippi. We used the public ramp near American Marine at Dubuque Yacht Basin, where we left our truck and trailer for the week on a hot June morning. An Iowa Department of Parks and Recreation inspector checked our boat for zebra mussels and other invasive species before we launched. Across the river, the bluffs of Wisconsin and Illinois rose high above the water. Twain, in his Life on the Mississippi, wrote: "The bluffs that over ook the river, along through this region, charm one with the grace and variety of their forms, and the soft beauty of their adornments." With charts in hand, we took off.

Modern Engineering & A Trip Back In Time

At the revitalized Port of Dubuque, we docked in the protected Ice Harbor inside the floodgate, where courtesy docks make stopping off easy. Near the National Mississippi River Museum is an extensive riverfront plaza, and the Diamond Jo Casino and gaming complex. Back on the water, just three miles from the start, we had our first lock-through, at Lock and Dam 11, along with one man on a jet ski. He wasn't the least bit surprised when we told him we were headed to Minneapolis. "I took the trip last year with my sons in an aluminum fishing boat," he told us, "and we camped along the way."

The Upper Mississippi lock and dam system graphicThe Upper Mississippi lock and dam system is called the "Stairway of Water." Elevation above sea level is shown at left. The river travels at 1.2 to 3 mph, and is approximately 2,350 miles long.

The idea of locking through was initially daunting, but we breezed through it, grabbing lines from a friendly lockmaster to steady our boat against the concrete wall. When Twain saw the river, it was untamed — even, he speculated, untamable — by the United States River Commission (predecessor to the Army Corps of Engineers). In the 1930s, though, the Corps of Engineers began the 9-Foot Project to revive and improve the navigation on the Upper River, creating 29 locks and dams, from Minneapolis to St. Louis, by 1964. Today, more than 90 million tons of cargo move by barge on the upper Mississippi River annually. Recreational boats and commercial vessels share the locks on a first-come, first-served basis.

Photo of Paula and Paul YantornoPaula and Paul Yantorno "locking through."

The heat and humidity of the first hours gave way to oppressive stillness and dark skies and soon a drenching Iowa downpour, with sheets of rain pelting us as we steered toward shore, reminding us of the respect the mighty river exacts from those who travel it. Twain may have had a similar storm in mind when he wrote, "People boast a great deal about Alpine thunderstorms; but the storms I've had the luck to see in the Alps were not the equals of some I've seen in the Mississippi Valley. I may not have seen the Alps do their best, of course, and if they can beat the Mississippi, I don't wish to." We must've been quite a sight from the Arrowhead Marina bar, as we struggled to dock and zip on the plastic sides to the Bimini top. Only hours into our first day, and we needed to change our soaking-wet clothes already.

After drying out, we continued on to Marquette, Iowa, where we tied up at the Lady Luck Casino docks. The town, with only two or three streets stacked between the river, the railroad, and the base of the bluffs, had a small grocery so we picked up a few supplies and headed to the casino buffet, where the entire county was lined up for the Friday night crab-leg special.

Photo of the La Crosse Queen paddleboat cruising the riverTourists cruise the river in 19th century style on the La Crosse Queen paddleboat.

Saturday morning we crossed the state line between Iowa and Minnesota, then stopped for a break in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and again in Trempealeau for fuel. Three states in just a few hours. While waiting for the green light at Lock and Dam 8 in Genoa, Wisconsin, we watched an Amish family fishing and wading on the eastern bank, the women's long gray dresses held above the water. A straw hat hung from a tree branch.

Though marinas dot the shores of many river towns, camping is popular, with boats tucked onto the sandy beaches, up and down the river. Campsites with picnic tables are available, and on this June weekend, many were filled despite the overcast skies. We docked for the night back on the western shore, at Lake City Marina in Lake City, Minnesota, the largest marina on the Upper Mississippi, with a breathtaking two-mile panorama of the river and Lake Pepin.

Hidden Treasures

When we called home Saturday night, I promised our young granddaughters that I'd read the Little House on the Prairie books to them and we'd return by boat to Pepin for hands-on learning. On Sunday, we detoured from the river at Prescott, Wisconsin (Mile 811.4), and traveled up the St. Croix River. The lower area, known as Lake St. Croix, is designated a National Scenic Riverway. Busy but beautiful, it was boater heaven. The sandy shores were lined with boats, bow ladders extended to the ground, people swimming and barbecuing. We opted for a slip at the St. Croix Marina where we could easily walk to the shops and restaurants in the village of Hudson, Wisconsin.

Photo of sailing past a funky raftThe authors sailed past a funky raft with modern-day Tom and Huck teenagers, strumming a ukulele on Lake St. Croix.

