Home sweet houseboat

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

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photoLarry Rasmussen walks in the lower level of the floating home which he rents with his wife, Penny, at McCuddy’s Marina in Ridgefield. The home has a lot of windows and vaulted ceilings that provide an open light-filled living space that feels like a conventional home.

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Larry and Penny Rasmussen just love to sit on their woody porch and watch the traffic in front of their Ridgefield home.

Kayakers, after all, don’t tend to honk or yell at each other as they travel down the winding Columbia River tributary that is their house boat’s front yard.

Neither do the otters, muskrats, beavers and other creatures that casually float, swim or fly by.

“In the early morning, watching the herons coming off the water, and there’s a little fog — it’s beautiful,” Penny Rasmussen said.

Life on a houseboat has its ups and downs, both literally and figuratively, with the changing of the tides and seasons.

Living that way isn’t as common in Southwest Washington as it is over the river in Oregon, but once it gets its hooks in you, you can’t imagine living any other way, said the couple, who’ve lived at McCuddy’s Ridgefield Marina since last August.

“I’d be hard pressed to want to live back on land,” said Larry Rasmussen, a semi-retired architect. “Driving around looking at houses in town — it’s pretty boring. I’m not sure I could go back.”

One reason that there are fewer houseboats in Clark County than in Portland is that state laws make river property ownership more complicated in Washington, said Mike Armstrong, the marina’s manager.

People in Oregon can buy property on the water, but in Washington they have to lease water access from the state, which makes it harder for facilities like McCuddy’s to do any sort of industrial or property development, he said.

“When they set up statehood, Oregon said keep our rivers industrial — and if you look at houseboats and marinas down there you’ll see million-dollar homes, lots of development,” Armstrong said. “Washington said keep those riverways for the people, so we have a lot less development. It’s a smaller community.”

The Ridgefield marina has 55 houseboats, with about 75 percent of the owners living there full time. The other 25 percent are renters who either lease year-round or lease for vacations, Armstrong said.

Costs for homes vary, although a purchase range of $50,000 to $100,000 plus monthly mooring fees is reasonably accurate at his facility, Armstrong said.

Rents for homes at the marina, including moorage, range from $600 to $800 or more per month, depending on the house, he added.

Kelly Kellogg, who’s rented a house at McCuddy’s for the past eight years, said he really enjoys living on the water — but it’s certainly not for everyone.

“Every day we have a tide here, and it’s a lot stranger than you’d think,” Kellogg said. “I worry about having kids around here with that. I make my grandkids wear life vests when they come.”

Water levels and tides are much more noticeable on the wooden piers, which tend to rock, than on the houseboats themselves, he added.

The whole marina moves up and down with the height of river. During recent flooding the metal ramp used to get onto the walkways — which usually rests at a sharp downward angle — looked more like a flat, straight bridge.

Unlike the piers that connect them, the homes rest on such large floating foundations that you generally don’t notice any movement at all, Penny Rasmussen said.

“If we sit on the lower deck of our house and look at the walkway, we can feel it move a little bit, but otherwise we never feel that our house is floating,” she said. “That’s good, because I tend to get a little seasick in a boat.”

Winter on the marina is a bit harder than the other seasons. The water tends to keep air temperatures from getting too extreme, but ice still sometimes slicks over the wooden walkways, making them very slippery.

“They have special things you can slip on over your shoes to help you walk on the ice,” Penny Rasmussen said.

Living so near the water also brings you much closer to the weather, landscape and the occasional swarm of midges, Larry Rasmussen added.

“Most of these places aren’t terribly well insulated, so you tend to live a little closer to nature,” he said. “And sometimes you get so many insects together near the water that you can hear them buzzing.”

The homes also give you a bird’s-eye view of some of the brutality and beauty of the natural world, he said.

“Just in front of our place the other day I saw a sea lion, and he had a salmon in his mouth he was flipping back and forth and trying to kill,” Larry Rasmussen said.

Even some of the smaller, cuter animals have their dark sides.

“I’ve seen otters get up on the walkway and play with each other,” Penny Rasmussen said appreciatively.

But Armstrong’s had a little more experience with the furry, fingery creatures.

“They’re more vicious than you’d think,” Armstrong said. “I saw an otter take a duck right off the walkway and drown it in the water. They do that with cats and small dogs, too.”

The sense of community at the marina is one of the best and most interesting benefits of living there, they all agreed.

Because there’s a limited amount of space, people from all walks of life have become close friends and neighbors.

“People living on land seem to get segregated more by economic strata than they do here,” Larry Rasmussen said. “We have a canoe, but our neighbor has a yacht. We all wave to each other.”

And with narrow walkways connecting their homes, it’s hard not to meet neighbors as they go about their daily business.

“We’ve gotten to know more people here than we ever did in the city,” Penny Rasmussen said. “Everybody’s really friendly and laid back.”

You also can’t beat coming home and being able to fish off your back porch, Kellogg said.

“There’s great fishing here,” he said. “I’ve seen at least 15 species. I’ve caught salmon, trout, steelhead, bass, perch and a whole bunch of other things.”

Life on the river, even during the worst weather on the most midge-filled day he could think of, is something he’d never trade — certainly not to go back to Arizona where he and his wife lived for several years, Larry Rasmussen said

“I wouldn’t wish Phoenix on my worst enemy,” he said. “This place is paradise.”