Thursday, May 27, 2010

Black Canyon, a timeless kayak adventure

BOULDER CITY, Nev. – Our kayaks rounded a bend as the first rays of sun invaded Black Canyon. Instantly, the name became a misnomer. Dark craggy walls turned a dozen shades of red with jagged accents of white, brown and gold.

As light slid down the canyon walls, the dull gray Colorado River lit up a luminous emerald green in the shallows, where a white sandy beach spread to a stand of cottonwoods. And through shafts of light, cliff swallows darted and dived over us like acrobatic angels. river kayak

Black Canyon, in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, lies quietly between Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. Except for a photo stop at Hoover Dam, many tourists and tour buses zoom on by. Just as well. Without big crowds, Black Canyon provides a great on-the-water experience for alternative adventurers, even those with only a long weekend and without too much outdoor savvy.

This part of the Colorado flows at the command of Hoover Dam, a monument to human engineering. But just downstream, the clock still ticks at geologic pace, its face carved by water, wind, and sandstone. Eons mark time as natural hot springs bubble and gush into the cold river, and bighorn sheep casually stroll up and down sheer rock walls.

Several commercial outfitters in this area offer guided tours that require no previous kayaking experience. There also are river cruises in pontoon power boats. But to soak in the thermal springs, do a bit of rock scrambling, and capture the real ambience of Black Canyon, take paddle in hand. Our kayak tribe hauled a trailer of boats down from Sacramento for a self-guided trip early in May.

Our first day on the river began downstream at Willow Beach Harbor, a 30-minute drive past the dam and a popular takeout point. The current was leisurely, the water amazingly clear even with a fringe of algae. Above us soared a lone bald eagle, and below, huge fish lurked on the riverbed – probably carp or catfish, though the area is popular for trout and bass fishing.

By early afternoon, we had paddled about five miles upstream and had yet to reach the first of several hot springs. Increasing flow had slowed us down. We also noticed that the handful of other paddlers we saw were all headed downstream – and seemed to be enjoying themselves way more. And that herd of wild burros in the cliffs above, unseen but not unheard. Braying, or laughing at us?

Returning to town, we inquired about a put-in near the base of the dam. Turns out that anti-terrorism measures go beyond Hoover Dam highway checkpoints – which can back up traffic for more than six miles on a weekend afternoon. The Feds also control access to an old road that leads to a launch site just below the dam and underneath a massive bridge construction project.

Fortunately, access permits are handled locally by commercial outfitters. And permits can be had on relatively short notice, at least on weekdays prior to the summer season. Some 45 kayakers are allowed to push off below the dam in three daily launchings. (For convenience, many will buy a day package that includes guide, kayak and gear, lunch and permit.) Everyone must provide photo ID before they board an outfitter van hauling a boat trailer, and these are the only vehicles allowed on the access road. Once on the water, paddlers must move downstream pronto, since dam releases can change anytime.

So a couple of days later, we were bouncing down a gated, barely-paved road soon after sunrise. A driver-escort helped us carry our 17-foot kayaks down a switchback path to the rocky shoreline. Light was beginning to find its way over the awesome, 72-story-high dam, which itself was framed by a new highway bypass span that dwarfs even the dam.

A surreal scene, to put it mildly. We were so pumped that when the van driver offered some sightseeing tips, his words barely registered until he got to the part about the killer amoeba.

TO BE CONTINUED (link to part 2: Spectacular canyon scenery, wildlife, and thermal springs, but mind the brain-infecting amoeba.)

© 2010 Glenn Brank
river kayaking adventure