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Our most recent trip

The Colorado River made for a great trip. With some ruthless editing and omission of all but the most important details, I was able to cut the report to just over 7,000 words. Some of the better small photos link to the full 5-megapixel image that will open in a new window.

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Hoover Dam to Davis Dam

January 4th through 16th, 2007


Our original goal was to paddle from Hoover Dam to Davis Dam, a trip of about 63 miles of paddling, almost directly south the whole way. I had called around to several outfitters in the area looking for a shuttle service. Some of the outfitters offered shuttle service, but Helen Howard, the owner of the Desert River Kayak, seemed most enthusiastic. Adding to Helen's score was that all the outfitters that didn't offer shuttle service recommended her.


The shuttle service turned out to be very simple. Helen met us in Kingman and drove in our car with us up to Willow Beach. Willow Beach was as far upstream as we could drive because the launch at Hoover Dam was washed out in a flash flood on October 14, 2006 and hadn't been repaired yet. She dropped us off with our boats at Willow Beach and drove our car back to Bullhead City where she kept it at her house while we paddled.


Helen is an archeologist by education, a history buff by hobby, and a student of the Colorado River all the way through. For every question I had for her (there were many), she had a short answer followed by a thorough and detailed explanation of the issues that factored into the short answer. Clearly a very intelligent, well read woman who is passionate about the river and paddling thereon. She gets our highest recommendations.


The plan was to paddle from Willow Beach up to Hoover Dam (about 10 miles, upstream), camp there for the night, spend a day exploring the various canyons and hot springs, camp another night there, then begin the paddle downstream to Katherine Landing (near Davis Dam).


We altered our float plan such that we would paddle from Willow Beach straight down to Katherine Landing, then drive back to Willow Beach and explore the upstream section of the Black Canyon with some friends who could meet us the following weekend.

The Drive

The drive was a snap. We were both very excited about the trip so we left on Wednesday after work and drove straight through the night. We made it to within 20 miles of Flagstaff by midnight the next night. Since our friend Dave didn't have a spare bedroom for us, we decided to camp for the night in the Coconino National Forest. We drove down a forest service road for a few miles and found a suitable camp. We pitched our tent by the moonlight and crawled into our sleeping bags.


When we woke up the next morning, everything was covered in a fresh white blanket of snow. What a great way to start our vacation. We broke camp in a giddy frenzy, running around our tent like children.


Day 1, Saturday, January 6:


We launched at Willow Beach at around 11:00 A.M. Helped by a moderate north wind, we averaged and easy 3.5 miles per hour through the steepest part of the Black Canyon. The scenery was absolutely stunning. We saw many eagles, coots, and smaller songbirds along with one fox. No desert bighorn sheep unfortunately.
During our Saturday mid-day paddle we saw three fishing boats. Two heading upstream and one fishing. Of the two moving boats, one slowed so as not to wake us and waved while the other blew right by sending us a formidable wake. We share the river with everyone, I guess.

 


The good campsites seemed to be about every half mile or so, but to be safe, we stopped paddling around 2:00 P.M. and landed on a sandy beach. We certainly did not want to be stuck looking for a good landing in the dark. The winds were building slightly to around 12 knots, the sun was bright, and the air temperature was around 65 F.

 


We pitched our tent and went for a short hike in the desert. The temperature dropped to around 38 at night and our beach was illuminated by bright moonlight.

 


Day 2: Sunday, January 7:


The Black Canyon is more or less over at this point and the river runs wider and the surrounding mountains not at steep. With more North winds forecasted (via Weather Radio Channel 4) we knew that we wouldn't have a long day of paddling before the water would be getting rough. The scenery was still very beautiful as we had a bigger sky and more expansive view. Winds were stronger, I would guess 15 to 18 knots and we were lily dipping along at over 4 knots. The river makes a hard left turn at Owl Point, and to make it from one sheltered shore to the next would require a two mile crossing of wide open water in what were now 20-plus knot breezes and solid white caps. It was only noon, and we had covered over 10 miles, but we decided to call it a day. We found a beautiful pea gravel beach straight north of Owl Point and set up camp.

 


The pea gravel doesn't blow around at all compared to the sand, so we skipped the tent and put our sleeping pads right on the beach. After another nice hike in the desert hills and impressive arroyos, we played a game of Scrabble and ate a nice dinner then enjoyed a beautiful night under the stars.

 


Day 3, Monday, January 8:

 


Knowing that more strong North winds were forecast for the day, we planned to be on the water by sunrise. Being a little pokey, we didn't hit the water until shortly after 8 am. The tailwind was still noticeable, but not nearly the tempest that we skipped yesterday. We easily paddled by Owl Point, past Cottonwood Cove and towards Lake Mohave. We stopped for a break just before the river opens abruptly into Lake Mohave. After stretching and snacking, we began our venture onto the big lake.

