In Dubuque, river cruises are a source of fun and excitement for tourists and locals alike.
Behind the scenes, captains and crews navigate the Mississippi River, taking note of water levels, currents and river traffic as they journey through the water and the river’s system of locks and dams.
“Being a pilot, you’re learning and seeing things every single day that you’ve never experienced before,” riverboat Twilight Capt. Kevin Stier said. “The job is constantly challenging every single day.”
Whether they’re docked in Dubuque or passing through, there are many cruise ships that allow local residents to get out on the river.
The Riverboat Twilight and the Celebration Belle are old-timey tour boats that bring waves of tourists into the Port of Dubuque. The American Lady’s home dock is in the Dubuque Yacht Basin.
Based in LeClaire, Iowa, The Riverboat Twilight stops in Dubuque 65 times per year, carrying up to 149 passengers per voyage. Kevin Stier and his wife, Carrie Stier, own the business.
When the Riverboat Twilight journeys from LeClaire to Dubuque and back, Kevin is most often the one behind the 7-foot-wide wooden steering wheel.
The Celebration Belle, based in Moline, Ill., is a 750-passenger boat that stops for several days each month in Dubuque during the summer. The ship offers all-day cruises from LeClaire and to Moline, Ill., as well as shorter dinner, lunch and sightseeing trips.
The Celebration Belle is owned by the Schadler family. Owner Scott Schadler does everything from cooking to piloting the boat.
The American Lady offers one-and-a-half to two hour public tours and can be booked for private events, though longer cruises might be on the horizon this fall, general manager Brian Neis said. It often carries 90 to 135 passengers and loops up to Lock and Dam No. 11 and down to the Mines of Spain Recreation Area.
NEW MEETS OLD
Though the Celebration Belle and Riverboat Twilight have designs reminiscent of old-fashioned paddlewheel steamboats, both are modern vessels.
The Riverboat Twilight was designed by original owner Capt. Dennis Trone, a naval architect who once lived in Dubuque.
The Stiers both got their start working for Trone’s riverboat excursion company on the Illinois River. Kevin started as a deckhand on Trone’s Julia Belle Swain. Carrie started in the ticket sales booth.
In 2006, they bought the Riverboat Twilight.
“He drives the boat and I do the rest of it,” Carrie said.
The Riverboat Twilight is fueled by two diesel generators that generate electricity. Going upriver, it travels about 9 to 10 mph (about 8 knots). Downriver, it can reach 12 to 14 mph.
The Celebration Belle has two dining decks and two observation decks, as well as an elevator on board. Going upriver, it usually travels at 9 mph. Downriver it speeds up to 10.5 to 11 mph.
The American Lady resembles a more modern yacht. It is 70-feet long and 20-feet wide with two levels. It usually travels between 6 and 10 mph.
TRAVELING THE RIVER
On any given day, the volume of passengers can dictate the size of the crew on the Celebration Belle.
A crowd of 100 passengers necessitates a crew of around 10. On busier days, when passenger levels approach 400, the size of the crew can triple.
Though computers help, Schadler said that much of piloting the Celebration Belle is old-school.
“You have to look out and know the river,” Schadler said. “Most people think boats drive themselves, but out here you have so much to navigate. It’s a big responsibility to keep the boat running.”
The portion of the Mississippi River that flows through Dubuque is part of the 261-mile Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. Nature plays a prominent role in the cruise experience.
During one trip a week ago, Kevin said he saw 87 eagles. Schadler described seeing ducks, eagles, pelicans and herons, as well as deer swimming and on the shore.
“It’s getting to see the river the way that Mark Twain saw the river,” Kevin said. “We go through sections of the river where there’s 20-something miles or 30 miles and no houses. Your phones don’t work between Savanna and Bellevue.”
Neis rides on the American Lady every week.
“It’s just a job where you have the greatest surroundings you can possibly have,” Neis said, saying that the sun and the fresh air create a positive energy.
Neis said the passengers on the American Lady come from all over the world. At the company’s office there is a map with pins showing that the boat has had passengers from every continent except Antarctica.
Neis said that the American Lady is having an extremely busy season and recommended that potential passengers make reservations ahead of time.
“Many of our cruises are selling out,” he said.
In order to get a master inland captain’s license, one needs 360 days of experience. That can take years to achieve, and many do it through an apprenticeship.
“It’s like going to college,” Schadler said. “It takes three to five years. You have to put your time in.”
When Kevin Stier was in high school, he worked as a deckhand on the Julia Belle Swain, a classic steamboat built at Dubuque Boat & Boiler Works.
One summer, one of the pilots, whose main career was teaching, had to teach summer school. Trone brought Kevin in to the pilot house with him instead.
Kevin went to college, working on boats in the summer to help fund his education. Along the way, he earned his captain’s license. When Trone built the Riverboat Twilight, he asked Kevin to become its captain.
“My parents were very upset I think, that I went away and basically joined the circus and gave up my college career,” Kevin said. “I was studying geology and botany … but I went with the boat career.”
Historically, traveling along the river has come with some risks.
Old-fashioned steam boats ran aground regularly when water levels were low. Today, the river’s locks and dams control water levels.
“We’re having low water this summer and that low water is helped by the locks and dams because the locks and dams basically turned the river into a series of stairstep lakes from St. Louis all the way to St. Paul,” Kevin said.
Schadler said that the best part of sailing is being able to enjoy the peacefulness of the river.
“Anybody who comes to the Midwest, the first thing they want to do is see the Mississippi River,” Schadler said. “How many people can say, ‘I got to work every day floating down the Mississippi’?”