Monday, October 10, 2005

COLORADO RIVER: Hedonistic Pursuits in the Surprisingly Primitive and Remote Black Canyon

Recently, four of us, all Walter Mittys of Adventure Travel, found ourselves on a -- what? guys only trip? -- certainly a mild but nonetheless exuberant adventure paddling a pair of canoes down the Colorado River. I had enticed the boys with descriptions of sublime natural beauty and raw physical adventure that awaited in this, after all, quite popular, geo-thermally active, prehistorically significant, and downright gorgeous stretch of the river called Black Canyon.

Where on Earth? Somewhere perhaps out in the wilds of Utah or Arizona miles from civilization? How about just outside of the fastest growing metropolitan area in the U.S., home to vice and lechery, extravagance and corruption, incessant gambling, with its alluring sin-drenched reputation, non-stop you-name-it, none other than the neon-glitz capital of the world, LAAAASVEEEGAAASNEEEVADA! . . oh yeah, which just also also happens to be an outdoor adventure lover's destination paradise for world-class challenges in every possible sport or outdoor activity you want to take on. And that's exactly what we were here for. An outdoor river adventure on the (alas, once) wild Colorado River.
Put in was thirty minutes to two hours outside of Las Vegas, depending on the traffic, specifically, just B.H.D. -- below Hoover Dam. B.H.D., where the once truly mighty river has been backed up for miles in a slow-moving reservoir. B.H.D., where the Colorado River begins an ignominious wind-down to a pathetic trickle before it has a chance to reach its natural outlet in the Gulf of California. B.H.D., where Boulder City Outfitters was dropping us off deep in the heart of Black Canyon, setting us weekend warriors adrift in well-lardered, if not perfectionistly organized, canoes. (Thanks to the more fastidious among the crew members.).

But first: a night of revelry and debauchery (hardly) on the Strip! We checked into the campy Sahara at around 9 p.m., but not without a headache of a start: the Perfessor and his Japanese friend, Masato, arrived late from Seattle due to unsettled weather. When Miguelito went to check on their flight, I was left watching the gear at the rent-a-car place. . .for nearly three ho-hum hours. Just what I wanted to be doing in LAS VEGAS! That time probably cost me a couple hundred bucks!

Finally, though, their plane, just on the verge of being diverted to Anaheim, was allowed to land at McCarren International Airport. It was good seeing the Perfessor, that’s for sure, and to meet Masato-san who had flown in direct from Tokyo via Seattle and was in a zombie state of culture shock and exhaustion. (Mike and I had driven in grand style, renting a bling-bling sort of Lincoln Townhouse.) We wove through Las Vegas' horrendous traffic and finally got settled in at the hotel. After showers and a quick toast, I did my best to rally the boys for some hard rockin’ Vegas-style partyin’ down, but they were content to hang out in the hotel room and engage in friendly chit-chat and catch-up with a fair amount of erudite conversation thrown in as well. (Masako, understandably, was jet-lagged and collapsed in bed.)

I impatiently paced the room, contemptuously waving my arms around at the tacky decor, saying to no one who was listening, “Why would you want to do anything at all in this dive except catch a few winks of shut eye, for Christ’s sake!” But it fell on deaf ears. So I said see-ya, find me at the blackjack tables in half an hour. Forty minutes later, I stormed back to the hotel room announcing, “I just won two bills! Where have you guys been? C’mon, let’s have some fun!” And then we'd get distracted until, twenty minutes later, wearying of the drab hotel room and fading conversation, I said, “OK, boys, let's meet at the tables in half an hour. There's a jammin’ band.” But forty-five minutes later, I'm back at the hotel room, beaming, “Are you guys ever gonna join me? I just won $350 more! What is your story? Let’s hit the town!”

Well, they finally emerged, and the Perfessor, the anti-gambler, actually sat down and won himself $30 playing some shit-ass lucky blackjack. Me? Figures I would lose a couple hundred of my winnings trying to show off. And I know the Perfessor was enjoying mocking me and rubbing it in, while Mike consoled me and praised my "guts" for risking the opportunity.

I think I was alone in my delighted state to be Las Vegas, although Masato expressed a desire to have more time to check out some of the sights. What more could you ask for? -- a gambling and party mecca as a jumping off point to launch any number of outdoor adventures!

We arranged our river run with Boulder City Outfitters. We had to secure our own federal permits, and we requested no guides and two canoes. We had map, camping essentials, plenty of provender, and a few -- cough cough -- luxury items, with two nights and three days to get to our destination -- Willow Beach, Arizona, eleven miles downstream from where we put in B.H.D.

