A Story from the Big River Reader

Big River Reader

  Selected by Grand Excursion 2004 for the River Exploration Trunks sent to 750 schools along the river.

Winter is a peaceful time, without the noise of boaters and crowds at the park. The movement of the waves is gone, and boathouses freeze into the ice -- full of creaks and groans and all of the strange sounds the ice makes when it thinks no one is listening.

Living in a Community of Floating Homes

Trudy R. Balcom
May 1995

I was immediately enchanted the first time I visited the community of floating homes on Latsch Island, where I now live. Janita, a friend and island resident, gave me a grand tour via canoe. The island was in its springtime glory that day, overrun by the Mississippi. I saw picnic tables and bicycles slide like ghosts underneath the bow of the canoe, while overhead returning songbirds built nests in the trees. To my eyes the odd collection of funky floating shacks, substantial floating homes and little boat docks and shelters seemed like something out of a Kerouac novel. I bought my floating home just a few weeks after that first visit. Latsch Island, named after a local 19th century philanthropist, John Latsch, sits across the Mississippi from downtown Winona, Minnesota. The island is a busy place — home of the local marina, a city park and boat landing, as well as about 100 boathouses and floating homes, some 25 of which are occupied year round.

Life on the island requires you to experience the river and the whole local environment in a very intimate manner. My floating home is located on the most primitive part of the island, where no road, electricity or telephone is available because it is below the floodplain. To reach my home, I walk about a half mile down a well travelled, wooded footpath after crossing a narrow, wobbly, homemade bridge across a slender open channel of the river. Nearly all island residents, including myself, live without running water, despite the river that flows beneath us. However, some areas of the island do have electrical and telephone service. Increasingly, homes without utility access are being graced with solar panels to power televisions, stereos and computers. A few have even been fitted with water pumps and filters to provide running water and showers. But even these clever luxuries do not provide a barrier between the river and the boathouse occupant. The floods still come, and the floors of homes are still chilled by the thick winter ice.

Daily life requires keeping up with a round of chores, which includes transporting water, dumping chemical toilets, filling kerosene lamps, and the daily hauling of groceries, laundry, etc., on foot or by boat. All of these chores consume time, but are full of surprising rewards. In the periods spent away from my boathouse, I have found myself intensely missing such simple, fulfilling tasks and the intimate contact they brought with nature and my neighbors. Gathering water means knowing where the closest spring or public well is, a primary level of information about the landscape that most people have forgotten about. Hauling the water home means planning your day around a short canoe trip, which might involve getting soaked by a brief shower, or pulling your boat up at a neighbor’s on the way for a beer, or watching the nose and wake of a beaver gliding silently before the bow of your canoe.

Boathouse life is experienced as a round of Minnesota seasons. Spring is the season of floods — inconvenient, exhilarating and dangerous. I always watch excitedly as the ice breaks up, and neighbors scurry to prepare for the rising waters by securing the ropes that hold their homes to the island’s trees. In the big flood of 1993, my home and neighbors’ homes became little islands unto themselves as the water rose 17 feet into the cottonwoods and maples. Travel to and from the house became a challenging test of my canoeing ability. The nearest high ground was the exit ramp off of the Interstate Bridge, about 3/4 of a mile upstream, where I parked my truck and tied my canoe.

“Summer on the river and some are not,” my neighbor Janita used to quip. As an island resident, you do feel a little indulgent in the summer, because all of the river’s summer delights are at your doorstep, while everyone else has to seek them out. I love to slip out into the darkness of a muggy summer night for a quick, cooling swim, or spend a languid day watching the herons fly over, my toes dangling in the water below my deck. Of course, the mosquitoes think it is a grand place to spend the summer, too.

In some ways, fall is the most invigorating of the seasons. Fall means rising to brisk mornings when the fog floats up from the water. It is a time for stocking up wood for the winter, and enjoying the color of the bluffs amid the sounds of crickets. The most dramatic part of the season occurs when the Canada geese and tundra swans begin to migrate. From the island, I have a front row seat for the show.

Winter is a peaceful time, without the noise of boaters and crowds at the park. The movement of the waves is gone, and boathouses freeze into the ice — full of creaks and groans and all of the strange sounds the ice makes when it thinks no one is listening. My neighbors and I enjoy the season by skiing, skating or throwing bonfire parties on the ice.

For these and many more reasons, it is not hard to see why a few people make Latsch Island their home. Only city officials and the Minnesota DNR seem to have a more myopic view. For many years island residents have struggled for their legal right to stay in their homes. Currently the city of Winona and the DNR are each claiming that the other should have legal jurisdiction over boathouse activity; neither is eager to accept the responsibility for this unique use of the river. The state’s long-range plan is to phase out all boathouses on the river, especially occupied ones. They expect to accomplish this with regulations that limit repair and ban expansion of the structures. So far, boathouse owners, organized as the Winona Boathouse Association, have resisted the regulations, suffering harassment, ticketing and even a court case, which was dismissed in favor of the boathouse owner.

Fortunately, all sides have recently expressed some willingness to compromise, so that boathousing can remain viable and legal into the future. However, this will only be accomplished after much hard work and peering into the cracks of dusty regulations, looking for loopholes to manipulate in a manner everyone can live with. But when I take my brief stroll up the path and glimpse a pileated woodpecker working at its nest or meet a friend on the path who stops to share the latest news on the river level at the lock and dam, I won’t have a shred of a doubt that the work and the fight will be worth it.

2002 Update: The flow of events since 1995 has brought a number of changes to Latsch Island. The Winona Boathouse Association incorporated as a non-profit organization. Legislation was passed to change and clarify the laws governing boathouses. The Latsch Island community can now legally exist, and boathouses can be improved, replaced and inhabited legally. Fewer full-time residents are living on the island than when this story was first published.

© 1995 Big River 

Read more stories about life on the Upper Mississippi in the Big River Reader, an anthology of feature stories from the first four years of Big River newsletter.