© Margo Pfeiff
Home sweet houseboat
A slow cruise along BC’s Shuswap Lake aboard a kitted-out three-storey watercraft that you sail yourself
“I need your captain and co-captain, please,” said Sharon Thomson. I hauled my friends, Cheryl and Louise, from in front of a mirror in Waterway Houseboats’ nautical-themed gift shop where they were doubled-over with laughter posing in pirate and sailor caps.
After two hours of instruction and a mini test drive, Louise glided our hefty houseboat away from the dock in Sicamous, BC towards a Canadian Pacific Railway bridge that swung open to allow our three-storey-tall Where’s My Cheque? to pass into Shuswap Lake where we would spend the next four days exploring over 1000 kilometres. Shuswap is an H-shaped lake in the less-touristed northeastern corner of British Columbia’s Okanagan region, a 90-minute drive from the bustling wine-country hub of Kelowna. Tiny Sicamous, perched on a narrow natural channel between Mara and Shuswap Lakes, officially calls itself “Canada’s Houseboat Capital” and has three rental companies with 160 boats of various sizes sleeping from 10 to 30 to prove it. Ours was a 20-metre-long, four-metre-wide Genesis 60 that could bed 16, making it spacious for just four of us, including my sister Linda who made the five-hour drive up from Vancouver with our friends Cheryl and Louise.
As we glided towards Marble Point, our overnight destination, we prowled our floating apartment. It came complete with a full kitchen, queen-sized beds, a fireplace, flat screen TV, satellite radio and stereo system, two barbecues to grill any trout you pull in using the fish-finder, a hot tub with a wet bar on Deck 2, and a crazy spiral tube slide departing from Deck 3. “It’s a man cave on floats,” Cheryl announced. “Some guy made a wish list of everything he wanted in life and strapped it onto two pontoons.”
While Captain Louise — with 17 years of coastal BC commercial fishing experience under her belt — first drove the houseboat bow up onto the pebble beach in the early afternoon, Cheryl and I hopped ashore with a sledgehammer to drive metal stakes into the ground to secure two ropes from the rear of the craft to hold it in position for the night.
We were an active quartet of 50-somethings anxious to launch our onboard toys to explore the lake’s four long, sprawling arms. Wobbling atop a stand-up paddleboard, I spotted a small bear foraging the shore as my sister paddled a kayak alongside me. We joined the others in the hot tub afterwards, sipping rum-laced Dark and Stormys that would become our trip’s signature cocktail, and watched bald eagles soar above. My keen-cook sister, having volunteered as voyage chef, commandeered the galley’s granite island to make dinner. The previous day we had stopped at DeMille’s Farm Market (demillesfarmmarket.com) in the nearby main town of Salmon Arm for the region’s renowned local fruits and vegetables like “hand-snapped asparagus” and fresh cherries.
Our next stop had been Askew’s Foods (askewsfoods.com), a grocery store that carries over 900 local products from cheese and charcuterie makers to artisanal bakers. We steered our overloaded cart to the checkout, informing the clerk we were houseboating. The next morning, our groceries were loaded into the craft’s spacious fridge, freezer and cupboards an hour before our departure. It’s also possible to order online, then simply walk onto a fully-stocked boat. Don’t want to cook the first night? Bahama John’s Seafood and Rib Shack (bahamajohnsrestaurant.com) in Sicamous will make sure a Southern/Bahamian meal is on board before you set sail. Several outfitters will even speedboat catered meals to you out on the water. With fresh salmon on the grill, we cracked open a frosty local Celista Ortega and watched the last rays of sun from the second-deck dining table as three other boats anchored down the beach, creating a tranquil little houseboat village.
Activities on land and sea
Houseboating is a new activity for the four of us and like many people, we have long associated it with its 1980s and ‘90s reputation of loud music and all-night stag parties. That has largely changed with a new generation of active houseboaters who don’t want to binge or sit on the boat all day. “We can easily pick a party group and we direct them to Neilson Beach,” Sharon had told us. Otherwise, it’s mostly groups of families and friends coming for the solitude, spending time on the water and doing the many activities you can tap into by just pulling ashore.
