Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Hoover Dam Kayak Adventure

“Take a picture of me in front of the Hoover Dam,” I said to the Desert Adventures van driver, my hand shaking a little. I don’t know if the tremor was from the fear that he might drop my new camera into the water, or from the thrill of putting the small red kayak into the mighty Colorado, which was discharging from the foot of one of the engineering marvels of the world. 

It was quite a spectacular photo op with the nation’s highest arch suspension bridge, the Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, looming overhead, and the nation’s largest concrete dam positioned as the backdrop.

Because we were told that the security guide wanted us in the water and headed downstream as soon as possible, I was anxious about spending much time lingering. Unfortunately, I didn’t check the picture that the driver took before we left the spot. Later, when I downloaded the photo, I found that he took the picture of me literally “in front” of the Hoover Dam – I was blocking any view of the giant structure. The photo was all Stacey and no dam. Damn!

“Hard hats were invented specifically for Hoover Dam workers,” explained our Desert Adventures guide once we got our kayaks in the water. “That was back in 1933 when the dam in front of you was the largest dam ever built.” My husband, Dan, and I had visited the Hoover Dam many times, but we’d never seen it from the seat of a tiny kayak. We were looking up at the massive structure from the bottom of the dam while paddling on the Colorado River through what is known as the Black Canyon.

Our outfitter, Desert Adventures had procured permits for the Hoover Dam security area, transported us through security checks, locked gates and finally to the launch site at the foot of the Hoover Dam. Our guide, Gary, let go a floodgate of information about the dam. 

“You are as close to the bottom of the dam as is legally possible,” smiled the river-runner, already a veteran in his late twenties. As we paddled down the Black Canyon, it became evident that he knew much about the geology, flora and fauna of the area, and more importantly, the locations of all the hot springs hidden in the side canyons.

“The weather predictions for our two-day trip have changed slightly. We’re supposed to get high winds at 8:00 tomorrow morning, so we’ll do most of our paddling today to avoid the headwinds. Then tomorrow we can spend more time hiking and exploring an abandoned homestead. Does that sound OK to you?” he asked.

“Sounds like a great plan, but we have to warn you now,” said Dan. “Our friends say, ‘The weather always goes wonky when you camp with the Wittig’s.’ We’ve ended up in epic hail storms on top of the San Francisco Peaks, hiked down ice paths on the desert’s edge of the Grand Canyon and ended up in a flood in Death Valley.”

The first stop on our kayak journey through the Black Canyon was only a few hundred yards downstream from the launch site at the Hoover Dam. We hiked up to a small opening in the rock wall. I had to bend over to poke my head inside. We turned on our headlamps and walked single-file through the steamy, narrow cavern. 

“We call this Sauna Cave,” explained Gary. “It’s not really a cave, but actually an exploratory tunnel made during the construction of the Hoover Dam.” When workers encountered 122° F water, they had to abandon the site – I was ready to abandon the cave, as well, as my claustrophobia was kicking in pretty good.

The Colorado River below the Hoover Dam is relatively flat water – you won’t run into the big whitewater rapids that the river is known for as it snakes through the Grand Canyon. However, the enormous amount of water, which flows through the narrow Black Canyon creates stronger currents, eddies and boils than I had ever experienced while kayaking the Mississippi, Arkansas or Allegheny Rivers.

At Goldstrike Canyon, we stopped to explore the amazing slot arroyo. The trail, on which we walked, was actually a stream fed by hot springs that drizzled from the canyon walls. It was the first time that I experienced hiking in warm water, and I was quite awed by the feeling of the warm water between my toes and Teva sandals. This was literally like no other place on earth. I climbed up raging waterfalls with the help of a rope ladder, something that I never pictured myself doing. But the mystical beauty of the canyonscape gave me energy that I did not know I possessed.

After paddling about eight of the twelve miles of this overnight trip, we camped on a sandy hill overlooking a wide beach. Gary set his tent on a nearby hill after starting a campfire on which to make our dinner. The outfitter had supplied food, camp chairs and all the gear needed for the expedition. All we brought was our clothing. We enjoyed the relaxing pop of the embers as we finished dinner and headed to bed.

The 60-mph winds weren’t supposed to hit until 8:00 a.m. but we were awakened in the pitch dark by the incessant flapping of the tent’s rain fly. I tried to ignore it and go back to sleep. I dreamt that I had sand in my mouth. Soon I was roused again as the windward side of the tent pushed against my face, and I found that I did, indeed, have sand in my teeth. I turned on my headlamp to find our sleeping bags and clothing – inside our tent – covered in a surprisingly deep layer of sand. I felt like a Bedouin.

“Honey, get up, we need to tie down our campsite,” I said, afraid that the massive winds would carry away our camping chairs and anything else we had left outside.

“Why are you using the white light on your headlamp?” harangued my sleepy husband. He preferred the red light setting that did not destroy night vision and so turned on his red light. We unzipped the tent and got out to fold up the chairs that had already toppled in the wind, which was pelting our hilltop campsite with sand and flying debris. A plastic bag went whizzing by and I dove to snag it.

By this time, Gary arrived from the nearby hilltop where he had set his tent. “When I woke up from the wind, and I looked over here, I saw one white light and one red light. I was so dazed that I thought they were vehicle lights in the distance. I thought I saw a road, and the lights were a ranger coming to rescue us.” We all laughed hysterically knowing that we were in a remote canyon miles from any roadway.

The guys went to look for a wind shadow in which to reestablish our campsite. I re-staked the rain fly and crawled back into my sleeping bag. Soon I heard, “Put all your clothes in the dry bag. We’re going to unstake the tent and carry it to a new spot.”

“Do you want me to put in the sleeping bags and mats, too?” I asked.

“No leave those. We’ll carry them inside the tent,” yelled Dan over the sound of the mighty wind.

Half asleep I began cramming hats, gloves and rain jackets into the dry bag that Dan had tossed inside the tent. Outside the guys were drawing the stakes. Soon they took the tent, with me following behind trying to carry the rain fly that was spread with a pole. The embedded pole made the huge nylon fly into a sail, and it caught the wind like a jib. I tripped over the flapping being and dropped the dry bag. I was sure that if you could see in the dark, we all would look like a bunch of Keystone Cops flailing in the sand.

Eventually, we set our tents on the leeward side of the sandy hill in a windscreen and slept through the rest of the blustery night. The good news was that the wind storm went through earlier than predicted and in the morning, we didn’t have to paddle in the strong headwind. That left us plenty of time to explore the ruins of an old homestead built for early water gauge workers, boulder in more slot canyons and watch for wildlife.


Desert Adventures picked us up at Willow Beach and drove us back to our vehicle. We were quite happy that we had reserved a room at the Hoover Dam Lodge in Boulder City for the evening. After dinner at The Dillinger Food and Drinkery and a restful night, we toured FlightLinez, one of the longest ziplines in the world and explored Bootleg Canyon, an internationally recognized mountain biking area. One thing was for sure, when you go camping with the Wittig’s, the weather will go wonky.

Boulder City Chamber of Commerce
465 Nevada Way, Boulder City, NV

Hoover Dam Lodge
Desert Adventures
1647 Nevada Hwy, Suite A, Boulder City, NV

Desert Adventures

FlightLinez – Bootleg Canyon
1512 Industrial Road, Boulder City, NV

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