A Perfect Summer Adventure
By Steven Bull
I love my boat, I love my lake and I love my home, but sometimes you’ve gotta shake it up. And what better way to do that than by combining a new boating experience with a new lake and a new living style?
I managed all three in one go thanks to a flight to Winnipeg, a four-hour drive to Sioux Narrows in northwestern Ontario and a three-bedroom houseboat from our friends at Floating Lodges.
There are a number of houseboat rental companies dotting the shores of Lake of the Woods and near the largest city in this part of the province, Kenora. But I had heard good things about Floating Lodges and was hooked on owner Jim Rebbetoy’s story. He first visited from southwestern Ontario a few years back.
“That was supposed to be a summer off, spending a few weeks passing through town,” he said as we stood beside three of his blue and white custom-built houseboats bobbing in the water of the narrows. “I guess I’m still passing through and just got bogged down a few years!”
But if loyalty is how you build a business, he’s doing something right.
Forty to be exact. His 1975 visit was all it took to fall in love with the region and within three years he had bought Floating Lodges’ two-boat business and managed to secure just a single booking. But if loyalty is how you build a business, he’s doing something right.
“That guy, that original booking back in ’78, still comes,” Rebbetoy says with a smile.
That two-boat business has grown into an armada. He now boasts about a dozen little fishing boats and ten, large houseboats ranging from 40-footers, the most popular, to the largest, a triple-decker, 60-footer.
He’s understandably proud of his business and has a clear love for the region but he won’t sell you a bill of goods. Rebbetoy is the first to tell you this isn’t for everyone.
“What’s really the best part here is it’s a wilderness experience. So if you want restaurants and stores, this isn’t the best trip,” he explains as we walk to the boat I’ll be spending the week on. “But, if you just want to go out there and be left alone and have great fishing, great wilderness experience – this is the place.”
He nods towards the blank slate of wilderness adventure that lies just beyond the Sioux Narrows Bridge while an employee, Tim Hanson, fires up the supply boat at the end of one of the finger docks.
Although you’re out in your own private wilderness paradise when you beach your houseboat, you’re never isolated. We hop in the aluminum supply boat and head to Chisholm Island where a group of buddies from Wisconsin are celebrating a 50th birthday.
Happy boaters and referrals are more valuable than making an extra toonie on a bucket of bait.
The supply runs happen to every Floating Lodges houseboat once a week to pick up garbage, which helps guests keep the wilderness pristine without stocking a week’s worth of food waste in the mid-summer heat. They also bring any supplies you need from ice to bait to bread. Just tell Floating Lodges HQ what you need, they’ll bring it and add the cost to your bill, with no markup – a nice touch that could be squeezed for a few extra bucks. Happy boaters and referrals are more valuable than making an extra toonie on a bucket of bait.
The Wisconsin four are a fun loving group with a primo spot. It’s a sheltered bay with a wide-open rocky outcrop, a mini peninsula that houses a fire pit and picnic table. I found out later they had snagged a popular shore lunch spot for fishing guides. Well done, gents!
In spite of the fact that I’m a Detroit Lions fan and Joe Nelson, the birthday boy, was proudly sporting the uniform of my sworn enemies – a Green Bay Packers t-shirt – we managed to keep the conversation to houseboats.
“I just came up for a great Canadian experience. I’ve been on this trip one other time and told all my buddies it was the best trip I’ve ever had.” Nelson smiles, clutching a cold beer, “I’ve done a lot of different trips from staying in cabins to fly-ins, and staying on this houseboat is the best trip I ever had. It’s so relaxing, always on the water, you never leave the water at all, easy-on easy-off. It’s a great experience.”
Just two weeks ago Dave Green was on a 60-foot yacht on the West Coast.
“I’m having more fun on this houseboat than on that. That was nerve-wracking, but this thing is so easy,” he says, pointing to their 40-foot houseboat. Even though it’s on a lake filled with rocks and islands, he says you never feel out-of-touch or out-of-control. “You’ve got ship-to-shore communications no matter where you’re at on the lake. It’s just been great, I can’t recommend it enough.”
I managed to wrestle myself away from the Lions versus Packers debate, turning down free beer in exchange for swapping football allegiance, and hopped back on the supply boat to find the next group.
We have to make our way from Chisholm Island northwest to Whiteout Island to meet a family from Minnesota.
Circling the island, we find them just as the clouds gave way to hot sun. This group also found a secluded bay but instead of rock, they have a sandy beach – perfect for the four young kids.
this crew represents the other main market for houseboat rentals: families
Though very different than the Wisconsin four, this crew represents the other main market for houseboat rentals: families.
And for this gang this is a full-on family tradition.
“My husband and I stumbled onto it in, had to be, the very early ‘90s – 1990 was maybe our first trip,” says Jill Brodersen, the grandmother of the group. “My youngest (child) would have been five then. And we just started putzing around up here and we loved it and we kept doing it year after year because it was a vacation we could afford, the kids loved it.”
Joined by a close friend and their son bringing the total number to 10 people, there are three generations on this trip.
“We went to Florida a few times but this was it!” explains Jill’s daughter Erica Hilgers as her three daughters splash in the water behind her. “We had so much fun and all my memories come from here. So when I had kids it was kind of one thing we wanted to get back to.”
They took a break when the children were babies but now that they’re four, five and seven, the houseboating is back. And while sometimes trying to recapture past memories doesn’t work, everyone here tells me this just keeps getting better.
“it’s just fun. I just love it.”
“It’s something that I’ll never forget. I hope that they grow up and want to do it themselves and take me as a grandma,” laughs Hilgers nodding to her mother now sitting in a folding chair on the beach. “That would be my wish, because it’s just fun. I just love it.”
During my week on Lake of the Woods, I took one of the 54-foot houseboats out for a drive and spent a few days in the serenity only seeing another dozen boats. I went out with a fishing guide who helped land a meal’s worth of walleye for a shore lunch – a must-do if you’re ever here.
Fresh – and I mean 20 minutes from hooking to cleaning fresh – fish cooked to crispy perfection over a campfire and enjoyed in the shade on a secluded island.
Our guide, Big John Stuhldreier, insists on another stop before taking us back to our floating home-away-from-home, a reedy bay that he says is full of northern pike.
As we’re casting he says his only regret is not starting his guiding career sooner and says you shouldn’t put off a visit to Lake of the Woods.
“It’s never too late! Get out and enjoy some of the wilderness we have here,” he says while sitting on his Evinrude outboard, casually reeling in his lure. “I mean we have no cabins, no nothing here. We don’t even have any boats around us. It’s just a heck of a place to come out.”
Within 15 minutes I’ve landed the biggest pike of my fishing life. I snap a quick photo and then we call it a day and Big John races us back to our houseboat that we’ve tied up to a small rocky island in a good-sized bay.
The vast majority of houseboat clients are American customers, and Rebbetoy says some years it’s more than 90%, but as the campfire takes hold and, before retiring into the full kitchen to make dinner, I think I may be on to their secret. Houseboating on this pristine slice of heaven that is Lake of the Woods is something I would do again in a heartbeat. Hopefully more Canadians give it a shot. Maybe then we can start shifting at least the client base from US to eh?