Houseboating on Lake Powellby Felice Prager
Not being a lover of roughing it, had someone told me before my trip to Lake Powell that it would become the top place on my list for a vacation, I would have laughed at them. But Lake Powell stole my heart the moment I arrived, and nothing has come close to impressing me since. Don't offer me the Hawaiian Islands, the Riviera, or the Caribbean. All I need to keep me happy is a week in a houseboat on Lake Powell.
Lake Powell is located at the northern border of Arizona and spreads into southern Utah. A 186-mile lake with 96 major canyons and 1,960 miles of shoreline, it was created in the 1950s by the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. Our family was overwhelmed when we learned that Lake Powell's shoreline is 800 miles longer than the California coastline! In the height of summer or the middle of winter, Lake Powell is awe inspiring and humbling in its magnificence.
The perfect way to see and enjoy the lake is in a houseboat. For a few days, or for a week or longer, you can do as my family has done several times - rent a houseboat and live on the lake. You can rent houseboats from one of the four grounded marinas at the lake: Wahweap in Northern Arizona, and Halls Crossing, Bullfrog, and Hite in Utah. There are also two other marinas, but houseboat rentals are not available there.
There is generally a long waiting list for houseboat rentals during peak season, so I recommend reserving a rental as soon as you can to avoid disappointment. This requires a non-refundable deposit. The waiting list is often longer than a year for these peak seasons so you might have to commit to your dates and then shuffle your life around to make it work.
The first time we went to Lake Powell, we reserved our houseboat 18 months in advance and had to cancel our trip at the last minute because of a business conflict. We were extremely disappointed, and we hadn't even been there yet! Our original idea was to leave from Wahweap near Page, Arizona, since this was the closest to Phoenix. However, we couldn't get a reservation and had to arrange a houseboat out of Halls Crossing in Utah. We didn't know at the time just how far this was from our original destination. It required an additional 6-hour of driving tacked onto our already 8-hour drive from the Phoenix area. We drove through Monument Valley to get there, and that was incredible and worth the change in itinerary. There was one particularly memorable stretch of desert road that wound around a particularly harrowing section of mountain cliff. I personally could have done without that, since I am not very good with heights. If you leave from this marina, make sure you have a vehicle with 4-wheel drive to handle the roads and someone who is a capable driver of an off-road vehicle. Since you will be taking a week's worth of supplies, you may have a hitch on your vehicle that will make the ride even more difficult. If you are like me, keep your eyes closed and expect teasing from your family.
Houseboats come in several sizes and can accommodate up to 14 adults. There are safety laws governing how many people can be on each houseboat at one time, and this is enforced by on-lake patrol boats. However, visitors have been known to fill all the beds in the houseboat and then have other members of the group sleep up on the deck. My kids loved this. One night I tried to sleep up on the deck. I lasted for a half hour and when I saw bats, I went back inside! Heights and bats are not for me. Yet, I still love Lake Powell. Just make sure your houseboat windows have screens and leave the windows open all night to enjoy the breeze off the lake.
The houseboats are a marvel of efficiency, using every available inch for a multitude of purposes. Seating areas become sleeping areas. Just when you think you have run out of room for your belongings, someone lifts a seat and there's another storage compartment! The houseboats are built like trucks. They ride up high on 2 multi-compartmental pontoons and can operate in surprisingly low water levels.
Though some people own houseboats of their own that they keep on the lake all year, most people rent them. At check-in, an instructor quickly explains how everything on the boat works and gives a quick "how to" lesson which supposedly turns the novice into an instant expert. Everyone in our group took a turn at the wheel, but very few actually listened to the directions on our first trip. We were so busy inspecting the secrets of our floating home for the next week that we did not hear all the very important details. Big mistake! I advise that renters do not follow our example. Another suggestion is to learn the rules of navigation before setting off; only a few minutes study could save a dangerous accident.
Some people prefer taking their week or two on Lake Powell to explore as much as they can. That's what we did the first time. Having a map enabled us to identify our location and mark the canyons that seemed worthy of further investigation. Others like to find a spot and stay there for the week. That is what we do now. We go "behind the branches" - though I have been sworn to secrecy not to share exactly where that is. People come back year after year and go straight to their favorite spot on the lake hoping it is not already occupied. Some of these favorite spots are family secrets, as ours has become. On our first trip, we found a cove that seemed to be blocked off by trees protruding through the water. Since Lake Powell was created by flooding a canyon, the tops of branches were protruding through the surface of the water. I told my husband to turn the boat around, not an easy task in a tight cove, but he successfully maneuvered through the branches. On the other side, we found a secret place few houseboaters venture to. Our adventure reaped a splendid reward - paradise! We would never share our secret favorite spot with anyone in fear that others will be there before us.
