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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A Houseboat On Lake Powell

By Kristy McCaffrey

Lake Powell
A few year ago my husband and I took our four children, mostly teenagers at the time, on a houseboat trip on Lake Powell for seven days. Located along the Arizona/Utah border, this unique area is an outdoor and boater’s paradise. The lake, created by the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, offers breathtaking views of buttes, pinnacles, and natural arches, all encompassed by towering walls of red sandstone. Naturally all of the kids complained that this wasn’t the vacation they wanted. There would be no cell phone service and no internet. How could they possibly last an entire week without texting or Facebook?

Wahweap Marina, Lake Powell
We arrived on a Wednesday morning to check-in at the Wahweap Marina, just north of Page, Arizona. Several hours passed before we were ready to launch our 75-foot rental houseboat. A palace on the water, it was replete with five bedrooms, two bathrooms, a large kitchen with a full-size stove, microwave and dishwasher, a dining area with a big-screen tv, and a hot tub on the upper deck. The kids—Sam (18), Ben (16), Katy (15), and Hannah (12)—were awed by the accommodations. After a lengthy orientation on how the floating mansion worked, we were set loose. Thankfully, my husband had a working knowledge of circuit breakers, generators, and how to deal with septic tanks, as well as a dose of “this thing doesn’t scare me” because we soon realized that driving a giant boat on a lake crowded with other giant boats is not a task for the faint of heart. Sam followed us from the marina dock driving our 19-foot Bayliner boat while towing two rented jet skis. We were told not to drag any additional watercraft behind our houseboat, despite the fact that everyone else on the lake was doing just that. Once out-of-sight from the marina, however, my husband tied each jet ski off the rear of the houseboat, to give the Bayliner back the speed it was losing while hauling the smaller craft. This turned out to be a mistake.

To gain access to the interior of Lake Powell we had to traverse a narrow, shallow inlet. Let’s just say there was traffic and it’s never a good idea to hit reverse while pulling anything. If the rope on one of the skis hadn’t snapped (after wrapping around the starboard propeller), we would’ve crushed the watercraft beneath the back deck. Instead, it drifted away, forcing myself and Ben onto the remaining jet ski to retrieve it. After that fiasco we felt relieved that nothing really catastrophic had occurred, but soon the houseboat began experiencing steering problems. We discovered power steering fluid leakingquite a bit actuallyand were forced to an early campsite to await a mechanic from the marina. Feeling sheepish about the jet ski incident, we hoped the two weren’t related. The mechanic, who had to do the repairs in two trips, let us know that we could pull boats and jet skis behind the houseboat but to make sure the ropes were long and the knots tight.
My husband exploring.

The following day we drove deeper into the central canyon of Lake Powell, the red sandstone cliffs dominating the landscape, lending a postcard quality to the desolate surroundings. I felt almost gluttonous enjoying the view from the luxury of a traveling hotel, imagining how difficult it must have been for early explorers. Major John Wesley Powell, for whom the lake was named, first came through the region in 1869 using wooden dories. He and his comrades spent over three months exploring and mapping Cataract, Glen, Marble and Grand Canyons, and his writings are still read and respected today.

We parked ourselves on a beach at the mouth of West Canyon, having covered about 27 miles since we launched. We discovered that wide, sandy coves don’t always make the best anchoring spots since the next morning we were stuck. Fortunately, we used our Bayliner to pull us free but our neighbors weren’t so lucky and had to call for help from the marina.

Our houseboat anchored at Wetherill Canyon.
The next morning, once we freed ourselves from shallow waters, we headed for Dangling Rock Marina, a dock only accessible by boat. This marina, open April through October, is entirely supplied by barges. The workers live all summer in housing powered by solar panels. We liked being near the local mini-mart so much that we parked our houseboat not far from it, at the mouth of Wetherill Canyon, among a rocky inlet, thus avoiding those sandy beaches. Another bonus is that we occasionally gained line of sight with Navajo Mountain, southeast of the lake, and with it spurts of cell phone reception. Sam and Katy clambered all over the sandstone boulders, acting out their own version of “Can you hear me now?” We stayed there for three nights.

