Stardust In The Wilderness

How a houseboat ended up in Alaska

Published online: Oct 23, 2010 Feature Brandon Barrus
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Charlie Summerville has owned Alaska Adventures since 1995. For years, wildlife lovers with a taste for adventure came to Summerville for fishing trips and bear-watching outings in Katmai National Park, near Bristol Bay in Alaska. This part of the state is so remote that it can only be accessed by airplane or boat, and the trips Summerville organized were all on jet boats or a similar craft.

All of this changed one day in 2007, when Theresa Mazzoli of Elite Boat Sales received a call from Summerville.

"He had decided he wanted to buy a bed and breakfast/bear-watching houseboat," Mazzoli explained." It would be the first and only houseboat ever up there."

Summerville further outlined what he had in mind.

"After offering tours from our land-based lodge, we decided we needed to have some access to more remote areas for our clients, and what a better way to do that than via a custom houseboat," Summerville explained.

While this idea was very exciting up front, a lot of work would have to go into making it a reality. For one, how do you get a houseboat into such an inaccessible part of Alaska? And two, the houseboat could only be used for a certain part of the year, because when the water freezes over, the houseboat's hull could be crushed if it isn't removed.

Summerville's vision was to provide a fully-staffed touring boat for his customers, and include a captain, cooks and a guide to make these fishing and sightseeing trips as comfortable and convenient as possible.

Finding The Boat

At first, Mazzoli wasn't sure Summerville was serious about his plans.

"I didn't believe this guy would actually fly out to Tennessee from Alaska to meet me," Mazzoli said. "I figured he was probably just someone calling with an idea."

But Summerville did in fact make the long flight, and toured many boats at Lake Cumberland and other places. But it was at his last stop, at Dale Hollow Lake, in Tennessee, that he found what he was looking for.

"I just happened to have listed a six-bedroom Stardust houseboat," Mazzoli recalled. "The current owner bought it from someone who had used it as a bed and breakfast, and all the requirements for that purpose, i.e. three sinks in the kitchen, were all there."

Summerville was very happy with the boat.

"After finding the three-year-old 82-foot Stardust for a reasonable price, in excellent condition, we were sold!" Summerville said.

As the boat was part of a trade-in deal with Thoroughbred Houseboats, the company held onto it while Summerville waited for the right season to bring it to Alaska, a span of time that ended up being around four months. When Summerville was ready, Thoroughbred also helped him install a customized water filtration system, as there would be no access to fresh water on Summerville's tours.

The houseboat is 16 feet wide and has five bedrooms, not including the captain's suite in the aft. He also added four extra holding tanks, enough to contain the gray water and waste for up to two weeks, as the tours take place in an area of Katmai National Park where absolutely no discharge is allowed.

Mazzoli stressed just how well the whole process worked out.

"Six-bedroom houseboats are hard to find," Mazzoli said. "Most of the time they are rentals."

After the boat sale had been finalized, Summerville returned to Tennessee to get the boat ready for transport. Summerville packed the boat full of paper towels, plastic utensils and other items for the boat's future as a bed and breakfast. Because the cost of shipping was going to be so high, Summerville figured he might as well get what use he could out of the whole experience.

The Trip

Now began the hard part: getting the boat from Tennessee to Bristol Bay. Mazzoli used her experience to line up a trucking company, which got the boat from Dale Hollow Lake to Seattle, Wash., a distance of around 2,500 miles, at a cost of about $43,000. This part of the journey took about 10 days.

From Seattle, the houseboat was loaded onto a container ship to be sent to King Salmon, Ala., which added another 3,000 miles to the trip. Twelve days later, the boat had successfully made it to Naknek, Ala., just south of Bristol Bay. A local trucking company made the final leg of the journey.

"Boy did it make a statement with the locals," Summerville remembered. "They had never seen such a beast in this remote area."

In addition to all the help Thoroughbred had supplied before, they also flew up to Bristol Bay to help re-assemble the houseboat, as the party deck and flybridge had been removed for transport.

Reactions

Summerville's clients love the experience of houseboating in such a scenic wilderness. Others in the area are not quite as happy, however.

"The reaction from a few local outfitters has not been so positive," Summerville disclosed. "Some of them are very jealous, and others say they don't want Katmai Park and Naknek Lake to turn into another Lake Powell."

But Summerville is convinced that, due to the extreme expense of getting a houseboat up there and the legal difficulties, that's not something to worry about.

"The only thing I can compare this undertaking to is putting [a houseboat] on the moon," Summerville wryly said.

While Summerville loves the boat and what it adds to his company, he is not planning on doing it all again and adding another houseboat to the fleet anytime soon.

"The houseboat theme is so novel in Alaska that it is taking a lot longer than we had anticipated to build up a loyal following of clients," Summerville said.

So if you're interested in taking a one-of-a-kind cruise that is like nothing else in all of Alaska, spending a week exploring the most concentrated population of brown bears in the world seems like a good bet. Besides providing a captain and a cook, Summerville also sends you off with a trained staff of professional wildlife photographers and outdoor wildlife guides.

The cruise takes visitors away from the crowds, and gets them exploring Naknek Lake, Brooks River, Valley of 10,000 Smokes and many lesser-known rivers and streams. You can even sit on the top deck of the houseboat and watch bears catch fish in the river below.

Summerville is confident the word will get out.

"In our opinion, this is the perfect family vacation getaway for groups of up to eight, if you're looking for a wilderness vacation in a pristine area," he added with satisfaction.

For more information on Alaska Adventures or to book a trip, visit www.alaska-wildlife-cruises.com or call 877-801-2289. To contact Theresa Mazzoli at Elite Boat Sales, call 502-905-7319 or visit www.eliteboatsales.net. Mazzoli is also available by email at theresa@eliteboatsales.net. Thoroughbred's website is www.thoroughbredhouseboats.com.

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