House Rules

Patoka Lake, Indiana

I WENT TO SCHOOL in Southern Indiana, so I knew about its wooded, rolling hills intersected by winding roadways and rivers and dotted with charming (and some not so) towns with old-fashioned courthouse squares and Victorian-era main streets.

But my husband and children, raised in Michigan, knew only the northern part of the state, the industrial corner abutting Chicago and the flat farmlands that seem to stretch forever.

So when I told them we were traveling to the delightfully if somewhat oddly named Birdseye, Ind., to spend five days on a houseboat, looks of the there-mom-goes-again variety were exchanged.

"What is there to do?" asked my teenage daughter, afraid she would be marooned in a wilderness and possibly beset by wild animals.

This feeling of alienation only intensified as we followed the narrow road lined by deep woods to the darkened Patoka Lake Marina, where the only sounds were halyards clanking against masts and the calls of owls in a dark night. But aboard the spacious boat with its three bedrooms and two bathrooms, a large galley and a living area, there was also cable TV and Wi-Fi. Relieved, my children slid a movie into the DVD player and flipped open their laptops.

Leaving them wired, my husband and I uncorked a bottle of wine and climbed to the roof. There, we sat looking at the stars and the moonlit water.

We woke the next day to a reassuring bustle. The general store at the end of the dock was open; families sat on their boat decks or in front of the store, drinking coffee and enjoying breakfast; people boarded the 60-foot tour boat for a meander on the lake; and children fished off the side of the pier as seagulls swooped overhead.

We cast off lines and maneuvered the boat out of the harbor with the game plan of exploring the 8,800-acre lake's many coves, finding a shallow spot to swim and visiting Hoosier Hills Marina on the other side. Strewn with small islands, Patoka Lake is known for its big birds — osprey, herons and bald eagles — and, along the 26,000 acres of park that edges the water (the only developments on this lake are the two marinas and a small interpretative center), extensive hiking and biking trails.

Despite its size, the houseboat maneuvered easily, and my kids took turns steering. We took the long way to the swimming spot, taking spins around the small islands and looking for nesting eagles.

It was nearly noon when we dropped anchor in a shallow bay. Using the slide on our boat, we took turns splashing into the warm water. Next, we set out for Hoosier Hills Marina, where we ate ice cream on the shaded patio and watched boats go by.

It was late afternoon by the time we returned to our marina, but though we were tired, we decided to explore. Thus, we set a daily routine: boating and then wandering, traveling to Holiday World & Splashin' Safari, a family-owned amusement park with wooden roller coasters, and to Marengo Cave for a tour of the caverns.

We ate at the Schnitzelbank in Jasper, where the waitresses wear dirndls and the fare is authentic German. And, of course, we stopped at two magnificently restored early-20th-century resorts: French Lick and West Baden Springs.

But no matter where we roamed, we always returned to the houseboat to enjoy the quiet softness of a Southern Indiana summer night.

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