“It looks like we’ve run out of map.”
That was our conclusion as we studied the laminated sheet of paper that purported to depict the western portion of Namakan Lake, a sprawling, 16-mile-long sheet of water in the remote wilds of Voyageurs National Park. We were on the second day of an anniversary splurge, a three-day houseboating trip, and had decided to explore the lake’s distant reaches in the aluminum fishing boat that had come with the houseboat rental.
As we soon discovered, the map we’d hastily grabbed as a navigational aid did not show our target destination. We were looking for Kettle Falls, a narrow cataract that straddles the border between Minnesota and Ontario. But our map did not extend far enough east. We putted along, modestly befuddled, our dog wearing a clumsily applied neckerchief, and scanned the horizons for a glimpse of the red and green buoys that mark the safe channel.
If you’ve never been to Voyageurs, know this: It is confusing to navigate without the aid of GPS or doctorate-level map reading skills. We lacked both. With hundreds of islands scattered about the park’s lakes, it’s difficult to discern what is mainland and what is island. On top of that, the shorelines are jagged and irregular, full of dead-end bays with unmarked rock reefs.
Still, as we speculated which way to go, we weren’t distressed. Mainly, this was because it was such a splendid September day that it was obvious nothing could go wrong. The cloudless sky was a brilliant cobalt blue. With temperatures in the 50s, a hint of fall crisp hung in the air. Little waves lapped on the dramatic, rocky shorelines, which were studded with second-growth red and white pines. While these trees looked ancient, they sprouted in the aftermath of intensive logging during the early 1900s.
Aside from the occasional angler roaring by in search of walleye, there were scant signs of humans. The unblemished vistas resembled Minnesota’s most famous wilderness destination, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. That makes sense, as the BWCA lies just to the east of Voyageurs and both share a similar rocky geology and forest type.
Eventually, we arrived at a tight spot in the lake—Squirrel Narrows—and soon after, we located Kettle Falls. We weren’t lost after all. Here, we found some very distinct signs of civilization, most notably the Kettle Falls Hotel. The modest, wood-framed, two-story bar, restaurant, and hotel, built in 1913, is famous for several things: its remoteness, its scurrilous past—allegedly, it was once a brothel—and its distinctive location. Those who stand at the now-dammed falls can gaze south into Canada.
As we wandered about the grounds, a herd of tourists disembarked from a National Park Service tour boat and filled the tables in the hotel’s large front porch, taxing a skeletal late-season staff. A sign at the entrance informed us that our dog would not be welcome inside. So, we scotched our plans to sample the restaurant fare and opted to stretch our legs. A brief hike through the woods led to an observation platform that overlooked Kettle Falls.
An illustrated placard showed the falls as they were historically—a rush of water cascading over an irregular, rock-strewn precipice. The dam was completed in 1914 as part of a planned reservoir system that was only partially realized. The defeat of that expansion—and the preservation of the more natural conditions that exist in the park today—was a consequence of relentless opposition from conservationists who fought to protect the area, a fight that culminated in the establishment of Voyageurs in 1975.
After admiring the impressive outflow, we decided to make our way back to the houseboat, which was moored several miles away in a secluded cove. In our fishing boat, as we wended our way through the maze of islands, we kept our eyes peeled for familiar sights. We knew we were on the right track when we spotted a big white pine with two eagle nests, one built above the other. “The eagle duplex,” we called it when we first motored by. We putted on, satisfied that our inner Magellan had finally kicked in. Not long after, we glimpsed our houseboat, a little white blip in the distance.
Or so we thought.
The Launch and Finding the Rock
As an abstract proposition, there is no more romantic abode than a houseboat. Its mobility confers an exhilaration that’s hard to describe. When you’re motoring along, it’s like hitting the open road in an RV. Except it’s better because there are no roads, no tractor trailers, and no billboards. We already had gotten a taste for this type of fun on the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities, where, once upon a time, we dabbled in houseboating.
Twelve years ago, we possessed a primitive, cobbled-from-junk shack that sat atop two 24-foot aluminum pontoon tubes. It was “powered” by a 15-horsepower Evinrude outboard, which was just strong enough to move upstream in low-current conditions. But that vessel, now long gone, was essentially a glorified raft.
This 36-foot houseboat, which we rented from Ebel’s Voyageur Houseboats—a family-run operation located on the Ash River Trail, about 30 miles southeast of International Falls—was a different story. By comparison, it was the Taj Mahal, with a comfy and carpeted main cabin, a bathroom with a hot-water shower, a galley with a propane-powered refrigerator and stove, a wraparound exterior deck, and a deck above the cabin complete with a water slide we never used. The whole thing sat upon two beefy steel pontoons. This vessel—powered by a smooth-running 70 hp Suzuki outboard—is the most modest rental in Ebel’s fleet of 18 boats. The more luxurious craft have all manner of additional amenities, including hot tubs.
At the outset of our trip, we were accompanied by a sunny, young Ebel’s employee who, while piloting the houseboat down the Ash River toward Sullivan Bay, imparted the basics of proper operation. He showed us how to use the two-way radio, how to recharge the boat’s batteries, how to navigate the channel buoys, and how to tie the boat up on shore. He pointed to the RPM gauge at the helm, next to an impressive chrome steering wheel, and told us not to run the motor above 2,800. When we inquired as to the most common mistake weekend captains make, he said it was mooring too forcefully at the campgrounds. The houseboat came with various hand-written warning notes. One read: “DO NOT RAM THE SHORELINE. YOU WILL GET STUCK!!”
