Adjusting to life on a luxury houseboat on Rainy Lake in Voyageurs National Park is a simple process. You start by tossing schedules and obligations overboard.

In our case, 12 adult friends made the “adjustment,” stashing socks, stowing smartphones and donning swimsuits. Our favorite indulgence soon became sipping a drink while lounging in the upper-deck hot tub as the watery wilderness floated by.

We were suitably primed for adventure and relaxation on a five-day, four-night outing in the only inland water-based park in the national park system.

Our houseboat, 54 by 16 feet, handled our eclectic group of friends in stride and style. With four cozy staterooms and two sofa sleepers, each couple had their space at night. Add two living salons and an open kitchen/dining area, and we felt like pampered nobility.

We packed games, cards, books, hiking shoes and swimsuits. Two of the guys brought fishing gear to take advantage of the fishing boat and motor that we pulled behind the houseboat. Factor in copious amounts of food, beverages and snacks, and we were set for fun and (hopefully) sun.

All this was in contrast to the vast wilds surrounding us. Voyageurs National Park sprawls across a 218,200-acre expanse of lakes and forests at the end of the road on the Minnesota-Ontario border. One third of the park’s area is water. Four large lakes — Rainy, Kabetogama, Namakan and Sand Point — are linked by narrow waterways. Smaller lakes beckon in the forest. Isolated islands, a strip of mainland shore and the bay-fringed Kabetogama Peninsula comprise the park’s landmass and 655 miles of shoreline.

A park with history

The park, celebrating its 40th birthday this year, is named for the French Canadian voyageurs who paddled birchbark canoes for fur trading companies in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

The voyageurs, Indians and lumberjacks who knew this country would still recognize it today. They named the features that helped them navigate the water routes, such as Grassy Portage, Kabetogama Lake and Cutover Island. These water-related features are well-marked on the park’s charts and maps. Ridges and hilltops remain unnamed.

Piloting a large craft through the labyrinth of the park’s waterways and islands, we paid close attention to the nautical charts that defined our world during the trip. We also paid close attention during the houseboat orientation session before casting off. A resort harbor guide piloted us past the slips and other boats in the channel, leaving us as we approached the open water of Rainy Lake.

Pat Robischon of Sauk Centre, Minn., the one most likely to stay on task in our group, volunteered to captain the boat. Three of the other guys spread out the nautical charts and grabbed binoculars to navigate. This system, paired with a GPS that we brought along, helped to confirm buoy marker numbers and to crosscheck our position.

Red and green buoys marked the safest route on the big water. Heading east (up lake), we kept the red buoys on our right side and the green buoys on our left. This was especially important in the Brule Narrows, an island-studded channel between the United States and Canada where submerged rocks and reefs can damage the unwary boater’s hull and motor.

The charts also showed the designated mooring sites for houseboats. Tenting and day-use sites are marked as well.

The sun shone bright on our backs as we skirted the north shore of the Kabetogama Peninsula. The hot tub hummed while some read or napped on the upper deck. Others lounged in the shade of the front deck.

By late afternoon, we found our first night’s mooring site by Harbor Island East, just past Lost Bay. A rotating division of labor arose on our first evening as everyone pitched in to secure the boat, prepare the meal, clean up and tackle other jobs.

If many hands made light the work, the same was true for play. Like children, we laughed while plunging down the slide for the final spill into the refreshing water. As the setting sun lit up the clouds on the eastern horizon, we hauled in the floaties, hung the towels and built a campfire in the fire pit on shore.

Content and comfortable

And so our houseboat rhythms pulsed over the following days. Though we would have been content and comfortable indoors if it rained, it did not, save for a brief shower one afternoon. The wind and evening mosquitoes were our biggest challenge. That, and picking what game to play or which deck to lounge upon.

Day’s end brought that delicious feeling of tiredness that accompanies a busy day of play. Some of us hiked the trails by Anderson Bay, some fished or gathered blueberries. Some of us just enjoyed the water or each other’s company over a game of cards.

The evening’s campfire brought us together for the usual mix of laughter and contemplation under the stars. Loon calls were the music of the wilderness that inspired quiet moments. The waning moon cast a rippling reflection on the lake.

After the rest headed back to the houseboat, I lingered by the embers on the last night. I basked in the sensation of being absorbed by the nighttime forest. A haunting loon call echoed across the still lake. Water softly lapped against the hull. The houseboat was lit up as my friends readied for bed. The vessel was a beacon in the enveloping wilderness of Voyageurs National Park — a brief candle in the darkness of water and forest.

Tomorrow, we would head home. But tonight, in the midst of beauty and friendship, life was good on a houseboat.


Jim Umhoefer is an outdoors writer and photographer from Sauk Centre, Minn. Find him online at