For starters, I was the only one of us not interested in a trip to Lake Mead in Nevada. Twenty-odd years ago I was a member of an aerospace management team that planned yearly stag trips to Mead in the name of "team-building." We suffered more casualties than a train wreck-mostly self-inflicted. For me, it was "been there, done that." And most important, we've been boating Arizona's Lake Havasu for five plus years and lived there for two and a half years. We've boated Havasu so often that the rangers at the boat launch knew our dogs' names. Havasu and Mead are only a little over 100 miles from each other and they're both part of the 1,400-mile-long Colorado River-so it's the same water. Plus, I felt once you boated a desert lake surrounded by mountains, the scenery's not going to change that much, right? Well I was actually wrong.
16 LEGGED CREW
We arrived at Lake Mead a few days after Labor Day weekend and the place was deserted. It was eerie, similar to one of those odd dimensions found in the Twilight Zone. I thought we might find some of the holiday stragglers still celebrating, but the party was over and the lights were off. Dawn and I, plus our friends, Mike and Lisa Rodela, had reservations at Boulder City's Hacienda Hotel, which had countless vacancies and the casino was almost lonely.
Four years earlier we had met Mike and Lisa while puppy-raising for "Guide Dogs for the Blind" and we quickly became pals. Dawn and I always got a kick out of their different, but similar occupations-like peanut butter and jelly; Mike is a fireman and Lisa is a nurse.
A few joy rides and adventures at Lake Havasu on our boat was all they needed as an introduction to pontoon boating. They were "quick studies" and a 23-foot, three-logged pontoon boat purchase soon followed. They lavished in the luxurious comfort and discovered the universal versatility of the pontoon as a water craft "extraordinaire." Lisa discovered bliss while basking under the desert sun in the softness of a lounger and Mike, an ardent fisherman, enjoyed his mobility around the boat when landing the "big one."
"I love the smoothness, it's like fishing from the comfort of your living room," Mike boasted. Quite a testimony from a fireman suffering the perils of a few too many back injuries from the hazards in his line of work.
The Rodelas offer to use their boat for this Mead adventure was such a great gesture, but they went over the top when they also graciously welcomed aboard Snickers and Norm, our two dogs.
THE MIGHTY MEAD
Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States (world's largest per some sources), is just minutes from Las Vegas and contains enough water to cover the entire state of New York with one foot of water. Nearly 96 percent of the water comes from snow melt from Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming. The lake covers nearly 250 square miles of surface area and has over 550 miles of shoreline. Secluded coves and beaches are more plentiful than the "one-armed bandits" in Vegas and the water temperature warms up to a delightful 85 degrees. Mead and Lake Mohave are part of the 1.5 million acres of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area which receives about 10 million visitors per year-the fifth most visited park in the National Park Service system.
Archaeological evidence reveals the presence of Native American cultures 8,000 to 10,000 years ago when this region along the Colorado River was wetter and cooler. Climate changes over time created a hot, arid and inhospitable environment when explorers like John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran, explored this portion of the river. In 1893 he stated, "I would defy anyone to make a journey by boat through those still, weird chasms and down that yet mysterious river and not be brought under by their influence." His words were about Black Canyon, the later site for the colossal Hoover Dam.
THE DAM STORY
Hoover Dam, at 726 feet tall and 660 feet thick at the base, contains enough concrete to build a four-foot- wide sidewalk around the world at the equator. Completed in 1935, it was the first structure to surpass the masonry mass of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Contrary to myth, none of the 96 workers killed during construction are buried in the cement body that impounds water extending 110 miles behind the dam. The water supports the needs of southern Nevada, Arizona, southern California and northern Mexico. Hoover Dam still ranks in the world's top 40 hydroelectric generating stations, 73 years after construction.
BOULDER BASIN EXPLORATION-DAY ONE
Lady Luck hadn't blessed us in the casino, but we could not have begged for better weather coupled with ideal water conditions. Puffy white wispy clouds floated against the bright blue backdrop with water that seemed to stretch to the next galaxy. The immensity of Lake Mead overwhelmed and engulfed us as we anxiously picked out a few strategic landmarks so we could find our way back to the Lake Mead Marina. Huge, multi-family houseboats appeared like teeny dinghies as they crawled across the vast waterway toward barely visible, distant shores. Several enormous water bodies comprise Lake Mead: Boulder, Gregg, Temple and Virgin Basins and the Overton Arm. Today was dedicated just to scratching the surface of Boulder Basin.
Sights that hadn't been seen in 40 years were revealed due to the low water level. Purple mountains stood behind the 50-plus feet of white bathtub ringed cliffs and shores. Mike's four-cycle Johnson purred (in sharp contrast to my middle-aged two-stroke) and provided a silky smooth ride, as we explored this portion of the lake. "Prop checks" with our PFD's were performed while we floated in deep water except when the dogs needed some dry land for their "prop checks." There were numerous deserted, sandy beaches for these short stops and all six of us frolicked in the water's warmth.
Mike and I hiked to the top of a small bluff and discovered an area that once was near the water, but now served as a time capsule. Remnants of campsites from past decades were scattered like dinosaur bones. Empty "pull-tab" beverage cans and stones placed for fire rings marked where man had once visited. Vegetation is stark in this arid desert with plenty of triple-digit "bake-ya-til-yer burnt" days. Global warming may have been born here and later spread around the planet. Donkey and coyote droppings were fresh and plentiful-a testimony to their survival skills in this harsh environment.