Twenty-two miles of lake back to the Mississippi, we continued north to Minneapolis. The wilderness gave way to a landscape marked by industry, then skyscrapers, as we approached the Twin Cities. We stopped at the St. Paul Yacht Club (Mile 839) and were shocked to see the fuel dock closed. Luckily, the friendly dockmaster came down after a phone call, as there were no services available upriver.

Photo of Minneapolis bridgeMinneapolis is a city of bridges — new, high, interstate bridges, railroad bridges, and historic arched bridges. (Photo: Nick Anderson)

Our River's End — Work Boots & Waterskiing

Minneapolis is a city of bridges, the first built in 1855, in the spot where the current Hennepin Avenue Bridge is located. We reached the top of the navigable Mississippi River at 3 p.m., after exiting Lock 1 and the two Anthony Falls locks — the only waterfalls on the entire Mississippi. Downtown Minneapolis looked cosmopolitan, but there was no place to dock, so we started back downriver. Leaving the big city in our wake, we ventured back into rural America at the Red Wing Marina, with its legendary white caboose, at about 7 p.m., a voice on the radio answering our call, even though the owner had locked up for the night. We took a slip with the promise to pay in the morning.

Less than an hour by car from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Red Wing, Minnesota, is nestled in the river valley and home to the world-famous Red Wing work boots (with a new museum and store) and the collectible pottery that dates back to Prohibition. A hike to the top of Barn Bluff affords spectacular views. The Cannon Valley Trail, one of the state's prettiest bike paths, runs 20 miles along the river and through farmland, from Red Wing to Cannon Falls.

We experienced genuine Midwestern congeniality as we lugged groceries back to the boat the next morning. In the distance, a man pulled his car to the shoulder and waited as we approached, "Can I give you a lift?"

Photo of sunset on the MississippiSunset on the Mississippi.

Leaving Red Wing we took advantage of the open water of Lake Pepin to give Navetta a little shakedown. A wide-open stretch of water and a powerboat make an exhilarating match. Then, under sunny skies, we anchored out in a little bay for the rest of the afternoon, contemplating the smooth expanse where waterskiing was invented in 1922.

We passed through locks 4, 5, and 5A, and stopped for the night at Sunset Bay Marina in Trempealeau, Wisconsin. An amazing number of trains follow the river daily. In Trempealeau, they passed every half-hour, whistling but not slowing. On the water, the sounds changed around each bend, from the silence of the open water and wilderness, to barges blasting passing directions, to lock bells, train wheels, and boat engines. The villages had their own cacophonies. Day 6 and we woke to the train's whistle in Trempealeau, and started the day with a lock-through at Lock 6, adjacent to the marina entrance. It was a big day for locking. We passed through locks 7, 8, and 9 quickly, but waited almost an hour for a barge at Lock 10, just north of Guttenberg, Iowa, where we stopped for the night. The town's main street faces the river with a two-mile stretch of manicured park and walkways. We tied up at a ramshackle fisherman's dock beneath The Landing, a riverfront inn. A hearty meal of Iowa steak and potatoes was followed by the best apple pie. Who could ask for more?

Photo of Guttenberg, Iowa, from the waterGuttenberg, Iowa, from the water.

Every time we saw an eagle winging along the shoreline, I wished for a longer camera lens. Although the greatest number is usually spotted from mid-November to late March, we quickly lost count. Sixty percent of all North American birds (326 species) use the Mississippi River basin as their migratory flyway, and we also spotted wood ducks, Canada geese, and sandhill cranes. The National Eagle Center, located in Wabasha, Minnesota, provides two observation decks for viewing eagles while they soar and nest in the wild, plus courtesy docks for visiting boaters.

Homeward Bound

With only 35 miles left on our return trip to Dubuque, we took our time. For our last night, Paul steered Navetta into a slip at American Marine at Dubuque Yacht Basin, as the patrons on the deck at Catfish Charlie's watched the sun lowering into the west. What a week! Packing up at the end of a trip is always bittersweet, but the dusty lights from the nearby baseball fields and the muggy night air filled me with pleasant memories of my childhood in Iowa. In the morning, we'd pull our little ship from the waters of the Mississippi, and head home. Mark Twain once said, "To get the full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with." Paul and I might add, "And you need a boat." 

Writer Paula Yantorno lives in Denver, Colorado. Besides completing the Great Loop and boating on the Upper Mississippi, she and her husband have cruised Navetta in the California Delta, San Francisco Bay, Lake Okoboji, Iowa, Canada and the Northern Channel, and Lake Powell, Utah.

— Published: February/March 2015

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