Three generations, plus 47 square miles of lake water, multiplied by one action-packed houseboat equals an infinitely memorable family vacation

Quality Time
Erin Kunkel
Hanging out on the houseboat on Shasta Lake, California

It was my family’s first full-fledged reunion in years: 18 relatives camping at the northern end of Shasta Lake, the sprawling, tentacled body of water that is the largest human-made reservoir in California. It was July and the state was mired in a brutal, multiyear drought. Walls of red mud ran up the banks, an ugly reminder of where deep blue had once been. But each day, we all raced for the nearest marina, where we had rented a modest pontoon that looked like a glorified carport. It was as basic as they come, but it could get us out onto the lake, away from the muddy shores, and that was good enough.

I remember sitting on the deck—my 1-year-old daughter, Roxie, on my lap—while my dad and two of his brothers drank Coronas, laughing like surfers watching the waves. My cousins were shoulder to shoulder around a board game, competitive shrieks rising from the table. And everyone else was taking a dip, pruning in a lake so warm you could seemingly stay forever.

Yet I found myself eyeing flashier vessels than ours, houseboats with waterslides and hot tubs, barbecues and bars. I was intrigued by their indulgences, their ability to host entire families in one place. It could be like a cabin in the woods, I thought, except with a revving engine and the freedom to move from beach-lined bay to rocky inlet to open water. I craved a bigger craft, sure. But what I really wanted was more time swimming and floating, huddling around card games, and laughing at stories told again and again.

The following spring, as rainfall transformed oversize mud puddles into plentiful blue expanses and California’s lakes were back at “full pond”—as they say in houseboating lingo—a trip began to take shape in my mind. I researched rental listings online, seeking something for a few days in the summer that could comfortably sleep my husband, Tim, and myself, my dad, his three brothers and sister, each of their spouses and grown children—cousins ranging in age from 18 to 48—and the next generation of our crew, my daughter, Roxie, now 2. With a reservation for three days and four nights in place, the trip was on.

Houseboating on Shasta Lake, California

It was 107° outside when we pulled up at Silverthorn Marina, our tiny Toyota hatchback overflowing with Costco impulse buys. At the dead end of a twisted, two-lane road through dry, oak-covered hills, Silverthorn Resort is located on the edges of eastern Redding. The air tasted like toasted bay laurel leaves, and the scene bordered on chaos.

Our boat, #69, was at the end of a crowded “courtesy dock.” Check-in didn’t start until late in the afternoon, so everyone who’d rented a vessel was trying to do it at the same exact time, it seemed. Cars and pick- up trucks jockeyed for position, and dock carts were so scarce they were being hoarded. As I pushed mine up the long, steep concrete ramp, I passed an older woman who was navigating a full load while doing her best to keep the weight of her cart from carrying her downhill. “This is supposed to be a vacation,” she said between deep gulps of hot air.

While the rest of us hauled onto #69’s deck taco fixings and tequila, marinated tri-tip and BBQ-flavored potato chips, board games and floaties, ice chests and sunscreen, Tim and my uncles went through the mandatory captain’s orientation, a surprisingly brief crash course in operating the 50-foot craft. My dad—a genuine captain who’d owned a sailboat throughout his adult life—babysat Roxie. At one point, the woman unloading the truck next to me lay across a boat trailer and announced, to no one and everyone, “This is so stressful.” Feeling like I should respond somehow, I said, “Once we get out on the lake, it’ll be fun, right?” She just stayed there silently, and I wondered what I’d gotten us into.

With the supplies stowed away, we explored our new digs. Houseboats are boxy things, like floating mobile homes. They lack the aesthetic character of an ocean-going yacht or a vintage Airstream trailer. They’re many times more comfortable than tent camping, but they’re not fancy enough to count as “glamping.” Ours, a Queen 1, was the largest in the fleet. She had four staterooms with double beds, two bathrooms, a large L- shaped couch in front of a gas fireplace, and a flat-screen TV. There was a refrigerator for perishables, a rooftop hot tub, and a waterslide that came equipped with a squeeze bottle of dish soap to make it more slippery. The interior was cream and mauve, with faux wood paneling and laminate countertops. She may not have been glamorous, but she was everything I’d coveted the previous summer.

