The far northeastern section of Minnesota contains the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, over a million acres of wilderness and waterways in the Superior National Forest. Across the border in Canada is Quetico Provincial Park. This whole area is a paradise for canoeing and fishing with over a thousand lakes, rivers, and streams. National Geographic Traveler names the Boundary Waters as one of the 50 worldwide destinations serious travelers should see.
The largest city in the heart of this area is Ely, Minnesota. With a population of around 4,000, it offers two groceries, various motels, guide services, and a Chamber of Commerce. Historically, the Ojibwe Indians had called the Ely area home for hundreds of years. Today, the old downtown is somewhat intriguing, with numerous tourist oriented shops.
When I was up there this past September, I brought my "I can crawl now" nine month old son, Bentley. To contain him in a canoe would be like trying to hold a big squirmy northern pike in one hand - it's gonna get away. So, we opted for a three night houseboat rental from Kinsey Houseboat Rentals. They are located on the western end of Birch Lake, near Babbitt, just outside of the Wilderness area.
Though I'd never operated a houseboat before, it was real easy, and they are considered virtually unsinkable. The 36' boat was described as a RV on the water, and it certainly had far greater conveniences than one could get from a canoe. The boat is enclosed, but has many windows that open, and with a door in the front and rear.
The front of the boat has the steering mechanisms, communications radio, and a small sofa that folds out into a bed. A stereo (with cassette) allowed us to tune into interesting French speaking Canadian radio stations. In the middle of the boat is a dining room table that converts to another bed, and the kitchen, including a refrigerator, sink, stove/oven. There's also a small bathroom with shower. A hot water heater and furnace added extra comforts. We set up the collapsible crib to block the back door, where the bedroom is located.
Surrounding the outside of the houseboat is a wrap around walkway with a large porch in the front, and smaller one with seats atop the batteries and fuel in the back. There's a ladder leading to the large, low railed, rooftop, excellent for sunbathing. A slide leads down to the back water from the roof, but in cool September, we opted to skip a swim.
I'm ashamed to admit I'm not much of a fisherman and was unsuccessful with a borrowed child's fishing pole. Just getting live leeches on a hook was quite the experience! Nevertheless, Birch Lake is reportedly an excellent location to fish for northern pikes, slab crappies, bluegills, sunfish, smallmouth bass, and walleyes. My stomach would cry as we'd watch experienced fishermen in small motorboats pull into coves, throw a line, catch a fish, pose for a photo, than throw the fish back in the lake. I pined for those catch and release getaways!
Birch Lake covers 6,000 acres, is 20 miles long and has 100 miles of wilderness shoreline, mostly on undeveloped federal land. Unlike the wilderness areas, there are no motorboat restrictions. Cruising around in mid-September offered views of birch, maple and other trees just starting to turn colors. In various places we'd see glacial cliffs, loons, and eagles. While we didn't see any moose, deer, bear, wolves, or fishers, we did see a beautiful black mink scampering along the shoreline.
Throughout Birch Lake are small islands, many designated as good campsites. Some of these islands are less than a quarter acre in size, but contain beautiful rocky bluffs, a variety of lichen, carpets of moss, numerous trees, wild blueberries, and views across the water.
Houseboats aren't speed demons, so you'd best have a patient, relaxed frame of mind. Our boat had two 30hp engines, but I only used one, and cruised at less than half of full throttle. Over the three nights we were exploring Birch Lake, we saw a dozen other houseboats, many pulling small motor boats or canoes. One chain of three houseboats cruised into a little private bay camp site for a family rendezvous.
I'd really love to do a houseboat adventure again, possibly with friends or family also renting their own boat for a multi-day get-together. While the brochures describe accommodations for four to six people, I'd encourage no more than four adults for boats this size. Another option some boats were using was to carry a freestanding tent so some people could sleep on land. When they left their campsite they simply attached the standing tent to the houseboat roof. Make sure to tie it down well as the winds can really pick up at anytime in the middle of the lake.
The area from Duluth, Minnesota, along Lake Superior, north to the Canadian border is full of vibrant beauty and history. In the 1700s hardy "voyageurs" paddled throughout the Great Lakes and Canadian waterways trading with the Indians for abundant beaver pelts. The Grand Portage National Monument along Lake Superior, seven miles from the Canadian border, offers an excellent display of craftsmen recreating the birchbark canoes that French-Canadian fur trappers and traders used. This is a worthwhile stop if you're heading to or coming from Canada.
Additionally, if you're in Duluth, MN, stop at the historic Fitger's Brewery Complex. This waterfront shopping complex offers numerous specialty shops, an Inn, and a wide array of eating and entertainment options including Bennett's on the Lake's Dinner
Theater Productions, regional and local music at Fitger's Brewhouse, and top local talent featured at the Lakeview Coffee Emporium. The views from the inside the complex and along the outside lake walk of Lake Superior are spectacular.
Don't let your little bundle of joy infant prevent you from getting out and about and having a wonderful vacation. While lil Bentley's memory of his houseboat adventure may not last, a few photos can serve as a lifetime reminder for all.
Kinsey Houseboat Rentals: ( 888 ) 827-3763 ( 218 ) 827 3743, http://www.kinseys.com.
Timber Bay Lodge and Houseboats also has rentals on Birch Lake, ( 800 ) 846-6821 ( 218 ) 827-3682, http://www.timberbay.com.
More information on Minnesota houseboat rentals is available from The HouseBoating page at: http://houseboat.net/mn.html.
Chamber of Commerce: http://www.ely.org/.
National Recreation Reservation Service: (877) 550-6777, http://www.bwcaw.org
Canoe Information: http://www.canoecountry.com
USDA Information: http://www.gis.umn.edu/snf/bwcaw
Duluth, Minnesota Attractions: http://www.visitduluth.com
Fitger's Complex, Duluth, MN: http://www.brewhouse.net/history/index.htm
[Note: A variation of this article was printed in MetroParent - Jan. 2001]
Houseboat Trip Photos -- Fun Pages Index -- The Priorities Institute Home Page