Little Houseboat of Horrors
Arizona's Lake Powell, with secret coves and 2,000 miles of coastline, certainly looks idyllic. But put Lucy and Ethel at the helm of a rental houseboat and things can get messy.

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.

The instructors will teach as long as you wish. But we were overly confident and in a hurry. It didn't occur to me, the captain, or Barb, the other captain, that a good beach for parking a 15-ton boat would be anything except obvious.

I won't say who chose the level beach on which I ram our houseboat, but it wasn't me. I jump out to help secure the anchors on land -- the water is too deep to drop anchor. I sink ankle deep in muck that sucks the sandals off my feet.

Before we can get anchor holes dug, the wind swings the houseboat sideways. When we restart the engines, which I shouldn't have turned off in the first place, we find that our pontoons are sunk so deep in mud that even the power of 230 horses won't budge them.

"Houseboat M30 calling Wahweap Marina. Wahweap, come in please. Please come in."

One hour out and we need AAA. Luckily, the marina operates a maritime version of AAA. They want to know where we are.

Uhh, well, we went straight out of the marina for a while, and then we turned left. Barb jumps on the boat to study the maritime map and figures that we are somewhere in Warm Creek Bay. That's like telling the AAA guy you are somewhere in Bethesda.

An hour or so later, a manly man appears on a "chase boat." He explains the essence of a good beach and tows the houseboat out of the muck, with me and two of the three children on board. Once freed, I chug to another section of Warm Creek Bay, figuring that Barbara and her 6-year-old son, Ben, are right behind in the speedboat.

This time I ram onto a good beach, meaning it has a steeper incline than the last one and none of the offshore weeds that are a dead giveaway for a muddy vs. sandy bottom. But it takes two to dock: one to keep the boat straight by running the engines, one to set four anchors whose lines stretch between the stern and the beach. But there is no Barb or Ben in sight.

After half an hour I frantically radio the marina again.

"Oh, they're probably out having a good time," the dockmaster assures me. "No way; they wouldn't do that," I say, feeling like a parent trying to make a missing person's report on a teen known to authorities as wayward.

An hour or so later, when Barb's 9-year-old, Lena, is as frantic as I am, I call Wahweap again and activate a search crew. Before the crew can find them, though, they're back. Barb had been extracting the speedboat from a foot of muck by tugging nonstop for two hours.

We're by now too tired to dig four two-foot holes in the sand to bury the anchors, as advised. I discover that the anchors do just fine if you throw a few shovels of wet sand over them. In fact, we've done such a good job beaching the second time that the houseboat never sways once.

In fact, we're so firmly planted we could stay there permanently.

In fact, we discover when it's time to leave three days later that we would be there permanently, were it not for the manly marina men and their towboat.

Acrobatic Mice

The main idea of houseboating is that you move the big, lumbering, gas-guzzling vessel every day or two and in between use the much faster speedboat to explore. We decide that beaching our home twice in one day is enough for the entire trip, and never move it until it's time to leave. I pretend that the decision is made out of love for our sandy strip, where we are joined by four other houseboats, prompting Barb to dub it Condo Beach.

Future houseboaters could take advantage of our belated education: Start early enough the first day to spend a few hours reaching Cookie Jar, named for a rock formation you'll immediately recognize. The area beyond Warm Creek has stellar beaches. And while Warm Creek seemed clear and clean, we understand only when we get to Cookie Jar and beyond in our speedboat how pristine air and water can be.

Once at Cookie Jar, beach your houseboat and explore by speedboat until you've found a private beach shaded by high cliffs. And don't be afraid to move the houseboat there later, assuming it will move.

We spend what's left of our first day swimming off the back of the houseboat. Barb, who's not afraid of heights like our other captain is, tests the water depth by plunging down the slide that begins its ascent from our upper deck. When she bobs up with no signs of paralysis, we figure that it's deep enough for the children. They delight themselves for hours, whooshing down to the water about 18 feet below.

Grilling hamburgers on the gas grill takes more than an hour, despite the appearance of a steady flame. But by the next evening, after we've flipped and pushed a variety of switches and buttons on board, chicken for some reason cooks quickly.

Our first day we don't relax until we get a fire going on the beach, beneath a star-studded sky. We sing campfire songs and roast marshmallows and listen to the water lapping the shores.

We retire to find hot and stuffy cabins. The boat features upholstered seats, a dining table, queen-size beds in rooms with windows, a modern kitchen and air conditioning. But the air conditioning is powered by a noisy generator. Moreover, we've read that houseboaters die each year of carbon monoxide poisoning. Even though we have CO monitors in every room, we are afraid to keep the motor running while we sleep.

Later, we learn that people die of CO poisoning not from enjoying AC, but because they swim behind their boats with motors running. Even if they failed to consider fumes, you'd think they'd be reluctant to swim next to whirling propellers.

