One Stroke at a Time
Hoover Dam to Yuma by Kayak...Solo
A paddlers journal
Before we get going on this saga let me tell you a bit about me and just why I made the trip.
First, I cannot Eskimo Roll. I also cannot do the Limbo or dance the Macarena. All this means in real life is that I will never be an Olympic Whitewater contestant, a Caribbean Gigolo or a Democrat. Big deal. As a matter of fact I never even sat in a kayak until well after my 60th birthday. As for now, lets just say I am firmly on Medicare.
When I retired I wanted an activity that was challenging, fun and good exercise. I needed something to keep me in good shape.
I saw an advertisement for an introductory kayak lesson and responded. A quick indoctrination into wet exits and rescue techniques and I was hooked. Rental fees soon became excessive so I purchased a well used Tupperware sea kayak. I soon outgrew it and replaced it with an excellent fiberglass expedition kayak. Loading a 65+ lb.. kayak on my truck single handed became quite a chore and kept me from really enjoying kayaking. I discovered wooden stitch and glue kayak kits and ordered one.
This started me on kayak building. The kayak that I took on this trip is my hull # 6. It is much easier to handle a kayak that weighs 42 lbs. To answer the obvious question, no I do not have kayaks stacked 6 or 7 deep in my shop. They keep being sold and no, I am not in the kayak building business.
I just cannot refuse people that want to give me money.
During my paddling adventures I have been on quite a bit of the Colorado River at one time or another. I started thinking of a trip from Hoover Dam to Yuma a year or so ago. None of my good paddle buddies could take the time off from work to make the trip and my lightweight kayaks seemed to be the answer for the required 6 dam portages so I started planning in earnest for a solo trip.
November is probably the best time as the weather moderates somewhat and the winter winds are not a factor. The minus side is low water, especially after several dry winters but how much water do you need to float a kayak?
I chose a Chesapeake Light Craft kayak, a Chesapeake 17 LT for the trip. I modified it slightly with their retractable skeg to compensate for following wind and current. I also use a low angle modified sweep stroke for endurance paddling so the skeg helps in avoiding excessive wander. I chose the Eddyline Wind Swift paddle as it does behave quite nicely in windy conditions. I also uses the Seairesports TotalAir seat as I think it is the most comfortable kayak seat made.
My reason for making this trip? To prove to myself that I can set goals and expectations and then meet them.
Lets get paddling!
A Grand Beginning
There are 2 ways to start from Hoover Dam. You can make reservations and pay a $5 fee to launch at the base of the dam or you can launch at Willow Beach, about 15 miles downstream and paddle upstream to Hoover Dam to start the trip. I chose the reservation method. Our time was assigned and I presented myself at the time and place designated. I transferred my kayak and gear to a shuttle vehicle that took me down a steep, narrow and winding road to the base of the dam. The shuttle stops about 100 yards from the launch area. I thought the launch area looked smooth and gently sloping so I loaded all my gear into the kayak, put on the portage wheels and set off to get in the water. The launch area is not smooth and gently sloping as I soon discovered. It is steep, rocky and generally hazardous. I thought I would have to unload, hand carry everything and then reload in the water. This is no small task as I had 15 days food, all camping and personal gear including a canvas chair and a cot. Yes, it all fits in a 17LT with a skeg box. Fortunately a couple that were launching a canoe saw my predicament and helped carry the loaded kayak to the launch.
I launched into very low water, about 1-2 mph of current. Warm day, very cold water as it comes from the bottom of the lake and not much wind. Two constants prevail in the Black Canyon; It is beautiful and the wind starts big time just after Willow Beach, about 15 miles downstream. I was underway about 9:30 which I consider late. I prefer to launch at first light and set up camp about 1 or so. This tends to avoid the wind and gives the time to clean gear and prepare for the next day.
Black Canyon is part of the construction effort of Hoover Dam. The workers would utilize the natural hot springs and sauna caves to relax. The signs of their presence in this harsh environment are still there, from the gauging station with its spidery catwalks a mile or so long linking the attendants house with the overhead trolley to the gauge to the large iron rings set into the rock canyon walls for the sternwheel boats to use when winching through the rapids. A hard way to make a living, but there was a depression and any job was eagerly pursued.