The ladies and dogs were cooling themselves in shallow water to thwart off the September sun when we returned from the mountaintop to share our history lesson. We motored for another couple of hours while we visually absorbed the pastel grand vistas. The dogs' behavior signaled they had a "pit stop warning light" flashing.
Snickers, always eager to exercise her "Beagle rights," was anxious to "do her business" and leaped from the bow as we were beaching the boat. I jumped in after her and sank up to my knees in gooey, black sludge. I had to wrestle the putrid mud demons for my huaraches then retrieve the smelly little mud ball that we affectionately refer to as "baby princess." Lisa was already in reverse, churning brown thick water, for our escape. A closer examination of potential landing sites was practiced after that messy encounter.
Later, we floated again and took turns riding in the red two-person pull tube. Norm, our "career changed" guide dog, swam with a Labrador's passion as he swung his tail back and forth like a big, blonde rudder. He pulled me with ease through the water when I hitched a ride by hanging on his tail. Norm, the adept boater, learned to pull himself up the pontoon's ladder with minor human intervention.
All six of us swam, floated and played in this warm, water wonderland before and after yummy snacks of crackers and cheese. Food always "super sizes" the joy of boating. Finding our way back to the marina turned out to be an easy task, topping off a wonderful day on the water. That night we only had a few things to look forward to: hot showers, a bountiful buffet (half-priced because it was off-season), and casino fun. Life is good!
TANKED UP-DAY TWO
Plenty of gas, a full ice chest, maps and Mike's Magellan Model 315 GPS were essential for the next leg of our adventure. Mead's surface covers almost a fourth of Rhode Island and the terrain can look the same after several hours of twists and turns. We shot out of the marina like an angry Brahma bull storming out of the chute and made a beeline for the Narrows that connect the Boulder and Virgin Basins. Exiting the north mouth of the Narrows is a poor prelude for the next scene, a sea of water that over stimulates your senses with its vast immenseness. Looking north from this point, there is water as far as you can see, with no obvious end. It reminded me of the ocean.
As we ventured up the long Overton Arm, we were bucking a fierce head wind and some formidable waves. The traffic thinned, then finally reduced to a few boats less than nil. We felt like brave explorers-man versus nature. Later, concerns about our increased fuel consumption and the chance of sacrificing one of our sailors to the wrath of the ill-tempered water turned us around. At this point, exploring Virgin Basin sounded like a solid idea.
Hundreds of inlets and bays dotted with zillions of islands and islets waited for our discovery. Dawn and the dogs jumped overboard and swam to an islet that had been submerged for decades. Norm, the swiftest swimmer, had the distinguished honor of being the first animal to set foot on this small piece of dry earth. He soon shared this distinction with his two accomplices before the threesome returned to the boat. Mike could scarcely contain his excitement every time a fish leaped from the water; these two days were tough on an unarmed fisherman.
Water and wind have carved the most intriguing sculptures of countless, diverse shapes and sizes. Colorful stone formations, rock and sandstone natural monuments, and a couple of water-formed arches kept our eyes dancing while racing from sight to sight as we slowly explored the shoreline. Nature's work had touched all of us by this enriching, almost spiritual experience.
Time raced and attempted to sneak past us when we realized we still had another stop-a visit to the dam. And bless the GPS: it navigated us out of our convoluted travels through canyons and inlets in Virgin Basin to the correct waterway for our egress.
Hoover Dam, considered an engineering marvel, is intimidating, even from the smaller, lakeside view. We were in awe as we approached the massive Gothic-inspired architectural dam; it almost commands reverence.
Understandably because of the events on 9/11, several safety precautions had been implemented. The floating buoy barrier was relocated to a further distance from the dam. Truck traffic was prohibited from driving over Hoover Dam and diverted to another crossing. Other vehicles allowed to drive over the dam today will use the new Hoover Dam Bypass scheduled for completion by 2010. Once completed, this 1,900 foot long bridge (the first concrete-steel composite arch bridge built in the U.S.) will tower an impressive 840 feet above the water.
Later, the mood turned festive when four young couples partying in a black and yellow pontoon floated near. Music filled Black Canyon from the boat's powerful sound system pounding out, "Like a Rock." Wow, suddenly we had front row seats at a Bob Seger rock concert! Both of our vessels floated in and out of the long afternoon shadows created by the steep canyon walls. After being mesmerized by the great wall of concrete, we followed the party pontoon out of the canyon. Our air was mixed with music and TW-3 oil-flavored exhaust. When we reached the open lake, Mike easily zipped past the party craft and turned the bow in the direction of the marina. By the time we retrieved and wiped down the boat, the sun had painted a reddish-orange sky behind the mountains and the water reflection had changed hues.
Lake Mead is a wondrous body of water with unimaginable proportions. It is so much more than just a lake, even at its current 47 percent of capacity. Several seasons of above-average run-off will be required to restore this majestic lady to her greatness and preclude water issues for the west.
We had scarcely explored her charms and yet a return trip was planned. And, as for the "doubting Thomas," I discovered a new appreciation for this grand inland sea with her abundant beauty.