VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK
Rainy Lake, Minnesota
The Car Trip
With the two cars we were taking packed the night before, we completed our packing and struck out for our houseboat adventure in the remote wilds of Voyageurs National Park. Gigantic Rainy Lake is at the heart of Voyageurs. Straddling the border between northern Minnesota, near International Falls, and Ontario, Canada, Rainy Lake is immense, some 73 miles long.
Since the lake is so big and the vast majority of the southern shore of Rainy Lake is part of the undeveloped Voyageurs National Park, houseboating is the most practical way of exploring the wilderness park. After all, there isn't road access to the park, only water access.
We broke our 7-hour drive from St. Germain, Wisconsin, to Rainy Lake, Minnesota into two days. We need to reach the Northernaire Boat Rentals around 11 am or so to be ready to take command of our ship by noon. No one had the gumption to get up at 3 am, or 4 am and drive 7 hours, so instead, we left St. Germain the day before around 10:40 am for a leisurely drive to Bemidji, Michigan, to stay at a Quality Inn.
This is probably a good time to introduce ourselves. My name is David Zuege, and I am recently retired and eager to explore the world along with my semi-retired wife, Wanda. We live on twenty-seven acres on the Plover River near Stevens Point, Wisconsin. My older sister, Diane and her husband, Heinrich, live in Germany but enjoy summers in St. Germain, Wisconsin. In turn, we visit them in Europe, but that is another story to tell. They have been retired for a few years and are teaching us how to let go of responsibility. We seem to be quick learners.
On the drive to Bemidji, Michigan, we stopped off at a wayside for a welcoming picnic lunch. Diane is the best at putting together meals for all types of trips; RV trips, car trips, boat trips, and international visits. Today, we enjoy her famous potato salad and Dagwood ham sandwiches. As a European, Diane is picky about the quality of bread, meats, cheeses, and sauces. Only the best-of-the-best go into her picnic baskets and today was no exception.
Rounding out our houseboat party was a former employee of Heinrich. Martin is only in his 30s and was eager to leave his home in Germany for some R & R for a few weeks and houseboating was just the thing. Our day ends with a walk around Bemidji's shore-walk and a comfortable night's sleep at Quality Inn.
VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK
NORTHERNAIRE HOUSEBOAT #26
Boarding Our Houseboat Rental
Up at 6 am to partake in Quality Inn's continental breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage, pastries, yogurt, cereal, and coffee. The most fun part for us was making goof-proof waffles pouring batter from a measured dispenser unto a hot waffle iron and a timer to make perfect waffles. After hitting Wal-Mart to pick up a couple of forgotten items, we headed north-northeast for Rainy Lake, Minnesota. Google Maps pegged the Northernaire Houseboat rental service at 120 miles.
The day was predicted to be sunny and warm, but the ride there was cloudy and misty. It was still so when we arrived at 10:15 am. We were a bit early, as customers are not allowed to take possession of the boat until noon. However, we could unload our things on the dock next to Houseboat #26, our 42' floating home for the next few days.
We bought three 72-hour non-resident Minnesota fishing licenses for $37 each. All houseboats must tow a smaller boat with a motor. Northernaire provides a large aluminum rowboat, but we either had to rent a boat motor or bring our own. We brought my old eight-hp Johnson motor that I hadn't run in years started right up. We put the motor on the rowboat and hooked it up to the houseboat tow bar.
At noon after we loaded our gear into the houseboat, a local high school kid ran us through an orientation. With a checklist in hand, he showed us how to run all the systems. We were RV owners, so Heinrich and I had no problem following along. Finally, our young instructor fired up the engine and took us away from the dock before he turned the wheel over to me to drive. As we successfully navigated our way past four or five channel buoys, he jumped into a chase boat and wished us luck. We were on our own for the next few days.
VOYAGEUR NATIONAL PARK
Rainy Lake at Voyageur National Park straddles Minnesota and Ontario for 73 miles. It is vast, and while blessed with large areas of deep open water, there are many rocky shoals and reefs offering plenty of opportunities to re-arrange an outboard motor's lower-end. Northernaire gave us a ring binder of large laminated navigation maps and requested that we stay within the marked buoys. While this limited us somewhat, it still offered us plenty of boating and spectacular scenery.
