Last Tow Ride to the Upper Harbor

In early November, I was a guest of Captain Kelsey Rohr and his crew aboard the motor vessel Patrick Gannaway on their daily run from St. Paul to north Minneapolis. Kelsey has piloted this towboat for the last 20 years, pushing loads of sand and gravel upriver. From 1997 through 2000, I was a part of the crew. I wanted to make the run one more time before the Upper St. Anthony Lock is shut down to halt the advancement of Asian carp up the Mississippi River.

I met Kelsey, Glenn Carlson and Joe Bebeau at the boat sometime around 04:32-damn-early in the morning at Aggregate Industries Yard A. The Patrick Gannaway was moored along the sea wall across from the St. Paul airport. It was a cold, windy and very dark morning as the crew donned their insulated coveralls, fired up the boat and readied to leave the dock. By 05:00 they had faced the boat up to two barges, and we departed. Down in the galley the guys were putting their lunches away and planning their day of cleaning and maintenance, while Kelsey made his way past Dayton’s Bluff.

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Excerpt from the Pope’s Boat

Available Fall 2015

In August of 1981 after eight years working as a deckhand and a St. Paul harbor pilot aboard river towboats in the powerful currents and shifting channels of the mighty Mississippi River I thought I had met all sorts of water-borne critters but I never met anyone quite like the Pope.

The first time I met the Pope he had just pulled up to the house of a mutual acquaintance named Tim Carlson in Northeast Minneapolis. When the Pope opened the door of his ramshackle Mazda mini-pickup truck a small maritime museum spilled out onto the street. Before he introduced himself to me I offered to help him shove navigation charts, and several wooden blocks and a coil of braided rope back into the cab. Absolutely stuffed into the bed of the truck under a topper I could see sleeping bags, sail bags, toolboxes and assorted odd-looking pieces of wood varnished and rough. It was all stuffed in so tightly that it looked as though a sharp blow would cause the whole rig to explode.

Geoff Pope himself looked a lot like the overstuffed truck. He was rail thin, average height and topped with a shock of white hair over a toothy grin surrounded by a few days growth of whiskers. His chambray shirt was worn through at both elbows and the breast pockets were overflowing with bits of papers and pencils. He didn’t look much like the yacht club image of a sailor. He looked more like a carpenter. I would soon learn that he was both and much more. Nothing in his appearance hinted at his adventurous spirit except for the twinkle in his eyes.

Head Over Heels

That night I woke up to sounds of raucous laughter. I dropped from my bunk across from the now silent diesel engine and had to steady myself because the ship was heeled over and fairly bouncing over the waves. At the open hatchway to the cockpit I looked up at a night blacker than I had ever seen; full of stars twinkling like the proverbial diamonds.

I clambered up the stairs and found myself standing in front of Val and Laurie steering the boat under full sail. The Mizzen sail was billowed out behind them and they were laughing gaily. The Sheila Yeates was galloping through the night like a runaway horse. I looked up again and nearly bumped my head on a star. Never had I been so far away from civilization that the stars seemed inches away from my face. Unconsciously I reached up to try and touch one or brush them aside. I laughed a bit myself.

Back in the corner of the cockpit I stretched out and let my eyes adjust to the dark. Off to the port side I soon could make out the darker shape of land that made up the south side of Georgian Bay. There were some navigation lights flashing in slow rhythm miles ahead and behind us.

With my head resting on my clasped hands I sat back and looked at the night sky again. “This sure beats hell outta towboatin’. It’s nice and quiet. No criss-crossing searchlights looking for buoys, cut-banks and trees floating’ down the middle of the channel. And no stinking diesel smoke! Yup a guy could get used to this.” I said to myself. Against the star-jammed indigo night the motion of the boat swishing through the dark water gave the sensation of traveling through space itself.

This was the beginning of a fascination with the relationship between wind and sail trim. I was more than a little in awe of the power with which those large pieces of cloth could pull that thirty-ton boat through the water. I have never gotten complacent in my appreciation for the way a boat can shoulder through the waves and pull herself forward by harnessing the air moving past.

Pretty soon Geoff woke up to the ruckus and came up on deck. The ladies had been the only ones on watch. Geoff had set the sails and turned in along with the previous watch. The winds had freshened and the boat heeled over quite a bit more. He hurried around in his briefs and T-shirt adjusting sail easing the sheets. He smiled at us and took one last look around before going back to bed.

After seven or eight seasons on the river pushing barges at an almost imperceptible pace, diesels belching black thick smoke, the constant whine of turbochargers assaulting your hearing causing stress to hearing and sanity, this silent power was majestic.

Slow Boats and Fast Water

From the 2013 St. Paul Almanac

Early in the morning on June 21, 2007, my son Cullen encountered a rowing scull, crewed by five young women in the Saint Paul Harbor and pinned by a heavy current of the Mississippi River. This crew team had misjudged the current and was trapped against the Padelford wharf barge.

Cullen was a crew chief on the Betsey Northrup at Harriet Island that morning and
getting ready for a charter. Caterers were preparing food in the galley and setting tables on
the lower deck. Bartenders were stocking the bar and cleaning the boat. Cullen was moving
between the engine room of Ugh the Tug and the Betsey, keeping the Northrup crew on task.
Outside the river was rising with a strong, swift current.

At one point in his work, Cullen glanced upstream through the main deck windows.
There he saw a rowing scull hugging the bank above the Padelford wharf barge. The crew
seemed to be struggling to maneuver the craft away from the bank. Nearby, a small
outboard-powered chaperone boat was following the scull, and it too appeared to be
confused. While Cullen watched, the scull continued to flounder.

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Stayin’ Safe on the River: Big Boats and Right-of-Way


A large commercial vessel would have a hard time steering around or stopping for a fallen water-skiier.

One of the most unnerving things a river pilot can see is a small pleasure boat disappearing from view in front of the bow. A rowing scull crew crossed my bow one day as I was maneuvering in high water to pass downstream through a railroad bridge. I threw all three main engines into reverse, but we were so close the barges wouldn’t even slow down. Within seconds the scull disappeared from view in front of my front barge, 600 feet ahead.

Fortunately for those eight men, they realized their mistake just in time to accelerate to a speed they had never before achieved. Lonnie, the bridge tender, hailed me on the radio to say they had been so close to being run over that the coxswain could have touched that barge.

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Call Her Captain


Dawn and Andrew relax on the porch of Toad Hollow.

There is a small community of live-aboards at the marinas up here in St. Paul. One of them is a tough young woman who has faced the challenges and learned to love the life and the tough times.

Dawn Brodey has earned the title of captain. Last year she and her partner, Andrew Melby, piloted her 43-foot Nautaline houseboat, The Road, to the Gulf of Mexico to put it up for sale. From Watergate Marina in St. Paul they traveled the length of the Upper Mississippi River, took a left at the Ohio River then followed the Tenn-Tom waterway to Mobile Bay.

Dawn has lived aboard a houseboat at Watergate for going on eight years, including seven Minnesota winters. When she sold The Road she and Andrew moved into a two-story houseboat also in Watergate, the newly remodeled Toad Hollow.

As far back as she can remember, Dawn wanted to live on a houseboat. Her family had limited means, so vacations were always camping trips. The summer she was four years old, her dad presented the family with a plan to rent a houseboat on a lake. Four-year-old Dawn thought he was nuts, but when she saw photographs of the boat she was hooked.

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