Passing through Black Canyon was, as always overwhelming. Combine this with low water and partially exposed rapids and sandbars with a loaded touring kayak makes for a really exiting time. I had a crash course in these areas. I had decided that the nicks and bangs of this solo trip would mean refinishing of the kayak and I had already planned the paint scheme. Just after passing Willow Beach the wind started up and the current slowed as we get near Lake Mohave. The wind increased as it funneled through the canyons and the gusts were unpredictable as they bounced from wall to wall. The current was weak enough by now that the wind easily overcame it and had the ability to move you backwards. I plodded on for about 8 miles before finding a sheltered spot and camping.
There were quite large wind waves at this point. The good part is that the wind in the face keeps the kayak motor cool.
My first night camp was in (really) Windy Canyon, some 26 miles down the river. The first dam, Davis, is only 44 miles but there will be no help from the river. My back is a bit sore, but I settled down for a good nights rest. As the river can vary 4 feet or so, depending on water release a strong and long tether is mandatory.
Day 2, Windy Canyon to Cottonwood Cove Launched at the crack of dawn to calm to very light winds, river like glass. This is what it is all about.
As I left the canyons and the river widened into Lake Mohave it was like paddling on a mirror. The current was gone, no help there. There was almost no traffic of any kind on the lake; I did not see anyone else until after 10. Paddling conditions ideal, wonderful world. Stopped at Cottonwood Cove as I wanted a hot shower and a diet Coke. Made 22 miles, felt like I was loafing. The hot water showers were available for 25 cents. Not too bad in my estimation. Get good rest as tomorrow is challenge 1, portage of Davis Dam. Back still hurts.
Day 3, Cottonwood Cove to Bullhead City
Launched from Cottonwood Cove at dawn to a wide glassy lake. Weather warm and cloudy. Not another soul around. The edges of the lake looked like there were Indian markings from the reflected patterns. Very beautiful. After about 10 miles the wind came up with a vengeance. The wide and long lake supplied the reach for the wind to really develop. I would estimate gusts to at least 20 mph and wind waves of 2+ feet. Head on, thankfully. I was impressed with the way the raised front hatch cover and straps broke up the waves before they smacked me in the chest. Slow going, but the kayak was still quite heavy and riding very stable. No danger. I was tempted to seek shelter and wait for a better day but decided to press on. After about 5 miles of this fun the conditions abated and progress picked up. Made Davis Dam around noon.
Portage of Davis Dam
The only way around Davis Dam is to land at the base, unload the kayak, carry everything up a 40 foot goat path through large rocks to the top. Then over a chain fence into the parking lot, repack the kayak on the portage wheels and walk 1 mile to the launch site. Everything was going well on hauling gear to the parking lot. I decided that I would string a safety line when I carried the kayak up, so I tied my line to the fence post, put the kayak on my shoulder and started up the trail, using the line to help keep my balance. About halfway up it dawned on me that I had not secured the bottom end of the line so I could slide my left hand forward to get a new grip. Big problem. I solved it by leaning my head over, holding the line in my teeth and sliding the hand forward. I was thankful that no one with a camera was present. I was very thankful that I had just taken the new, clean line out of its factory wrappings. I reloaded the kayak and set off on my 1 mile downhill portage to the closed park where the launch ramp was. Diagonally across the river is Davis County Park. The next place to camp is in Needles, CA, some 30+ miles downstream. Having already come 22+ miles and done a portage I decided to stay at Davis Park. I got another hot shower there. The showers operated from a button. Press the button, you have water. Release it and the water stops. Instantly. Again, I was glad no cameras were present to record my gyrations. I sat on the bank that evening watching the lights of the casinos in Laughlin, NV. No temptation, I know where they get the money to build and operate those places. Needles tomorrow.