On the toy menu for hire were powerboats for waterskiing and wake-boarding, fishing gear and mountain bikes to launch on easy-access lakeside trailheads that are also perfect for hiking. You could dock at Hyde Mountain Golf Course and putt the afternoon away or scuba dive off Copper Island. Houseboat weddings are on the rise as are annual events like multi-day salmon-viewing floats during spawning season in the famed Adams River, and mushroom hunting and cooking classes during a local Fungi Festival in September.
White-cap wind had stirred up overnight and made our 30-kilometre cruise to the region’s main town of Salmon Arm, population 18,000, a slow sail in our bulky houseboat the next morning. “It’s like steering a cardboard box with a toothbrush,” Louise muttered through clenched teeth as she coaxed Where’s My Cheque? into the Salmon Arm Wharf.
A short stroll and we were on the main streets of this folksy town, dropping in at the art gallery, boutiques and second-hand bookstores before settling into lunch at the Shuswap Pie Company (shuswappiecompany.ca), which was justifiably featured on the Food Network’s You Gotta Eat Here for their made-from-scratch pies like steak and stout using organic Back Hand of God Stout brewed by Crannóg Ales in nearby Sorrento. Dessert was luscious local fruit pie, cherry and peach.
Afterwards, Byron Noble of Noble Tours (nobleadventures.net; wine tasting or hiking tours from $99 per person) whisked us off in a van for an afternoon of tastings at some of the region’s half-dozen little-known wineries that are North America’s most northerly, offering cool-climate white wines including Ortega, Siegerrebe, White Bacchus and Kerner, and reds including locally-grown Marechal Foch. We sipped our way from the Swiss family-run Larch Hills to Sunnybrae with its views and vintage photos of the family’s five generations of local farming, stocking up along the way. Then we popped in to sample cheeses on the farm at Grass Root Dairies before finishing up at the stylish log winery of Recline Ridge, which scooped 24 medals in Northwest wine competitions in 2014. The winery is actually accessible by houseboat, just a short walk up a hill from the beach.
The next morning the lake was a millpond as we headed eastward past a community called Canoe and across Salmon Arm to Herald Provincial Park (env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/herald). Dropping stakes, we brewed a second cup of coffee before hiking amid cedar and firs and old downed trees lying scattered like mossy pick-up sticks until we reached the bridal-veil spray of Margaret Falls. Herald Park is one of many spots where you can hook into 103 hiking and mountain biking routes that cover a network of more than 800 kilometres of trails overseen by the Shuswap Trail Alliance (shuswaptrails.com), accessible by houseboat from lakeside trailheads.
After spreading a lunch of local goodies on a picnic table overlooking the lake watching kayaks paddle by and snow geese pass overhead on a major migratory flyway, Louise let loose three blasts of the horn as we backed offshore and sailed again. Houseboating is slow cruising at a leisurely top speed of six kilometres per hour. We passed waterfront cottages, coves, beaches and lighthouses at the base of rocky cliffs with hidden petroglyphs.
As we approached Cinnemousun Narrows where the four arms of the lake meet, a floating corner store awaited those who craved a slice of hot pizza or needed to stock up on supplies or kitschy souvenirs. We passed through the Narrows, made a left turn and prowled the waterfront, choosing our own private beach on Wild Rose Bay. We worked the waterslide until we were dizzy from spinning then lit a beach fire after dinner. I swam before breakfast the next day, paddled before lunch and took in some sun on the top deck in the afternoon. We watched ospreys overhead and a beaver swimming in the lake. Sizable trout leapt clear out of the water and we regretted not having rods. No one pulled in alongside us and we saw only distant houseboats chugging on the lake. We were grateful we came in June, shoulder season which, along with May and September, is quieter with fewer house and power boats than the July/August high summer season.
In late afternoon we once again pulled up stakes and puttered off on our floating cottage… with a different view every day.
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