After our guide ran through his checklist and was satisfied that we had been adequately instructed, he sped off in one of the two fishing boats we had in tow. Now we were on our own. Operating a houseboat, it turns out, is pretty easy and intuitive. That’s especially true if you don’t expect to turn on a dime or go fast. As we chugged out of Sullivan Bay, we were presented with a choice: Turn west and explore Lake Kabetogama or head east into Namakan. With a stiff northwest wind blowing, we opted for Namakan, which would provide more shelter and put the wind at our backs.
We surveyed our map and zeroed in on Namakan Island, noting a promising mooring site where we could camp for the night. After about three hours of putting along—and snapping too many scenic photos along the way—we came to a secluded cove. We nosed the boat into the face of an enormous, sloping rock, gently kissing the shoreline, and ambled out on the extendable gangplank. We secured two stern ropes to trees on either side of the boat, a slick three-point system that worked as advertised.
Now, on our way back from Kettle Falls in our fishing boat, it was this site—our cozy houseboat moored in the calm cove—that we most wanted to see. But, as we chugged closer to the distant white blip, something appeared off. It wasn’t shaped quite like our vessel. It seemed bigger, taller.
Sure enough, it wasn’t our houseboat. It was a National Park Service work barge with a giant septic tank for pumping out the vault toilets at the tent campsites. Chatting with the workers, we discovered we’d veered off course, nearly wandering into Canadian waters. We were instructed to take a left and keep heading west. To our relief, we found the campsite and our vacation vessel. After we fired up the propane wall furnace and burned the chill from the air, it felt a bit like home.
Later, we built a campfire in the ring fastened to our giant rock perch and enjoyed a dead calm evening. It seemed like we could see every star in the universe. Steam rose from the lake as the temperature fell. Red squirrels hectored us from the trees, dropping pinecones like bombs.
Settling in for the night, we prepared and ate supper with a mellow jazz soundtrack playing on the boat stereo. Bushed from the day’s travel and excitement, we crashed in the cozy-if-tight bed located at the aft of the cabin. As we drifted off to sleep, we kept our ears pricked, hoping to hear howls from one of Voyageurs’ famous wolf packs.
A Good Night’s Sleep in the Muck
At any given time, the greater Voyageurs ecosystem is home to six to nine wolf packs, which translates to 30 to 50 individuals. In recent years, this robust population has been the subject of fascinating research from the University of Minnesota’s Voyageurs Wolf Project. Using motion-activated cameras, as well as traditional trapping and tagging methods, researchers have made all manner of discovery about the wolves’ behavior. Among other things, they’ve documented animals fishing for suckers in spring—systematically, plucking the fish from a creek—and feasting on blueberries in July.
As it turned out, we didn’t hear any wolves that first night, nor the next two. Voyageurs is home to a plethora of charismatic wildlife, including moose and black bears. For the most part, though, the critters are good at keeping out of view.
During three days on the water, the most conspicuous wildlife we spotted were bald eagles, loons, and double-crested cormorants. The fishing—in one serious-minded outing—proved tough. A nightcrawler dangled on a spinner rig yielded a 13-inch walleye, a palm-size smallmouth bass, and numerous snags. It didn’t help that a cold front had just passed though.
We decided to move closer to the Ash River for our final night at Voyageurs, which, barring fiasco, would ensure that we’d reach Ebel’s by mid-morning for checkout. We picked a campsite marked on the map and exited the cove. As we motored, we found ourselves, yet again, confounded. Where was the channel? We blundered ahead, into Old Dutch Bay, it turned out, certain we would see an opening just around the next crag of rock. That’s when a voice came over the two-way radio. It was Katy Ebel, the clan’s matriarch, whose in-laws had founded the houseboat company in 1971. She instructed us to turn around and leave the bay, which was notoriously shallow and rock-strewn. Apparently, she’d been tracking us by GPS. Who knew?
Sheepishly, we reoriented and made haste toward our destination campsite, not far from the mouth of the Ash River. The shoreline was sandy and shallow. As the boat glided in, it came to rest a good 12 feet from dry land. The gangplank didn’t reach that far, so we cobbled an extension from random logs and rocks, an arrangement that was wobbly but effective.
The third night on the houseboat was the most peaceful. A practical tip: If you want a quiet night of sleep, it’s better to select a sand beach than a rocky one. That’s because a pontoon moored on rocks produces weird, echo-chamber noises whenever a wave passes underneath. It’s not a bad noise, necessarily, but it doesn’t invite slumber.
When we awoke at sunrise, the first order of business was coffee. The second was to make sure we could get the boat free. The water levels in Namakan are highly variable. In the fall, we were told, they can drop dramatically. Sure enough, by morning, our boat seemed to be stuck. Had the lake level dropped? Had we added too much weight by running water and filling the gray water tank? With the ropes untied and the Suzuki chugging in reverse, the boat didn’t budge. A plume of muddy water swirled around the motor. The front end of the pontoons had become immersed in muck. With the motor still running in reverse, we both walked to the aft end of the pontoons and jumped up and down in sync. This slight shift in the weight of the vessel proved sufficient. The boat bobbed and, suddenly, we were free.
We reached Ebel’s without incident and, as we pulled up to the dock, a staff person greeted us. We lugged our belongings to shore, chatting with Katy Ebel, while a small team refilled the gas tanks and began cleaning the houseboat. We’d experienced something rare in Voyageurs. We’d been immersed in pristine nature, but with all the creature comforts. If it weren’t for the coming winter, we felt we could have stayed forever.
There was one final pleasant surprise. While settling the bill, we discovered that we’d burned fewer than 9 gallons of gas during our three-day excursion. We don’t make a habit of calculating our carbon footprint, but we’re not oblivious either. A canoe trip to the BWCA might have been a little more pure. But it wouldn’t have been any sweeter.