One recent space-cold Minnesota evening, Chris Bettis and Jake Hall made the 50-meter trek from their houseboats up the eastern bank of the Mississippi to meet me for drinks at Vinny’s on the River, a sports bar with wooden wainscoting and diversely sized Captain’s wheels.
Bettis and Hall are two of the 13 residents staying the winter at Hidden Harbor Marina. They estimate that between downtown St. Paul and the lock and dam just upstream of Hastings maybe 100 people live on the water. “The further you go down, the nicer and the cheaper the dockage gets: They don’t like liveaboards in St. Paul,” one Hidden Harbor houseboater said.
Bettis is on his second screwdriver, Hall’s sipping a Michelob Light. They’re surrounded by a couple other river residents, bearded men with thick sweaters and heavy shoes.
I ask if they’ve ever fallen through the ice.
“I’ve done it,” Hall says.
“When he’s not sober,” says another.
“He’s the diehard of the bunch,” Bettis says.
“If it’s windy out, it’s windier down here,” Hall says in defense.
“We’ve got one guy who falls in every year,” Bettis says.
Bettis is a freelance handyman. “I do sheetrock, tape, paintwork, construction stuff.” He says the Hidden Harbor liveaboards form a tight-knit community where you know all your neighbors’ business. “I call this place a soap opera, ‘As the Prop Turns.’ I like it because it’s cheap, I like the people. Down the river here, if something happens, people are there to help you out. It’s like the olden days: When your barn burned down, they’d throw a barn-building party and help you build your barn. Nowadays, when your barn burns down they come around and see what they can steal out of the ashes—see if they can get away. Here it’s more of a place where people are treated the way they want to be treated.”
Hall is maybe 20 or 30 years younger than Bettis. He’s enrolled in trucking school and picks up odd jobs as the marina’s “resident boat mechanic.” Bettis recently payed him a couple bills to install a starter. Two of the three decks of Hall's houseboat are dedicated dance floors. He nods along agreeably to Bettis’s speech about community. “I’m different from them. I like to party,” he says.
In summer, the Hidden Harbor population quadruples. Hall will take his home out on the river, fasten it to the boats of friends and strangers and pump club music from a rooftop DJ booth.
Bettis also prefers the warmer weather. “You go put your boat on the dock in the summer and you've got a view that people pay multi-million dollars to have. Know what I mean? Looking on the back channel on the river with the birds coming in, the eagles flying around—we’ve got an eagle nest around here with four eagles—deer, muskrat, beavers climbing in and out of the water. You walk out and there will be a snake sitting on the dock, it’ll boogie when you come out. It’s a lifestyle preference.”
Despite the frozen winds and waters, Bettis and Hall are fairly stoic about the winters. The marina provides onshore laundry, sink, shower and toilet, and onboard heat and water. Some boaters shrinkwrap their homes in winter. (Hall describes the plastic film as “big, huge condoms.”) Others supplement the electrical system with space heaters or cordon off rooms to cut their energy bill. I ask the liveaboards what they do when the river freezes. “A steel hull can freeze in the ice, but a fiberglass or wood boat you’ve got to bubble with a prop that spins and swings up and moves the water, because moving water won’t freeze,” Bettis says. Hall’s home is steel-bottomed but he’s not dogmatic on the subject: “Benefit of steel is you don’t have to bubble in, but the cool thing about fiberglass is you never have to do anything to it. Steel you’ve got to paint the hull and all sorts of stuff like that.”
By this point, houseboat life sounds a jolly way to rid a mind of thoughts of death and doom, and I agree to follow Hall down the bank for a tour of his home. Down on the dock, Hall crosses a narrow gangway onto his front deck, beckons for me to follow and disappears through the doorway. I take a step onto an icy patch of the plank, begin to keel over waterward and, in the half instant before righting myself, I form a diamond-cut image of my body submerging, scrabbling limbs and shiver terror.
I decide I couldn’t live a winter on the water, so close to the cold and the dark.