Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Colorado River Trip - Be sure to put the "Bucket" on your "List"!

  Colorado River Trip - A Bucket is truly required on your List!

This is a short story derived from trip log notes taken while Canoe/Kayak camping a section of the Southern end of the Colorado River.   A true "Bucket List" item.  So much so we even cooked a turkey in a trash can (Bucket).  Read on to follow  along on this epic trip.   Be sure to put a bucket on your gear list, then schedule a similar adventure of your own.
Sunrise-Early morning launch from the west bank of the Colorado River   Walters Camp, California
This “Winter” Colorado River trip started as an invite from an Outfitter to join up on a “Friends & Family” trip.  It came about a week before the trip.  In a way, just the scheduling I like.  I have always had a problem with long range planning.  I prefer spur of the moment.  It was possible to get away from work…. and the weather was good.  For mid-January weather, it was to be about as good as it could get.

This trip was to be a canoe/kayak trip of around 40 miles.  The starting point, on the lower part of the Colorado River, just south of Blythe, California, would be at Walter’s Camp.  We would paddle 3 days on the water.  Our “Billion Star” rated lodging, would be Tent camping Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.  We would end up downstream, just north of Yuma, Arizona…at Fisher’s landing.  Our take out point at Fisher’s Landing time would be mid-day on Monday.

I had to be at Fisher’s Landing at 3pm on Friday to drop off my vehicle at the take-out point, and meet my host, Helen.  Once everyone arrived we would be shuttled to Walter’s camp.

Fisher’s Landing from my location in Las Vegas is about 330 miles.  With the short time frame on making the choice to go on the trip, I had much prep to do before the Friday trip.  The week of work leading up to the trip seemed to drag on….I was really looking forward to 4 days on the river. 

The night before the road trip, I attached the kayak rack to my vehicle.  Then the kayak thrown on the rack and, strapped down.  Gear had been prep’d all week, camera batteries charged, the check list double checked.  The gear bags were loaded in the vehicle…I was ready.

Friday morning I was up before the alarm.  An alarm set much earlier than I would get up for work…funny how the alarm wasn’t even needed.  On a work day you just want to slap the snooze and catch a few more minutes of sack time.  I fixed a good breakfast and sucked down a couple cups of coffee.  I poured the rest of the coffee in a thermos, and hit the road.  I knew it would be a long day.

(Day One) It was Friday 1/13/12

As I drove off in a southeasterly direction, the sun was just starting to come up over the distance ridge of mountains.  Sunrises this time of year in the desert are spectacular.  The air is incredibly clear.

It is easy to see why people make the jars of sand with the turquoise blue, orange, and pink layers.  They are trying to capture that special light in a bottle.  I could imagine those jars now.  The real sun was now peaking over the distance ridge, and bathing the landscape in full light.  The dancing colors just before that moment are breathtaking when conditions are right.  Though I don’t think I could ever bottle that up with some arranged sand layers.  My problem with trying to capture it is I know I could never come close to those moments.  The sand only becomes a physical reminder and catalyst to trigger your mind back to those moments.

The sunrise this morning was one of those special times.  It was going to be a good….no… a great trip!  I am sure I will see one of those jars of sand on a shelf in a store, or in someone’s house, someday in the future.  If you are with me and see a lost look and a small smile appear, you will know I am there again, watching that sunrise in my mind.

Once I left Las Vegas I headed south about 80 miles, now just outside Laughlin, Nevada.  I called Helen to let her know I would be at the pick-up point.  She was still getting vehicles, trailers, and canoes, ready while dealing with other clients phone calls coming in.  I am sure she was looking forward to a few days on the water too.  I know she works 7 days a week and long hours.  The business she runs is not an easy job…and not for someone looking for an 8 to 5 job.  Her line of business is full of responsibility and many people depending on her scheduling.  She answered the phone and in her upbeat tone of voice she said she would be on the road behind me…. and would see me at Fisher’s Landing.  I could tell she was busy.  This was one of her personal trips she only shares with her friends and family.

 After the first 80 miles of mostly 4 lane highway I had crossed the Nevada-California state line.  The road south, roughly following the Colorado River had turned to a 2 lane hilly road.  At places it dipped and curved more than others.  The river was off to the east somewhere and for the most part never viewable from the road I was travelling on.  I traveled for hours across desert terrain.  This section of road is pretty desolate.   The kind of place you better make sure you have a full tank of gas.  You see signs like “Next gas 90 Miles”.  I always carry emergency drinking water, even this time of year.

Near Blythe, California I drop into a large flat valley.  The beginning of a lush transformation from brown desert to irrigation canals and ditches, producing green fields of winter produce.  The life giving water from the Colorado, tamed and now watering what was once a huge flood plain.  This valley produces the salad that will be on your dinner table.  I also see miles of cotton fields.  Much of the cotton harvested was setting along the road in huge bails.  I assumed these bails are stacked on flat bed semi-trailers to be trucked away for processing.