My husband and I at Rainbow Bridge, one of the largest
natural spanning bridges in the world.
On Saturday we set out in our Bayliner for a chance to view Rainbow Bridge, one of the largest natural spanning bridges in the world. Located fifty miles from Wahweap, it’s the farthest into the lake we went. There was a dock, park rangers, and well-marked paths. We took many pictures and my husband teased me for carrying a pack filled with food and water since the roundtrip hike was only about 1 ¼ miles, hardly enough to break a sweat. Many Indian tribes have long held this place to be sacred and it’s only through an agreement with the Navajo Nation that tourists are allowed to visit. It’s requested that no one walk beneath the bridge out of respect for these spiritual beliefs, but this can’t be enforced. We decided not to venture under the thick arch.

Jet skis make narrow slot canyons accessible and fun.
We spent our days at Wetherill Canyon exploring narrow slot canyons (this is where jet skis come in handy), wakeboarding, water skiing, visiting the marina for candy and milk, and watching movies (I’d brought dozens of DVD’s). We enjoyed the water slide off the back of the boat and all overcame our fear of dropping ten feet into the lake. Katy and I slept on the upper deck one night, huddled in our sleeping bags while rain sporadically pelted us. We fed pancakes to three ravens stalking our campsite and realized that the bats we witnessed each evening actually lived on our boat, in the canopy up top.

My youngest daughter on the houseboat slide.

On Monday morning, we moved the houseboat 30 miles back toward Wahweap Marina, in anticipation of ending the trip the next day. We found a beautiful placid cove in Warm Creek Bay but it soon turned into a nightmare of chop when the wind kicked up to such a degree that we thought we were on the ocean. We spent the night trying to sleep on a seriously rocking boat, messing with our equilibrium so much that it took us three days after the trip to stop feeling the ground move beneath us. My husband reset the anchors several times, fearing we might unhinge during the night, but thankfully we were still in place come morning.

A family photo courtesy of my daughter's tripod.
Despite having gained valuable experience all week driving our behemoth lodging, we requested a worker from the marina to board our boat and drive us into dock. We already feared our hefty deposit wouldn’t be entirely refunded, so thought it best to cut our losses where we could. We sent Sam and Ben off in the Bayliner to retrieve vehicles and deposit the watercraft onto trailers for transport home while the girls and I cleaned up the houseboat. Okay, while I cleaned the houseboat. It was enough that they gathered their belongings. Soon they were off to the marina gift shop for ice cream and souvenirs.

This hadn’t been the vacation the kids had wanted but, if only for a few days, those phones and computer gadgets were replaced with deep red chasms and towering cliffs, and a reminder that we all possess the soul of an explorer.

Kristy McCaffrey has been writing since she was very young, but it wasn’t until she was a stay-at-home mom that she considered becoming published. She’s the author of several historical western romances, all set in the American southwest. She lives in the Arizona desert with her husband, two chocolate labs, and whichever of their four teenaged children happen to be in residence.

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  1. Almost every person I've talked to who has been to the Lake can't say enough about how wonderful it is. Thanks for taking me on the trip with you. Doris

    1. It's a wonderful place, with such beautiful colors in the surrounding sandstone cliffs. And it's so vast that going by houseboat is the only to really see it in any depth. Although we only made it 50 miles before we stopped to turn around. We barely scratched the surface.

  2. What a wonderful adventure (except for a few hiccups there in the beginning). The houseboat idea was fantastic and the ability to explore such wonderful, natural things really was exciting. Loved the arch. I'm glad to hear you say you didn't interfere with the sacred beliefs of the Native Americans.
    Great post, Kristy!

    1. It was a wonderful vacation. I'm just glad my husband and boys had a little mechanical know-how. We definitely had to problem-solve some of those hiccups.

  3. Kristy,
    You have such an adventurous spirit. I'm always in awe of your travel stories. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Hi Kristy! Despite the houseboat problems, it sounded so beautiful and peaceful there. We haven't done a vacation in forever. Did do day and weekend trips with the children. Now as young adults and busy schedules, we should take advantage and do something this summer. Thanks for sharing. Cathie

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