Houseboat offers new perspective
Following the path of the voyageurs, with a few more amenities.
VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK, Minn. - The boat lurched and slowed. My husband, at the helm below, called up to me: "I have no idea where we are."
That's remarkable - not simply because he admitted he was lost, but because we had been out on Namakan Lake all of 15 minutes. And Paul has the sense of direction of a homing pigeon.
From my aerie on the houseboat's sun deck, I called: "Oh, no!" Silently, I added: "Yay!"
We were sailing around Minnesota's Voyageurs National Park - on the border with Ontario - for a week on a rented houseboat because, well, it was payback time. I'd schlepped my husband all over the world in search of exotic experiences. He'd been a good sport, but now it was his turn. He wanted to visit a national park.
And we could take our small dogs, Sadie and Ben. Most national parks don't allow dogs on hiking trails. But Voyageurs is the one U.S. national park that can really be explored only by water, as 84,000 of its 218,000 acres are lakes and waterways.
The park runs along Ontario's border for 55 miles and includes the route used by the voyageurs - French-Canadian canoeists who shuttled goods between the Canadian Northwest and Montreal during the fur trade of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Anywhere you have prime houseboating conditions - lakes, canals, slow-moving bodies of water - you'll find houseboat rentals. And prices were extremely reasonable by mid-September after the summer high season. We rented a 42-foot boat, which slept five, for about $900.
The one drawback: no electricity. And my husband wouldn't even consider renting a generator: too noisy and expensive.
I was panic-stricken. My laptop! My digital camera! My cell phone - well, that wouldn't be an issue, since there was no reception in the area. What would I do for a whole week? I don't fish, swim or sail.
I don't even bask. I multitask.
"Can you see any signs on that island?" Paul shouted. I looked around - there were islands everywhere. Was this really a lake? I panned with my binoculars.
No signs. But there were four cormorants standing on a rock, all facing the same way, feathers riffling in the wind. A few other boats.
Pine trees, shooting straight out of rocks, towering tops swaying. And there, atop one, a splotch of white.
I clambered down into the cabin, and pointed Paul's gaze toward the treetop.
Fifteen minutes, and we'd gotten lost. Sixteen minutes, and we'd found a bald eagle.
This might be an adventure after all.
We pulled into our camp by early afternoon. Sadie leapt out before we could put out the gangplank, splashed into the water and just kept going. Benji remained with his ship until coaxed ashore.
The first order of business was a reconnaissance hike along the island's perimeter. From above, our little houseboat looked fabulous, nestled next to glacier-sculpted rock, just water and wilderness all around.
Red berries dripped the vestiges of the previous night's rain; the ground was strewn with pine needles, soft and muffling as the cloud-choked sky. We sat on a rock and inhaled the sticky scent of pines.
Benji, unfortunately, had caught a whiff of storm and crawled into my lap, shaking. Time to retreat to home-sweet-floatable home, where all that elusive leisure time waited.
I decided I should write. I had brought a notebook and pens. I went outside and sat on a rock. The blank page waited for ink. I waited for muses.
Then I noticed a fat orange mushroom standing stalwart in the weeds. I went over, bent down, then knelt in the wet grass to get a close look. Subtle red dots emerged then, and in places the skin was cracked and curled, exposing the pale yellow mushroom insides.
I walked around it and noticed tiny white flowers where I'd only seen grass before. And a pair of dragonflies, with iridescent bodies and transparent wings, resting in a nearby bush.
Fascinated by this tiny universe, I lingered 20 minutes before going another few steps.
I returned to the houseboat an hour later, having walked about 300 yards. I opened the notebook and tried to write it all down.
It rained and rained. Unable to go sightseeing, we sight-listened: The splash against the shoreline, the chirping and cheeping, wet branches groaning in enormous tall pines that use wind like a comb to brush away the torpor.
A lone woodpecker kept up a stalwart clonk-clonk-clonking on a nearby tree. I went out and watched her, drenched in the downpour, furiously drilling until 15 minutes had gone by and she'd gotten to the bugs.
A small reminder: Keep your eye - or your beak - on what matters.
For dinner, Paul made miso soup from a package and added peas from a can. We popped Jiffypop on the stove and sat down to dinner by candlelight.
By the time we had finished, night had come completely. Beyond the window, all was deep black: not a moon, not a star, not a light. It was time to crack out the short stories.
We huddled around the kitchen table, the dogs turning blanketlike over our laps. Paul pulled the candle closer, and chose a story by the flickering light.
And the tale of Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat" unfolded like a movie before us.
The weather wasn't glorious, but good enough for cruising, we decided, ignoring the whitecaps and wind we'd been warned about.
Within minutes, it began to rain. Then waves began slapping at the underside of the boat. Soon the front of the boat was rising out of the water entirely and crashing down hard on the waves.
I snagged the dishwashing soap midair and tried collecting skittering silverware that had flown out of what I thought was a well-shut drawer.
And then we heard a bang as the door of the screened porch at the front of the boat slammed open. Water was surging in, leaving no indication where the lake ended and our boat floor began. Paul was wrestling the wheel, so it was up to me to deal with the crisis. I pulled the sliding glass door to the porch full open and rushed into the churning water, already up to my calves.
Slogging my way across the room, I leaned with all my might against the door, finally shoving it shut.
Now we knew what the little hole in the corner of the porch floor was for.
Time went slowly, and too fast. Little things became big. An inadvertently locked bathroom door was good for an hour's entertainment.
A bald eagle's presence was Paul's birthday surprise. A spider's industrious weaving left us awestruck, once more, by nature.
We took the motorboat out to explore the smaller inlets.
Unfortunately, neither of us had paid attention when the man from the rental office showed us how to get the motor into the water. Also unfortunately, the boat was equipped with just one oar.
Still, Paul did a commendable job of rowing, and we drifted slowly into tall grass and webs of lily pads. In the stillness came the occasional mystery plop in the reeds, a laugh-cry of a loon, the meowing of a catbird. And the whine of a speedboat's motor, eventually fading away.
No need for watches; we could tell time by pink wavelets we left in our wake, and the coming of the mosquitoes.
Finally! A clear night. Stars appeared, first one by one, then in massive, shimmering sprays. Paul set up blankets and pillows on the roof-deck, and we looked up into the velvet black for shooting stars.
Then we noticed, toward the horizon, a glow. I sat up and squinted. It was moving, undulating. And turning colors. The northern-lights show had begun.
For an hour or more we watched the spectacle of rushing, streaming light, ripples of green and purple dancing in the darkness. We could hardly believe what we were seeing.
But there it was, with the occasional shooting star skittering through.
At first I thought this trip would get boring. Now I wanted more time out here in our little floating home - remembering how little we really need. And how much we are missing.
You don't need boating experience to rent a houseboat. Your rental agent will give you instructions in how to navigate, as well as how to operate everything on your boat.
Houseboats range from about 30 to 120 feet, sleeping three to 12 or more. Most rental houseboats are in the 40- to 70-foot range.
Where to boat. Think lakes and canals, and in almost every state. A good source to begin your houseboating adventure is www.DiscoverHouseboat