It’s a balmy mid-January evening in Mesa, Arizona when John Schroder, his wife BJ, and I first discuss the prospect of a kayaking trip down the Colorado River through the Black Canyon. It has been in the mid 80’s for several days now, and the night is so pleasant that we choose an outside table at one of their favorite restaurants, Red White & Brew. John talks about timing for the trip, and suggests that the first week of March should be just about perfect. He and BJ have commitments through February, but any later in March, we would be bumping up against Spring Break. John fine tunes this date even further to say that we need to launch mid-week. Too many crowds on the weekends. He and BJ have done this trip so many times, they have the planning down to a science. The only thing they can’t fine tune is the weather…
I spend the entire month of February in shorts and flip flops, often times wondering how much longer southern Arizona will be bearable. Moving further north to Havasu, the weather is nothing short of perfect. I even consider a swim in the lake. But then, the day I am to leave for Boulder City, a freak cold front blows through, sending snow birds down to lower elevation to avoid…snow?? And as if that were not bad enough, it never stops raining…no, pouring, the 150 miles from Havasu to Boulder City. It is nothing short of miserable out there.
Since that first discussion back in Mesa, I have had visions of doing this kayak trip in a tank top, shorts, and water sandals, but instead I find myself scrambling at Walmart, combing the aisles for anything NOT cotton that I can use as layers. I am in luck! They have a whole line of “Climate Comfort” fleece on year-end close-out. At only $5 an article, I buy one of everything.
We are to meet at Railroad Pass Casino the night before our early morning pick-up by Desert Adventures, an outfitter run by John’s friend Izzy. Kathy, John’s friend and former colleague will be joining us. John and BJ are loaning me some dry bags to hold my gear, since I don’t exactly have room for a complete kayaking kit in the Winnie. When John, BJ, and Kathy knock on my door, I have gear spread from one end to the other; sleeping bag, inflatable mattress, MREs, cookware, toiletries, and piles of fleece. It looks like I am running a used REI shop out of the Winnie! Within a matter of minutes, they have me organized and packed with everything I will need for three days on the river, waterproofed and stuffed into two compact IKEA shopping bags.
It rains off and on throughout the night, and I have trouble sleeping due to the foreboding 5:30am wake up call. I go through John’s packing list in my head over and over, thinking through all possible scenarios to be sure I am covered. This will be my first camping trip where I will not have “drive out access,” so I need to be sure I am prepared.
We will be launching just below the Hoover Dam, which requires not one security check but two. Desert Adventures van takes us down what they describe as “the second steepest road in our nation, second only to Pikes Peak Road.” As we wind our way down the hairpin curves, they break the news that there is a new rule in place due to heightened security…we will have just 15 minutes to unload the boats, unload and untangle all our crap, walk it all 500 feet down to the river, load the boats, and get off the shore. We do it in 25…
I can’t begin to describe what a thrill this is, sitting in such a small craft in the middle of the mighty Colorado River as the water flows from beneath the dam. Having visited this dam as a kid, one never forgets the magnitude of this man-made structure. I try to soak it all in, but the current is so swift, we must paddle up stream to even capture a few photos in front of the iconic dam before we are carried downstream…
I thought I would be telling you that launching in the shadow of the Hoover Dam was the highlight of this trip. But it just keeps getting better. It is easy to see why it is called the “Black Canyon,” as the imposing walls of black volcanic rock reflect back on the swirling deep water, giving the river ahead of us a stark, monochromatic contrast against the hazy skies. But we are in luck. Those dark skies are lightening. The rain has diminished, and we are even starting to see some patches of blue sky! We begin to shed layers as we paddle to maintain a steady course down river.
The first three miles flies by, and all too soon we arrive at our campground for the night. Arizona Hot Springs offers a nice level beach lined with small, evenly sized pebbles of gravel to protect us from the mud, and tall rock walls surrounding to protect us from the wind. Oh…and did I mention there is a hot springs here??
We watch a few day-trippers come and go, but it soon becomes evident we will have the campground all to ourselves, so we spread out and choose four of the primo tent pads. We set up camp quickly, then BJ, Kathy, and I waste no time getting into our swimming attire for the quarter mile hike upstream through the canyon.
Hiking to the hot springs presents a few minor challenges. Due to the recent rains, a lot of the steps up the canyon are wet and slippery. But nothing as nerve-racking as the rickety old ladder! BJ and Kathy explain that this ladder once had railings at the top, but now the top rug is the last chance “leap” onto the ledge. But the warm water is delicious, and worth the shaky navigation required to get there. Three pools ranging in temperature from lobster-boiling to tepid have been cordoned off with sandbags. I think Goldilocks would agree, the middle pool was just right!
The sun is dropping low, so we head back to prepare our dinners. Some of us are having homemade Shepherd’s Pie while others are waiting on a mediocre MRE to rehydrate…hhhmmm…where did I go wrong? But soon, all is forgotten. John and BJ are the ultimate “gear heads,” with a tool or a gadget to meet every need. So when the bright green metal canister labeled “Irish Fuel,” comes out, I am not sure what is coming next. Bailey’s Irish Cream for our hot chocolate! Do these guys know how to camp, or what?!