Don’t worry about packing or planning. Just clear your calendar, hit the highway, dive in, and relax.
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Romancing The River
Adventure and amour are plentiful along the Mississippi’s most picturesque expanse
By Tim GihringIF YOU’RE LUCKY, someday you will find yourself in Lake City, standing outside a trailer home. If you’re very lucky, you will not be wearing pants. Instead, you will be dressed as my girlfriend and I were—in swimsuits and windbreakers—waiting for your luxurious sailboat ride on Lake Pepin and wondering how trailers, even in a park as neatly kept as this one beside the marina, can remain in the midst of such beauty.
And yet they do, because Minnesotans are programmed to head north in the summer instead of south, missing out on what are likely the 25 prettiest and quirkiest miles of the Mississippi River. The shoreline remains remarkably free of cabins, resorts, and other venues catering to people determined to have fun; not a single Waverunner or wakeboard breaks the lake’s silence. In a place where you must create your own entertainment, my girlfriend and I figured, we could learn something about the real Minnesota, and perhaps about each other.
Photo by Mary Thull
Two captains, David Sheridan and Jay Luck, offer private cruises on Lake Pepin, in large, sleek sailboats that make Jet-Skis feel like bath toys. Sheridan has the windblown look of someone who prefers to experience life at a brisk 7 knots or above. All that’s required of his guests, he tells us, is to “Keep the water out and the people in. After that, most sins are forgiven.” On our tour, Sheridan explains why this bulge in the Mississippi is considered a lake: The current slows down here, significantly. He also introduces us to the thrill of heeling: When the boat dips far to the side, it’s the perfect opportunity to wrap your arms around your sweetheart. (She needn’t know it’s mostly for ballast.)
On Luck’s boat, we learn the graciousness of sailing. Luck’s sailing partner, Lori Love (Luck and Love were married this summer in perhaps the most auspicious wedding ever), brings out a bottle of wine and a tray of gourmet snacks. In addition, Love practices Lomi Lomi massage, a Thai-Hawaiian hybrid that guests can experience right on deck.
Jay Luck has a surprisingly dry sense of humor for a guy who’s spent his life on water. He takes kids out on pirate cruises, during which he flies the skull and crossbones, says Aaarr a lot, and offers water balloons to loft at passing (and presumably consenting) boaters. He loves to tell stories—like about the man who called to book a cruise and asked, “Do you mind if I bring a younger woman along?” Turns out the man was 96, his companion a spry 70. After the cruise, he told Luck it had been the best day of his life. Lying side by side on the teak, four sails flapping above us, my girlfriend and I find ourselves spouting similar cliches, like “There’s something about being on the water”—we’re simply speechless.
Photo by Mary Thull
The B&B is an old farmhouse, with walls more than a foot thick, impeccably decora-ted: photos of Ireland and Ely; furniture with clean, simple lines; and not a doily in sight. We sit awhile in each room, just because we can. And in the morning, Krebs returns to prepare a breakfast of muffins, melons, and raspberries. A former cyclist, he tells us he had once biked across the entire country. He has also been a bartender, a farmer, and, I later learned, a player in international real estate, particularly in the Caribbean. A rich life, or a series of dreams that became a life.
Over the course of the weekend, my girlfriend and I will get our share of exercise—renting bikes to ride the leafy Cannon Valley Trail, hiking through Frontenac State Park to peer at Lake Pepin from 450 feet up. But the most invigorating moment, perhaps, comes while we are sitting on a bench high above the farmhouse, alone in an enormous field. As the Mississippi meanders below, we contemplate Krebs’s path. We talk about his past and our futures, plotting, and we begin to understand the attraction of this bluff country. From up here, you can see the possibilities in life.
We are still plotting later that day when we arrive for an early dinner at the Harbor View Café, scoring the last table in a place as famous for its long lines as its from-scratch cooking. On the bookshelves lining the dining room, we notice a volume called The Decline of Pleasure. Having just devoured mahi-mahi and salmon (exquisitely cooked in parchment paper) and confessed further vacation dreams (her: sailing in the Mediterranean; me: having someone else sail us around the Mediterranean), I can only conclude that the author of Decline has never been to Pepin.
Photo by Mary Thull
If You Go
WHEN TO GODepending on how you feel about people in pioneer dress, Laura Ingalls Wilder Days, held September 8 to 9, is the time to visit Pepin or the time to avoid it. Fall is the best time to see the Mississippi River bluffs aglow with color.
WHERE TO STAYGreat River Bed and Breakfast. A unique B&B for solo travelers or couples who want the whole place to themselves. The owner returns in the morning to make a light breakfast. Stockholm, Wisconsin, 800-657-4756, www.greatriverbedandbreakfast.com
The Octagon House Bed & Breakfast. A classic B&B experience, with Victorian furnishings and a four-course breakfast. 927 W. Third St., Red Wing, 651-388-1778, www.octagon-house.com
WHAT TO DOSet sail. Based in Lake City on Lake Pepin, Jay Luck offers private couple cruises for $195, as well as group sunset cruises, pirate cruises for kids, day cruises, and longer expeditions. 612-868-8177, www.luckassociates.com. David Sheridan, based in Pepin, Wisconsin, does private couple cruises for $195. Group cruises, sunset and starlight cruises, and sailing instruction are also available. 715-442-4424, www.sailpepin.com
Peddle or paddle. Recreational rentals are available at Cannon Falls Canoe and Bike. 615 N. Fifth St., Cannon Falls, 507-263-4657, www.cannonfallscanoeandbike.com
Go for a dip. Welch Mill Canoeing and Tubing offers options for beating the heat, cooling your heels, or just drifting along while admiring the spectacular fall colors along the Cannon River. Welch, 651-388-9857, www.welchmillcanoeandtube.com
WHERE TO EATHarbor View Café: No credit cards, no reservations—and absolutely no regrets. The salmon, coq au vin, and other carefully prepared entrées at this now-classic café on the waterfront are just that good. 314 First St., Pepin, Wisconsin, 715-442-3893, www.harborviewpepin.com
Harbor Restaurant & Bar: This riverside roadhouse imports Jamaican cooks and servers every summer to create an island atmosphere, complete with jerk cooking and live music. N673 825th St., Hager City, Wisconsin, 715-792-2417, www.redwing.net/~harbor
Staghead Restaurant: It looks like an ordinary bar and grill, but serves such creative, high-quality entrées as salmon with curry and pork medallions in cherry sauce. 219 Bush St., Red Wing, 651-388-6581 MM
Tim Gihring is senior writer at Minnesota Monthly.