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Day 7, Friday, January 12

Finally, we were back on track to enjoy the canyon and its beauty. We left the beautiful Hacienda for our second crossing of the Hoover Dam. At the security checkpoint, a sign indicates that all trailers and watercraft must pull to the side for an inspection. I thought that by offering the guard a PowerBar we could avoid a search. The guard happily declined the PowerBar and asked if we had anything in our boats. Just our ThermaRests, Leslie told him. No sooner had the words left her mouth than I was struck with terror. ThermaRest, to a non-camper sounds like thermite. Thermite is used to make bombs. We’re screwed. The guard rapped on my hull a couple of times and told us to have a good trip. We escaped.

In hindsight, it occurred to me that the guard probably didn’t know what a ThermaRest was, but also probably didn’t know that thermite is used to induce a violent, self-sustaining reaction between iron and oxygen. I was just being paranoid.

We drove back into the Willow beach area and saw a familiar beat-up blue Toyota pick-up with corrugated metal tied over the top of the bed. It is the mobile home of my best friend from high school, Dave Snowberg. I asked Leslie to stop the car so I could get out and hassle him for a little bit. Leslie thought that was mean, but she doesn’t really understand Dave and me. After a minute or so of hassling failed to rattle Dave, we moved on to making a plan. He would sleep for a little longer, and then meet us down at the beach. That’s about what happened.

Within a couple hours, we were packed and ready to launch. We snapped a picture and began phase two of the Black Canyon/Lake Mohave adventure.
The plan was to paddle upstream about 8 miles and set up one camp near the Arizona hot springs. From there, we would take a day trip on Saturday to the other cool spots around the canyon returning to the same camp for a second night.
The paddle upstream started out easily enough, but as we made our way into the narrower, and hence swifter, part of the river it got to be a little more work.

From the moment we rounded the first bend away from Willow Beach into the steeper sections we all had our eyes peeled for desert bighorn sheep. We saw birds, scrub brush, rocks, more birds, more rocks, but no sheep.

We paddled by awesome cliffs, soaring peaks and rock formations that inspired “how did that happen” kind of amazement. Finally, from about 20 meters ahead, Dave turned his head, quietly and calmly said my name then pointed to the rocks up and to our left. Sure enough there was a group of 6 bighorn sheep.

They were beautiful. They were on a slope that definitely would have taken two feet and a hand to negotiate yet they looked as comfortable as a dairy cow on the side of a rolling hill. There were five adults and a kid. I pulled my camera from underneath the shock cord stretched across my bow deck and the shock cord made a THWAP against the deck. After a few echoes between the canyon walls the remaining sound was that of hooves running over loose rock. The group of sheep carefully ran about 15 or 20 meters up the slope then stopped to assess the threat. All six stood still and stared at us for a few moments and deemed us harmless. They resumed their grazing on what little green vegetation grew in the cracks. After five minutes or so, they calmly walked up and over a ridge and out of site.

The rest of the paddle was uneventful until we landed at a pebbly beach about 3 miles short of the Hoover Dam. The beach was at the confluence of two washes that ran down two narrow canyons so there were plenty of picturesque places in which to set up our camp. Dave assured us that if we were lucky enough to be alone for Friday night, surely we would have neighbors for Saturday night. We picked a flat spot surrounded on three sides by rocky outcroppings. There was just enough room for our two tents, our three kayaks and a little extra room to sit around. It was perfect.

After a nice meal of spaghetti with roasted red pepper pesto and a bottle of wine, it was time to head up to the hot springs. We followed the left wash up into its narrow canyon. The gravel was so uniform and the canyon walls so steep on either side that it reminded me of a scene from Lost in Space. It just didn’t seem natural. After only a few minutes of walking, the gravel was wet, and another few minutes brought us to the end of small stream.

As we continued up the canyon we had to step up and around a few little waterfalls and the stream became wider and deeper, enough to cover our entire feet if we walked in it. Out of curiosity, I reached down and felt the water. It was about 90 degrees Fahrenheit. I couldn’t believe it. Here we were in the desert in the middle of January and I was walking in a stream of hot water.

We rounded a bend in the canyon path and we found ourselves at the base of a 20-foot waterfall. The sun had long since set and the air turning quite chilly so the waterfall was hot steamy shower.

Fortunately, someone at some time had placed a ladder against the cliff over which the water was falling. We climbed the ladder, rounded one more corner and came to a pool of water. I was looking at my first ever hot spring.

Not wasting any time, I found a dry spot on the creek bed, stripped down and gingerly stepped upstream to the pool. It was about roughly circular, between a foot and two feet deep and about 100 degrees. There was a small step on the downstream side where the water was running out and a larger step on the upstream side where the water was pouring in. It was very surreal, and to this day, it still seems to good to be true. I was sitting in a completely natural pool of hot spring water. I told the other three that they should come on in because the water was fine. They did.

