On A Wilderness Houseboating Adventure At Voyageurs National Park

May 2017 Feature Story and Photos By Bernie Barringer

A series of lakes and rivers form the border between Minnesota and Ontario. This series of waterways has been important to humans since before written history. When a group of French explorers led by Jacues de Noyan first came through the area in 1688, they encountered villages of Cree, Assiniboin and Monsoni Natives. These peoples were firmly entrenched in the fish and game-rich region.

About 100 years later, the canoes of Voyageurs came with trade goods in search of obtaining beaver pelts from the natives. By then the more aggressive Ojibwe had displaced the other tribes and they were willing and able to provide the French traders with piles and piles of beaver pelts. The chain of lakes and rivers became a thoroughfare for the fur trade of the region and exploration of the northwest. The brisk trade in pelts took place for more than a century before logging began to overtake trapping as the number one industry in the area. By the early 1900s, the natural beauty and abundant fish and game resources began to attract the first of the tourists who were willing to endure hardships to get to this road-less area.

As roads were built, resorts began to spring up and at some point, someone said, “This would be a perfect place for a houseboat!” The lakes became a destination for those who enjoyed travelling the waterways with all the comforts of home. Today, there are four houseboat rental properties on the lakes.

Unspoiled Beauty

By 1975, the area was still more than 90 percent undeveloped, retaining its natural wilderness tranquility. At that time, the National Park Service set aside a huge area as Voyageurs National Park. It encompasses Rainy Lake, Namakan, Kabetogama, Crane Lake and dozens of smaller lakes. There are 450 miles of undeveloped shoreline, more than 500 islands and millions of acres of unspoiled Northwoods beauty. From the west end of Rainy Lake to the east side of Crane Lake, there are 80 miles of water.

There are two houseboat vendors on Rainy Lake, one on Kabetogama and one on Crane Lake. Rainy Lake is more developed, which offers the opportunity to stop off at a resort bar or restaurant for the evening. The far west end of Kabetogama and the south side of Crane Lake have some of those amenities, as well. But the majority of the area is wilderness, and that is what calls many people back year after year to experience the wildlife and wilderness feel of these pristine waters. Your cell phone will not work here so put it away and take a deep breath of fresh air.

Rainy Lake is separated from the other lakes by Kettle Falls, which prevents houseboats from travelling entirely from one end of the park to the other. There is a motorized portage around the falls that allows you to move most small- to average-sized boats from one side to the other. Crane, Namakan and Kabetogama are all navigable by houseboat.

Looking To Tie Up

The shorelines of these lakes are studded with boulders and rock outcroppings which adds to the appeal of the area. However, that limits the number of places you can pull up and tie off for the night. There are many options to choose from, however.  You should have no trouble finding a place to tie up for the night.

Houseboats can be moored to shore anywhere you choose, but there are designated houseboat overnight locations that have mooring posts and campfire rings. Most are located in the back of a bay and offer a place to pull the boat up to a sandy beach. Many of them are on the backside of an island or a protected shoreline that allows you to get out of the wind should that be an issue.

Off Shore Adventures

Some of the islands and shorelines have walking trails or other attractions. Near Kettle Falls are some native petroglyphs that are a means of connecting with the history of the area in a unique way.

With four houseboat rental facilities and a handful of private houseboats, there is no issue with overcrowding. There are hundreds of good places to moor and if you find one occupied, there is sure to be another good spot just around the corner. We tend to move around somewhat, normally not staying in one spot for more than a day or two. We like to see a lot of country and enjoy trying new areas. But some people prefer to pull the houseboat into a secluded bay and use it as a base of operations, using their fishing boat to make day trips around the area.

Ebel’s Houseboats

The excellent fishing of the area is one of the primary attractions. According to Ebel’s Houseboats, our chosen facility from which we rent, about 70 percent of the people who come to the park and rent a houseboat bring their own fishing boat to tow along behind. If you do not bring a boat with you, they will provide one for you. A few people fly into Minnesota and rent a car to make the drive up to the park, so using one of the provided boats is their only option.

Ebels offers a choice of 20 houseboats for every need and budget. Rent a big one with a hot tub and all the luxuries for a big family group or a business meeting. Or rent a cozy, smaller version for just a couple on a weekend getaway.

Cherished Memories

Our first trip with Ebels took place in 1996 when we had four kids in tow. We had a wonderful time with a houseboat full of family, the kids going down the slide and splashing into the water, playing on the beach and catching fish. We played cards on one rainy day and enjoyed the outdoors the rest of the time. I love the thought of the laughter and the smiles that memories of that first trip bring to my mind. The kids still bring it up with fond memories.

That’s a stark contrast to a recent trip in which my wife and I took a four-day romantic getaway with just the two of us. We lounged around on the beach and the roof of the houseboat, fished when we felt like it, grilled steaks and enjoyed evening campfires. If I had to choose between the two contrasting styles of houseboat vacations… well, I just can’t decide which one I like the best. There is something for everyone on a houseboat vacation.

There is so much to love about a houseboat trip to Voyageur’s National Park, but it’s the history of the area that tugs at my heart. At times, when sitting near a campfire on a remote beach, I try to envision what it might have been like hundreds of years ago when the first Americans may have camped at that very spot. What an amazing sight it must have been for them to see the French Voyageurs for the first time, with their huge canoes loaded down with iron pots, sharp knives, blankets and shiny things none of them had ever seen before.

“You are willing to trade these magical things for beaver pelts? Why, the beavers are everywhere! What a bargain!”

I hear the loons calling and wonder what it would be like to live back then, but as I drift off to sleep in the comforts of a luxurious houseboat, I am content to be right where I am.

Last photo credited to Ebel’s Voyageur Houseboats; fish photo (3rd from bottom) credited to Dominic Ruis

Rainy Lake Houseboats (Rainy Lake)



Northernaire Houseboats (Rainy Lake)



Voyagaire Houseboats (Crane Lake)


Captain Dominic Ruis



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