It is possible to rent skiffs, powerboats, and other water toys to drag alongside the boat. If you're planning to stay in one location, these are invaluable for side trips or for jaunts to the marina for supplies. Having a small skiff ensures that your houseboat will not lose its precious parking spot. In the early days, my husband took our boys out fishing in a skiff because it was quieter than the big houseboat and closer to the water. They came back with tales of the giant fish that got away. As my sons got older, they did the fishing on their own as my husband and I enjoyed sunbathing and relaxing back on the houseboat. Powerboats are fun for all ages, but it is often difficult to get a turn when there are kids on the trip.
If this is your first trip, be sure to find a place to dock for the night before dark. Places fill up quickly in peak season and it is not fun and very dangerous to search at nightfall. The trick is finding somewhere with protection from the wind where there is a place to tie down. Each canyon within the lake has many surprises buried at each turn. Just when you think you have found the perfect spot, another pops up which is even more spectacular. It is possible if you pass one up, it will be taken by the time you turn around to go back to it.
With a lake as large as Lake Powell, it is easy to see a storm coming. Lake Powell has been known to have some incredible storms with winds and waves getting extremely strong because of the enormity of the lake. It also provides light shows from lightning and its accompanying thunder. These usually do not last long but they are unforgettable. During these storms, it is safer if your houseboat is within the canyons rather than on the main part of the lake. If a storm is coming, find a place to anchor securely as quickly as you can, and wait it out. On our first trip, not knowing anything about the danger of wind and having paid poor attention to our initial lesson, we found a place on the main part of the lake and docked when we saw the approaching storm. We liked the formations in the red rock behind us - it looked to us like giant bowls had been carved into the rock - and as we anchored the houseboat, we discussed that this might be a good place to stay for the week. We never realized that there was a reason other houseboats were passing the spot by to find places of their own. Little did we know how dangerous a spot we had chosen. As the storm approached, the wind was incredibly loud and violent. When the storm got to us, it gave us a frightening ride that we will never forget. We rocked and swayed and had no control except to keep our children close and to wear the lifejackets provided by the rental company. We realized the bowl shapes behind us in the rocks above where we anchored were formed by centuries of this incredible wind. That is a lesson houseboaters do not forget: do not anchor your houseboat in a place that looks like the wind has carved it.
Six marinas at Lake Powell offer most services and needs while you are on your houseboat, including gas, supplies, and a much needed ice cream cone. This is also where houseboaters go for assistance should their boats fail. On one occasion, we had some trouble with the motor on our houseboat. We left half of our group behind to "save our spot" and pulled into the marina. Within ten minutes, the houseboat was being repaired. We wasted no time because we shopped for supplies and ate ice cream while they fixed the boat. I believe ice cream tastes considerably better when eaten at Lake Powell.
Many boaters bring a week's worth of food with them to enjoy the leisurely life of the gourmet while away. There is a stove and a barbecue on board, and the kitchens are adequately stocked for most every need. When we go, we pre-plan many of our meals so we have the necessary supplies. We try to be creative and have fun. Part of the glamour of being on a houseboat on Lake Powell is preparing gourmet meals as a group activity where everyone has a job to do. With a trip to Lake Powell, there are months of preparation for days of relaxing and enjoying, but it is all well worth the effort.
The marinas also have bait, tackle, permits, and water toys for most tastes. The lake is well stocked with a variety of edible fish. Some people just bring the side dishes and the wine and leave the main course to what they catch each day. No one goes hungry on Lake Powell, not even the fish that gets away. When one of our sons was younger, he used chunks of garlic bread to lure the fish. It worked, but the fish the garlic bread attracted were not terribly tasty. We all pretended the fish was delicious so our son would be proud that he provided dinner that night. That was a mistake since he continued fishing each day using garlic bread as bait, and he caught a lot of questionably tasting fish. A few times, I heard my husband discussing the art of fishing with this son which included "why don't we throw this one back and try to catch a bigger one with Daddy's bait this time."
With a week away and no TV or movies, it is important to bring things to do. Pack your Monopoly or Scrabble and don't forget a deck of cards. If you bring electronic toys or forms of entertainment that run on batteries, don't forget to bring a lot of back up batteries. For the gifted, a guitar or a harmonica is fun to have with you on your trip. For the not-so-gifted, sing anyway.
A vacation on Lake Powell is a combination of work and play. You are accommodating for the lack of conveniences, but there is enough provided to make it fun. The end of each trip on Lake Powell brings a combination of sadness that it is over and exhilaration that it was so much fun. We have already made reservations for the next three years, if that gives you any idea of how wonderful it is to vacation on Lake Powell.
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Felice Prager is a freelance writer from Scottsdale, Arizona with credits in local, national, and international publications. She has had many essays in many anthologies including the Chocolate for Women/Teens series, Chicken Soup series, and Traveler's Tales. She is also a regular contributor to The Irascible Professor. In addition to writing, she also works with adults and children who have learning disabilities as a multisensory educational therapist. For a sampling of her essays, please visit her website: Write Funny!
© Felice Prager, 2000
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