Launch time was 9 am. We met in the parking lot of a massive and garish casino near the dam -- the tacky Fiesta -- with its threadbare, faded and whisky-stained blackjack tables, smoky bars and sadder than usual assortment of gambler-losers -- but delicious as hell smorgasbord we later found out during a major pig-out session on the return.

We loaded our gear into the outfitter's trailer designed to carry canoes, kayaks and tons of gear, and off we headed down to the base of massive dam, having a shit-load of fun already in the bright and early morning, excited at the prospects of camaraderie and adventure on the river, necks craned and eyeballs peeled on the lookout for bighorn sheep, eagles, bobcats, jackrabbits, coyot's, any sign of local desert denizens. They're out there. A guy in a passing truck stopped to point out where he'd just seen some bighorn moments earler. But a gigantic construction project was in the works, probably the biggest construction in the area since the dam itself. They were (finally) building a new bridge/highway over a gorge to bypass the dam. I suspected all my animal friends had fled the scene. I suppose it should ease up a bit on the ungodly backups of tourists trapped in hot, polluting metal contraptions for hours in 100 degree temperatures just to have a quick look-see at some, albeit historic, but nonetheless prosaic 5,000,000 barrels of poured cement and some 200 million pounds of other materials forming the 6,600,000 ton artificial barrier. Lord Almighty, Mildred! Lookie-there! Ain't it sumpthin! Now, let's turn 'er around and get back to the Fiesta!

Seeing the dam from down below changes perspective in a radical way. You can really get a sense of its soaring and bulwarky dimensions--726.4 feet high and wide as the gleaming green river. The sad truth of the matter is there is big-time history here, it’s bound to draw millions of gawking tourists every year. Twenty-one thousand men lived and slaved here in the mid-1930s, and dozens and dozens of them died in the service of the country to harness the hydro-energy of one of the world's greatest rivers in order to, what? ultimately?, irreversibly alter the ecosystem, create a compelling raison d’etre for fabulous and wasteful cities to blossom in places they simply weren’t meant for. Such is humanity's folly in pursuit of civilized ways, always having to learn the lesson over and again, for Mother Nature always has the final word. Let us not forget how drought probably contributed more than any other single factor to many ancient civilizations' demises. ("What's a dam?"-true life Jeopardy! question answered by the Gambolin' Man)

We were all enchanted by the prospect of getting in our canoes and setting off down this magnificent canyon, headed into well-charted but unknown territory for us. Oh, yeah, sure, there were issues -- time constraints; lack of fun rapids to run; invasive jet skis and tourist pontoon boats; horribly noisy motor boats; nuisance planes overhead; the neon glare of Vegas at night blotting out most of the starry sky. It was a shame that such a beautiful and primitive, remote feeling place would be overrun by lazy hordes of thrill-seekers who rely on blaring two and four stroke engines to get up and down the river and have their fun at the expense of others who are seeking peace, quiet and solitude. To the credit of the B.L.M., Sundays and Mondays are designated days of non-motorized traffic. So, we got at least a day free of the noise, commotion and pollution. And yet, from the get-go, once we shrugged it off and realized how vast a place we were in and what specks of nothingness we all were, none of it mattered as the world of Black Canyon unfolded ahead of us.

The Colorado River B.H.D. was, to my surprise, quite a clear and bracing body of water, flowing faster than I ever would have imagined, and a limpid limegreen refreshing 54 degrees. I couldn’t wait to get in. Our first destination was a stop about a quarter mile from launch – a respite known as Sauna Cave. I was still in a paddling mood, having just set off, but Sauna Cave was not to be missed. We debarked, hauled up provisions, and enjoyed our first round of the day’s eventual excess of nepenthe. . .then entered the black tunnel into the rock wall. A channel of water maybe three feet across and a foot deep, ancient primeval walls oozing with the sweat of Mother Earth herself. Ten feet in the tunnel curves and the light disappears. I struck up a bic lighter in a moment of disorientation and could barely make out the Perfessor in the back of the tunnel, twenty feet in, seated on a solid rock bench in pitch darkness, whistling, calling, evoking, beckoning -- when a bat flew out and grazed my head in echolocutory mayhem (sorry bat!). I inched forward in the darkness, imagining eternity, womb walking, the tunnel of rebirth, hot moist echoing. I needed daylight, now! Plus, the temperature was around 110 degrees of steaming almost suffocating air. Maybe it was just the old phobia flaring up.