#26 THE ADVENTURER
Northernaire has a fleet of some 15 houseboats varying from 32' to a 60' behemoth. Our boat, the 42' Adventurer, had seen better days in its 30 years. But everything functioned properly, the floor plan was efficient, and the rig proved to be seaworthy. The maps showed 70 (ish) designated mooring sites. Earlier, I had inquired if it would be difficult to find an open site. The owner assured me that with his fleet of 15 boats, his competitor's fleet of 10 boats, and a handful of private houseboats, there were plenty of sites for everyone.
Handling of the boat turned out to be quite tricky. The problem is that the boat doesn't want to track straight. It tends to wildly yaw right and left leaving the operator endlessly swinging the wheel back and forth to chase an elusive straight path. I have a pilot's license and used to own and fly various small aircraft including a homebuilt gyrocopter. I had learned how not to overcorrect when wind and turbulence buffeted at altitude. It took all my experience not to overcorrect this steering issue with this houseboat and was finally able to track semi-straight but never perfectly. Throughout the trip, we occasionally passed other houseboats going in the opposite direction. It was fun watching them swing right and left as they approached. In the wide-open spaces it wasn't a problem, but in the narrow channels, it could get a bit hairy. You just hoped that they zigged while you zagged.
When it was time to start supper, Diane noticed that the water wasn't working. All she was getting was air when she turned on the faucets. It turns out that water is pumped straight out of the lake, which explains the 6 gallons of fresh drinking water found in the galley. We contacted the "base" using the onboard radio to report our problem and were told that they would come out first thing in the morning to check it out. In the meantime, Martin jumped back in the water to look for the water intake himself. We quickly discovered that the intake pipe had disconnected from the water pump. We don't know how we didn't lose the pipe along the way, but here it was so we reconnected it and figured out a way to secure it better. With the water problem fixed we radioed in to cancel the morning repair party. The owner was so pleased that he promised us some German beer. "Yeah. Right." we thought.
WALLEYE OR NORTHERN PIKE
Heinrich is not a swimmer so he decided to cast a fishing line to see what he could stir up. On his second cast, he landed a pretty nice-sized Northern Pike. This first Rainy Lake catch, got us all excited and we thought we were going to be frying up a mess of fish morning, noon, and supper. Heinrich let the fish go, but we made plans for taking the little boat out later to start our fishing odyssey. I caught another Northern Pike, further fueling fishing fantasies.
FIRST MORNING WITH OUR HOUSEBOAT RENTAL
VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK
On our first morning in Voyageur National Park, we woke up to a dreamy, foggy world, which quickly burned off into the glorious sunny morning. Martin, Heinrich, and I took the towboat into Cranberry Bay for our expected morning fish haul. We did get a couple of strikes, and Heinrich almost landed another Northern Pike, but nothing made it into the boat. We were, however, perfecting our "catch-and-release" method of fishing. Soon we were so efficient at it that we didn't even bother with the "catch" part.
We returned to the houseboat and cast off around 11:30 am. It took a little eye straining to find the #7 buoy again. Once around Arden Island, Rainy Lake opens up into a vast open waterway. The map indicates lots of tricky rock shoals scattered about in the open areas so, until one learns the area, it is best to stick with the marked channels, at least with the big houseboat. This isn't as easy as it sounds. The buoys in the open waters are tiny and miles apart. They are hard to pick out even on these crystal clear days. We all wonder what it would be like on foggy or even dreary days.
I drove most of the way, but Martin pitched in now and again. We were informed that there was only one other houseboat rental company in the area and we did see their boats. We were surprised to see that they were not pontoon boats as our rental. They were single-hull boats. I don't know how you would secure them at the rock mooring sights. Our houseboat pontoons have two front points to push up against the rock at the mooring sites. These single hull boats only have one center point in the middle that would act more like a pivot point rather than two anchor points.
