The Hard Freeze

A local actress and writer describes living through nearly a decade of Minnesota winters on a houseboat—water shortages, endangered hull and all

If you decide to live on the water through the Minnesota winter, there are a lot of things to consider. Most important is how your hull will stack up against a hard freeze. You also need to figure out how to stay warm, where you’ll get fresh water, and how you’ll get rid of your sewage. A friend once compared it to living in an ice-fishing shack. That sounds about right, but with a greater risk of drowning.

The marina where I live, near the base of Fort Snelling, is away from the Mississippi’s current. The water freezes solid, and the resulting pressure on a fiberglass hull (such as that of my first boat, The Road—a name inspired by the Robert Frost poem about paths not taken) can cause serious, irreparable damage. I kept aerators—underwater propellers that churn the water—running almost constantly.  

The idea is that moving water doesn’t freeze. But when the temperature dropped below zero—which of course it did—I had to go outside and manually break up the ice every four to five hours, especially after the sun went down. It was a cold and dangerous ordeal of smashing the ice that had formed between dock and hull with a 30-pound steel pole, my mitten-clad hands fumbling, feet slipping on the snow-covered dock. I’d repeatedly thrust down toward the ice, knowing that if I fell in, I’d be too cold to scream— and that my clothes would drag me down before I could even try.

Three years ago, I moved with my boyfriend aboard a steel-hulled beauty called Toad Hollow that can be frozen in without hull damage. Instead of risking life and limb to keep the ice away, we can skate off her bow. The inside (about 950 square feet) is warm and cozy, with a wood-pellet furnace that looks and smells much like an old-fashioned fireplace. We can almost forget we’re embedded in four feet of ice—until several times a day, when the ice below will shift and crack. The sound can stop your heart: While you know it’s harmless, it could be the sound of your hull cracking in half.   

In the cold, we have to conserve and ration fresh water. Toad Hollow can only store 100 gallons in a tank that gets refilled about three times a month. Sometimes the temperature drops so low that the water freezes at the source, or in the process of being filled. When it does, we’re at a loss. Many mornings we emerge sleepy-eyed, with two-day unwashed hair. We drag gym bags everywhere, never knowing when we may be able to steal a face-wash or a shower from sympathetic friends or family. Even when the water tank is full and unfrozen, we count every drop. Not until May will we have the luxury of letting water run to get warm; even our dishwater is saved to flush the toilet.  

So why not spend the finest months aboard, then flee to the comfort of land in winter? Because the discomfort and the inconveniences are outweighed—again and again—by the beauty and awe of the river in winter, her powerful current brought to a halt and covered in glimmering flecks of diamond dust. The air so cold that halos appear around every source of light, including the brutal moon. Herds of deer, elusive in the summer, return to the quiet marina, along with the otters and coyotes.  

And when the season shifts again, the ice recedes and the geese return—and so do the cars, the noise, the people. Then, even lounging in the water on a hot July day, a heart swell reminds that this is merely a moment on a wider swing of the great pendulum, a temporary thaw.

Dawn Brodey is a Minnesota actress and writer.