Day 4 Bullhead City to Needles
Who stole the water? Launched at dawn in a river that was 4 feet lower than when I put it to bed. Good current flow, clear weather. Normal cruise stroke netted 6 mph. Unfortunately the low water has exposed many gravel and rock bars, probably 10 today qualify as class 1 rapids and I am a sea kayaker. No huge problem, just retract the skeg, pick the slot and go for it. Almost fun except for the terror; this is a heavily loaded sea kayak and it doesnt maneuver that well. It had to happen, I came to a rock bar that went all the way across with no apparent slot. The current was too swift to do much but pick the softest looking spot and pedal to the metal. Dont ask. As I went over I felt the bottom flex up to meet my legs and seat and we were over. I stopped and inspected the hull as soon as possible and found no structural damage at all and just minor cosmetic bruises. I pressed on to Needles, covering 30+ miles without further incident.
Stopped at Needles as the next possible camp is past the Topoc Gorge, a distance of 25 or so miles.
Day 5 Needles to Lake Havasu City
During the night the river gained a foot. I launched at first light to good current flow and a light tailwind. I would prefer a light headwind to keep the motor cool, but we take what we get. The higher river helped eliminate many of the lumpy spots in the water so I made good time. The Topoc Gorge is as beautiful as ever. It is one of my favorite paddles on the river. I met many Bass fishermen along the way and exchanged friendly greetings. I thought that they were out because of it being a week day and all the jet skis and such are in school or working, but I found out later that there is a huge tournament scheduled for this weekend. More on that later. I plan on staying at the Windsor Beach State Park in Lake Havasu City so I press on. Still have back pains. Quitting is not an option.
All goes well through the Gorge. As the Gorge opens into Lake Havasu there is a gravel bar across the river. No problem, lots of water, but the current ends right there, right now. Just like having 4 flat tires. What a feeling. The last few miles to the campground seem like forever after the 2 or so mph of current for the last 2 days. I get a choice campsite, right on the lake. Paradise. I think I will take an extra day here to rest and regroup. Walk into town and get a Subway sandwich and visit the Safeway.
Day 6 Rest Day at Lake Havasu
Rest day. Very sore and achy. Thought about the back ache problem and a light came on in my head (at last). I am carrying 4 flares, 2 radios and a signal mirror in my back pocket of my PFD. Try taking them out and stowing elsewhere. Subsequently the back ache is gone. Its a miracle, Ive been healed!
Wash clothes, lay around a lot and repack the kayak. Walk into town a couple of times on one pretext or another. Read a book. Plan the rest of the trip. The tourists have made welfare pets of the local rabbits and other wildlife. I do not think they have done them any favors. I lay in my tent and listen to quail parents holding school on their young. A very pleasant interlude. Spoke to two of the bass tournament entrants at the shower room. Their bass boats can easily cost $50K. The first prize in tomorrows contest is $60K. For that price I might find a fish hook and enter. These guys make their living following the tournaments, reminds me of cowboys on the rodeo circuit. As a matter of fact, one of them looked like a king sized Willy Nelson. They must be good at what they do; they were sneaking free showers and sleeping in their truck.
Day 7 Onward to Parker Dam
Launched at first light. The Bass tournament was getting underway at dawn. All the noise and lights looked like the start of a Le Mans type race. I figured that I would be heading south and close to shore so I would not be in their way. Wrong answer. They come zooming in, make 2 or 3 casts and go zooming out. Short attention span? The speeds they were running indicate that those Bass must be one fast fish. The fishermen were very considerate and friendly.
I went under the transplanted London Bridge on the way out. It is getting a bit commercialized but is still well worth visiting. A bit of tail wind came up to hasten me on the way. All in all a beautiful day.
The wind built a bit and wind waves were pestering me most of the way to Parker Dam. I prefer headwinds for cooling, but who asked me?