2nd MOORING SITE WITH OUR HOUSEBOAT RENTAL
VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK
Our second mooring site was perfect. It was behind a small unnamed island at the beginning of Hitchcock Bay. The island was part of an archipelago of islands that formed a bay. There were two mooring sites marked on the map in this bay but, again, we only found one marked with a sign. This Rainy Lake island was hikeable , and we explored beautiful massive rocky cliffs overlooking the lake, other islands, the bay, and the channels formed by the islands.
Wanda, Diane, Martin, and I jumped in the water for our evening swim. The water was still cold, but the air was hot. We perfected using life preservers as noodles - mostly sitting on them. The great thing about noodles is, unlike air mattresses, they are just buoyant enough to keep your head out of the water. When you climb up on an air mattress part of your body parts to dry off if a wave splashes you or you hop off the air mattress you have to get used to the cold water all over again. With noodles, once in the water, you stay in the water - once used to the water you stay comfortable.
A fun note, I got one exciting strike. After a brief huge splash, the line went dead. In one bite, the fish bit off the hook, leader, and sinker and left the bobber free-floating. That was pretty incredible, but I couldn't get even a nibble after that.
While Wanda and I were tooling around with the towboat, we noticed an official looking boat approaching our #26 houseboat in the bay and saw the same boat leaving the bay within a few minutes. We were around a corner and couldn't see who they were or where they were going. Upon returning to the houseboat, we found out that the boaters dropped off a sampler 12-pack of Paulaner German beer. Northernaire was true to their word for fixing the water system - we got our German beer.
RAINY LAKE, MN
DAY TWO WITH OUR HOUSEBOAT RENTAL
There was no fog this morning, just a gorgeous orange sunrise that quickly burst into a bright blue sunny day. Heinrich, Martin, and I took the towboat further into the backwaters of Hitchcock Bay. Heinrich had purchased a fishing "Hot Spot" map of Rainy Lake, Hitchcock Bay listed as one-big-fishing-hot-spot. DRATZ! Not for us. We returned to the site of my big strike but, again, with nothing in the fish bucket.
We cast off at 11:30 am and immediately entered the very narrow but exquisite Kempton Channel which then opened out into a massive body of open water. Martin and I took turns driving the boat. Wanda and Diane liked riding on the top deck. The sun was scorching up there, so Wanda used the plastic chairs and big bath towels to devise an ingenious little tent covering.
The plan for the day was to reach the end of Rainy Lake and find a mooring site. There were several strewn along the final five miles of the lake. Unfortunately, this was just about everyone's plan. All the mooring sites were taken. There was, however, one site listed on the map right at the very end of the lake but there wasn't a mooring sign where it was supposed to be. We did find the exact spot where it had been. There was a primitive stone fire pit and plenty of trees to tie up, so we took it. The park rules did say that we could moor anywhere as long as we were 200 yards from any development including other mooring sites. First of all, there is no development anywhere in the park except for a fishing camp and what looked like a Ranger's house. The nearest mooring site was a mile away. This site turned out to be perfect.
This might have been the end of the 73 miles of Rainy Lake, but it wasn't the end of the waterway. Two narrow channels went on for miles. The American Channel was the closest channel to our mooring site. After everyone, except Heinrich, took a quick swim, and after a great meal of Diane's tacos, the guys set out for the American Channel in the towboat. The houseboat rental company asked us not to take their houseboats up the channel and probably for a good reason. The channel was very narrow in several places squeezing through high-rock canyon walls, and these waters are full of ominous black rocks. However, the channel is well marked with buoys, and down the channel, we came across more houseboat moorings. Some houseboats did go through the channel.
Deep into the channel, we came across a hotel landing with several docks. We were too late to stop, but later we heard that the hotel is a fun place to hold up for a while. Right after the hotel landing, we came across a dam that was holding up a side waterway that was about 10 feet higher than the channel. There was so much more to explore, but the sun was threatening to set, and we headed back to Houseboat #26.