 


Things started out fairly well. We stuck to the Arizona shore of the lake and big rollers were moving parallel with shore in 8 to 10 foot deep water. We were happily surfing the waves making great speed down the lake. About half way, the waves took on a sinister rhythm.


The northerly swells we were playing in were joined by a northwest swell propagating from the middle of the lake. The winds were continuing to build and were now a steady 25 with gusts well into the 30's. It was time to ditch. Unfortunately, the trees that grow along the shallow slope of the Arizona side creep right out into the water and about 30 yards or so from the shore. Leslie was leading when we decided to bail and she picked a line through the trees and made her move for the shore. I was very impressed with her boat handling and wondered if she has been having an affair with some hot-shot white water paddler. Not having time to dwell on our marriage, I edged and swept my way through the trees and landed on a rocky, silty beach.

 


We spent a few minutes reflecting on our windy, wavy adventure on lake Mohave then we decided to check out the surroundings and figure out what the camping was going to be like. We were surrounded by the tamarisk with the ground being dried, cracked sediment that flaked easily underfoot to make a fine dust – not ideal camping to say the least. We thought about punching through the thick scrub brush out into the desert to set up camp, but decided that the extra time breaking camp the next morning would eat into valuable early morning light-wind flat-water paddling time.

 


While looking for the flattest, cleanest place to pitch our tent, we saw an enormous pile of dung. We’re talking 5 or 6 Saint Bernards’ worth. The droppings clearly had grass in them, so we knew it was some sort of ruminant. We were far from the steep rocky cliffs on which the desert big horn live and for a rider on horseback to make it through the thick brambles would be miserable. It will remain a mystery, for now.


We pitched our tent, arranged our camp and hiked out into the desert to get on top of a hill where we might get good weather radio reception. We walked along several small washes and arroyos where we saw many large hoof prints and more grass-laden dung. It seemed unlikely that the BLM would lease land in a national recreation area for cattle to graze, but that was the best hypothesis we could muster. We climbed a 200-foot hill and strained to listen to the little weather radio over the howling wind. The computerized Norwegian meteorologist told us to expect wind, wind and more wind. Cranking out of the North for the next two days, then stinking out of the South on Wednesday. Great. We’re going to be stuck here for days, I thought.

 


We took a couple self-portraits atop our desert hill and started our two-mile walk back to camp. More droppings, more hoof prints. We soon heard the rotor of a helicopter beating the air to the south. Soon we saw a blue and white chopper coming up the Arizona side of the lake. When it passed over our camp it banked steeply and did a couple of circles around where we figured our camp must be. Then it started flying directly towards us. When it was very obvious that it was coming specifically towards us I waved with one arm (the O.K. wave, as opposed to the two armed “help” wave). It continued circling us and I thought it might think we are in distress. I flipped my VHF from weather to distress and tried to hail it on channel 16. Any rescue helicopter flying around navigable water would surely be monitoring VHF channels 9 and 16. No response. Finally the helicopter descended to about 25 feet about 25 yards from us so that we could clearly see the pilots face. He waved at us. I waved back and then gave him an extremely exaggerated thumb-to-forefinger fingers-extended “O.K.” sign. The pilot waved again and flew away. We later leaned that the blue and white choppers are tourist rides out of Laughlin, NV. Although the experience dampened the sense of solitude, it was nice to know that they were concerned.


So we were back at our campsite and I was fetching a pail of water when I heard a loud “CRACK!” coming from the thicket behind our campsite. I quickly turned and saw that Leslie had also heard the loud crack and was clearly very interested in what it was. Now this was not the little snap that a breaking twig makes, or the strained pop-pop-pop-split that a big branch makes when being broken under boot for firewood. This was a big branch breaking quickly under a very heavy weight. Leslie saw it first, “It’s a beast!” she said. Through a hole in the brush, we could see the head and neck of a very large black cow. It could have been a hornless bull, but without a good view of it’s plumbing, we guessed cow. I snapped a photo, but in the poor light, we could barely make out the mouth. I calmly told the cow that we understood she was thirsty and wanted a drink, but that this was our campsite tonight and she would have to take one of her other paths. I strongly doubt she understood exactly what I was telling her but she got the picture and turned and walked back into the dark thicket. I still doubt that the BLM would lease out NRA land to ranchers, so I figured she must be feral. I would doubt that the feral cattle get much of a chance to reproduce since they can’t run, climb or hide, they would make an easy feast for a mountain lion. Her chances are probably not very good.

 


To ease the pain of our flat, smelly, silty campsite, we made an extra-special dinner of spaghetti, sun-dried tomato pesto and smoked salmon. Deeeeeeelicous. Another game of Scrabble and time for bed.

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