We continued on to find amazing spectacles in the river's banks -- etched out fern grottos dripping with hot spray -- stunning side canyons with hot waterfalls and pools to soak your aching bones in. You can’t believe it until you’re there, hiking up the canyon floor, scrambling up cascades, craning your neck to see the sights above. You’re loving the creek, and to think! It’s a therapeutic dream. You never want to leave. There’s no time to organize the garbage in the canoe, or devote gourmand attention and preparation to eating. You just want to revel in the fun and sheer do-nothingness of it all, wanting it to last forever.
Next stops were Lone Palm and Boy Scout Canyon, where we ended up spending our nights camping. We hadn’t even gotten in an hour of paddling that first day; somehow we felt cheated. But these canyons captivated us like a Siren Song, so alluring was the tributary creeks and the back canyons that we yearned to stay another night to explore their fullest mysteries. We swam, canoed around (yes, there is a debacle story), luxuriated in hot pools, explored upcreek where the canyon took on Death Valley like proportions, and engaged in plenty of conversation. But I found myself just wanting to soak it all up in as pure a way as possible with the fewest interactions and hassles – you go out to the river and BE, STAND, DO NOTHING. You swim, you contemplate, you do more of nothing, and are content, at peace, with the knowing that nothing needs to be done, or even that nothing (beyond entropy) needs to be known. You’re so taken by the power of the river, the spirit of the water, the energy of the place, the raw beauty, the sensation of connectedness, the forlorn realization and inevitable sigh of resignation that it’s all so temporary, fugacious, hardly real or lasting enough to make an impression. Or is it? Here I am, on the Colorado River, in a wild canyon, in this moment in time – I am all of this! Kaboom! -- I’m jolted back to reality by a frisbee hitting me upside the head and the Perfessor yelling, “Dude, heads up!”

Our 48 hours or so canoeing the river was, by all measures of endurance and athleticism, pretty much of a cakepaddle. It’s mostly a relaxing, fun float down the river, except when you want to head back upstream to check out something you missed because you were too busy paddling your lame ass off right past it not able to control the craft in a sneaky current. That sort of challenge. It got to the point where you started boasting and elevating your talents, dissing the power of this “tamed” river. Never anything too vigorous or rigorous, always controllable. I kept telling the boys that this river would kick their asses in a second. . .and they all hearty-har-harred. And so our puny arrogance got the best of us, like the time we were forced to tread high fast moving water fifty feet back to our canoe after a topside hike; or, most humorously, when Mike and the Perfessor were out tooling around in the late afternoon, out for a spin so to speak, without their life jackets (to my ignored pleas), when the river, which fluctuated by six to ten feet on any given day of water flow, carried them out and away to the far side. They struggled mightily for several minutes. Masato and I watched in mock horror. I doled out unsolicited admonishments about their “comeuppance”. They were moving as though on a tread mill. But finally they managed to turn the canoe around and took a swooshing current to midstream, and then, for reasons uncopped to by both, the canoe suddenly tipped over. (There goes my camping stove and fuel; luckily, most everything else had been removed.) Mike and the Perfessor valiantly dealt with the adverse situation in an amazingly agile way. They had the presence of mind and body to grab both paddles and the canoe and steer it and themselves over to our side of the bank. Masato and I scrambled high up and around the rocks to get to them, but on the approach, it was too steep down. They were on their own. They had snagged themselves on a protruding tree limb, took stock for a few seconds of their continued existence (as opposed to their deaths), then hoisted the canoe high over their heads and emptied ‘er of water. Soon they were paddling away back to base camp, where a big fire and cold beer awaited them, none worse for the wear, and actually emboldened by the experience, if not slightly humbled all at once.

We hiked up canyon waterways that ran hot. High steep walls sheltered big horn sheep, mountain lions, rattlesnakes. We soaked in hot pools, luxuriated under hot falls spewing out of rock springs. We explored fern grottos, cactus gardens, and sought out petroglyphs on our last day deep up a classic desert wash – alas, no rock art. I know where we missed the turn-off – next time!

Black Canyon merits further exploration. We didn’t get to Goldstrike Hot Springs or find the petroglyphs. We didn’t hike far up enough in the washes. We spent minimal time in the canoes and wasted too much time fussing about at the campsite. On the other hand, we had a boat-load of fun! We did what we did, saw what we saw, and it was a magnificent, memorable, magical time on the Colorado River B.H.D.

For all photos: view slideshow at: http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/tomario@sbcglobal.net/album?.dir=aed3&.src=ph&store=&prodid=&.done=http%3a//photos.sbc.yahoo.com/ph//my_photos

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