It was early June 2020, in the year of Covid. The kids and parents of our household were restless after two and half months in quarantine, so we could only imagine what might be the new norm by August. We entertained potential vacation options and nixed what Covid might make impossible or an experience to never write home about.
Tucked away on my husband’s bucket list and completely unawares to me was a vision of a houseboat meandering its way through a series of lakes along the Minnesota Canadian border in a land mysterious to me: Voyageurs National Park. The adventure surfaced to the top of our family list as a socially distanced and safe travel option.
I’m not too keen on camping, but I do love me a national park visit. After agreeing on a houseboat rental and minimum stay of three nights we booked it through Voyagaire Lodge & Houseboats. The teens seemed indifferent, displaying mixed messages of happiness to be getting out of the house and the city, to puzzlement over what exactly we’d do that could possibly be exciting with the same four people we’d never been closer to in our lives.
And without WiFi, Netflix or Snapchat? How is this a vacation? Let’s just say the expectations were low for some and bucket-list high for others, while some remained neutral and a bit apprehensive. The night before we left a massive portion of a tree in our front yard splintered right off during a late-night storm and crashed into the street. It narrowly missed our puppy caregiver’s vehicle. Ah, Mother Nature!
The next morning, we left the clean-up in Grandma’s charge. I prayed Mother Nature would go easy on us over the next three days, which she did indeed with sunshine, a few light sprinkles, low winds and 75-degree temps. In hindsight, I shudder to think of a stormy situation in that vast isolation (despite having 24/7 access to Voyagaire Base and a hospitality service).
Voyageurs was an easy 4.5 hours from Minneapolis and we miraculously made it out by 7:45A on a Saturday, every inch of the Subaru Crosstrek jam packed with supplies for four days/three nights. There would be drinking water and a stocked kitchen on the boat. We brought a large cooler, a large container of food and beverages, beach towels, sheets, a first aid kit and items that really implied roughing it like a hatchet and saw. I sure hoped Chad had done thorough research as I really left this vacation plan in his hands.
We arrived at Voyagaire Houseboats on Crane Lake near the entrance of Voyageurs about 12:30P. The overview of boat operations was quick – for buoys remember red, right, return (red buoys should be on your right on your return), a series of steps to start the generator, notes about hot tub water sloshing about and spilling over onto the deck, and general boat happenings that are no cause for panic (for an upcoming part of the story, noting here that there was no mention of gang planks and mice).
We were officially houseboating by 1:15P! …plus towing a mandatory fishing boat on an extended arm to prevent interference with the motor – a surprise to Chad and added level of anxiousness for me, recognizing that I’d be the docker of the boat after he landed the small boat and surveyed the landing site.
On the boat there were large maps with distinctive markings for houseboats and tent camping. We purchased a Voyageurs National Park Permit for Houseboats prior to the trip and had the printed copy with us. Reserving sites was not allowed and it was recommended to be to your spot for the night by 4:00P each day. And since the max cruising speed was six miles per hour, we definitely didn’t want it to get too late before securing a spot.
The Halina (Greek for calm and sun ray) was our ship. It seemed massive to me with full controls on the main level and the option to switch over to steering and speed from the top deck. I was laughed away when I asked about rearview mirrors. As it turns out, shipmates stationed at the back or top were relied upon for real-time info.
The top deck had a raised platform atop the loft that my son, Calvin, chose for his quarters. My daughter, Ava, and I spent a majority of the afternoon sunning there. By 3:00 we were actively on the lookout for an overnight spot. The amazing thing about these lakes are the deep inlets that c-shape around you and give a sense of protection from the elements and isolation from everything. Nearing 4:00 we found an open houseboat site, facing west on Namakan Lake. It made for a spectacular sunset and a chilly early morning in the shadow of rocky elevations and tall pines.
Following the plan, Chad took the small boat in and got out onto the shore to direct me in landing it on the wide soft sand beach. While pulling in straight was a breeze, we quickly realized the importance of securing the ropes from each side of the back of the boat at a 45-degree angle. With even a slight wind of 10mph, the boat got away from us and ended up near parallel to the shore. In the event of a storm, it would have been important to get this right. For day one, we were happy to be settled and hear the forecast of a non-windy, storm-free night.
Our cove had a tiny island a short way out. We slid the two kayaks we rented from Voyagaire into the water and the kids were off for a ride (with lifejackets on!) to the island. They hopped off their kayaks, pulled them onto the rocks and explored the island. I watched like a hawk, anxiety creeping in despite trying to keep it at bay.
Upon their return, we grilled the night’s meal on the back of the boat, right under the slick boat slide. We ate at the table inside the houseboat then moved it outdoors to start a campfire and make s’mores. It was great to have campfire pits of rock already teed up for us. We just needed to find wood. Chad and Calvin managed the fire while I assembled a mini s’more kit (thanks for the collapsable roasting sticks, Aunt Rose!).
Stuffed after perfecting the art of s’more making, we put on our suits and headed to the top deck to hot tub. It was a perfect 104 that didn’t vary more than two degrees through the full three days on the boat. Chemical-free, the water and heat (and view!) was a real treat, especially as temps dipped to 47 over night.
