Houseboat captain says get behind tourism in International Falls

INTERNATIONAL FALLS, Minn. – The Dougherty family’s houseboat rental company is perched on the piney shore of Rainy Lake, a 60-mile-long body of water freckled with more than 1,000 islands and located partly within Voyageurs National Park. The headquarters for Rainy Lake Houseboats, just east of International Falls, comprises a cluster of older wooden buildings, an ice machine, a totem pole and an extensive floating dock network.

Rethinking a Company Town

It was 45 degrees outside and drizzling one October afternoon as Bill Dougherty fired up his fishing boat, dressed for the weather in coveralls and a brimmed hat. His was the only vessel still tethered to the dock, since all 29 houseboats had been dry-docked for winter.

Bill Dougherty, who co-owns Rainy Lake Houseboats (MPR photo/Jennifer Vogel)

Dougherty, who began guiding on Rainy Lake in the 1960s when he was nine years old, runs the houseboat company with his mother, brother and wife, who all live on the property or nearby. “My brother lives above the office,” Dougherty said, backing out of the slip. “I’m the next house up the hill.”

The houseboat rental business is doing well, he said, though it took a hit during the recession and hasn’t fully regained lost ground. While the economy remains a factor, Dougherty thinks his business and others would benefit greatly if International Falls and Koochiching County officials would put more effort into promoting tourism. “Pretty much there has been a constant lack of interest by the local government agencies,” said Dougherty, who is consistently vocal on the point. “It’s a paper town.”

This community on the Canadian border has been discussing ways to diversify the local economy ever since the Boise paper mill—long the center of economic life here—announced in May that it would lay off 265 workers, a third of its workforce. The layoffs were completed in early October. And in late October, the mill and the rest of Boise’s holdings sold to Illinois-based Packaging Corporation of America. International Falls Mayor Bob Anderson and others have established community task forces to explore various economic options, including tourism.

“Small towns are all the same,” said Dougherty. “It’s never going to happen to us, until it does.”

Dougherty said a tourism emphasis could be expressed in practical ways, such as running a sewer line along the shore of Rainy Lake, to the benefit of the historic lodges that dot the landscape all the way to Dove Island. Currently, the resorts rely on septic systems that have to be pumped out regularly. The systems are expensive to maintain and limit the ability to expand. “We have three inches of soil on the rock here,” he said. “The septic systems are stretched to the max.”

“We’ve got some of the popular resorts, the eating places, that have to serve their food in plastic baskets with plastic silverware,” Dougherty said. If they wash too many dishes at once, “The septic will overflow into the lake. Nobody wants to pollute. The sewer is a really big deal.”

Both Mayor Anderson and Gov. Mark Dayton support including money for the sewer line in the bonding bill state legislators will consider during the upcoming session.

While other dramatic shorelines in Minnesota tend to feature a selection of hotels and resorts—whether upscale, midscale or downscale—this stretch of Rainy Lake is sparsely fortified with rustic if charming offerings. While many locals may prefer it that way, a community looking to draw more tourists will have to consider more lodging options (within the city limits, there are a host of budget hotels and motels). “You need to have some newer stuff, a mix,” said Dougherty, who said a sewer line would allow him to put an RV park on his property. “We need to have some newer upscale things… He who has the most activities wins.”

Dougherty left the dock and sped his fishing boat into the wilds of Rainy Lake, through coves and around rock islands, occasionally crossing over into Canadian water. He knows all the secret spots, whether for fishing or site seeing, including sandy beaches that promise a relaxed paradise in the summer. He treats the lake as though it is his back yard, and for most of his life it has been.

His great grandfather bought the venerable Kettle Falls Hotel, at the other end of Rainy Lake, in the early 1900s for $1,000 and four barrels of whiskey. Calling his great grandfather a bootlegger, Dougherty said, “There were Canadian stills everywhere.” The hotel stayed in the family until 1977, when it sold to the National Park Service, but even after that, his uncles ran it until the 1990s. His parents bought Rainy Lake Houseboats in 1978—which at the time had just four boats—sensing an opportunity after Voyagers National Park opened.

Dougherty shows great regard for the park, which has been controversial since its inception, because it has kept much of the lake’s shoreline wild and unspoiled, which is good for the houseboat business. He wakes up early in the mornings and takes photos of what he characterizes as the “moods” of the lake. “I wish 7:30 to 9:30 would last all day,” he said.

Part of what holds tourism back in this area, besides the fact that it’s a six hour drive from the Twin Cities, is the worry that new businesses will come at the expense of existing ones. “The fear is that somebody is going to lose out,” said Dougherty. “But as a small business person, you take a tremendous amount of risk. Some think we’re lunatics.”

Diversification, he said, is crucial to a city’s very survival. “The best thing we could do is make sure the car is in drive and we are looking out the front window and not out the back and at what we could have done.”