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Trip Report: VNP by houseboat

Level Contributor
61 posts
29 reviews
Trip Report: VNP by houseboat

Since my post below received no responses, it appears that this forum could use some info. My trip is now complete and hopefully this report will help out any other folks that happen by looking for info, and perhaps even spark a bit of discussion.

We rented a houseboat for a week in early August and towed along a small fishing boat and a canoe. I won't mention the company because any of the companies will do well, just focus on what you need and see what each offers. For example, the Kettle Falls dam cuts Rainy Lake off from the rest of the park, so pick a company that has access to the part of the park you want.

There was some competition for sites, but we didn't have trouble finding one. Most shifting seems to occur in the morning and note that there are about as many unofficial sites as official sites to choose from. Ask your company to mark a bunch on the maps they give you.

Be open to exploring different types of sites until you find the type that best suits you. Many people seem to flock to the sandy sites due to the nice beach to play on, swim from, and park extra boats on. However we found those buggier and quite annoying because of all the sand getting tracked in everywhere in the boat. Bring a flat pan as a foot bath and remove shoes outside the boat. We actually found that rocky sites often offered better campfire views and weren't that hard to moor to once our group got the hang of it. There are a few "soft" muddy sites as well, but our company warned us about a few that should be avoided because boats get really stuck and need to get pulled out. Ask about those, too.

Our boat had really thin mattresses. We wished we had brought a couple inflatable mattresses to place over or under the ones provided.

Be prepared to fend off a few mice. We had some and judging by the radio traffic we heard, they are fairly common when boats are tied to shore. Apparently the mice have learned to board boats in search of food even if you pull the plank in at night. We put our food in cabinets that seemed sealed and in coolers we weren't using. Consider bringing and keeping your food in bins.

If you haven't been there, visit Kettle Falls Resort area. The hotel/bar/restaurant are worth visiting once, but the dam not at all. The food is kinda pricy, but we enjoyed the served meal toward the end of our trip. The place is NOT very houseboat friendly, so use your smaller boat if within reasonable range. When you visit with a houseboat you see two signs: the first one points to the houseboat mooring area, and the second one on the dock in that area states "no houseboats". You have to find a spot on your own to tie up along a very high rocky shore and take your small boat the last few yards to the dock. Then you have to navigate a very confusing set of trails and paths with no maps or signs until you find the hotel several hundred yards away. It is almost like they don't want houseboats there at all. There is a better docking area for regular boats nearer the resort. Note that the falls themselves are just a very basic, boring dam. Nothing special at all.

Fishing was good once we got the hang of it. We made a point of camping well up into bays and coves so we could fish when others couldn't on the big lakes due to waves. Gold Rapalas are great. We couldn't get any leeches at any bait shop in the area. Go for the smallies and northerns, and you'll find a few walleyes as well. That's what worked for us. Read the fishing laws carefully as several special rules apply to VNP lakes.

The maps they gave us were good, but I'm a GIS/GPS kinda guy. I did some research in advance and learned that the standard map apps on iPhones/droids would be useless in the VNP due to a lack of data connection (they don't reliably cache maps due to copyright issues). So we installed one of the apps below on our phones and LOVED them. We downloaded and cached the maps in those apps in advance and they worked great in real time while motoring around the park with only the standard GPS signals all phones automatically receive. While we could have navigated without them, I loved having the real-time nav in my hand as I motored around all those islands and points that look like all the others. An app company named "Trailbehind" (www.trailbehind.com) has two very similar apps: Gaia GPS and Offline Topo Maps, and either works well. The latter seems to be their cheaper, earlier version but is still great and perhaps even easier to use. Once you have installed either app, be sure to download a set of the aerial photo maps before you go as those are the most current, although the topo maps were helpful, too. These are legal maps.

Be sure to understand and monitor your onboard electrical and LP gas systems. If something goes wrong, the effect is multiplied as the dominoes fall from one thing to the next. Contact your company's base right away if something doesn't seem right.