That evening, we sampled the Paulaner beers. Heinrich and Martin declared it to be the "real German deal." Martin started a fire, and we enjoyed it from the bug-free vantage point of the houseboat screened in front porch. It was another perfect night. I retired early, as tomorrow we have to start first thing in the morning to drive the boat the whole way back to Northernair's base.
After a supper of homemade Mac n Cheese (probably made with Brie), Martin, Heinrich, and I did jump into the towboat. We discovered that the 70 hp Johnson motor had plenty of zip, but the shaft wasn't long enough for the transom on the towboat. It worked, but only on half power. At full power, the prop cavitated and wouldn't run smoothly. Still, we buzzed at half-speed around the many nearby islands and channels where the houseboat couldn't access.
At sundown, we discovered that the screened-in porch works better when all the doors are kept shut. At 8 pm insect "feeding time" starts. With every door wide open, we had a fair amount of bugs to chase down before retiring for the evening. With no city lights and no moon, we were blown away by the dazzling night sky. Before modern electronic entertainment, this was the ancient man's video. No wonder they made up such wonderful and inventive stories about "star gods."
RAINY LAKE, MN
DAY THREE WITH OUR HOUSEBOAT RENTAL
We woke up to another gorgeous morning. After a quick breakfast of leftover ingredients - some eggs, bacon, potatoes, etc. we cast off early. We had to cover most of the lake in one day to reach a mooring site near the docks of the rental company. The boat is supposed to be returned by 9 am tomorrow.
With Wanda and Diane back on top, Martin, Heinrich, and I took turns driving the boat. Since I have operated the boat 90% of the time, I had gotten fairly good at keeping the boat tracking reasonably straight, so it was fun watching the boat wildly swaying back and forth as Martin and Heinrich worked the wheel. Locating the channel buoys in the long open stretches was still very difficult to pick out. Thank goodness the visibility was crisp and clear.
We heard a boater call in a long list of groceries to the base. Northernaire Base enthusiastically responded and promised to deliver the groceries the following morning at the reported mooring site. Later we discovered that Northernaire makes deliveries on Mondays and Fridays. We didn't see this advertised nor was it part of our orientation. We thought it was a terrific service to be aware of.
It was closing in on 6 pm when we reached the western edge of Voyageurs National Park. The map showed the remaining five miles dotted with houses and resorts but seemed devoid of mooring sites on the map except for site 4a that was away from the channel. We went for it even though it looked like it would be impossible to find. As it happened, we didn't find site 4a - we stumbled upon it. Site 4a was nicely secluded in a beautiful little bay. Of course, we had to swim one last time in Rainy Lake. Diane and Wanda swam the whole bay while Martin and I stayed close to the boat. The cold water refreshed after a long day in the hot sun.
Today is my birthday and my sister, Diane, celebrated with grilled steaks and baked potatoes. As the self-appointed boat-chef, Diane was pleased with the
Thermos LP Gas Grill that came with the houseboat that was instrumental in creating a delicious birthday feast for tonight. We topped it off with the rest of the German beer. It was a terrific birthday with beautiful scenery, excellent weather, good food, and wonderful company.
RAINY LAKE, MN
FINAL DAY WITH OUR HOUSEBOAT RENTAL
We all scrambled out of bed at 6 am and polished off what Diane continue to find for breakfast; a few more eggs and strips of bacon. We cast off by 7:30 am sharp cleaning and organizing the boat as we made the final six miles to base. The map claimed we were 45 minutes away from the rental dock, but we knew better. Even at full speed, the 70hp Johnson could only put out a few knots. I correctly figured double the 45 minutes for an on-time arrival at 9 am.
We noticed that every first thing that the Northernaire personnel did when we arrived was to inspect the lower end of the motor. Smart - I wondered how many boats returned with dinged up props or damaged lower ends. Next, the fuel tank was topped off. I was nervous about our fuel consumption. We paid a $550 deposit, and the fuel cost deducted from that deposit.
Moreover, to our delight, we only used 27 gallons. That averaged to be just a bit over 5 gallons per day. Not bad at all.