The portage of Parker Dam was a bit more physically demanding but simple. Take out is a launching ramp. Load the kayak on the portage wheels and up a very steep paved half mile. Then down a very steep paved half mile. I had made arrangements with a gracious lady, Lois to use her dock for launch. Simple and easy, however the current was swift, the dock was high and no cleats for handholds. I made a very ungraceful entry, no capsize thankfully and was on my way down the famous Parker Strip. I was having trouble controlling the kayak and making smooth progress so I felt that I had done enough for the day. I put in to Buckskin State Park for the night. While getting ready for the next day I discovered that I had assembled my paddle unfeathered and was attempting to paddle in that unfamiliar configuration. I guess I was ready to quit. They should print instructions on take apart paddles for folks like me. On to Headgate Rock Dam tomorrow.
Day 8 Parker Strip; Left Coast Partytime
The Parker Strip is the 15 or so miles between Parker Dam and the town of Parker. It is heavily built up and extremely expensive. During any time that the schools are not in session it is packed with jet skis, speedboats and water-skiers. A person could almost walk across on the boats. Needless to say, the parties never end. While negotiating this stretch I was even offered a Bloody Mary by a group in a speedboat at 7 in the morning. The boat-in bars along the river were doing a brisk trade. It is still a beautiful stretch of river. I greeted a fisherman who was fishing from his dock and he held up a string of Bass that would place in the money in the tournament. Life is funny.
The water was fast but shallow. I think I hit everything in the river except a cow.
The portage at Headgate Rock Dam was a disaster. Take out was good, grassy bank to pull the kayak out on and load it on the wheels. Then up to the highway, about half a mile and the put in was a pond that allegedly accessed the river. What could go wrong? As I was trudging along with my kayak following on the wheels a kind motorist offered me a lift. I should have taken it but this is a solo trip, no cheating. Got to the pond, launched through heavy brush and paddled out into the pond. No access to the river. I felt like Humphrey Bogart in the African Queen. I was mucking through 2 feet or so of mud pulling the kayak along behind. It finally dawned on me that this was not only dumb but was getting me nowhere so I found a place to get out. I loaded the kayak on the wheels, made a cross country detour to the highway and set off for the town of Parker, about 2 miles down the road.
At the first riverside place I found, a trailer park, I begged permission to launch from their ramp. The river was so low that I still had to wade through about 100 ft. of mud before the kayak would float.
So much for other folks directions and advice.
Now the fun begins. Low water equals many gravel bars, snags and low classification semi-rapids. As if this wasnt enough, the wind came up to blot out the noise of rapids and agitate the water surface so the warning ripples of snags and so forth are not visible. I was tired and had seen enough grief for one day so I stopped at Lost Lake for the night. Tomorrow another difficult portage and probably be in Blythe.
Day 9 Blythe Diversion Dam
At the camp yesterday I observed a Southern California thing. As I pulled in a guy in a golf cart offered me a ride to the office to register as it was a very long way off. On the back he had a very large cooler and offered me a beer. I declined, so he gave me my choice of several kinds of soft drink. It was good. After I had set up camp I observed 3 other guys in the same configuration. They would scoot down to the launch ramp, place a marker, drink a beer or so and scoot off. They were closely monitoring the water level and waiting for an increase. Finally about 45 minutes before sundown there was a microscopic increase. This sent them scurrying off to get their boats and wives. What boats! Imagine a catamaran type hull about 30 feet or so long. Hang the biggest water jet nozzle you can find on the back. Put in a war surplus airplane engine that uses AvGas at $3+ per gallon and that is it. When they start them the earth shakes and your dentures vibrate. Into the water, only 2 speeds, on and off, and away we go, upstream. Why do they always go upstream? Any wildlife in a 50 mile radius in burrowing or fleeing. About 45 minutes later they return to the nest. As they are loading up one wife says, ia Yawl come on up to the trailer, Ive got lotsa hawt dawgslr and off they go. Man, this is living on the river. Good people, however.
Launched to another beautiful day, clear skies, light breezes and good current. Temperatures all along have been in the 80s during the day. Drink lots of water. Saw a fox getting a drink and have seen lots of water birds. Thought I saw a Lynx, but when I spoke to it, it answered "Meow". As I negotiated a nasty gravel bar, coming through by sheer luck unscathed, I rounded a bend and came upon 5 vultures getting a drink or waiting for kayakers.
