From the water, it looked perfect. It was private, the inlet’s lone clearing carved into the northern Minnesota pines.
Plus, the site faced east, so if weather cooperated, morning would escort a brilliant sunrise reflected across the water. All we had to do was guide the 54-foot houseboat, our home for the week, into that strip of sand. The guys already had sped off who-knows-where to fish some of Voyageurs National Park’s 83,000 glacially carved liquid acres. That left the three of us ladies, thankfully under the guidance of our hired guide, Bob, to pull this off for the first time.
Jodi floored it, steering straight for shore. Top speed is only 8 mph, but it felt fast. From the front porch, Konnie and I monitored the looming land and yelled through the screen door into the kitchen/navigation center that she’s doing great! Right on target! The boat lurched against the bank. We cheered as Jodi popped it into neutral, more like a pro than the first-time boat driver she was. We hurled tie ropes to Bob onshore, then started to secure the boat for the night.
But the beauty of this place stopped us. Again. "It looks like a movie set, " Konnie marveled as the three of us stared out at the park’s characteristic landscape: water, sky and island upon rocky island teeming with slim pine trees. After barely a day, we’d learned two key lessons about houseboating here. One: The view does not get old. Two: It’s harder than we expected.
But who were we to complain about difficulties? We were on a rented $400,000 boat with a hot tub, four bedrooms and a square footage that’s a medium-sized bathroom away from equaling that of my home.
The voyageurs, the brave and rowdy French-Canadian canoemen for whom the park is named, never had it so good. They paddled handmade, birch-bark boats loaded with pelts when they used these same waters in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as North American fur traders.
The most direct route through this chain of lakes was their water highway. That route is now the border between Minnesota and Canada, which doubles as the park’s border for 55 miles. (For perspective, picture floating in the middle of a lake but requiring a different fishing license for either side of your boat.)
It’s all about water here. More than a third of Voyageurs’ 218,000 acres- are liquid, and the bulk of its land is Kabetogama Peninsula, accessible only by boat. People who want to experience the area as voyageurs did visit the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, southeast of the park. Those who want essentially the same thing but with a motor come here.
Kettle Falls Hotel
The next morning, there was our hoped-for sunrise, plus hot coffee and showers. We had a grueling day of relaxation ahead of us: hiking and visiting the Kettle Falls Hotel, a 95-year-old piece of history with rooms, a restaurant and a bar. These are this vacation’s two main excuses to set foot on land, and they’re best done by leaving your houseboat behind in favor of the faster, more navigable fishing boat.
When afternoon rolled around, it was sunny and in the 70s, an average high for August this far north, and it was just us and the houseboat. No work. No cell phone service. Lots of sky and water. Choices were wonderfully limited: Take the fishing boat out or take a nap? Play cards or play on the slide? (The water’s usually chilly, but when there’s a slide attached to your floating home, someone has to try it out.) The only option that resembled a stressor was moving the boat to another of the park’s first-come—first-served sites.
"There’s no schedule but your own, " says Billy Dougherty, who owns, with his family, Rainy Lake Houseboats. "Some people find a spot they like and chill out. Others like to see the whole park. If you see a cove and think, ’That looks nice, ’ just pull in and tie up. "
Billy knows and loves this park, where he started guiding at age 9. He even took his honeymoon on a houseboat here. One morning, he and another guide, Cody, took us all fishing in speedboats packed with gear. We each caught good-size walleye and northern, some too big to legally keep. When Jodi snagged a big old walleye, she not only touched it, she held it up for the camera. James smiled and shook his head. "I don’t even know you anymore, " he said.
Our final night, the sun sank as we recalled vacation high points from our rooftop deck. No surprise that Mukhiya’s involved catching big fish, but who could have known that Jodi would come to like "Outdoors? " Each of us had our reasons for falling in love with this remote place, a magical reality eraser (even with a hot tub just a breaker-switch away). We knew reality was waiting on shore. But for a little longer, it was just the six of us, in the middle of all this beauty, floating.
Starting the Trip
Some of the park’s roughly 250,000 annual visitors hike on trails that typically offer minimal mileage but maximum scenery. Others watch wildlife, bald eagle and loon sightings are common, and if you’re lucky, you’ll glimpse black bear, moose or a timber wolf, one of the Lower 48’s few. But the real draw at Voyageurs is fishing, anglers in the know come for the park’s renowned walleye, northern pike and smallmouth bass. However they enjoy this rugged waterpark, most overnight visitors use a cushy houseboat as a base.
This style seemed good for our mixed group. Konnie and Mukhiya met in Nepal, where both lived without electricity or running water. Then there are James and Jodi, whose standard response to talk of state parks and hikes was that she "doesn’t like Outdoors. " Clint and I fall in between. We’re no strangers to tent camping and lake bathing, but things start to get ugly after a few days without a real bed and fresh-ground coffee. We hoped the houseboat, an oasis of comfort in this primitive park, would satisfy all.
Day One started with a "brief" one-and-a-half-hour course on the boat. The rocking alone seemed like a lot to get used to, but then there was navigation, generator operation, hot tub maintenance, important information. We traded nervous glances until Jodi said, "It’s got to be hard to mess up or else they wouldn’t let us do it. " Good point.
It was also a relief that the couple hundred years between the voyageurs and us saw the development of two-way radios, nautical charts and an elaborate buoy system. Bob made us drive, so we’d be prepared to handle the boat without him. Wake-up call: This is not just tooling around the lake. About 500 islands and countless submerged reefs are scattered about the park’s 30-plus lakes, created by the push and pull of four rounds of glaciers. This makes for really beautiful terrain that is, for the first-timer, really hard to navigate. We stayed in the channel, marked by well-spaced buoys, to avoid getting lost or stumbling upon water that’s suddenly just a foot deep.
Thanks to Bob and to Jodi’s newfound boat-driving ability, the day ended safely at our perfect houseboat campsite. The guys found us after a successful outing. Mukhiya, who fishes obsessively since picking up the sport a few years ago, caught his biggest fish ever. He beamed as he cooked his catch over the campfire. Fat loons warbled right offshore. We sat on our boat’s porch and talked over beers into the evening-. (We didn’t even notice the rocking anymore.) It felt like we were alone in the park. "This is the best vacation ever, " James said as the moon rose and the stars shone.
GUIDES ARE GREAT, especially on the first day of your trip. They can answer the questions that will inevitably spring up as you get used to your large moveable home. Plus, they have lots of fishing gear and know all the best spots.
BE PREPARED, but don’t stress out about having anything you could possibly need on board. It feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere, but you can order many things via your two-way radio, and your houseboat company will deliver it by speedboat.
BRING BINOCULARS They’re great for spotting wildlife, and a necessity for hunting down the buoys that keep you on course.
KEEP KIDS BUSY Houseboats are popular with families, but it’s important to realize that unless you have a guide, moving the boat is easiest with at least two people concentrating on driving, map-reading and buoy-spotting. Make sure children are occupied so adults can navigate safely.
CONSIDER YOUR COMPANY Remember, you are literally on the houseboat for the majority of your stay. Even a big one can start to seem small after a few days.
(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: JULY/AUGUST 2005)