We really enjoyed fact that our boat had a second helm on the top deck, allowing a very relaxing, scenic view during the hours spent driving around, sitting with the others in our group also relaxing "up top"..

Bring a saw to cut firewood, but don't bother with an axe or other chopping tool. Buy a bundle or two to get you started and you'll find plenty more around to supplement that and keep your fires going.

If you like star gazing, be sure to install one of the apps that tells you all about the sky as you hold it up to the stars. Very nice!

That's enough for now. I will likely think of a few other things to add, but not knowing if someone will even read or need this, that's enough for now ;-)

24 replies to this topic
Destination Expert
for Minneapolis, Minnesota
Level Contributor
1,094 posts
179 reviews
1. Re: Trip Report: VNP by houseboat

That is an AWESOME trip report, Vespid23. Thanks so much for posting, it's a great addition to the MN travel forum!

Saint Paul...
Level Contributor
2,375 posts
46 reviews
2. Re: Trip Report: VNP by houseboat

WONDERFUL! We leave in a couple weeks to houseboat out of Crane Lake. Vespid23 your timing could not be better. I will be cut/pasting your report into an email to my brother and parents who are going along. If you don't mind I have a few questions.

1. Do they advise you on any particular rules for crossing border with houseboat to corners and shorten distance. Not for stopping - just for navigation.

2. How early would you say we would need to stop at a site to assure best chance of availability? We were figuring motor for 3-4 hours and to stop at lunch time.

3. Aside from unofficial sites are houseboats permitted to use regular camp sites? I know tent campers would not have a pad at the houseboat sites but what about using one if still available late in the day or if ducking bad weather? Any port in a storm so to speak.

4. Do the houseboat sites have picnic tables?

5. How deep were you fishing?

When we return I will add a report of my own to this thread in addition to reviewing the operator.

Level Contributor
61 posts
29 reviews
3. Re: Trip Report: VNP by houseboat

Hi Sequim, I'm glad you found the info useful. I'm actually surprised it was read within a day of posting it!

We were told that you can venture into Canadian waters without a passport or stopping at customs as long as you don't land anywhere or try to fish. I suspect that this policy isn't official anywhere, but as long as you don't spend the whole day over there I don't think anyone will care. We used a couple such shortcuts and enjoyed them without issue. Note that hazards aren't as well marked on the Canadian side (or so we're told) to be extra vigilant if you try and stay in deep water.

People seem to start shifting sites really early in the morning. It seemed to me that most was done by noon unless really traveling a long distance. Your plan will probably work, but aim for a cluster of sites rather than just one specific site. Your hospitality boat can give you info as well. I found them helpful one day in particular when we were pushing up into Kabatogema later in the day and they guy let me know which sites he knew were open.

Houseboats are allowed to camp anywhere EXCEPT designated tent or day use sites. Designated houseboat sites generally only have metal fire rings and no tables. Unofficial houseboat sites often have a rock-circle fire ring that visitors have made and improved over the years. You can also just pick a random piece of shoreline if you want or need to, but need to stay a decent distance away from another site of any sort and should check it out with your small boat first to make sure it is safe to try and moor there.

There is a huge difference on fire ring placement from site to site and this often drove our site selection process. Many sites, especially sandy ones, seemed to have them down near the beach but we really liked the sites that had the fire rings up on a scenic point with a better view and breeze, but also were shaded in the late afternoon.

