by John van Vliet
In the morning, as I point my sailboat’s slender bow out past the breakwater at the Lake City Marina, the old diesel engine putt-putt-putting below my feet, there is no wind. Ampersand, my vintage 38-foot sloop, wrinkles her own reflection across the flat-calm steel-gray surface of the broad Lake Pepin. Six miles to the east, I can make out the rooftops of the town of Pepin; to the north, the tiny village of Stockholm lies nestled in a shadowed fold of the high limestone bluffs. The calm of mornings like this belies the wind at noon.
Ampersand is the first sailboat on the lake today, but others will join her soon. Waiting for wind, the other sailors are more patient than I. But I am not just out to sail; the calm before the wind is the time when I can watch the morning come to this widening of the Mississippi River. Rafts of ducks lift into the slanting rays of morning sun coming over the bluffs. A solitary heron trails his gangly legs through the air in slow-motion flight. A gang of raucous gulls dip and quarrel over a dead fish floating in the scum. I kill the engine. The current here isn’t strong enough to carry me down the lake very quickly, so I drift. My ears ring with the sudden silence. But new sounds float across the water. Birds, of course, but other sounds too: the thump of an oar against an unseen fishing boat, a distant train whistle, voices.
I am drifting on this windless lake this morning because of another boatman who passed through this lake, down this broad brown river, and into my consciousness many years before: on the morning of October 31, 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression and far too late in the season, a young aspiring poet named Clarence Jonk piloted his homebuilt houseboat, the Betsy-Nell, onto Lake Pepin.
“On entering the lake proper,” he wrote in his 1965 memoir, River Journey, “I was immediately impressed by its great width. There was no narrow channel here through which to guide oneself tensely. The Betsy-Nell had a big pasture to roam in, and I had no intention of watching her closely.”
His inattention would prove costly.
Lashed precariously atop eighty-eight empty oil drums, Jonk’s houseboat was never designed for river travel. Built on a quiet lake north of St. Paul as a means of avoiding paying rent on land, it was merely a tiny floating house, a writer’s studio and an attempt to stave off the wretched poverty of the Great Depression. But despite his efforts to appease the shoreline landowners, who found his Bohemian lifestyle scandalous, he and his Betsy-Nell were promptly evicted from the lake. Uncertain where to go, he decided to haul his houseboat through the streets of Minneapolis to the Mississippi River. He affixed a brace of Model T engines – but no rudder – and set off naively for New Orleans. By the time he arrived at the head of Lake Pepin, he’d encountered sinister moonshiners, been chased out of an apple orchard by an angry farmer, illicitly milked a stranger’s cow, murdered a woodsman’s hen, and poached several luckless pheasants. Times were hard. But his toughest days lay ahead; Lake Pepin would exact a toll.
“I do not know what caused me to look down at last,” Jonk recalled. “But when I did I was nonplused. Not a sign of a ripple ran away from our bow! When I looked to the rear I saw the propellor was turning up yellow mud from the lake’s bottom. I must have gotten off course and run onto a narrow bar. What seemed incredible to me was that we were surrounded by miles of water. Yet we were quite stuck for all that!”
He’d run the Betsy-Nell straight onto Sawdust Bar, a hazard still recognizable to any modern river rat. And after spending hours coaxing the houseboat back into the deeper channel, he discovered his recently added rudder was jammed, further delaying his downstream progress. Instead of reaching Lake City that day as planned, Jonk and his Betsy-Nell limped into Old Frontenac – and into the bitter month of November.
I look up the lake toward Old Frontenac and the deceptive curve of Point-No-Point, and notice a “cat’s paw” of ripples moving across the surface of the water. A breeze is stirring. As if on cue, a pair of sailboats round the Lake City breakwater. I ready my lines, but leave the sails furled. I down the last of my coffee. If I’ve guessed the wind correctly, I’ll have my hands full soon.
