Houseboating On Don Pedro

July 2013 Feature Gini McKain

The Buffingtons of Dublin, Calif., know how to enjoy holidays. It's all about family and friends-about 42 of them at times-during the Fourth of July holiday on one houseboat! Oh, did I forget to mention the six dogs, too? They are also part of the family. That doesn't seem too unusual for the area that has 265 permits for year-round houseboats, and about 600 campsites with amenities, located at several locations on Don Pedro Lake, just over 100 miles from San Francisco and Sacramento in California. Campsites are also set up by beached houseboats, so everyone can enjoy the recreational water sports and fireworks by the dam on West Bay while using the houseboat as the `mother ship.'

The privately owned houseboats are normally moored off buoys in open waters of the lake on the south end, or in a beautiful houseboat marina at the Fleming Meadows Campground and at the Moccasin Marina at the north end. However, on this special weekend, houseboats go a short distance to any of hundreds of coves on the lake where they can either raft up with other houseboats, or be by themselves during family reunions or annual outings.

The Lake

Don Pedro Lake is unique for its construction in a canyon carved out by the Tuolumne River, about 830 to 900 feet above sea level in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Stanislaus National Forest. You pass this lovely lake going to Yosemite National Park, just about 45 minutes away, through rolling hills and oak trees.

It is actually the fifth largest man-made lake in California with nearly 13,000 acres of water supplied by many creeks or tributaries, and the Sierra Mountain snow melt, as well as the river itself. There is nearly 160 miles of shoreline that runs for about 25 miles in length from the dam created in 1971 to the River's entrance by Moccasin Arm or the Tuolumne River Arm. The first eight miles of the lake run through steep, wide canyons lush with vegetation, like Railroad Canyon, and then go into wider areas until reaching Middle Bay. The lake opens up to beautiful water, and hills covered with deep green Oak Trees and little islands just waiting to have your houseboat beached for an evening get together. 

Established for agricultural purposes to primarily help the almond and fruit growers down in the valley, as well as the city of San Francisco for its water, the reservoir is owned and governed by the Don Pedro Board of Control, with the recreation facilities maintained and operated by the Don Pedro Recreation Agency. The earth and rock fill dam where the annual Fourth of July Fireworks display is held was built by the City of San Francisco, the Turlock Irrigation District, and the Modesto Irrigation District. No Corps of Engineers are involved with the lake. The dam rises some 585 feet above the old streambed of the Tuolumne River, creating a maximum lake level/elevation of 830 feet above sea level. Full pool of that elevation stays pretty constant throughout the summer, so large fluctuation levels are not an issue for the houseboats or smaller boats staked or camping on the shore for long periods of time.


So it was an easy choice for the Buffingtons to beach their houseboat at one of their favorite spots in the west side of Big Creek Arm, close to 49er Bay, during the long holiday weekend. Jerry and Linda have a long history of boating and camping in the region, as well as having just remodeled their two-bedroom and two-bath 55- by 22-foot wide custom houseboat Alter Ego, after seven years. Jerry is a retired home contractor and with a son still in the business, the family was able to do their own refurbishing of the boat during the recent winter months. Don Pedro Lake is one of the few lakes in the area that allows year round dockage. That made the family decide to take advantage of the winter months and  totally remodel the top deck, put in new cabinetry, and an all-new solar energy system to power their floating home, making their stay on the boat simpler and more fun.

Jerry reminisces about the early years when he was just married to Linda, 52 years prior to last year's Fourth of July.

"This boating lifestyle is very important to us," recalls Jerry. "We married young and boated with friends when we were 20 years old. We've boated, camped, had ski boats, and pontoon boats on different lakes around the state ever since. We've even rented houseboats before owning this one."

Adds Linda, "We've raised our four children, and now we're raising our 15 grandkids on the water. It's a natural progression for us. It's also important to our well-being and to their well-being."

The Buffingtons know their family is closer because of boating, and all the cousins are close as well.

"We like it and it can be relaxing, although a lot of work at times, but a lot of fun and very rewarding when we look at the children having so much fun," says Jerry. "I think they will remember these good times, too."