The portage of the dam was brutal. Low water had left a 2 foot step in the bank. I located a grassy area and manhandled the loaded kayak up on it, turned it sideways and loaded it on the portage wheels. Then up a fairly steep large rock filled 50 foot slope. At the top and nowhere to go but down the same type terrain. At least there was a bit of sand to launch from.
As I was negotiating sand and gravel bars I decided to take a break and get out of the kayak. I found an ideal spot, just before a shallow gravel bar and I eddyed right in, just like the big boys. In my haste to get out I had failed to secure my map. I generally get them wet (they are waterproof) and stick them to my spray skirt. Old folks dont see all that well. I noted my map missing almost immediately and spotted it merrily bobbing over the gravel bar. I took off after it across the shallows and I know I must have looked like a bear cub after its first salmon. I got the map, had a good laugh and was very thankful that no photos of that event exist.
After dodging many more sand and gravel bars I pulled into Blythe for the night. Tomorrow should be Walters Camp, about a day or so out of Yuma. No portages, Yea!
Day 10 Blythe to Walters Camp
The weather was good, the current good and the water is low. Lots of sand bars, gravel bars becoming much less common. Must keep an eye open for snags, however. This stretch of river is not the best on the river but it still beats working. The day was without remarkable incident. What could possibly go wrong? Walters Camp is one of the few remaining fishing camps, fairly primitive. Got a riverside campground and met a guy who was travelling by canoe towards Yuma. Too slow for me.
The next leg to Martinez Lake is mostly on Game Preserve land so not many options for camping. If the river cooperates the 35 miles to Martinez Lake should be fairly easy.
Day 11 Walters Camp to Martinez Lake
This stretch of the river ranks right up there with Black Canyon and Topoc Gorge. A real peasant trip. Launched, as usual at first light. Very pleasant day, clear, light winds and warm. The current is good and the sand bars are becoming less of a problem, either getting used to them or there are less.
Very little other traffic above Martinez Lake, probably because it is a game refuge. I did see one jet ski. He must not be too smart as they are specifically banned. A San Diego Lifeguard was quoted in the newspaper as saying, 'A Jet Ski has the ability to lower the average persons I.Q. from 90 to zero in 5 seconds '. I have seen nothing on this trip to contradict this viewpoint. Beautiful scenery. Spotted a few boat-in primitive campsites just on the edge of the refuge. Filed away for future reference.
Made Martinez Lake and found the absolute best campground so far. $3 for a shady level campsite. Hot showers cost 25 cents. A real oasis. Tomorrow paddle the 6 miles to Imperial Dam, portage Imperial and Laguna Dams and get ready for the last 15 or so miles to Yuma.
Day 12 Martinez Lake to Laguna Dam
Launched at first light to a calm river. Good current, clear skies and generally a wonderful day. Imperial Dam is 6 miles downstream. The folks around here take their fishing very seriously. They cut inlets and paths through the riverside reeds. They maintain them and post them no wake zones. Lots of wildlife and generally pleasant. I took one of these out of the mainstream byways to my take out point at Imperial Dam. Put the kayak on the portage wheels and set out on my 2 1/2 mile portage. This is because of security concerns after the terrorist outrages that have severely limited access to this important dam. Fortunately my route is mostly paved roads. As I was trudging down the road with my kayak merrily following a guy pulled up alongside and asked, is 'Taking your boat for a walk? '
To my credit I just smiled and waved, with all my fingers.
The only available put in is across a couple of hundred feet of soft sand, down a trail and then down a sandy slope about 30 feet to the river. Maybe a nice seal launch for the daring, but I took the kayak off of the wheels and slid it down. Holding on to the stern toggle for life.
The connection between the 2 dams is 4 miles long. In the middle of this stretch the Bureau of Kayak Harassment has widened the channel for a silt settling basin. It works. Then they built a weir dam across the channel to help maintain the water level in this basin. Fortunately it is only exposed during really low water so it posed no problem.