I’d discovered Clarence Jonk’s river memoir on the bottom shelf of my local branch of the St. Paul Library when I was 15 years old. I’d been dropped off at the library by my mother to research some homework project I’ve long since forgotten, and got distracted by the Geography and Travel section. Joshua Slocumb was there, in his round-the-world-single-handed sloop Spray; as was the misanthropic travel writer Paul Theroux; and Eric Sevareid, who’d paddled from Minnesota to Hudson Bay in a canoe at age 17. And with them on the shelf stood Clarence Jonk’s hapless yet lyrical River Journey. Published in 1965, it bore only a cartoon-like illustration of a houseboat on the cover. But as soon as I began reading (when I should have been doing my homework), I was hooked. Jonk’s narrative read like a thrilling adventure and a romance novel, his boundless enthusiasm and eloquent words obscuring the clear evidence that he had, from the moment he laid the first board on the Betsy-Nell, made a litany of errors and miscalculations that followed him in his wake. And although each of the travel writers I’d discovered on that bookshelf had an influence on my life, it was Jonk who inspired me to push off from the shore and find my freedom on the water.
Determined to make my own river journey, I used my earnings from my high school job at a grocery store to build my first kayak, a spruce-and-canvas Folbot, which I planned to paddle solo down the Mississippi River. Sitting on a toolbox in my parent’s garage, staring at my kayak under construction, I dreamed of how I would navigate Lake Pepin. I was sure I would avoid the mistakes Jonk made.
But when my father got wind of my plans, I was forbidden to go. I never made the kayak trip down the Mississippi. But when I turned eighteen, I lashed the kayak to the top of my truck and set off for Alaska. I would save the Mississippi for another day. But I never forgot Jonk’s wonderful memoir. And then, more than a quarter century later, I decided to bring his little gem of Mississippi River lore back into print. I tracked down Clarence Jonk’s charming daughter, Ginger, who was born aboard the Betsy-Nell, and, working with the editors at the Minnesota Historical Society Press, began the process of securing permission to re-publish River Journey in the fall of 2003. And I convinced William Least Heat-Moon, another influential travel writer and no stranger to river travel, to write the introduction.
Having arrived at last in Lake City, Jonk lingered, waiting for a favorable wind to blow him and his houseboat down the lake and help him conserve his precious fuel. But the frigid pre-dawn wind into which he cast off and motored two days later turned into a winter storm, accompanied by a driven snow and angry, rolling waves. Jonk was well aware of the 1890 Sea-Wing sinking, the worst maritime disaster on the Mississippi to this day, on a storm-whipped Lake Pepin. Mariners often use the word “fetch.” Webster’s dictionary defines it as “the distance along open water over which the wind blows” and “the distance traveled by waves without obstruction.” At more than twenty-two-miles long and nearly two miles wide, the fetch of Lake Pepin, the largest natural lake on the entire Mississippi River, with its relatively shallow depth, persistent current, and southeast orientation, means the waves can stack up quickly and dangerously when the November winds howl unhindered out of the northwest. And as his houseboat lurched wildly from side to side, he feared he might become another victim of Lake Pepin’s notoriously foul moods. Nearly paralyzed with fear and hypothermic at the helm, he managed to steer the Betsy-Nell blindly across the chaotic lake and down to where the Chippewa River flows in, just below the town of Pepin. There he dropped anchor, cold and soaked and exhausted. He’d made it safely down the lake at last.
Lake Pepin was more than a mere backdrop to Jonk’s memoir; it was a breathing character, a lovely seductress and a fierce antagonist that delayed him in his journey just long enough to put its success tantalizingly, heartbreakingly out of reach. Like the river itself, Jonk lingered in the broad high-walled valley, charmed by its river towns, enchanted by its scenery. A river’s sojourn. Who could blame him?
Jonk’s timing was significant in another way; less that two years later, the lock and dam authorized by congress in 1930 and under construction roughly forty miles downstream at the rivertown of Alma — even as Jonk navigated his houseboat onto the mudflat at the head of the lake — would close, taming the wild river forever.
The wind is building now. The lake is a tapestry of sunlit waves. Other sailboats dot the water like swans. I have unfurled the headsail, bright white with a navy blue trim, and winched it taut. Ampersand heels over, and the power of the nine-ton boat surges through the helm in my hands. I can’t help but smile. The lake that punished Clarence Jonk, rewards me with an afternoon of sailor’s delight.
Lake Pepin is never the same lake twice; but it is always Lake Pepin.
John van Vliet is the author of more than a dozen books. His writing has appeared in the New York Times and other publications. He divides his time between his 38-foot sailboat, Ampersand, and his 37-foot fifth-wheel, Far Niente. You can follow his adventures through his YouTube Channel, For Travel’s Sake.