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Real Estate by Barton Grover Howe

At Home on the River

Life in a floating home keeps families in close touch with the natural
cycles of weather and tide.

On a picture-perfect day in the northwest corner of Oregon, spending the night on a floating house doesn’t seem that much different from sleeping anywhere else, save for the fact there are ducks swimming outside all four walls.

But when a fall windstorm sends 70-mph gusts of wind down the John Day River just east of Astoria, it’s a whole different thing. The horizon outside the window shifts, the rocking chair sways in its cradle, and a small thud moves through the house as it bumps against pilings between the bank and the house. It’s an unusual way to live, rising and falling with the tides, swaying and rocking with the winds. And Skip and Sarah Hauke wouldn’t have it any other way three years after moving full-time into what was supposed to be a vacation home.

The Haukes used to live in a 2700-square-foot home on a big lot in Astoria. When they purchased a rundown floating house eight years ago on the John Day, they figured it would make a nice weekend getaway once they got it back into shape. “It was a piece of junk,” Skip Hauke says. “You couldn’t live in it, couldn’t walk in it.”

So he took the house down nearly to the old-growth logs that make up its floating foundation, which he estimates have been in the water anywhere from 85 to 100 years. Because logs immersed in fresh water never rot, the only sign of age after nearly a century is on the small part of the log above the water.

Every year, Hauke regularly plucks the weeds that take root in the logs to slow that process as well.

With a combination of natural logs and Styrofoam “logs” that displace 750 pounds each, the house remains stable. Outside of windstorms and floods, Hauke says, “I have never, ever seen it move,” aside from the rising and falling of the daily tides. That doesn’t mean life on a floating house isn’t different for Hauke and the owners of the other 15 homes that float on this section of the John Day.

Homes on the John Day River

Although there are 15 homes currently floating on the John Day River east of Astoria, only five of them serve as full-time residences.

Couple in front of their floating home.

Life on the River
Once a month, Hauke pays someone to empty a 1500-gallon tank, where his wastewater gets pumped. And when someone decides to violate the 5-mph speed limit for boats traversing the floating neighborhood, the wake can knock the Styrofoam loose from under the house.

Daily life is different, too. As she waves at a neighbor downriver, Sarah Hauke tells how he was one of 12 kids raised on that floating house. “The mom made the kids wear belts made of fishing corks,” she says. “As they learned to swim, they took off one cork at a time, until they learned to swim with no corks on them.”

The Haukes’ granddaughter, Brianne, who lives with them, has made her own adjustments. “She walks out the door and puts on a lifejacket. She has a Big Wheel, and when she rides it she has a life jacket on.”

Like the Haukes, Todd Hannah finds life on his floating house on Scofield Creek, located off the Umpqua River near Reedsport, largely uneventful. The days’ happenings, he says, are highlighted by the fish he catches off the deck. One day last year, however, wasn’t quite so dull, when floodwaters threatened to tear his home from the pilings.

“I had some ropes holding it to the bank and some boats here to push it around. I tried to hold it to the pilings,” Hannah says, adding, “I don’t look for that to happen again for a long, long time. It’s just something you have to prepare for.”

But it’s that kind of punishment that has reduced the number of floating houses on the Umpqua from dozens decades ago to just four today. Current zoning restrictions in Douglas County don’t allow new floating houses, so when one is destroyed it is never replaced. (In Clatsop County, floating houses are allowed in very few places.)

Even where new construction is allowed, other realities of modern life seem to conspire against floating houses. Only one insurance company will insure them, and even that company doesn’t cover floods. Throw in the regulations from the Department of State Lands—which controls the submerged and submersible land underlying many of the state’s waterways—and most homeowners figure it just isn’t worth it.

Hauke will never be one of them. He owns not only his own home, but two other homes on the same stretch of the John Day. This past summer, he and Sarah bought a 400-square-foot floating A-frame and had it moved, with the aid of a tugboat, 10 miles downriver next to their current home. They use it as a guest house and as a playhouse for their granddaughter.

Both Haukes concede it’s not always easy living on a floating house. There’s not much closet space, and when they come home during low tide it can be a steep—and slick—walk down the gangway to the house. But for Skip, who serves as executive director of the Astoria–Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce, it’s a unique way for him and his family to enjoy the cycles of life that run on the Oregon Coast.

“It’s not just the cycle of the seasons,” he says, “but the cycle of each day and hour.”

Oregon Coast May/June 2007

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