Rollin' on the Mighty Mississippi

Hokan Miller. Photo by Kelly Loverud.

The Mississippi River flows like the main artery of Minnesota: an industrial highway for bulk shipping (more than 175 million tons of freight shipped annually on the Upper Mississippi), a water source, and a hub for wildlife. Hokan Miller pilots a towboat on the river for a harbor service in St. Paul, pushing barges to terminals where they are unloaded during a shipping season that begins in the spring and typically lasts eight months.

“I grew up in Bayport on the St. Croix River, and spent a lot of time in canoes, rowboats, that sort of thing. Later I graduated to outboards, and also had access to sail and ice boats.” 

“When I finished college, I didn’t have a firm career path. Some friends of mine had gone to work on tow boats in St. Paul Harbor, so I did that—learning to become part of a crew, working 12-hour watches, feeling the flow of the river through the soles of my boots. I was good at it and enjoyed it, and I became licensed at a relatively young age. At 25 years old, I was able to pilot a U.S. Merchant Marine vessel on the Mississippi River.” 

“Each barge is 200 feet long, 35 feet wide, and contains 1,500 tons, so it’s heavy. When you’re learning, you don’t start off with a six-barge tow, you begin with a two-barge, then four, then you go to six, and you do it multiple times with someone else watching over you. It’s not rocket science, but if you hit something you’re going to break it.” 

“I’ve mostly worked the ‘lunch bucket boats,’ where you go home every night, as opposed to ‘line boats’ that travel from St. Paul to New Orleans. The work is much the same, though, a very human, hands-on activity. That’s where the word deckhand comes from—someone who works out on deck in all weather with their hands.” 

“There is a feeling of being separate from ‘life on the bank’ that sets you apart from people who work nine-to-five, five days a week, with weekends off. A towboat company I worked for allowed my wife and I to get married aboard one, and we’ve also lived on houseboats. The last one we had was 55 feet long with a pretty 38-foot cabin built of redwood. It had a steel hull and steel deck, and we had about 399 square feet—the size of a studio apartment. But when you live on a boat you know you’re going to be living in a small space. We loved the community of it and braved the flood of ’93, but the flood of ’97 forced us off the river when we lost utilities. We built a house up and out of the flood plain in 1999, but for a period of over 11 years, I spent 23 hours out of every day working and living on the water.”

“I like the upstream view of Minneapolis when the sun is coming up; it gets to looking like the Emerald City. On the St. Paul side, at Hidden Falls Park, the river is narrow and curving and tends to move a little faster. When I retire from active full-time employment, one of the things I will be working on is how to introduce more people to the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities. I’m very hopeful that an awareness of the river means that people are paying attention to it more and more, and thus treating the river better as years go by.”