Keeping Friends Afloat: The Houseboat Support Squad

I moved to Yellowknife from Toronto on a whim. Completely unprepared, and ready to carve out a lifestyle for myself as different from the one I’d left as possible. This included new goals, a new career and, of course, a new home.

In Yellowknife, as in most cities, housing can make or break an experience. The right neighbourhood, the right people, and physical accommodations that suit your needs. I was lucky enough to know someone when I moved up here, and he helped me navigate the housing market. Trailers, apartments, condos, and…houseboats? That’s different. I could just see the phone calls home to family and friends. “Yes, that’s right, I have to canoe to get home every night. Isn’t that neat?”  And so I thought about it, “Could I live on a houseboat?”

I entertained the idea for at least a day or two. Could I paddle back and forth? Yes. Could I chop wood for heat? I think so. Could I take on more work and responsibility for my living situation than ever before? Maybe. Could I live without a shower? Uh, no.

And so the houseboat idea was put to rest. Hey, at least I know know my limits, and apparently they involve a tap, hot water and a bar of soap. So I settled for the next best thing: a house across the street from Government Dock, where I could watch the houseboats from the comfort of my home, with as many shower breaks as my wimpy little heart desired.

In hindsight, that was probably a very good decision. My first winter in Yellowknife was challenging enough on land. Car batteries freezing, locks freezing, pipes freezing… everything freezing.

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Innocent beginnings

But, there is another challenge associated with houseboat living that nobody mentioned. A challenge I would learn first hand, as a non-houseboater. That challenge: becoming a member of what I like to call the “Houseboat Support Squad.”

Yes, we’re here. There may not be many of us, and we’re by no means playing a role in all house boaters’ lives. But we exist, and we provide behind-the-scenes support to a select group of people. Living off-grid is challenging: crossing the ice during break-up, living without heat in the dead of winter, hauling everything you need across a body of water. But we on land endure challenges as well, and they’re not for the faint of heart.

For those who are less familiar with being a member of the Houseboat Support Squad, I’ll start by going through the initial signs that you have, in fact, become one.

It all starts innocently enough. Your houseboater shows up and asks for a shower. No big deal, grab one. Oh, and use a towel and anything else that you might need. It’s a done deal. The houseboater leaves clean, no skin off your back… everyone’s happy.

Then they show up again. This time carrying a curiously large backpack. Can I grab a shower? Sure, go ahead. But this time, the houseboater is prepared. That backpack likely contains all the tools necessary for a lengthy grooming session. Nail clippers, razor, scissors, you name it. And so it goes. Anyone who actually lives in the house can say goodbye to their bathroom for the next 30 to 45 minutes. Have to pee? Too bad. Your roommate needs to grab their deodorant before heading off to work? My apologies to their co-workers.

At this point, things are still relatively tame. Sure, they’ve monopolized the bathroom for a while, but everyone needs a thorough shower. So the houseboater steps out of bathroom, razor and scissors in hand, clean and satisfied.

Great, duty done. I’ve helped someone out and they’re grateful for the favour.

But it’s not over. Sure, toiletries take up a bit of space… but the bag they brought with them is huge. Oh well, maybe they’re driving across town to do their laundry? That’s what I might have thought back in the early days, when I was naive about my responsibilities. This is what actually happens: the houseboater walks over to their monstrously large backpack, and says casually “hey, while I’m here, would you mind if I threw in a load of laundry? Oh, and maybe fill up this water bottle I’ve been hiding behind your kitchen chair?”

Oh? Okay.

And so it begins. Laundry, dishes, freezer space, and if they’re really lucky: actual storage space.

Support group

The level of support any one squad member offers varies greatly. It can range from the very occasional favour to complete and unrestricted access to an on-land residence and amenities. I refer to this last type of support as “everyday support,” and it’s the kind I’m most familiar with. It’s an anything-goes type situation, and it usually develops out of a romantic relationship that comes at a cost most accurately displayed on your energy bill. It goes beyond the basic washing and water jug filling. It’s a warm bed to sleep in when the paddle home seems just a little too long. It’s a closet to hang clothes in that really don’t need to be on the houseboat anyways, and it’s a place to cook a meal when dirtying all those dishes in the boat kitchen seems like an unnecessary task.

Houseboaters are a tight-knit community, arguably brought together by their lifestyle choices and the difficulties that choice presents. Perhaps the Support Squad should also band together, commiserate over picking someone else’s plaid shirt and Carhartts out of the dryer, or reaching into the freezer to grab your ground coffee and firmly grasping a frozen chicken breast you never purchased, or not being able to jump into the shower at the exact moment you wanted. Okay, so these challenges aren’t exactly Everest, but it might be nice to share stories with others who understand.

So there you have it. House boaters have it tough, and so do we. Now, these claims are not without controversy, and when I bounced the idea for this story off a few people I got mixed feedback. Some people thought it was funny, my roommate thought it described our lives, and some people thought it negatively stereotyped a group of people. It was this last reaction that concerned me most. So much so that my boyfriend, one of the houseboaters who initiated me into the Support Squad, had to comfort me as I questioned my efforts. Just as I was considering tossing the story to the wind, his hand rubbed my back in a consolatory gesture, he leaned his head close to mine and whispered in my ear “Are your clothes still in the washer? Because I was hoping to throw mine in.”

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