None of our mistakes are life-threatening. And while a couple involve stupidity, most could easily be committed by perfectly intelligent people. For example, who would intuitively know that you should let your anchor lines from the beach droop in the water so that acrobatic mice can't tight-rope-walk their way onto the deck?

Fearing AC, I open the patio doors on both ends of the boat and sit quietly in the dark, catching the cool breeze. I stifle a scream as a small creature runs into the kitchen.

Marine AAA closes after 7 p.m., and I don't think the Coast Guard will respond to a mouse emergency. Knowing my 9-year-old would demand immediate evacuation if she knew a mouse were on board, I bravely climb off the table and chase the mouse out the door. I don't hear a plop as it dives off the deck, so I assume it landed on the tightrope. Like I care either way.

My confidence restored by my mousing skills, I tell Barb the next morning that I'm going to take a quick spin in the speedboat with my daughter, Maddie. We skim across the water and find a gorgeous beach with great rocks for climbing and caverns for exploring.

Everyone is going to love this, we agree, and decide to rush back for our friends. Only the speedboat has swung sideways. Surprise, surprise: It's stuck in the sand.

Our vacation is turning into one big Perils of Pauline episode. We work the boat for an hour, without effect. The speedboat doesn't have a marine radio, so eventually we stand on the shore waving our arms, no doubt looking like little stick figures to faraway boaters.

Finally, I see a parasail on the other side of a mesa and run half a mile to tell my tale of woe. Three manly young men from California, with all the attributes that that state implies, rescue us.

I'm beginning to feel like Blanche DuBois. And this will not be the last time we depend on the kindness of strangers, or even the next to the last time.

We spend what's left of our day towing our delighted children in a tube behind the speedboat.

On this trip, we do many fine things. On the drive from Las Vegas to Lake Powell we stop in Zion National Park in Utah for awesome views, a hike and a swim in a river where we catch and release tadpoles. On the return to Vegas, we turn a corner on a dark hill and see spread beneath us the bright neon city that seems to shimmer and twinkle as heat waves rise from the desert floor.

We see ancient petroglyphs on canyon walls in Lake Powell. In Vegas we see a pirate show complete with explosions at Treasure Island Hotel and Casino and body-surf in a wave pool at Mandalay Bay Resort.

But all three children agree, without hesitation, that tubing off the speedboat is the best experience, by far. (Just remember that adults don't get a turn unless there are three of them. It takes one to run the boat, and one to watch the towline.)

Boating as Sitcom

After dinner our second evening, we return to the magical beach where I'd been stuck earlier in the day, but this time with a plan: I man the speedboat offshore while the others explore.

It's a good plan, and everyone climbs on board near sunset for the short drive to home port. But the engine runs for just a moment before conking out and refusing to restart. The sun is sinking, and all boats must be off the water by dark. Time is running out.

Houseboaters on a far shore watch as we vainly churn the engine. Finally I decide to pull up the engine to have a look. As if I'd know how to fix it.

Our towrope has drifted from bow to stern and wrapped tightly around the propeller. I jump in the water to release it. The rope won't budge.

"We're not Pauline," I tell Barb. "We're Lucy and Ethel."

A party on a houseboat yells offers of help. "Bring a knife," we shout. The freed engine shoots back to life. We thank our heroes and take off. For about 40 feet.

Again the engine grinds to a halt. Our kind strangers are already back on shore but head our way again. Before they arrive we again raise the engine and find: more towrope. My embarrassment at making the same stupid mistake within two minutes gives me Herculean strength. I rip the taut, wet rope with my bare hands.

"Don't tell them we did it again," I whisper to Barb. "Oh God, no," she responds.

Must have given it too much choke, we tell the would-be two-time rescuers. We speed off, arriving at our houseboat as the last light of the sun dies.

But we've learned a few things: We cool down the boat with the AC until it's time to turn in, and dunk the ropes to thwart the mice. Our learning curve is evening out, and the next day is glorious.

Lake Powell has 96 canyons to explore and a variety of bays, gorges, caves and arches. Even the names are beguiling: Navajo Canyon, Castle Rock, Gunsight Butte. When we feel hot, we jump off the speedboat into crystal-clear water. When the kids need distraction, we tow them behind the speedboat in a tube that lurches through our wake, or let them steer at low speeds in quiet corners when no other boats are in sight.

It takes about two hours, at our leisurely pace, to reach Dangling Rope Marina, accessible only by boat. A half-tank of gas for our speedboat costs $65. We buy ice cream and watch schools of big fish swimming around the protected waters of the marina, hoping for a handout.

It takes another hour to reach Rainbow Bridge, a sandstone sculpture created by water. The natural bridge between canyons is nearly as tall as the Statue of Liberty and spans 275 feet. Native Americans consider Rainbow Bridge sacred, and the 30 or so visitors who've come by tour boat and houseboat are eerily silent.

Not until 1909 did non-natives discover Rainbow Bridge. Teddy Roosevelt and Western author Zane Grey were among the earliest visitors, taking what was then an arduous journey by foot and raft.

