Dive into Summer
Hike, bike, climb, ﬂoat, swim, soak in a hot tub: 34 great ways to experience the state’s sweet season
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Dive Into Summer
Sure, you could spend your vacation revisiting the same tourist traps en route to the same lakeside resort you’ve visited every year since elementary school. But the House on the Rock will probably survive without your $20. So maybe this year you could do something different—push your boundaries a little. Leave the tried-and-true behind and explore the Apostle Islands, the Cuyuna mine pits, Voyageurs National Park, or any of the other extraordinary destinations described here. Go hiking, biking, kayaking, or scuba-diving . You don’t have to be an Eagle Scout or triathlete. All that’s required is a sense of adventure.
Luxury on the Lake
Floating through Voyageurs National Park on a houseboat
By Rachel Hutton
I’VE PADDLED THE BOUNDARY WATERS in a canoe and the Indian Ocean in a kayak. I’ve water-skied Lake Pepin, floated the Apple River, and sailed the Mekong. I’ve traversed Minnehaha Creek on a raft cobbled together from lawn furniture, and shot rapids on a 20-foot log, bobbing like a sodden buckaroo.
Why, then, am I so intimidated by the ultimate in water-borne comfort, a trip though Voyageurs National Park on a houseboat? Slap some pontoons on a hotel suite, shove off on an enormous lake near the Canadian border, and…then what? Will I capsize the cushy cabana? Will hungry campers storm the ship and pillage our stash of boxed wine and baguettes?
We launch from the dock at Ebel’s Voyageur Houseboats, quizzing returning couples as they come down the gangplank. The wives tell how they spent their days fishing, spotting wildlife, eating well, and motoring around Kettle Falls. The men cooked: steaks, tagine, French toast (gentlemen, this is how you get your girl to spend a night in the wilderness). There may even have been skinny-dipping. “What happens on the lake stays on the lake,” a husband interjects. “Anything they say is exaggerated—except for the cooking.”
A new boat arrives and men with three-day-old beards unload bait, booze, tackle boxes, and those turf-covered ramps for playing “cornhole.” They had fished, kayaked, and water-skied. They played cards when the weather was lousy. “You have everything you need,” says a guy in a Packers T-shirt. He turns on his cell phone, signaling his return to civilization.
We board our 60-foot Boatel, which looks like a small apartment with a captain’s wheel in the living room (including the pull-out couch, the boat sleeps six). The stern reminds me of a train car, with bunk beds on one side and the “head” (nautical-speak for toilet) on the other. A spiral staircase leads to the upper deck, where there’s a hot tub and, yes, a water slide.
Joe Ebel takes the captain’s seat and motors us into Sullivan Bay. The boat rides as smoothly as my grandmother’s Lincoln, though it corners like an elephant. Houseboats are Joe’s heritage: His father built them, two of his siblings are in the business, and he and his wife, Katy, have been in it since the ’70s. “There’s one thing you need to know about a houseboat,” he says, as he cedes control to me. “The slower, the better—in the rental business, anyway.”
I feel surprisingly comfortable behind the wheel, but all I really do is hold ’er steady. We flatten other boats’ wakes as if we’re a glacier. At 5 mph, I could walk faster than I’m driving—and I like it that way.
Voyageurs is unique in that nearly all of its shoreline is accessible only by watercraft. Joe parks the boat (a tricky maneuver, but easy enough to learn with some instruction) on a tiny island and offhandedly mentions the time a curious bear lumbered up a boat’s gangplank in the middle of the night. “They honked the horn to scare it,” he says as he hops in a small boat and waves goodbye. What had he said about the radio’s emergency channel?
My friends and I spend the rest of the afternoon tooling around on a fishing boat we have towed along, trying to keep our bearings among the islands. Driving a houseboat in Voyageurs is as serene as canoeing in the Boundary Waters—we haven’t seen a soul—but with an added bonus: no packs to portage. As we cook up a batch of pasta, we remark how easily water boils on the kitchen stove, how simple it is to wash up in a sink, how we didn’t have to bring our own dishes. After dinner, we step off our Westin-on-the-water and find ourselves alone in the woods. We build a campfire, make s’mores, and decide on one more adventure before we tuck into bed. It’s too late in the season for swimming, but we dare each other to slip down the water slide. It’s the Everest of the trip; we do it because it is there.
No one hears our splashes or screams. If we were rustic campers, the cold water could be life-threatening; instead, we scamper up the houseboat’s stairs, teeth chattering, and plunge into the hot tub. It’s bathing meets bling in the middle of the wilderness: Where’s the Champagne? Where’s Fred Smoot?
Actually, we prefer the solitude. There are few things in life better than midnight on a silent lake, looking across the water, shadows of shore barely visible on the horizon, stars overhead—except taking it all in from a hot tub.
If You Go
In Minnesota, houseboat season runs May through October. Rates range from $200 to $1,600/day, depending on boat size, with discounts in the spring and fall months and for week-long rental. Many operators require a three-day minimum.
VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK
Ebel’s Voyageur Houseboats
Orr, 218-374-3571, www.ebels.com
International Falls, 218-286-5221,
Rainy Lake Houseboats
International Falls, 218-286-5391,
Voyagaire Lodge & Houseboats
Crane Lake, 218-993-2266,
Hiawatha Beach Resort
LAKE PEPIN/MISSISSIPPI RIVER
Great River Houseboats