The take out at Laguna Dam is a bank up over the antique spillway. The low water left a 2 foot or so lip that had to be dealt with and I fortunately found a muddy and grassy place to manhandle the loaded kayak on to dry land. Then on to the portage wheels and about 1/2 mile to the abandoned
Indian campground. Made camp, repacked for the last leg tomorrow and just goofed off for the rest of the day.
Day 13 Laguna Dam to Yuma
The launch at Laguna Dam entails negotiating terrain similar to the moon. Lots of rocks and not too much trail for about 200 yards. Being as I was smelling the finish line I was up and ready before dawn and launched by flashlight. The river at this point is not much. All of the authorities have taken their share for drinking and irrigation so all that is left is Mexicos share and they do not get a whole lot. Hard to believe that the steamboats used to travel here. The river is shallow. There is still a current but it is much less so sandbars form quite easily at bends, and the river does bend. Fair breeze from behind, clear skies and nice weather. My paddling buddy, Rick, has agreed to launch his kayak from Yuma and paddle upstream to meet me then shuttle my kayak home to San Diego. I figured a 3 hour paddle and met him at 2 hours. The rest of the trip ended without remarkable event.
Conclusions and Observations
I have proven that a solo trip from Hoover Dam to Yuma is possible and realistic for a motivated and dedicated sea kayaker.
During this journey I travelled:
330 miles on the river in the kayak
10 miles via the portage wheels
150 yards dragging the kayak on its bottom during portages
40 feet with the kayak on my shoulder
20 feet walking off of a sandbar
Since the trip I have examined the kayak thoroughly. There is no damage to the structure or the fiberglass. A bit of sanding and paint will restore it to original condition.
There are a few others that deserve recognition:
System 3. Their WR-LPU paint has withstood abuse beyond any design specifications.
Eddyline for the superior Wind Swift paddle. This is the best all around touring paddle I have found.
It behaves well in all winds and is light enough for long days.
I was not sponsored or compensated in any way for or during this trip. It was solo in all senses of the word. Now that it is over, however......
As for logistics, I carried 15 days food plus a small emergency stash. I used a single burner propane stove. I carried a full sized tent, a camp cot, and a canvas folding lawn chair plus normal camping pots and pans and the other hundred small things. All of this gear fitted quite handily inside my kayak, even with the skeg box. the only deck items were the portage wheels and after failure of my hydration bag located behind the seat water bottles on deck. I purified and used river water
Some Failures and Shortcomings
In the real world things fail, sometimes from abuse, sometimes from poor design and occasionally from old age.
During the trip I encountered the following:
Camp water bag liner failed. It was brand new. This is why we carry bottles or other containers. Maybe even a spare liner.
Paddle leash failed at the paddle connection. I am not a fan of the paddle leash, I find it difficult to trust my expensive paddle to a chunk of bungee cord and a piece of velcro. It is also one more line to get entangled in when abandoning ship.
Hydration bag mouthpiece came off, rendering it useless. Carry bottles.
Canvas camp chair broke. Cheap Wal-Mart item from China. Why did I even carry it? The bag was retained for use as a stuff sack that fits nicely alongside the skeg box.
The Coleman tent finally rotted out. $29 special, made in China. 5 years old. Left it at Laguna Dam.
Camp cot worn out. Another discount house cheapie from China. Is there some kind of message here?
I used a Primex portage cart. I find this to be marginally acceptable after modification. The original design uses 5/8 hollow wall anodized aluminum tube for the load bearing axle and a plastic hub on the wheel completes this fiasco. Noting the extreme wear originally I contacted the company. They sent me replacement parts exactly like the originals. Prior to the trip I trimmed 2 ea. 5/8 bolts to fit inside the axles. They were epoxied in place and although they did not stop the excess wear they provided the body to prevent failure and collapse of the unit. I recall that I paid over $100 for this thing. I understand the company sold out. Good. I estimate that my heaviest load ever on this cart was 150 lbs. Maybe I can get one made in China?
See you on the water.