Winona, Minn. – The day after an ice floe ripped a dock off his Mississippi River boathouse, Richie Swanson fought to keep himself afloat.
The river was cresting well above flood stage, drawing tight the ropes he uses to keep the structure tied to an island near downtown Winona. A spring storm threatened to wallop the shoreline with 70 mph winds. Heavy snow accumulated on the boathouse’s remaining decks and rooftop.
Swanson moved firewood in the early morning darkness and worried about the current, the winds and falling trees. Nearby, as winds lashed at the boathouse community he has called home for 32 years, a neighbor’s structure succumbed, tipping face-first into the river for a complete loss. “It’s not for the faint of heart down here,” Swanson said recently, recounting the storm. “It’s blissful on a 75-degree summer day when the river’s lazy, but you have to adapt.”
It’s never been as easy as outsiders might think to live on the river, but this spring has been especially hard on the 100 or so boathouses along Winona’s Latsch Island. The record-setting, levee-bursting floods on the Mississippi have tested the will of the tinkerers, artists and independent-minded homeowners who make up one of Minnesota’s most unusual neighborhoods.
Some fear the high water of the past few months is a sign of things to come, that climate change has permanently altered the rainfall of the Upper Midwest in ways that bring persistent flooding.
In a typical year, the river rises above flood stage for a brief period, if at all, lifting the boathouses along the shoreline of Latsch Island, just across the main river channel from Winona. But this year has been different. A surge of snowmelt and rain in March pushed the river above 17 feet, well above Winona’s flood level of 13 feet, and it didn’t drop below flood stage until early May. Heavy rains then pushed the river back into flood stage for another two weeks starting in late May.
“It was the most difficult winter, the most difficult spring,” said John Rupkey, who’s lived on the island for 41 years. “I hope it’s not the new normal.”
Rupkey’s boathouse escaped with only minor damage, but he had to be evacuated during the worst of the spring weather. When the river rose this winter before all the ice melted, it cut off his walking route across the island to the parking lot where he keeps a truck. Heavy snows pushed the ice down and forced river water up on top of the ice, creating a heavy, freezing slush.
Rupkey called a friend who lives in town and asked for help. The friend had to chop through the ice step by step to get to Rupkey, who put on a pair of waders and made his way to safety through the route his friend had made. Three or four days later, the ice broke up, the water level dropped, and he moved back in.
“I love living here,” he said. “This is my ideal spot.”
Rupkey has outlasted other threats.
Early on, before it was organized, the boathouse community was nearly ousted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. A legal fight ended up at Winona City Hall, where a compromise was worked out. In those days, one of the boathouse residents was a local judge, Dennis Challeen. Known nationally for his pioneering work that sent nonviolent offenders to community service rather than prison, Challeen raised the boathouse community’s profile, Rupkey said. “We always said if they wanted to get rid of us, they had to go after the judge first,” he said.
The Latsch Island boathouse community started decades ago when people began converting boat garages into DIY residences, outfitting their homes with solar panels, furniture and whatever floated by. Today, it is organized under an association and officially recognized by the city of Winona.
Originally built for a few hundred dollars and sold by word of mouth, the boathouses today include two-story homes with staircases, generator-powered lights, balconies and six-figure price tags. This summer, at least two younger owners are replacing the original boathouses with striking new structures that take in dramatic views of the Mississippi.
The value and popularity of the community has never been higher, even as longtime owners warily watch the river’s flood patterns.
The Mississippi River hit flood stage for a record number of days this year, with devastating results for some river towns.
A broken levee sent river water cascading into Davenport, Iowa, and levee breaches elsewhere caused evacuation orders and emergency declarations in Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas.
It’s “been hard on everybody because it’s lasting so long,” said Gerty Tonjum, a Latsch Island resident for 10 years.
As Tonjum stepped onto his boathouse deck last week to greet visitors who pulled alongside in a flat-bottomed riverboat, his dogs Banksy and Viva jumped into the visitors’ boat.
Tonjum has helped his neighbors recover from this year’s storms, with boathouse owners reporting property damage, busted docks, gear blown away by the wind and bent “gin poles,” the steel poles some owners use to anchor their boathouses to the river bottom.
It’s not unusual for the river to wreak havoc on the boathouse community, said Tonjum, even if this year has been harder. “Being down here, you’re just always fixing stuff,” he said.
Moses Simon, another boathouse owner, said he’s worried that climate change is behind the longer flood seasons. Still, he and his wife are building a new two-story boathouse on the site that his parents owned. Simon was born here, in 1989, and said he can’t imagine leaving the river completely.
The No. 1 Google search on his phone? A hydrograph that shows current river levels. He hopes to put the roof on his new boathouse by fall.
Everyone will just have to adapt, said Swanson, who spent some of this past winter watching a nearby family of beavers navigate the rising water levels. They kept adding more sticks to their lodge to keep the top of it above water.
“That’s what we do,” Swanson said. “Living here, it gives us a connection to nature. It makes us more alive. It really does. In the future, we have to be more alive to it. We have to adapt. Everybody knows that that’s the deal.”
Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329