Dave, Michelle and Leslie, all having experienced hot springs before, were amused by my fascination and disbelief. After a few more minutes, I stood up and looked around the upstream corner only to see another pool. The next one was a little larger and a little deeper than the first one. I climbed up into it and discovered it was a little hotter as well. I would guess around 106 degrees. I gave my still amused co-bathers the news and they all followed me into the new, bigger and hotter pool.

There we sat, at the bottom of a 20-foot wide 200-foot deep canyon, soaking in hot water, looking up at the stars in the crystal clear desert sky. This, I decided, was perfect.

It doesn’t take too long sitting in 106 degree water before you start to feel cooked. After approximately an hour of pool hopping and star gazing, Leslie and I got dressed and started the hike back down the canyon to our camp, leaving Dave and Michelle to do whatever it is that new lovers do on clear starry nights all alone in a hot spring. Even after the short walk in 30-degree air, we were still warm enough that crawling into our sleeping bags was instantly cozy and we drifted off to sleep.

Day 8, Saturday, January 13

My morning ritual is to lay in my sleeping bag while planning the most efficient way to get my warm clothes on. Dressing in the little tent is certainly warmer, but takes a while due to sitting and crouching, during which time it is easy to get chilled. Dressing outside is certainly faster and easier, but the morning desert air is struggling to break 30 degrees, and every second standing outside in your underwear is awkward and cold.

I usually lay there for a while running through my next several moves in my head. One shirt, then head outside, then the rest. Or shirt, pants, exit, finish. Or shirt, shirt, fleece, shell, exit, pants. Sometimes shirt, tights, back in the sleeping bag, get back up, exit, finish. Inevitably, I have to pee so badly that I settle for an imperfect dressing routine just so I can relieve myself, whether I’m a little cold or not.

Since no one else was up yet by the time I finished my game of body temperature chess, I decided to scramble up one of the canyon walls and await the arrival a picturesque sunrise.

I read a quote by a National Geographic photographer once. He said that snapshots serve as reminders of a place we’ve seen or visited, whereas a good photograph should bring the experience to someone who has never actually seen it. I dreamt of being a photographer for Old Yellow as I sat perched on a rock waiting for the morning sun to paint the far side of the canyon.

I had only taken a few snapshots before Leslie crawled out of the tent, fully dressed. She looked around for a little while, and then eventually spotted me up on my pulpit. “Did you climb up there carrying the tripod?” she asked. Not sure what my other option would have been, I told her that I had indeed climbed up here carrying the tripod. I assured her that in just a few more minutes I would have the perfect shot of our campsite, the river and the sun lighting up the far side of the canyon. About half an hour later, confident that I had the next cover shot for National Geographic, I wondered if Leslie had any ideas for me to get down without carrying the tripod. I decided not to ask and just felt my way back down the steep parts.

Leslie and I took another walk up to the hot springs. Well…enough on that.

At some point before noon, Dave and Michelle emerged from their tent. After a forty-five minute lesson on the finer points of making oatmeal, Dave had finished cooking his breakfast and proceeded to eat it.

Some time after noon, we began our three-mile paddle up to the Hoover Dam. It seemed that we had timed it perfectly to coincide with a major release of water. At some points we had to paddle hard just to not go backwards.

After a long hard paddle against the strongest current we had seen yet, we made it to Hoover Dam. Big and impressive to be sure, but definitely seemed out of place.

From Hoover Dam, it was now an easy downstream run to the sauna cave, the Nevada hot springs, Boy Scout Canyon, then back to camp.

The sauna cave is actually a test hole bored into the rock before the construction of the Hoover Dam. It was the first site originally picked to build the dam but discovered to be too geothermally active. The dam was then built about 700 meters upstream. The “cave” is about 2 meters in diameter and extends about 40 meters back into the cliff face. The bottom is ankle deep with about 120-degree water. It is small, dark, hot and a bit claustrophobic. By the time you reach the end of the cave, it does in fact feel like a sauna. On full blast with a fresh bucket of water poured over the rocks. It’s interesting to experience, but not a great place to hang out. Next stop, the Nevada hot springs.

It seemed that just about the time we launched to head to our next stop, everyone in Los Angeles and Las Vegas must have turned off their televisions and hair dryers. The Hoover Dam went from hydroelectric facility to big ass chunk of concrete. In other words, the current shut off.

We had to paddle for about a mile to get to the base of the side canyon formed by the Nevada hot springs. The water flow from these springs was enough to supply a full hot stream that fed into the river.

The hike up the canyon was actually as much climb as hike.

There were several sections where ropes were set and it was no easy climb to get up the next little cliff or waterfall.