On our return, we float up narrow canyons that twist beneath towering sheer cliffs of varied hues. If you are willing to endure a hike beneath a hot summer sun, you can find dinosaur tracks among these rocks. Just when we think we've seen every possible configuration of rock and water, a new, captivating natural creation appears around yet another bend.

That night, my daughter and I sleep on the open top deck, lighted by a silvery moon whose rays shimmer on the lake. We hear coyotes howl. The only other sound comes from water rippled by jumping fish.

Barbara caught a fish off the back of the houseboat our first day out. Once I saw her slash and decapitate it, my taste for fish, and fishing, was pretty well lost. So our one fish from a 10-minute fishing expedition sat in the refrigerator for a day or so until I convinced Barb to give it a proper burial.

But our final morning, Barbara's daughter awakes and says she wants fish for breakfast. "Well, if you want fish, you'll have to go catch one," Barb tells her. Five minutes later, fresh fillets are frying in the skillet. The catch of the day is catfish, but the lake is full of trout, bass, walleye and shad just waiting for hook, line and sinker.

During our final hours on the boat, as we await our knights in shining towboats to pull us off the beach, Barb and I agree that two women with three children would find it more relaxing, and cheaper, to stay at the Wahweap Marina lodge and rent a speedboat for exploring and water play.

Then again, vacations don't have to be easy. Sometimes the challenge is the thing.

Besides, we've learned so much that the next time around, we'd no longer be fumbling neophytes, and we wouldn't need a Tom, Dick or Harry. For such experienced women, Brad alone would do just fine.

Cindy Loose will be online tomorrow at 2 p.m. to discuss this story at www.washingtonpost.com during the Travel section's weekly chat.

Details: Houseboating on Lake Powell

GETTING THERE: Lake Powell's Wahweap Marina, a 10-minute drive from Page, Ariz., is 267 miles northeast of Las Vegas (speed limits are 75 mph on flat, empty stretches) and 280 miles north of Phoenix. Sale fares to either destination drop as low as $230 round trip.

The Las Vegas option is the best: You can drive through Zion National Park, where I wish we'd spent a night in a park lodge. And Sin City can be great fun.

Most major airlines operate connecting service from Phoenix or Las Vegas to Page via Great Lakes Aviation. Round-trip fares start at about $500. The Bullfrog Marina, at the opposite end of the lake, is almost 296 miles from Salt Lake City.

PREPARATIONS: Read all you can about houseboats on Lake Powell's Web site and elsewhere before you go. Arrive the day before to get the lay of the land and visit the Page supermarket; Safeway is always open. Box, rather than bag, your groceries. Alternately, a local grocer will deliver. Order online at www.bashaslakepowell.com.

Try to get an early start; check-in begins at 8 a.m. If children are along, have someone entertain them while you load and learn -- a process that can take several hours.

WHERE TO STAY: The Wahweap Lodge (100 Lakeshore Dr., 928-645-2433, www.visitlakepowell.com) is a pleasant two-story complex with two swimming pools and a short walk from the docks. Doubles begin at $159; a AAA discount cuts the price by $20. Numerous chains and privately owned hotels are available in Page; contact the chamber of commerce (see below).

RENTING A HOUSEBOAT: Wahweap Marina has a limited supply of houseboats for this summer and is already taking reservations for next year. Three-day rentals for the most basic model in the prime season begin at $1,114. Budget at least $200 more for gas for a three-day trip.

I wouldn't rent a houseboat unless I could afford a speedboat too. Prices in prime season begin at $284 per day.

OTHER ATTRACTIONS: A championship golf course is in Page. Helicopter tours begin at $39 per person. A tour of Navajo Village includes food, dance and culture. Antelope Canyon is awesome; consider a jeep tour. Kayak, river float trips and boat tours are available, as is Page nightlife. The John Wesley Powell Memorial Museum chronicles the 1869 expedition through this then-uncharted region. Powell, who lost an arm in the Civil War, was a geologist who led 10 men along the Colorado River. Only five survived.

WHEN TO GO: Prime season is Memorial Day to Labor Day; prices drop the remainder of the year. The water is warm enough to swim from May through September. By October, the water is 69 degrees. Fishermen swear by the fall season. A four-day Thanksgiving special for $1,000 includes a cooked turkey dinner delivered on board.

OTHER HOUSEBOAT OPTIONS: Close options include Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia (800-488-4516, www.parrotcove.com) and Raystown Lake near Altoona, Pa. (888-RAYSTOWN, www.raystown.org). Kentucky (800-225-8747, www.kytourism.com) and Tennessee (800-GO-2-TENN, www.tnvacation.com) also offer numerous possibilities. Options in the West include Shasta Lake in Northern California (530-275-1589, www.shastalake.com).

INFORMATION: Lake Powell Resorts & Marinas, 800-528-6154, www.visitlakepowell.com. Page-Lake Powell Chamber of Commerce, 888-261-PAGE, www.pagelakepowellchamber.org.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company