Travel

Portable glamping: Renting a houseboat on Shuswap Lake

Over the water and under the stars, Robin Esrock recounts his experience renting a houseboat in Sicamous, British Columbia, Canada’s houseboating capital 

  • Sep 15, 2022
  • 1,127 words
  • 5 minutes
Beached for the night. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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It’s my first time captaining any marine vessel, never mind a 65-foot long, 16-foot-high floating house with a hot tub, fireplace, dryer and water slide. Having already watched an orientation video, I listen closely as friendly Sicamous Houseboat staff walk me through the boat, demonstrating how to engage the gears, knot rope around the beach stakes, operate the electrical switches, and optimize my gas and propane usage. After my crew unpack our food and deposit bags inside our seven sleeping quarters, I grip the ship wheel to navigate a narrow marina channel, making sure to keep inbound boats on my left. With the engine revving low, I carefully putter beneath a road and rail bridge, unnerved to see people standing in knee-high water not far away. Cautiously, I point the Queen’s Crown north, edging her throttle forward as we gently cruise into one of Canada’s very best outdoor experiences.  

Photo: Dennis Villagomez
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Drive past the town of Sicamous and it’s impossible to miss the 89-kilometre-long Shuswap Lake.  Branching into four distinct arms and framed by forest, mountains and beaches, this sparkling freshwater paradise is known as the Houseboating Capital of Canada. Houseboating offers a simple proposition: Up to two dozen of your closest friends and family can enjoy stellar scenery and silky warm water, taking home comforts (including hot showers, flush toilets, a fully equipped kitchen, Weber BBQs, double beds, lounge, a dining room and hot tub) with you. Think of it as luxury RV’ing over water – portable glamping – on the water and under the stars. 

An hour before sunset, all houseboats must beach for the night, and there’s no shortage of sandy or pebble beach to accommodate. Glide onto the beach, lower the gang plank, bring out your deck chairs, spark up a campfire, grill up a feast, and launch a roof-top party. No boating license or experience required.

Wild houseboat parties are legendary on the Shuswap, if that’s what you’re into. From late June to early September, bachelor, bachelorette and other parties congregate on Nielson Beach, where dozens of houseboats beach tightly, booze flows, and many a damage deposit has been lost. With my extended family on board – including my kids, parents, cousins and close friends – my own party days have long since sailed. Cold beer and fine wine will be consumed, but we’re here to relax and soak up the best of BC’s interior lake country. Shuswap Lake has over one thousand kilometres of shoreline –encompassing nearly two dozen provincial parks – ensuring there’s ample space for everybody to find their private beach, party beach, and everything in between. 

Photo: Robin Esrock
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I turn off the engine for everyone to slide off the upper deck, swim about the houseboat,  and bust out the floaties. Deep and warm, I’d forgotten the refreshingly simple joy of swimming in clean freshwater. Soon after, we beach the Queen’s Crown, secure it with ropes, and prepare dinner while the teenagers on board search in vain for cellphone service. Grilling up wild sockeye – just one more thing we take for granted in this part of the world – we build a beach fire for s’mores and then hot tub under the stars. Another houseboat is doing the same in the distance, another family enjoying the beauty of remote camping, with not a tent to be seen. 

Renting a fleet of thirty boats for small and large groups, Sicamous Houseboats rose from the ashes of Waterway Houseboats, which sunk during Covid. Energized under new ownership and management, all houseboats are fully equipped, comfortable, and spotless. All you need to bring are clothes, bedding, food, towels, deck chairs, coolers and flashlights. The Queen’s Crown is a two-deck Mirage 65 which sleeps 18 people in beds (doubled up) and four more in the living room. The Genesis 66 model has three decks and a twirly water slide, while the Mirage 40 is suited for smaller families. 

Shuswap Lake is renowned as a motorboat mecca, but the wakeboards, jet skis and speedboats thin out as we cruise north to explore the best hike in the region: the 5-kilometre loop trail to Albus Falls.  Locals told me this was the best spot on the lake, and they were right. From the beach we easily accessed the trailhead for a two-hour hike to a series of five rugged cascades. If you’re going to do one hike on your house-boating adventure, this is it.  

Albus Falls. (Photo: Dennis Villagomez)
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With almost no wind and a sunny forecast ahead, we decide to tie up for the night and enjoy the expansive soft sandy beach vista. Provided with a handy map of the lake, amenities and points of interest, you’ll be advised to avoid this point when the weather is less co-operative. I wonder how our experience might differ with strong winds, rain or choppy waves. But it’s early September and the weather gods are smiling: the lake is smooth as a mirror, the sun is hot, and biting bugs packed away for the season. With the recent lifting of a campfire ban, the full magic of the outdoors is ours to plunder.

We slowly return south along the Shuswap, passing the Sea Store at Cinnemousun Narrows, crossing the channel, and beaching on Mara Lake to make an easy run for tomorrow’s 10am checkout time. I’m surprised how comfortable I’ve now become at the ship wheel. All those switches and instructions are no longer intimidating, and the basics are ingrained: turn off the water pump when in motion; turn off the engine when swimming; keep the engine in rev neutral at 1500 to 1800 rpm to charge the battery above 12 volts; and turn off everything at night before going to sleep. Anyone over 19 years old with a drivers license can captain the boat, and sharing the duties with a couple of co-captains allowed plenty of time to relax while others took the helm.

Houseboat interior: a comfortable way to camp in the remote wilderness. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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While mishaps do happen – especially on the big party boats – Sicamous Houseboats owner Barb Scott tells me most clients take great care with the boats, and the hefty five thousand dollar damage deposit takes care of the rest. Between the boat rental and fuel costs, high season on the Mirage 60 can run over two thousand dollars a night. It’s not cheap, but glamping rarely is, and you can split the cost among multiple families or two dozen friends. 

Immersed in spectacular nature, wrapped in physical comforts, surrounded by family and friends, and relishing an adventure of a lifetime. What more could anyone ask for? For despite an early round of nerves, my first Canadian houseboat getaway resulted in one very happy captain, with a solid new tick on his bucket list. 

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