Then, perhaps the most profound sight of the trip – a sky full of stars packed so brightly and tightly together you truly felt wonderment and joy*. If that isn’t a gift to give your kids, I don’t know what is.
* To further describe this, read the section on Stargazing (pg 215) in the book Joyful by Ingrid Fetell Lee to lend words to the human experience of feeling like a small spec in a vast universe, an awareness of the fragility of life on our planet.
Day 2: 12:01A
After a full day of adventuring we were ready for rest, but the nocturnal among us were just ramping up for a night of antics. Eek yes, mice. They terrify me. More so than the rest of the family, apparently. On heightened alert, body tensed, I didn’t sleep a solid wink. At the gift of daybreak, stars still lingering, I must have slumbered in exhaustion.
Day 2: 8:00A
We radioed in to Voyagaire Base to report our plans for the day and hear a friendly voice. And also to…. I don’t know… demand the mice be instantly removed or else! I was ready to be very candid about the inexcusability of the mouse guests. The radioed helpers dismissed any responsibility they might have, just now giving us the casual heads up about the visitors walking up the plank and ropes and that we should pull in the plank at night to prevent this piracy. After all, we are in their backyard. I did spend many hours devising the ultimate mouse trap for houseboats. I was not unkind.
With a morning kayak and hot tub to reset my attitude, all was possible again. Next up was de-lodging from the shoreline from our parallel angle. Ah-ha! This is a handy use for the small boat. With some heaving from shipmates at the front, a second mate reversing the houseboat and the Captain holding the small boat at full throttle, Halina successfully disembarked for day two on the water.
Heading west on Namakan Lake, then north by Strawberry Island and through Voyageurs Narrows, we arrived at Kettle Falls (about six hours from the start of the chain of lakes). We arrived at a houseboat mooring site with a dock signed “Gov. Boats Only,” a reminder we were on the U.S. Canadian border. In a call to Voyagaire Base, it seemed as though we were in a place we could anchor and take the small boat to a place I envisioned as heavenly – a lakeside resort and restaurant, civilization, with a Dirty Dancing vibe. It just wasn’t very clear how to do so. In hindsight, I should have taken over to press our concierge for details. We turned around to head back without the Dirty Dancing resort experience of a lifetime. It was just a bay away. Oh well. This is all part of vacations, kids.
We began our search for a houseboat site for night two. Past Mica Island, I hopped into the driver’s seat for a while to give Chad a break. The dots on our maps in the houseboat didn’t seem entirely up-to-date and we all know how men rely on maps. I placed a call to Voyagaire Base after several marked houseboat sites turned out be already filled. They suggested Randolph Bay. They would know. They are the owners of the 30-some houseboat rentals that were all on the lakes that day.
Randolph Bay was an amazing east-facing site. We rinsed and repeated the dinner grilling, s’moring, tubbing and stargazing. We were already pros. I weaseled my way into the loft space, which seemed untouchable and out of earshot from pirate mice kitchen adventures. We took precautions earlier in the eve, pulling up the plank and placing all of our food in a large tub for lockdown. I slept very solid after some meditation and stargazing.
What a difference from the day before. Our east-facing site had us awakening to sunrise and warmth. A longer kayak jaunt with Calvin, a swim in Namakan’s clear, cool waters and a hot tub with a shot of coffee to start the day! I was finally in full mental vacation mode. It takes me about two days to get there. I whipped up scrambled eggs with cheese on toast with ham for the carnivores as we cruised along to the day’s adventures – cliff jumping and hiking.
Late morning, we arrived at the designated cliff jumping spot on the Namakan Narrows. The kids went first, followed by Chad. They plunged right in, most everyone but Chad followed Ava’s advice to point your toes for a smooth entry. He cannonballed and ker-splooshed with a sound that echoed for miles around. In mere moments, the current was dragging Halina along and I truly botched a smooth, safe pick up for him. Ah—stress! The kids’ pick up by Chad was no problem. All three seemed exhilarated by their venture.
At high noon, we navigated south through Sand Point Lake and switched back southwest to Grassy Bay. The bay held a few surprises – the Grassy Bay Cliffs and a short hike to Little Trout Lake without a soul – fish or man – to be detected. We found a spot around 2:00P to spend the night and easily took the small boat out and about to explore. Our delivery of firewood arrived – tonight, the last night – we’d have the most roaring fire ever. There were still stories to be told.
It was a very relaxing day – reading, playing cards, grilling out, campfire, etc. We braved the boat slide and after cold plunges, the hot tub was there to counterbalance. The fire truly roared. The s’mores were perfection. The stars reflected onto the lake with water like glass so clear we could see the Big Dipper as we looked upon the lake from the boat deck. Not a soul around. A howling owl or coyote. The call of the loon. The loneliness. The vastness.
Oh, how Mother Nature delivers an experience like no other and creates amazing tales to tell. On day four we returned to our urban environment, vowing to carry a slice of that awe into every day and the reminder that we can look to nature to feel inspired, grounded and connected to ourselves, others and the universe. Namaste, Mother Nature.