The Buffingtons owned a pontoon boat and camped onshore before the houseboat, but they never forgot the joy of having it. So they bought a used 24-foot pontoon boat since having the houseboat. It's an efficient way of transportation for the necessities of ice, water and food, and as a means of transporting family and friends rather than using the houseboat.

Future Plans

But things may change by next year. Son-in-law Scott Townsend, who put in the solar power system, has gotten hooked on the whole concept. Everything onboard is either powered by solar (lights, TV, stereo-radio, boat engine batteries, and three fans), by using only 300 amp hours a day with three large and two smaller solar panels, and eight batteries or by propane for their stove, grill, and refrigerator. New in his arsenal will be a fourth panel to power a freezer for ice, eliminating the need to continually go back to the dock to retrieve fresh ice for food or drinks. The additional cost of the system will be offset by savings in time, transportation fuel and wasted ice melting in coolers.

Townsend spent months researching the effort on YouTube for information and methods, websites and craig's List to purchase the equipment. A charge controller is key hardware to any solar system, he says, because the controller tells the batteries to keep them at their max capacity. He feels the concept can be confusing because you have to convert watts, amps and amp hours.

"You are converting 110 volts that run most of your equipment, to 12-volt batteries," explains Townsend. "Researching and getting an understanding of what needs to be done is very important, but now we only use our generator for the vacuum cleaner or a hair dryer."

Good Eats

Food for the holidays for the Buffingtons is supplied by various family members, from a daughter who loves to cook up pork for barbeque sandwiches, to another family member who makes macaroni salad. Then you have mom's potato salad that is made on the boat with everyone helping out. It's still a matter of healthy eating with fruits and vegetables along with a favorite meat, but no one goes hungry here. The other family favorite is a fish taco made with fresh caught filleted catfish fingers.

Marina Runs

Forever Resorts maintains the two large marinas on the lake, one at each end, which are about 20 miles apart. Runs to the marina for obtaining that precious ice is common, since it's not unusual to spend the Fourth of July in 100-degree temperatures. Fuel, food supplies and a great cafe for the three daily meals, plus engine repair facilities are located at the main Fleming Meadows Recreation Area Marina. This is where the rental boats are located with parking and easy access. It's not unusual to pass hundreds of large carp gathered for their daily feeding from children fascinated with these aggressive fish on the way to their boat. Just be careful, because lots of boats dock in this area to get ice or other food items to go.

The Moccasin Pt. Recreation Area at the north end of the lake also has clothing, food and boat supplies, along with another great café. A fuel dock, 130 moorings with covered dry storage, small boat rentals, launch ramp, and campground are located close to the river at that end. In a small boat, vacationers can go up river to fish, see bald eagles, deer, bear and even pan for gold with a recreational permit. No houseboats for rent here, but there are plenty of small boats, pontoons, and jet skis to rent. However, a houseboat can be reserved and brought over.  

Forever Resorts regional manager Dave Wood said that they consider the lake as one of the best-kept secrets in California. It might be crowded during the three summer holidays, but the rest of the time, the lake is quiet and relaxing. Forever Resorts also has 20 beautiful, fully-equipped houseboats for rent that range from 50 to 70 feet. Some boats even have hot tubs and up to four staterooms. There is even a large 44-foot patio pontoon boat for rent that will accommodate a family reunion.

One of the more popular places to gather with boats of any size is at the waterfalls. There is only one falls, so if you ask, everyone will know which one you are talking about. Smaller boats raft up with the young crowd, enjoying the water and socializing. Top water temperatures are in the low 70's this time of year, and if you care to dive deeper, like five feet deeper, expect the temps to be in the mid-60s. Not a bad way to cool off!

Fishing for salmon, trout, catfish, small mouth bass, and (rare in the western U.S.) the Florida strain of largemouth bass that reach up to 17 pounds, is not recommended during the holiday, but before or after the crowds, it's a lot of fun.

The 4th of July is all about family, friends, water sports, and fireworks of which there are plenty to enjoy on Don Pedro Lake.

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