Welcome to boathouse island

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Latsch Island in Winona, Minnesota, is home to about 120 boathouses // Photo by Aaron Davidson, The Growler

The view from the Highway 43 bridge that crosses from Winona into Wisconsin is pristine: muddy blue-brown channels and green islands decorate the Mississippi River as it flows past Winona’s historic downtown. On Latsch Island, situated on the Minnesota side of the river border, there are several fixtures along the beach just next to the bridge. An exit ramp denotes a marina and city park, but doesn’t reference the unique boathouse community floating just below—a collection of ramshackle shanties and custom-built structures that float, pontoon-style, in the water, just minutes from the city of 27,000.

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The boathouse community has roughly 120 homes with limited amenities, merging the tiny-house trend with an off-the-grid spirit. Latsch Island itself is a city park, and boathouses pay a mooring fee to the city for the right to tether their homes to the shoreline. The community goes back generations, facing the threat of removal every decade or so. Oral history says the boathouses started during the Great Depression, but it’s imprecise—the record of area floods is more detailed than its history of habitation.

“I was born right there,” says Moses Simon, a student at Southeast Technical in Winona, pointing at a kitchen table inside his floating house. It has been fully remodeled since, including the addition of a bedroom loft. “My parents were the first ones to have electricity because I was born here,” he says, noting how the community has changed since 1989. “Everyone came over to look at the one little light bulb—‘Oh, that’s too bright, that’s too much,’” he laughs. While there have certainly been improvements, electricity remains minimal within the community. And there is still no running water.

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Boathouses on Latsch Island // Photo by Aaron Davidson, The Growler

Residents carry supplies (including water) to their homes by boat in summertime and along an “ice road” in the winter. Cell phones and solar panels have impacted life on the island, but electricity is still reserved for essentials—first and foremost is basic lighting, powered by solar installations, generators, and battery packs. Propane powers Simon’s refrigerator and stove, with a wood furnace in the center of his 240-square-foot home. The door to his furnace once cracked during a subzero winter and he had to fight the elements until he could solder a new plate to the unit. That same winter, he had a foul encounter with a frozen pump toilet, one of his worst memories of boathouse.

“My grandpa is a total river rat, my dad is a river rat, and so it carries through me,” says Anna Davis, who has birthed both of her children in her own boathouse, which is 700 square feet and two stories tall. Her father, a DNR employee, first bought it for her brother, who now owns another boathouse on the island. Her 13-year-old daughter Moxie is already looking ahead to continuing the tradition. “I think these guys will eventually take over the house,” Anna says while showing off her deck as her children frolic near the river. Moxie interrupts. “I am going to,” the teenager says definitively, before pointing to a nearby bed of weeds. “I found a muskrat!”

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Boathouses on Latsch Island // Photo by Aaron Davidson, The Growler

Life on a boathouse is alternately private and public. “Boats will come right up next to you,” peering in windows and gawking at the unusual buildings, Simon says. And if people don’t respect the no wake zone, it can cause larger issues than a lack of privacy. “You’re trying to relax and a gazillion speed boats zoom past,” Davis muses. “It rocks your house, knocks items off shelves.”

Natural elements, too, effect the rhythm of boathouses. When a sunken barge was removed from the river, Davis says, it changed the river flow, forcing her to move her house farther from the shoreline. Spring floods and winter freezes also dictate her environment.

Boathouses on Latsch Island have always been seen as an alternative lifestyle, a way to live cheaply. But it takes a unique and determined mindset to make it work. While some boathouses are expensive and modern, others, like Simon’s, are made of mostly found materials. Those materials are often untreated and decay faster, he says, making repairs an almost constant chore.

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Boathouses on Latsch Island // Photo by Aaron Davidson, The Growler

The challenges accompanying such a rustic, piecemeal home seem normal to Simon, who grew up on the river, but they came as a bit of a surprise to his fiancée, who moved in with him as they saved for a house in town, he says. “My fiancée got here end of May and it was flooded through July. That was quite a shocker,” he remembers. “She doesn’t have that great of boat skills so she’d get stuck or couldn’t paddle up.”

Latsch is known for a cast of characters, people who took to the water for various reasons. The boathouses are as unique as their owners. “Every boathouse is a different shape,” Davis explains. “You have to tailor it to your shoreline. Not everyone is set up the same because the river is different and very dynamic.”

Those shapes and styles range from a geodesic dome built in 1969 to a converted paddleboat—aka Simon’s next-door neighbor. Simon points to another neighbor’s unit as an additional example, a firm, new building. “It’s very heavy,” he says, noting that it was built by a local Amish community. “They’re not used to building on water.”

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Boathouses on Latsch Island // Photo by Aaron Davidson, The Growler

The eccentric and varied community is a mix of professionals, artists, and drifters. Many on the island are travelers, working jobs like the Renaissance Fair and returning to the boathouse between work seasons. Others work in Winona and live on the island year round. Roughly 10 percent, or 10–20 homes, are occupied year-round.

“It’s a little more artsy than other river communities,” Davis says. “In the ’90s, it was like a rebirth of the ’60s, that free expression type of thing,” adds Simon. In addition to the diversity of life paths and careers present on the river, the community also includes a mix of personality types: some extroverted, others extremely reclusive. On any given day you’ll find people reading, tending their wooden walkways, playing with dogs, and drinking malt liquor outside their homes. Some are friendly, others reserved. Some fall into a high income bracket, others are mostly unemployed.

“For the most part it’s a pretty balanced mix of self-reliant, eccentric old timers, and the younger generation seeking a retreat from the rat race,” says Gerty Tonjum, who moved into the aforementioned dome-shaped house in 2006, buying it from the original owner. But even as new owners come in and keep the boathouse culture alive, every decade or so the community faces threat of removal from political forces, arguing private use of public land. To protect themselves, residents formed the Winona Boathouse Association in 1991, a non-profit body that works with the city on legal protection as well as providing essentials like a dumpster, port-a-potties for waste removal, and a boat dock. The relationship has been mostly smooth in recent years.

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Boathouses on Latsch Island // Photo by Aaron Davidson, The Growler

Even though Latsch Island has been around for generations, to newcomers, it feels like a new concept. “My first reaction [to Latsch Island] was somewhat fearful,” says a light-hearted Dave Ellsworth, associate professor of film and media studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, who encountered the community on a canoe trip in 1993. “’Wow, these people are kind of hardcore,’ was my first impression,” he says. “I was coming from New York City and I wasn’t sure what their reaction would be. When we went to the cabin, it was missing a barrel so a corner of the shack was partially underwater and we were up on the other part of it. It was cool and sketchy at the same time, which I thought was pretty fun.”

He returned to the island in 2002, to film the documentary “Time, And the River.” While there, he was mostly embraced by the subjects for his film, although he recalls getting a few “stink eyes” along the way.

Generations, populations, politics, the river, and island itself continually ebb and flow. “It fluctuates like any neighborhood,” Tonjum says. “It’s constantly changing, and it doesn’t change,” says Solomon Simon, who passed his boathouse to his son Moses. “This is probably the most dynamic spot on the planet […] It changes a lot, but in a very predictable manner. You live with the changes, in concert with the river,” he says.

For the boathouses of Latsch Island, where life on the river can mean floods, ice, or low water each year, change is the only constant.

 
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