Finally, at nearly 5 p.m., we pushed off. It wasn’t as late a start as I’d feared, but with dusk nearing, there was an urgency to make our way up Shasta’s Squaw Creek Arm, where we could find a place to swim and berth for the night. Tim tentatively backed #69 from her slip, walled between neighboring boats with only inches to spare on either side. A novice behind the buslike wheel of our borrowed houseboat, he took to captaining like a calling. He navigated us away from the marina, steered us upstream, and a half-hour later nudged the bow onto the shore of a quiet bay with a rocky, teardrop-shaped peninsula. My uncles hopped off, driving stakes into the bank with large mallets and tying lines to keep the stern from drifting onto the low-lying isthmus. We’d made it.

Within minutes, my 67-year-old uncle Bob turned on the slide and flew down the narrow chute, flopping awkwardly in the lake like a gleeful child. One after the next, each of us followed, cluttering the water with inflatable sharks, foam noodles, and sit-on-top kayaks. We stayed in until sunset, when hunger finally pulled us back on board.

Jumping In
Jumping into Shasta Lake

For dinner, we split up the meals. My cousin Inez and her husband, George, who had claimed the first night, prepared a giant pot of spaghetti with meatballs. We lit candles on the second-level bar and ate outside while tiny winged insects flocked to the flames and the moon rose over the lake, a wash of silver on black water. The stars were as crisp as I’d ever seen them. It did feel, unexpectedly, like camping—the metal stools were as uncomfortable as hard ground, our skin was so parched we took turns basting ourselves with coconut oil, and each bite of pasta tasted better than it had any right to.

The next morning, I awoke at sunrise. Tim and I had forgotten to close the blinds, and orange light beamed through the window above our bed. I went up on deck with a cup of cold brew and studied the shoreline. Ponderosa pines, with their peeling brick-red bark, dropped cones that bounced from branch to branch before tumbling down the embankment. There were dragonflies, birds with white diamonds on the underside of their black wings, and endlessly chirping crickets. Midway up the rose-colored slope, a mix of rocks and clay earth, I noticed the remains of a bonfire: charred logs, gray ash, and a single red Solo cup. It was the only visible sign that anyone had been in this bay before us.

By mid afternoon, it was time to take a cruise. According to my uncle Bob, who knows Shasta well, the lake level goes down 6 inches a day throughout the summer as water is released from the dam. If a houseboat is parked for more than 24 hours, it has to be pushed off the shore, so as not to settle in and get trapped. So we cast off our lines but soon began drifting sideways toward the embankment. My dad, reading a mystery novel on the roof deck, shouted warnings to Tim, two levels below. Tim thrust the boat into reverse, ripping us away from the slope. But we hadn’t had time to retract the gangplank, an aluminum ramp that slides into the bottom of the boat like a drawer. The abrupt departure yanked it from its track, lodged it in the mud, and tangled its metal chain beneath us.

We were stuck, frustrated, and hot— a combination that should have triggered every complicated family dynamic and stubborn grievance. Instead, I watched my cousins, Inez and Alina, tug fiercely at a line, laughing as if our minor crisis were a childhood game, while Alina’s fiancé and Bob buckled into life vests and maneuvered themselves under the boat to disentangle the chain. When we finally pulled into the next bay, Aunt Viv was ready with “Shasta mai tais” (pineapple juice and rum) to toast our triumph. It seems that despite separations and divorces, the hardships of distance, illness, and time, this branch of my family tree is uncommonly strong.

Over our remaining days, we caught tadpoles, spotted bear tracks and bald eagles, and marveled at trout slapping the water like breaching whales. Swimming, paddling, cruising, watching the light change—I filed all of it away for winter, for a day when we wouldn’t be together like this.