Little Houseboat of Horrors

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 14, 2002

For reasons that are no longer clear to me, I felt that my experience sailing a 14-foot Flying Scot would somehow equip me to take on the vast expanses of Lake Powell in a 15-ton cruiser with twin 115-hp engines, two 140-gallon gas tanks, huge batteries, a generator, power breaker switches and two propane tanks whose purpose remains to me a mystery, except they did seem to be involved in our loss of refrigeration.

But here's the lesson I can share, should you ever be in the enviable position of renting a houseboat on Lake Powell: Take a man. Not just any man, but a manly man.

Choose one with dirty fingernails, calluses and grease in the crevices of his knuckles. If you have a choice, for example, between Brad Pitt or Tom Magliozzi from "Car Talk," take Tom.

I, instead, took artist/architect Barbara Siegel and three small children who couldn't master the three-step toilet-flushing procedure.

There are, no doubt, women who would zero in on the techniques of getting the lights and bilge pumps going. But as Barbara puts it, "For women, we are pretty macho." And yet here we are, experimentally flipping switches in hopes something will happen.

Oh, we start out happy, confident and carefree. I pull away from the Wahweap Marina dock, near Page, Ariz., feeling like an admiral commanding a third-world naval fleet. I mean, I live in a two-bedroom house, and I'm driving a four-bedroom, two-bath boat. Dragging behind is a six-seater speedboat that revs up to 7,000 rpm.

Inside the speedboat is a rubber tube to paddle or tow. For an extra fee, I could have gotten kayaks, water skis, scuba gear, knee boards for skiing half-prone and a wake board, which is like a snowboard with heavy boots attached.

Ahead of us is an expanse of blue water and dry desert collectively called the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. A drought has lowered the lake by 57 feet, but I grimace at my ignorance when I remember worrying that the drought could dry-dock us. The lake is 560 feet deep near the face of the Glen Canyon Dam, and many canyons mark depths of 300 feet.

The lake is surrounded by a million acres of desert, including vast swatches owned by the Navajos. Once this was simply desert, with a river running through it. But a 10-year government construction project created the dam to harness the water and hydroelectric power of the Colorado River and its tributaries. The dam, fought by environmentalists -- some of whom continue to push to have the lake drained -- was completed in 1966.

It took another 14 years and 8.5 trillion gallons of water to create a lake from desert lands. Today, Lake Powell's 2,000 miles of coastline include deep gorges, cascades and silent canyons whose walls tower hundreds of feet. From a distance, some of the mesas look like Mayan temples. Red-rock buttes surround protected coves with sandy white or salmon-colored beaches.

Fish are jumping, and judging by the concentric circles they leave, just one could feed my little navy. We've got poles, a $21 fishing license, frozen sardines for bait and a vicious filleting knife.

"One of you should go on ahead in the powerboat to find a good beach," our instructor advised us in an hour-long lesson. You may wonder what constitutes a good beach for docking a house. Well, we didn't.

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