After about a thirty-minute climb, we made it two the hot springs. There were about 6 large pools at the bottom of a much wider canyon. As we approached, we heard some voices and then saw a tent and a few piles of clothes as we got closer. These were the first strangers that Leslie and I had seen in a while and I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t have all the pools to ourselves. We picked a pool that was fairly secluded off in a corner and soaked for about 45 minutes. The pool was big enough to float in and we could move around to hotter and less hot spots within the pool to make our soak more comfortable. When the sun was getting low over the rim of the canyon we decided that we would be well served to make our descent in the daylight.

We got to the bottom just as the sun was setting behind the rim of the canyon. By this time, the current was back in full force. So much so, that the Nevada side of the river was a little rapid. We had to launch and quickly paddle up and across the river so we could circumvent the rapid. I soaked my boots and my socks in the process, but we all made it around safely.

Normally, a pair of wet socks in the desert is no problem. This pair however, would prove to be an ordeal.

We enjoyed a beautiful twilight paddle back to our campsite, where I quickly ditched my wet boots and socks for two dry pair of socks and my spare shoes. I stretched my wet socks out on the bow of my boat, under the shock cord. They would certainly freeze over night, but I suspected they would be dry by the time we break camp.

Once we were all settled around our camp stoves the evening took on a chilly, but cheery tone. We were sharing a bottle of bourbon, sharing camp recipes, and overall enjoying our company and our surroundings. About mid meal, I heard what sounded like two fiberglass boats clunking together. Surely, it must be the wind in the canyon, I thought. Then I heard it again.

“Leslie, did you just here our boats moving?” I asked.

“No, Dress, there’s hardly any wind at all. How could they be moving?”

The sound came again. Unmistakably this time. I flipped on my headlamp and looked over towards our boats. I found myself in staredown with not just any sock thief, but the one known as Terror de Canyon. I looked at him; he looked at me. It was the one, the only, Esteban de Gatos.

For all my years as a young child, my dad told us stories about Esteban de Gatos – Terror de Canyon. By the time I was in middle school, he had gone the way of the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and Jimmy Carter. But now it was all too real. Esteban was trying to steal my socks.

Normally, most ringtails would scamper away as soon as they are discovered, but not Esteban. He gave me a look that said, “I’m taking your sock, but I am confused by the black elastic cords that are holding it down. Please get that damn light out of my nocturnal eyes so I can get back to work here.” I gave him a look back that said…well…it didn’t say much. I was just confused.

“Get away from my socks!” I yelled, and through one pea of gravel at him. He scampered back into the thicket and turned back toward me. I could see his big round eyes staring out at me in the dark. He stared for a moment, and then disappeared into the night.

Leslie and I decided on one last soak in our local hot spring before bed, so we packed away everything that de Gatos may want and headed up the canyon for a quick warm up.

Dave later reported that no sooner were Leslie and I out of sight, than Esteban de Gatos was seen on top of our tent! Dave threw a rock at him again, and he was up the cliff in seconds.

On our way back down to camp, we wondered aloud if Esteban would be back. We both flipped our headlamps on high and scanned around our tent. Sure enough, two bright eyes were ablaze amidst the rocks and scrub. I lobbed another rock in his direction and he escaped behind an outcropping. Knowing how persistent Esteban is, I kept the beam of my headlamp sweeping the darkness beyond our tent. Within seconds, the same set of glowing eyes appeared on the other side of the same rocks. Another stone hurled his way sent him retreating.

Leslie and I squirreled ourselves away into our sleeping bags and predicted what it would be like sleeping with a ringtailed cat walking around on top of our tent. We hadn’t even made it through our first version when we heard the boats clunking and something squeaking and whining. “GET OUT OF HERE!!” I yelled, and the squeaking stopped.

That was the last we saw or heard of the hosiery heister. Dressler, one; de Gatos, zero.

Day 9, Sunday, January 14

The last day of our paddle was a strange day. Like any day, I was excited to get moving, get on the water and get to where we were going. The problem was that getting to where we were going meant back to Willow Beach, in the car and on the road back to Chicago. I simultaneously wanted to hustle and dawdle.

We took the time to make a Thermos of coffee. Vanilla cappucino to be specific. Since we didn't have room in our boats for a full out espresso machine, we had to compromise with the Nestle instant powder stuff. It did the job quite well as far as I am concerned.

We ended up not hustling or dawdling; we just took our time. We ate a nice breakfast, cleaned up camp, and then went for one last soak in the hot springs.

By about noon, we had our boats loaded and were ready for the last paddle home. It was a clear, crisp sunny day with a light breeze building out of the south. We just, as the paddlers say, lillydipped along. Landing at Willow Beach was simultaneously a relief and a disappointment. Kind of like finishing final exams. Not long after we began loading the boats the breeze had become a steady wind, and we were glad we finished when we did. There will always be another trip.

Day 10, Monday, January 15

Day 12, Tuesday, January 16