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The Poor Man's Waterfront

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Jim Howard, by Mike Gearlds Jim Howard, by Mike Gearlds

Lake Pend Oreille's East Shore is a Houseboater's Haven

“The most peaceful, most beautiful time on this whole lake is living through the fall, winter and spring,” says Rick Auletta, owner of Hope Marine Services. “You get a lot of privacy living on this lake in the wintertime.”
    With its generally sunnier, warmer climate and deeper inshore water that allows mooring on Lake Pend Oreille throughout the winter, the Hope area literally is North Idaho’s hot spot for houseboating, including several craft that serve as year-round homes for their owners. About two dozen houseboats can be seen docked at Hope marinas in January, taking advantage of the ice-free water.
    Houseboats are self-propelled, self-contained dwellings, usually on twin pontoons, or in rarer cases, large single hulls. They’re different from float houses in that they can move under their own power at speeds of five or six miles per hour – so forget about water-skiing – and aren’t totally dependent on shore-based services.
    Largely immune from power outages thanks to generators, backup battery power and onboard heating fuel, houseboats nowadays still can keep in touch with the world via cell phones and satellite TV.
    Prices run the gamut from $20,000 for a used craft with a cabin the size of a studio apartment, up to $200,000 or more for a new one as big as a small three-bedroom house.
    “The houseboat thing, it’s a very cool idea,” Auletta says. “I wonder why it isn’t more popular. It’s a great way to live. And even though there’s a cost to it, it’s still fairly reasonable if you own your own boat. I’ve always thought the area had room for it.”
    Slips still are available, but Auletta cautions moorage is increasingly in short supply on the big lake: “Before you go out and buy a houseboat and say, "Hey, I’m gonna live in this," make sure you have a  place to put it first.”
    Houseboat moorage on Lake Pend Oreille costs from $1,500 to $2,800 annually – not including electricity – depending on length of the boat and location of the slip within the marina. Some houseboats can be purchased with the understanding they will stay at their current spot in the marina.
    Wintertime also brings its own set of challenges for the full-time, live-aboard house boater. Water service on the docks gets turned off in the winter, so boats must have their own water reservoir and keep it above freezing. Waste water pump-out stations usually are closed in the winter also, so waste must be stored in a holding tank and water used for washing, bathing and toilets must be kept to the minimum.
    Auletta recommends mooring at a marina that offers bathrooms and a Laundromat year-round: “If you use your holding tank only when you have to, you can make it through the winter without filling it.”
    The Hope area hasn’t had significant winter lake ice in recent years, but owners might want to keep a “bubbler” system handy for unusually long cold spells. Bubblers blow compressed air through a ring of tubing around a boat and keep the water agitated, which prevents ice forming.
    “It’s the best yard in town,” says Jim Howard, who has lived full-time on a houseboat since 1998. “It doesn’t need any lawnmowers or Weed Eaters, and if you don’t like where you’re at, just move. They’re basically motorhomes on pontoons.”
    The Lake Pend Oreille winter drawdown, which brings lake levels almost ten feet lower than summer’s usual high water, left Howard’s houseboat resting on exposed lake bottom for a few months – a sort of free dry dock that Howard planned to take advantage of to do some pontoon maintenance. Some neighboring houseboats also were high and dry, but most still floated on plenty of depth throughout the winter, despite the drawdown.
    Howard commutes to a job as a vocational rehabilitation counselor in Sandpoint from the Kramer Marina in Hope, where his 16- by 40-foot boat is moored. He pays $1,500 a year for dock space, plus $25 to $45 a month for electricity, depending on the season. A 240-volt system with electric heaters and a backup propane unit gets him through the winter. While under way on frequent cruises, he switches over to a 12-volt system for lights and small appliances.
    “Marina life is good,” Howard says. “People come here to have a good time. And when you’re out there on the lake and you’ve got other friends with boats, they tend to come and visit you – It’s a good life.
    “There’s an awful lot of houseboats showing up on this lake. When I came here in ’72, there were two that I knew of. Now, you look around and they’re in every marina.”
    Just like most other boats in Idaho, houseboats must be registered with the Department of Parks and Recreation, and registration fees vary with boat length  – a 40-footer would cost about $68 a year to register. Insurance is fairly inexpensive for recreational houseboats, but premiums for live-aboards can go up sharply, to more than $1,000 a year.
    Down the dock from Jim Howard, Jeremy Lizotte is rebuilding a houseboat on a 1972 ferro-cement hull – that’s “cement” as in “concrete.” He lived on his boat during the winter, putting the finishing touches on a tongue-and-groove cedar interior. At 40 feet long and 13 feet wide, Lizotte’s houseboat weighs an imposing 25,000 pounds, heavy enough to easily ride through the roughest waves the lake can dish out.
    “I’ve got about $20,000 to $25,000 invested in it, not counting labor,” Lizotte says. “Only about 15 percent of the original boat is left.” He says he hadn’t lived on a boat before, and his reasons for taking up houseboat life are partly economic, partly aesthetic.
    “I guess I was just drawn to it,” he says. “I can’t afford a piece of property and I wanted a house. I grew up in Hope and it’s pretty hard to move away from the lake after you’ve lived next to it your whole life. It’s pretty much the poor man’s lakefront.”
    “It’s pretty cheap for 360 degrees of waterfront property,” agreed Eric Envik, general manager at Holiday Shores Resort in East Hope. He said nine houseboats were docked there throughout the winter, with room for more.

Photo: Jim Howard by his houseboat. Photo by Mike Gearlds

In the last two weeks, writer Mike Gearlds has written stories for Sandpoint Magazine, The River Journal, and the Daily Bee. He's also created a CD Rom for the Sheriff's office, taken firefighting classes (and done his homework), and is putting together a class in digital photography. He lives in a house off Denton Slough that's not a boat, and he has not learned to slow down.

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Mike Gearlds

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