For hardcore paddlers, the Colorado River might as well end where the current dies out after the Grand Canyon. I confess to being part of that crowd . . . until this past March.
A friend suggested spending some of spring break paddling canoes below Hoover Dam, downstream of Las Vegas. I’m open to possibility and was more than willing to escape the tyranny of the snow shovel in Montana. I spent a few days pondering excuses but couldn’t come up with anything plausible, so we met in mid-March at a campsite off Lake Mead to gear up.
Mind you, the lower reaches of the Colorado have an artificial feel about them. The river that once burgeoned its way to the ocean, and where, a century ago, Aldo Leopold paddled the “Green Lagoons” of the rich and bewildering delta channels full of waterfowl, deer, bobcat and the elusive jaguar, exists no more. Now the water that remains is pooled behind a series of dams, subject to the spikes of urban electricity load and the irrigation demands of crops and golf courses, rather than to the natural cycles of snowmelt and flood, drought and monsoon.
That artificiality became clear the next morning, when we met our outfitter at a casino near Boulder City. The only way to put boats in at the base of Hoover Dam is by using an outfitter. Security is gated, armed, ID required, with mandatory, pre-approved lists of clients, and at the base of the steep ramp to the put-in, boaters are limited to a 15-minute window to schlep gear from the trailer to the water, load up and be on their way. Earth-First fist salutes are frowned upon.
The artificiality persists. The water is green and translucent, colder than expected, fed out of the base of the dam. There is no discernible current. Still the Black Canyon walls remain, craggy and high, reminiscent of the floods and erosive power the Colorado River once wielded. The side canyons still beckon hikers to explore up the shadowed bends in search of the prolific hot springs that sprinkle the first handful of miles. And wildlife, as it has everywhere, has adapted to the new riparian reality imposed by our dictates.
Mergansers, loons, eared grebes, coots, bufflehead dot the miles. Red-tailed hawks, vultures, falcons cruise the canyon depths and perch on the rock walls. At our first camp, a pleasant sandy beach above the river, desert bighorn sheep appear, silhouetted at the top of the canyon wall at sunset.
Winds rise up as the paddler’s bugaboo, and a reminder that we can’t really control the environment. At our launch, the outfitters stressed that strong headwinds do not constitute an emergency requiring rescue. We are lucky. For more than three days we benefit from gentle north breezes, pushing us along from behind. Howling upriver winds are common on this part of the river, especially in the summer, but we must be living right, and we never jinx the spell by mentioning it.
Our second morning, a dozen miles into the float, we pass the common take-out at Willow Beach Marina. Almost everyone stops there, having indulged in a day or two of meandering through canyon walls and steeping in hot springs. We keep going another 30 miles, to the take-out at Cottonwood Cove, shedding most of humanity as we do.
The canyon opens up. A few motorboats come and go, but the days lose some of the tourist taint. Coyotes trot along the tops of gravel banks. Wild burros gaze at us from hillsides. Ancient petroglyphs pose their inscrutable mysteries from the faces of heat-struck, volcanic boulders. The calls of great-horned owls echo through the nights. Campsites are busy with nesting birds. Distant black mountain ranges loom out of the riven, volcanic landscape, forbidding and evocative.
As the days and nights pass, the artificiality so blatant at the base of Hoover Dam loses its hold. The ancient forces of geologic time, turning sky, and the sprawling space held in the grip of inexorable forces take over, like an enduring, slow heartbeat.
At the end of Leopold’s essay about the delta of the Colorado, he wrote, “Man always kills the thing he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed the wilderness.”
He’s right. The lower Colorado is not the wild place Aldo Leopold paddled a canoe through, but the veneer of human control and technology reveals itself more and more, with each mile, as a fleeting thing. More and more, with each river bend, the place whispers, this too will pass . . . and this land with a great thread of water spooling across it, will persist.
It’s worth feeling that heartbeat.
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The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak
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