By Lewie Kellin
One thing I need to constantly practice is the art of 'slowing down'. As technology continues to shrink the world and the allowable time-frame for an email response gets shorter, it is getting more and more difficult to remember 'where' we are going and 'why'? I learned from my dad early in life to associate heading north with slowing down. If you are finding it difficult to change your mindset, change your environment and it will follow suit.
Now that I am a father of two, it is my duty to share such experiences with my own children. For a brief moment, I am captivated by the thoughts of an ambitious ten-day portage through uncharted waters. I abruptly snap back into consciousness, reminding myself we have a newborn to consider here; will there be room to stuff a pack-and-play in the canoe? On second thought, maybe the canoe trip can wait? There has got to be an alternative.
"Meg, should I pack the coffee percolator?" I yell across the living room. "No", she promptly responds, "This boat is better equipped than our own kitchen." Half hour later, the truck is packed up and we are bound for Ash River, MN; destination Ebels House Boats. I glance back at our two kids dozing peacefully in their carseats, and turn to my wife, "This has been way too easy, maybe we should invite your parents." A quick phone call, and a 45 minute pit stop at the Junction Bar and Grill in Togo, MN and we are back on the road with grandma and grandpa in the rear view.
We're greeted by owner, Katy Ebel, as I throw my 3 year old daughter up on my shoulders and stroll the docks, pointing and speculating as to which 'cabin boat' is going to be ours for the next few days. We watch the dockhands roll the buggy down the ramp and on to the dock...she sees her pink princess sleeping bag loaded onto one of the 51 foot Vista boats. She cambers her arm towards the houseboat, and grinning from ear to ear says, "It's that one daddy, you can come on my new castle if you want to." And quite the castle it is. The entire deck is a floor to ceiling glass atrium, bringing true meaning to the saying, 'there is not a bad seat in the house'. The top deck is equipped with a hot tub, captains steering console and, of course, the curved slide to quickly help you off the boat if the sun deck gets a little too toasty.
"Grandpa's Thirsty!" bellows Grandma, "We'll meet you down at the Frontier for a cold one!" Thirst escorted hunger, and before we knew it, we were clawing away at a table full of burgers and pizza. "I think we are spending the night on the dock tonight," I chuckle. "Who cares," says Grandpa. "We have no where to go, and all weekend to get there!" I reiterate, it's a slow down.
A family of otters playing under the dock served as our wake up call. As the electric coffee maker sputtered its last few drops of coffee, we fired up the motor, released the rope from the dock cleats, and began slicing through the calm water with the Vista's thick steal floats. The dockhand ushered us through the flowage, while giving us the orientation on navigation and boat mechanics. "Red, Right, Return," he said, "keep the red buoys to your right when returning to the water source, and opposite facing downstream." I turned to Grandpa Tony, "Did you get that?" "Yes," he says, "I think he wants us to keep the boat floating." I spread the 4 large, laminated, navigational maps on the table and began calculating our first overnight mooring site - taking into consideration our variables of time, distance, speed, and gasoline. 'Slow down,' I reminded myself, just as the voyageurs did hundreds of years ago when they first charted this unfamiliar frontier.
Three hundred years ago canoes skimmed the trade waters that connected Hudson Bay and the Canadian Northwest. By the early 1700's a booming commodity had emerged. Fur. Early European settlers set to discover their fortune to the West of the Great Superior waterway, relying on the Ojibwe Indians as guides, and lightweight birch bark canoes to navigate them through the fur rich flowage we know today as Voyageurs National Park. Beaver pelts and other fur bearing animals provided 'soft gold', the heartbeat of the commercial enterprise known as The Fur Trade. Hunters, trappers, traders, and canoemen were collectively defined as voyageurs, the namesake of the 56-mile federally protected flowage. It was the Fur Trade that cracked the door for the rest of the Western world, delivering a long lineage of 'voyageurs' that have taken float on this pristine waterway.
