Black Canyon Kayak Trip, Day One – “Miserable to Memorable”

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.

BJ, Kathy, and John in the Winnie trying to get me organized.

BJ, Kathy, and John in the Winnie trying to get me organized.

BJ made me these cool bags!  They even have my initial on them!

BJ made me these cool bags! They even have my initial on them!

aaah, much better.  One down, one to go.

aaah, much better. One down, one to go.

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.

The rain still threatens, so John looks for a tarp to cover our gear.

The rain still threatens, so John looks for a tarp to cover our gear.

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Desert Adventures will be shuttling us down to the launch below the dam.

Desert Adventures will be shuttling us down to the launch below the dam.

First look at Hoover Dam from "the 2nd steepest road in the USA."

First look at Hoover Dam from “the 2nd steepest road in the USA.”

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 have 15 minutes to get these boats loaded and launched!

We have 15 minutes to get these boats loaded and launched!

John made this beautiful work of art canoe by hand!

John made this beautiful work of art canoe by hand!

It is organized chaos in the shadow of the bridge.  (Sorry for the butt shot, John, but no time to frame a photo!)

It is organized chaos in the shadow of the bridge. (Sorry for the butt shot, John, but no time to frame a photo!)

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…

BJ prefers a "sit on top" kayak.

BJ prefers a “sit on top” kayak.

Paddling upstream for one last glimpse of the Hoover Dam...

Paddling upstream for one last glimpse of the Hoover Dam…

...and then we are pointed downstream, off in a flash.

…and then we are pointed downstream, off in a flash.

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…

We reach the Arizona Hot Springs beach.

We reach the Arizona Hot Springs beach.

John and Kathy scout for dry, level tent pads.

John and Kathy scout for dry, level tent pads.

Take my word for it, it's still worth it!

Take my word for it, it’s still worth it!

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.

View upriver from our campsite.

View upriver from our campsite.

The water is so clear here, we can see large fish below.

The water is so clear here, we can see large fish below.

"We come in peace."

“We come in peace.”

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 have this perfect protected campground all to ourselves!

We have this perfect protected campground all to ourselves!

Recent rains have left the rocks slippery.

Recent rains have left the rocks slippery.

The trail to the hot springs is only about half a mile.

The trail to the hot springs is only about half a mile.

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.

Nothing stands in between me and a soak!

Nothing stands in between me and a soak!

No way to climb the ladder without getting wet from the waterfalls, so we leave our dry clothes down below.

No way to climb the ladder without getting wet from the waterfalls, so we leave our dry clothes down below.

Looking back down the rickety ladder.

Looking back down the rickety ladder.

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!DSCN8072

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?!

John must have been an Eagle Scout...

John must have been an Eagle Scout…

BJ gets the "best tent accessories" award.

BJ gets the “best tent accessories” award.

To be continued…

40 thoughts on “Black Canyon Kayak Trip, Day One – “Miserable to Memorable”

    • Kim, not only did he make the canoe “Knot Again,” he also hand-wove the cane seat, and helped Kathy make her kayak, “Knot Too Shabby.” That’s talent!

    • John, I loved reading your account as well, and glad I am not the only one who needs three posts to adequately do it justice. 😉

  1. How fun to travel where not everyone has been! What a cool adventure!! Are they rented kayaks? Do you have a guide or is John acting as your guide since he has done it before? I bet the hot springs were a welcome treat after paddling for the day.

    • Rene — I rented my kayak. BJ owns hers, and John and Kathy made their own. 😉 John and BJ have done this trip about 10 times, so they were generous enough to be my guide…

  2. What a fantastic adventure, now isn’t this just what retirement is all about? Good on you. When’s your book being published??? IKEA bags are invaluable, in fact although they dont publiscise it, many of their storage products make great camping accessories.

    • Dave — Yes, retirement is exceeding my expectations so far! I haven’t been to IKEA in years, as John and BJ were kind enough to give me the bags, but I can see how their space-saving items could double as camping items.

  3. Wow! Awesome story. I was totally enjoying every word and wanted more and oh, those pictures! Just so good! Thanks for sharing.

  4. My Dad always wanted to take a float trip through the canyon–he rode mules down into the Grand Canyon twice in his life. That trip is on my bucket list in his memory!

    • Janna, I have the Grand Canyon trip on my bucket list as well! It’s not a cheap trip, though, as it is much longer, and the river gets much wilder. Still, I hold out hope I will get to do it one day…

  5. I am so excited to read about this adventure, since it is on your Experience list. I can’t wait to read more. Just like your book, I am right there with you every step of the way – even having nervous stomach about having all the gear….what fun!! Love the Ahhh moment in the hot springs.

    • Thanks, Linda. I love that you are coming along with me via the blog! Thanks for always being so supportive of the book!

  6. Now this is so totally cool because I know exactly where you were!! We hiked down to the river there through the canyon and then hiked back up by going up that ladder and through the hot springs. They were so warm. It is one of our favorite hikes in the area. We even saw your “adorable” bathrooms!! There were people camping when we were there, also. The river is so beautiful. Glad the weather cleared for you:) Can’t wait for part 2!!

    • Pam, figures you the Intrepid Hiker have done the canyon and back. I think it was a worthy hike, even without the warm water, don’t you?

  7. This is awesome! I know how difficult it was for me to pack for a 5-day Colorado River trip. Unfortunately, no hot springs along my route between Phantom Ranch and Diamond Creek.

    • Gaelyn, I really want to do that route between Phantom Rance and Diamond Creek one day! I am going to go back and search your blog to see if you wrote about it…

  8. Glad the sun came out and brightened the adventure – that clear water is wonderful. I’m so curious who times you on the loading ramp :-) Although I get the security for the dam :-( You have to trust a guide/friend who brings Baileys! Can’t wait to see the rest of the trip!!

    • Jodee, there was a woman down on the ramp with a clip board. Although she didn’t say anything, I have no doubt she was keeping an eye! There were cameras everywhere down there. Crazy stuff, but like you, I get it…a breach in that monstrosity could do a lot of damage!

  9. Okay totally jealous and I hate you! My kayak MAY make it out for the first time in the coming weekend but certainly nowhere near as lovely as this!!!! I can’t wait to see the rest of your photos and read the story of the trip.

    • Sherry — Don’t hate me because my kayak journey was beautiful. haha! Well, at least you get to do it more often!

  10. My dream of boating down the Grand canyon is unachievable but I think that I could manage this one. I am a canoeist so I better get going on building a strip canoe. As always I love your pictures and prose. That ladder would never support me though so I shall have to pass on the pleasure of a great soak.
    Thanks.

  11. Hiking, biking and boating? Was this in your retirement packet description? Remember it’s not a vacation it’s a life style – and you are stylin’.

  12. Susan, I am going for a lifestyle of perpetual vacationing. 😉 Gotta ride that wave while I can, ya know! Hope you are warming up there in UT!

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