We broke with the conventional wisdom of late summer fishing ("go deep for walleyes") and had our success trolling gold rapalas around small island, rocks, hazards, and the adjacent underwater plateaus 10-20 ft down. Some areas are very weedy and tough to fish. Note that we had a small Lund with only a 15 hp motor which made careful backtrolling much easier and safer to do in tight shallow areas. We've never been good at deep lake fishing anyway. We started with deep running gold rapalas and after we lost all of those to snags the first few days we used floaters trailing behind sinkers to get them 10-15 ft down or so. It took us a couple days to figure out how to catch fish, but once we figured out this system three of us would usually catch 4-6 fish an hour. Not a huge number, but fine for us. Mostly smallmouth (around 50 total or so and FUN) but also about a northern an hour (including 2 nice 30-inchers in the last hour of our last day) and about 8 walleye mixed in. Do read up on the walleye size restrictions. You can't keep any between 17-28 inches on VNP lakes. That actually discouraged us from going for them directly. The first one we caught was 16.5 inches and we like to eat fish while we're camping. We brought a small collapsible table along that we set up on the stern just for cleaning fish and it worked great. We also brought paper bags along for disposing of fish guts. The park maps states to dispose of them in deep water, so we'd put the guts in a paper bag with a rock and drop them in the next time we motored out. Paper bags will biodegrade quickly while plastic bags won't at all. I don't remember where I read about that trick in advance, but it worked fine and kept the smelly stuff out of our garbage, which we only had picked up once during the week.

After just one trip I don't really feel like an expert by any means, but if you have any other questions, just ask.

Plymouth, Minnesota
Level Contributor
538 posts
60 reviews
4. Re: Trip Report: VNP by houseboat

Great report, Vespid23! Thanks for taking the time. I think that a houseboat trip in VNP has just been added to my bucket list.

Saint Paul...
Level Contributor
2,375 posts
46 reviews
5. Re: Trip Report: VNP by houseboat

Thanks for the additional info. The fishing tips will be very useful and the paper bag trick sounds perfect. We are hoping to have fish for at least one dinner and the fallback if we get skunked is spaghetti so plenty of incentive to catch some we can keep.

Saint Paul...
Level Contributor
2,375 posts
46 reviews
6. Re: Trip Report: VNP by houseboat

For the benefit of future searches on houseboating at Voyageurs NP I will add my observations. I will try to separate boat specific things from what would probably apply to any boat or operator. I did however write a review for Voyagaire houseboats that is still in approval process if anyone is interested in that specific operator.

We boated from Crane Lake so had access to Crane, Sandpoint, Namakan and Kabetogama. One of the more interesting aspects to those lakes are the number of narrow passages as well as the change in the bouy system between Namakan and Kabetogama (at bouy 14) due to changing from downstream to upstream. Be careful there - YES the channel IS between the little island and the larger island. Overall though navigation was a breeze. One interesting spot was approaching Kettle Falls where someone very helpfully mounted an arrow on shore pointing which way to go.

The operator did a very thorough checklist tour about operating the boat but two items that would have been useful to include were the location of the master breaker on the generator (we tripped it once) and the fuel tank selector for port/starboard. One day was very hot and sun shining on the starboard side caused the fuel tank to vent making a strong gas odor. We were told via radio to select that tank to draw from and the smell immediately went away. In retrospect we could have helped trim the boat better (it leaned one way somewhat) by keeping the tanks even.

Another issue about sand beaches as opposed to rock is when beached the whole boat becomes nose up a bit. So arrange beds with pillow end accordingly.

Boat had two water systems - lake & fresh. Fresh was from tank filled from the operator's well - very good water. Fresh water is via small taps at sinks but there was a pump under one of the beds so when anyone ran them in night it made a loud noise. All other water (toilet, shower, sink faucets) was from the lake. Filtered but not really suitable for drinking. Interestingly while the black water went to tank the grey water (from kitchen sink) ran into the lake.

Sites marked as "soft" really were. We got stuck a couple times and had to work the twin 75hp motors to wiggle our way out.

