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Byline: Mike Stahlberg The Register-Guard

CULVER - Norm Johnson of Sublimity came to Lake Billy Chinook looking for "a getaway and relaxation" along with "good water skiing and one of the better fisheries in the state."

A dozen members of the Marcola Christian Church came looking for a unique weekend adventure for members of its high school youth group.

Stewart Mercer of Portland came looking for quality family time together and fun in the sun - fishing, swimming and riding personal watercraft.

And everybody found what they were looking for right on their doorstep because they all rented houseboats that allowed them to "camp" in comfort just about anywhere along Lake Billy Chinook's 72 miles of shoreline (except the portion within the Warm Springs Indian Reservation).

About 30 houseboats are available to rent from two companies, making Lake Billy Chinook the largest houseboating recreation destination between California's Lake Shasta and Lake Roosevelt in Washington.

Houseboats are simply RVs that float. They allow you to cut the moorings to the workaday world while taking all the comforts of home with you. Most rentals are turn-key, coming equipped with all the standard kitchen appliances, barbecues on the back deck, bathrooms with showers and, for those so inclined, VCRs and TVs.

"Everything you need is on board. All you have to do is bring your food, your fun and your bedding," said Kerry Adams, houseboat manager for Cove Palisades Marina, an Oregon State Parks concessionaire. Cove Palisades has five houseboats available to rent, including two 60-foot luxury models that can sleep up to 14.

Houseboat vacations appeal to people who love the water, said Gary Popp, a former golf professional who owns and operates Lake Billy Chinook Houseboats, with a rental fleet of 24 houseboats moored in the community of Three Rivers.

"We do mostly family reunions, bachelor parties, bachelorette parties, birthday parties, church groups, anyone who loves the water," said Popp. "We get a lot of repeat customers."

Johnson is one of those, having just completed his fifth vacation on a Lake Billy Chinook Houseboat in as many years.

"I've been to Shasta and some of the other lakes, and my favorite is still Billy Chinook," Johnson said.

Johnson said the lake "has absolutely great smallmouth bass fishing - some of the best I've every experienced. ... Your kids can have just an absolute ball over there fishing for smallmouth."

Fishing for kokanee and bull trout is also quite good, he said.

Like many houseboaters, Johnson moors the houseboat in a secluded spot, then uses his own boat for water skiing, wakeboarding, fishing or pleasure cruising.

(Most houseboats don't make enough speed to get "pull toys" up on plane.)

But they're fine for fishing, either jigging for kokanee or "trolling" by letting the houseboat drift with the wind.

"If you park in the right spots, fishing off the back of the houseboats is fantastic too," Johnson said.

Houseboating was a first-time adventure for members of the Marcola Christian Church who ended up using a four-day, three-night rental that Popp donated to Young Life for a fundraising auction.

"One of the elders in our church bought it at the Young Life auction and gave it to the youth group," assistant pastor Tim Smith said.

"The kids had a blast," he said. "It was the weekend of a lifetime for them. It was totally different scenery for them. They were jumping off the boat and swimming, playing in paddle boats that we rented. That and catching fish were popular - for some of them it was the first fish they ever caught."

At night, Smith said, "there was just fantastic stargazing lying out on top of the boat. There was absolutely no lights anywhere. You're out where you don't see anybody. The lake is so huge, we were totally private where we tied up. ... It's not hard to find a spot to yourself."

Lake Billy Chinook was formed when three rivers - the Crooked, Deschutes, and Metolius - were backed up when Round Butte Dam was completed in 1964, creating a lake with 4,000 acres of surface area. Steep canyon walls line each "arm" of the lake.

In addition to framing a stark but beautiful scene, the canyons make cell phone reception problematic and add to the sense of isolation.

But that doesn't mean houseboat vacations are primitive. In fact, there's now a definite "upscale" option available at Lake Billy Chinook.

In response to customer requests, Cove Palisades Marina concessionaire Jim Cyr last year purchased a 60-foot, three-level "yacht certified" executive houseboat manufactured in British Columbia.

"It's as nice a boat as you'll find anywhere on the West Coast," Cyr said. "It has full-size kitchen appliances, a hot tub, fireplace, five staterooms, seven televisions, and the privacy on it is amazing."

Renting for as much as $6,995 for a full week during peak season (and as little as $2,395 for a Monday through Friday after Sept. 25), the high-end houseboat proved so popular that Cyr purchased a second one this year and wants to add a third one to the fleet next year.

Cyr said he will "slowly phase out our older boats," 47- and 50-footers that can accommodate 10 or 12 people because moorage space at the marina is limited.

Houseboats rented from Cove Palisades Marina moor overnight at one of six buoys anchored to the bottom of the lake.

"It's quick and easy," Cyr said. And the boats tend to rotate gently around the buoys in the wind.

Lake Billy Chinook Houseboats has its renters nose their boats up against the shore, then use a pair of ropes to tie off to small trees or big boulders.

Most houseboaters end up finding a spot they like - perhaps in a small cove - and spending several days there.

"I tell people houseboats are not a lot of fun to drive," Cyr said. "But most spend a day driving around the lake until they realize, `That was no fun,' and then they tie up and have a good time."

And people's notions of what makes a good time vary widely. While some people are looking for quiet getaways, others are looking to party.

"We noticed some boats were putting on more alcohol than food," Smith said. "But they can get away from everybody else and do their own thing. We didn't have any problems with any other boaters. We felt really safe out there."


Here's what you need to know about houseboat rentals at Oregon's only major commercial houseboating waterway, Lake Billy Chinook.

Where: Lake Billy Chinook is located west of Highway 97 near the community of Culver, about 10 miles south of Madras

When: The prime season is generally mid-May through the end of September, although one operator remains open April through October.

How much: Three-day rentals range from $1,025 for 36-foot-long houseboat that sleeps six to $3,995 for a 60-foot "executive" model that can sleep 14. Renters also pay for the gasoline and propane fuel consumed.

What's provided: Generally, everything except food and bedding. Bring your own ski boats or other water recreation equipment, or rent some separately.

Whom to contact: Two companies rent houseboats. Cove Palisades Marina on the Crooked River Arm has 10-, 12- and 14-person houseboats and can be reached at (541) 546-3521 (or log on to: www.covepalisades Lake Billy Chinook Houseboats, located at Three Rivers Marina on the Metolius Arm, offers 6-, 10-, 12- and 14-person houseboats and can be reached toll-free at (866) 546-2939 (or see: www.lakebilly


A 60-foot "executive" houseboat rented from Cove Palisades Marina cruises on the Deschutes River Arm of Lake Billy Chinook. Tim Smith / Marcola Christian Church Members of the Marcola Christian Church youth group swam, fished and played on paddle boats during an outing to Lake Billy Chinook earlier this summer. Mike Stahlberg / The Register-Guard A gas fireplace and a large-screen television are among the amenities included on the "executive" houseboats.
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Title Annotation:Recreation; Houseboat rentals at Lake Billy Chinook offer fun afloat and 'getaway' vacations
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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