Life on the Mississippi: Boating, Babies, Burns and Beaches

Several times a summer, we take family getaway cruises on the Riviera. No, not on one of those dreary cruise ships. On my brother’s private yacht. It’s absolutely divine, dah-ling.

Yes, it’s a long-standing family ritual to head to the Riviera. The Mississippi Riviera, that is. We always go to the (ahem) highly exclusive Port of Bass Camp in Minnesota City, MN.    Not just anyone is allowed to launch there, of course. No, you first need to pay your $7 and wait your turn for the camo-painted fishing boat to launch ahead of you. And sometimes that takes an extra few minutes because a guy can only do things so fast if he already has a High Life in his hand. This is life on the Mississippi.

Nope, no cruise ships around here. But there are plenty of party barges and a few house boats that have seen better days.  It’s more like a three hour tour, a threeee hour toooour…. (are you humming the Gilligan’s Island theme song yet?)

And did I say yacht earlier? Well, perhaps technically it’s just called a boat. But my brother’s Larson does feel like luxury because it always starts, has nice paint, no cracks in the seats, lots of power, and was made well after I was born.

boating on the Mississippi

The misty soft focus, created by a careful smear of sunscreen over the lens, truly conveys the romance of boating.

In the boat world, it is practically new, just over ten years old, and rides smoothly and loads up easily. Most notably, the boat is a three-decade upgrade in style and comfort from our old 70’s tri-hull that used to spank its riders across waves and throw people’s backs out trying to load it onto a trailer. Ah, I fondly recall those days.

These days, on several Saturdays a summer, my brother tows his boat down to the Mississippi and my family converges on Bass Camp, our preferred place to launch. As we drive in to Bass Camp, just past the purple martin houses, my kids sometimes say, “Remember that big dead fish?” because two or three years ago (a lifetime in their world) a big dead smelly something-or-other fish found it’s final resting place on the shore next to the dock.

In the scariest nightmare ever a few days later, my then two-year-old son woke up crying and whimpered, “It’s sniffing me! The big fish. It’s sniffing me.” It’s ironic that he’d dream a smelly fish was trying to sniff him. He usually smells pretty clean.

Dead fish or no dead fish, we tromp down the scorching hot wood planks of the dock. The sun beats down as we load up my brother’s boat with towels, toys, and thirst quenchers. Once in the boat, we all fling our flip flops in a small mountain under the dash on the passenger side. No need for shoes on the river. With little tikes properly buckled into life jackets, we ease out of the dock area and slowly troll out of the no-wake zone at Bass Camp.

Once we hit the main channel, it’s throttle down time. As the motor revs up, stress immediately cuts in half. Sweat on hot heads evaporates into the water-cooled breeze. Mini vans and jobs get temporarily abandoned on the shore, replaced with deep blue water in a tree-covered valley. Little kids up front reach out hands to catch the spray as they bounce along with wind-blown grins. The feeling of easy livin’ blows all around in the breeze.

Water droplets and sand, the good life on the Mississippi River.

Once we arrive on our favorite sand bar on the Wisconsin side of the river, life settles into the Mississippi Routine. Unload the stuff, unroll the blankets, unleash the sunscreen. Liberally lather the sunscreen on the entire fair-skinned, freckle-covered crew, while debating proper application techniques and sunscreen brands. “That kind is highly toxic and causes cancer.” “Yeah, but it smells good and it’s so much easier to use.” Renew sunscreen discussion in two hours when it’s time to reslime the crew.

For the next 2-5 hours, avoid all of the following: drowning, sunburn, dehydration, horseflies, gnats, poison ivy along the treeline, flying carp while tubing, zebra mussel cuts on feet, sand consumption, losing cell phone or keys in sand or water, extreme wedgies from tubing wipeouts, suspicious squishy mud underfoot in water, and grinding up the boat prop on unseen wing dams or logs.

However, do take part in all of the finer points of the Mississippi. Turn kids loose with implements of sand destruction and watch as ponds, moats and little rivers appear on the shoreline, and mountains of sand appear on beach blankets. Every afternoon on the river should include at least one baby of sand-eating age.

Hair coated in sand, sunscreen, and peanut butter, a cup of bonus sand lurking at the bottom of the swimming suit: standard issue for a baby’s day at the river.

And of course, head to the water for swimming, splashing and the unspoken place to…well…pee. (Can I say that in the paper?) Actually, that part is spoken, my niece proudly announces her actions to give everyone else around fair warning of any unexpected warm spots in the water. It’s the same sort of phenomenon that also happens while floating in tubes down a river: even though people might be on a river for hours, nobody ever needs to stop and use the bathroom. Hmm…

Water play on the Mississippi also means tubing behind the boat. Integral parts of the tubing experience include whipping around the corners, hanging on for dear life until forearms are raw and hands can’t grip anymore, epic crashes, bodies skipping across the river like nice, smooth rocks, free high-pressure sinus cavity cleansing, and involuntary swimming suit realignment. And sometimes, tubing means slow, scenic rides for the little kids.

mississippi river

15 first cousins, including our four kids, hanging out together for a day on the Mississippi.

All of that activity also means eating is essential. The basic river diet includes sandwiches (with a strong emphasis on “sand” for little kids), munching on a few salty chips, some juicy grapes, and washing it all down with icy cold drinks from the cooler. Cookies are also a necessity. Note that babies at the river will only consume food liberally coated in sand. Sand Doritos are a perennial favorite.

A day at the Mississippi also includes wildlife. Eagles, turtles, geese, clams, fish and river rats are common sights at the river. River rats are a prevalent native species, and quite easy to spot. You can recognize this native wildlife by their uber-tanned skin and relaxed smiles. They are often found riding in boats built for speed with excellent sound systems, with red-painted boats usually thumping the loudest music. Jimmy Buffet songs are a common mating call. While slightly untamed, river rats are a friendly wildlife. Like any native species, I’m quite certain they are meant to be there.

And when the sun sinks in the sky, the sounds of motors dissipate and the quiet of a massive river prevails. Sparkling water laps at the sand bar and fading sun illuminates beach-goers in a golden warm glow. Shaking sand off the beach blankets and swishing babies in the river to empty out their loads of swimming suit sand, we pack up the boat.

Heading off into the sunset on the boat ride back to Bass Camp and our waiting vehicles, our surroundings are summery blue skies above, water below, and a lush tree-covered valley all around.

The sinking sun glitters on the water, and the moist spray smells fresh in the breeze. Sun-soaked bodies feel hungry and tired, but life is good. That is life on the Mississippi.

And finally, after a day filled with earth, water, and wind, the most suitable nightcap is little fire. That, and a few s’mores.

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