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