"You're on your own," shouts the dock hand as he scampers to the back of the house boat and escapes by way of his 14' aluminum boat. The next 30 minutes are spent dodging fishing boats as we work our way through Sullivan bay and into Lake Kabetogama. From here we are faced with the option of heading west into Kabetogama, or follow the flowage into Lake Namakan. Collectively we chose to head east towards Kettle Falls. We settle on a little island with a west facing sandy half moon bay for the night. The gangplank clears the water line by a narrow margin. Everybody disembarks the Vista to get acquainted with our backyard for the next 12 hours or so. As the sun works its way towards the horizon, we rush to get the fire built and the marshmallow sticks cut. We count down the seconds until we lose sight of the big orange ball on the horizon; three, two, one... three quarters, two-thirds, one-half, three-eighths, and any other fractions I can conjure up to trick my daughter into thinking I am smart. The sun sets after 30 seconds (not three), and the stars take charge of the sky. As we listen to Grandpa Tony tell the same story yet another time, the big dipper emerges directly atop the houseboat. It is eerie how perfectly framed it is atop the Vista. Since there are no astrology experts in the group, we take turns creating different scenarios of loved ones gone before us cautioning us that we are being watched. The moon continues to work its way towards the opposite horizon from where it
started, and we retreat to our comfortable beds afloat our houseboat. The brisk night forces us to fire up the furnace and we seal the envelope to a perfect day.
The cool morning air coaxes a thick layer of fog from the water's surface. Grandma Marcy takes full advantage of the Vista's kitchen amenities and dominates a classic American breakfast. I pop in The Wizard of Oz on the flat screen for my daughter while my wife and I make a plan for the day. Kettle Falls it is! We decide on a short float down stream to the historic Kettle Falls Hotel for lunch and a drink in famed saloon with the slanted floors. Due to the rich history of the Hotel, it was placed on the National Historical Registry in the 1970s. Over the years the hotel was home to a trading post, fishing camp, bootlegger hub, and even a brothel. Some short hiking loops and great views make this place a must-stop on your visit to Voyageurs. You can even stand on U.S. soil and look south over the Kettle Falls dam into Canada. If that itself isn't worth the trip, I don't know what is.
I push the throttle to 3,000 RPMS with Voyageur's narrows off the tip of the pontoons. We can see water breaking atop submerged rocks in all directions. These narrows have claimed the lower units of many boats, and have challenged the steel gauge of countless houseboat floats. We hang tight to the maps and summon our instinct as we hug the imaginary line through the lake that separates the United States and Canada. Our goal for the day is to circumvent the many Namakan Islands and moor the Vista somewhere near the Namakan Narrows, the entrance to Sand Point and Crane Lakes.
An elevated rock outcropping with a rock fire ring perched atop, invites the Vista in for the evening. The site is perfect. Behind the small peninsula is a 400' stretch of rippled sand beach, perfect for the kids. The granite jetty projects just far enough out into Lake Namakan for an unobstructed 360 degree view, creating a natural amphitheater, perfect for the adults. The night unfolds in a fashion similar to the last. The stainless Weber grill earned another solid workout, kicking the sweet aroma of a gourmet BBQ into the air. We all gathered our chairs on the outcropping for Grandpa Tony's orientation on astrology and other nonsense; pre-requisite 7 and 7.
As the sun rose at our backs, Grandpa and I opted to steer the Vista home from the Captain's chair atop the sundeck and enjoy our first cup of coffee; we need more time. Just as the voyageurs 300 years before us, it was exclusively us and Mother Nature for the duration of the 4-hour trip back to Ebel's base. Though we have swapped houseboats for canoes, the thread stays common. Always in search of a 'where', we ask 'why' as we push ahead in our pursuits. Maybe 'ahead' isn't where we should be looking, but rather what is directly in front of us. "Slow down," I say to myself, "Just look around."
In reflection of our enriched time spent on the waters of Voyageurs, I couldn't help but think of Robert Service's famed words we recited around the campfire. "If they just went straight they might go far, they are strong and brave and true; But they're always tired of the things that are, and they want the strange and new." It is the Voyageurs and the fur enterprise that opened the gateway for the Modern day Voyageur. So Thank You Voyageurs National Park, and more importantly, Thank You Ebel's Voyageur Houseboats, for allowing us the opportunity to slow down; in style.
Remembering Joe Ebel
From Katy, Justin, Heather, Alyssa and Stephanie
At the close of Ebel's Voyageur Houseboat's 44th season, Voyageurs National Park gained its brightest new star on Oct. 2, 2015. With heavy hearts the Ebel family mourned the passing of husband, father, VNP patriarch and longtime Ebel's Owner/Operator, Joe Ebel.
Joe joined the houseboat business, alongside his parents Gordy and Mary Lou Ebel, at the age of 12 in 1971, eventually taking over with his wife, Katy Ebel to expand the business and introduce innovative houseboat models to the Ebel's fleet. Joe lived, loved and tirelessly promoted the park and houseboat industry for 44 years. May he rest in peace and forever cruise the water highways of heaven.
Katy and her son Justin will continue to own and operate Ebel's Voyageurs Houseboats just as Joe would have wanted. They look forward to having old and new guests aboard in 2016 and many years to come.