We stayed two nights at Mica Bay Beach (beautiful spot) and up towards end of Mica Bay on south side there is a stream that flows in and we caught lots of Smallmouth Bass - one was over four pounds. Wrong time of year for Walleyes or Crappies but the Bass were very tastey. Beat the heck out of spaghetti. ;) Nightcrawlers seemed to be the bait of choice and we never caught anything on a leech or minnow

Lost Bay on Kabetogama was nice and water was warmer but it was also not as clear and there were more mosquitos than anywhere else. The official site at McMannus Is. was very cool between the rocks and near there down in Junction Bay we found a nice lagoon with a waterfall flowing in where we caught some nice Perch and our only Walleye. .

Hot tub was a bit of a dissapointment due to time it takes to heat up plus a bad controller module. They came out and replaced the controller and it eventually got to 101° and was nice the last couple days.

There is an unofficial site at Ed's bay end of the Swanson's Bay snowmobile trail that was very soft bottom and full of very small leeches that really put a big bite on and the anticoagulant from them meant the spots really bled for a long time. Sandy sites did not have leeches.

We had one mouse right from day one so we suspect it was onboard from the start. One evening we opened a cabinet and it was running around in the cans of food. It tried to escape to I slammed the door on it - scratch one mouse. We had traps with and never caught any after that.

We wanted to visit Elsworth Rock Gardens but learned the dock there can't accomodate houseboats and with one person needing wheelchair using our fishing boat to ferry would have been too much hassle. At Kettle Falls we were allowed to use the dock (by prior arrangement on channel 12) and they met us with a golf cart for the people unable to walk to the hotel. Very interesting place well worth a stop.

We rented two battery packs for one CPAP machine and Mom's oxygen machine. Worked OK for CPAP but would not last the night for oxygen (4 hours only) so we had to run generator all night. They did take the battery charge off. So if needing oxygen either plan on two battery packs or using generator.

Operator offered a hospitality service (built in to price but could be applied to gas bill if never used) for getting ice and groceries. We used it almost every day. In addtion to charges for items delivered the big hit at the end was gas. We used about 200 gallons over the week (24hr generator did not help) but cost was $4/gallon - less than expected for way up there because no highway taxes on marine fuel. Still final bill was about a grand - something to be budgeted for. Also the insurance is good peace of mind - last day we saw another boat coming in severely tilting due to water in a pontoon. Speculation was they hit something and knocked a plug out of it. They almost had water coming in the main cabin.

We noticed that boats from another operator did not have rigid tow bars for the required tow-along boat. We felt this really helped reduce banging on our small boat when we backed out of sites or made sharp turns.

Level Contributor
61 posts
29 reviews
7. Re: Trip Report: VNP by houseboat

Great report, Sequim! I concur with many of your comments, although we had a few more mice (caught one almost every night, but never saw more than one). We also saw plenty of leeches at our sandy site, but that may have been because there was so much more wade-able shoreline.

It sounds like these lakes turn greener and greener as the summer goes on, just like southern MN lakes. This really surprises me. Perhaps if there weren't all these houseboats dumping soapy phosphate-laden grey water all over the lakes it might help.

Level Contributor
4,303 posts
685 reviews
8. Re: Trip Report: VNP by houseboat

Nice Trip reports - Thanks for sharing.

I have camped at VNP but have not been able to do the houseboat tour. I have put this higher on my bucket list after reading these reports.

Canby, OR
Level Contributor
245 posts
11 reviews
9. Re: Trip Report: VNP by houseboat

Great info!

Starting to research a similar trip for this year. I took a shot at TA, thinking it was probably futile and we'd have to start from scratch ourselves. So I'm very grateful for the informative report and additional input. Three years later, its probably still fairly relevant in an area that doesn't see rapid change. But if/when we go, ill be sure to post any updated observations.

Level Contributor
8 posts
17 reviews
10. Re: Trip Report: VNP by houseboat

Thank you so much for your contribution! A girlfriend of mine took a similar houseboat trip with her family a few years ago to Voyageurs and could have really used these helpful tips. Thanks again for helping guests whom travel to our only National Park in Minnestoa!

My best,


Edited: 12:03 am, February 27, 2015
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