I soon turned on the Interstate highway that goes between LA and Phoenix.  I was heading east now.    On this highway, I was soon on a high bridge that crosses the Colorado River.  As I cross over the Colorado River, I can see the clear blues and greens of the river below.  I couldn't help feeling the excitement of the upcoming trip.  Now in Arizona, I pull over to gas up the vehicle.  It’s hard to believe....but gas just on the Arizona side of the bridge is 60 cents a gallon cheaper that the stations on the California side of the bridge….maybe a quarter of a mile away.  I wondered why the lines were so long at the Arizona station.  Regular gas on the CA was so high.  I didn’t even shop around over there…just drove on to get it in Arizona. 

The highway climbed up out of the river basin, and I headed off toward Quartzite, AZ some 13 miles to the east.  The closer I came into Quartzite the more RV’s I began to see.  Parked out in the desert, off dirt trails, and dotted all over in amongst the Saguaro Cactus that grow here.  The little town of Quartzite was bustling with activity.  A giant flea market feel.  There were large white tents and hand written signs to be found along both sides of the street.   There are people & businesses selling and trading anything from rocks and gemstones, to RV accessories and new bus size motorhomes.  I would later comment on this during our time paddling on the water.  I learned this small town inflates during the winter month to a grand finale of around 250 thousand motor homes and camping trailers.  I marked this down as a future weekend trip.  It looked like it could be a fun time.  This is a haven for “snow bird” RV’ers that winter over here before heading north for the summer.

At Quartzite I turned off the Interstate again and headed south toward Yuma, AZ.  I was now back on another 2 lane stretch of road.  This would be the final 90 miles or so to Fisher’s Landing.  The route was now traveling south, down the east side of the Colorado River.  Again, the road was too far away from the river to see any water.  The terrain was considerably less hilly.   Definitely desert.  There where mountains off to the east not too far.  But for the most part it appeared I was in a large somewhat flat valley.  The Saguaro Cactus became more plentiful and considerably larger.  I made a mental note I need to revisit in late spring to photograph the cactus in bloom. 

This was another desolate section of road.  Nearing the end of this final section of the drive, I passed a Border Patrol check station on the other side of the road.  I would be passing that way again after the trip was over.  I sure hope they don’t want to check the inside of my kayak on the way back.  That would be a 20 minute ordeal getting it off and strapped back on. 

I also noticed a blimp in the sky further south.  It seemed fairly stationary.  I would later be told that the blimp was another tool of the Border Patrol.  We take for granted the freedom we have, to come and go as we wish….never being stopped or checked for papers and what have you.  I almost felt like I was going to another country.  I am sure on the way back I will feel like I am coming back into my own country since I have to pass through that Border Patrol check station.

I was first to arrive at Fisher’s Landing for the shuttle pick-up.  I soon wondered if I had the wrong location but I was early.  I had given myself a considerable fudge factor in calculating the travel time.  Mostly the drive had gone well except for a section of road repaving that delayed me 30 minutes or so.  Helen had already called me to say she hit the construction area too and was also delayed.  She asked me to let the others know too….what others?  But soon Scott and Jake showed up.  They had 2 kayaks on their roof.  We said our introductions to each other and set off for the small store at the landing for ice, river maps and a few other items.  Helen soon showed up with the van and a trailer stacked with canoes.  We transferred our 3 kayaks over to her trailer, threw our gear bags in, and we were off on our way to Walters Camp.   River miles from Fisher’s Landing, to Walter’s Camp, it is less than 40 miles.  But make that trip by road, it’s over 2 ½ hours of driving. 

We headed back out to the main road from Fishers, the shuttle van with the canoe trailer in tow.  At the main road we headed south into Yuma, AZ.  Here we would cross the Colorado River, then head north up the west side of the Colorado to Walter’s camp.  Walter’s camp would be our first night’s camping spot.  From there we would launch in the morning.  We could tell by the fading light that we would be setting up in the dark.

After crossing the Colorado River at Yuma we soon were traveling north on a desolate section of road.  Our guide, and now shuttle bus driver starting telling a half serious, half humorous story of one of her previous trips up this road.  It had to do with another Border Patrol check-point on this west side of the river.  We would soon encounter that very check point further up the road.  Seems she had a vehicle full of clients that she was shuttling…much like ourselves.   When they hit the check point, the normal “wave through” after a few questions didn’t happen.  They were asked to all step outside the vehicle.  The is a Border check-point that is not only checking for illegal entry into the U.S. from across the US/Mexico border, but also a check point for preventing trafficking of illegal drugs.  These Border patrol look more like military, than cops.  I am sure they look for telltale signs that trigger some type of investigation.  In this case one of the agents said their drug sniffing dog was acting as if there was something in the van.  Hard to believe since the dog was on the ground yards away.

As the story continues the Border Patrol agents recite a list of serious legal repercussions depending on what is found.  Our outfitter at this point, had visions of her whole business, and means of income, suddenly gone. Not to mention jail, legal issues, etc.  The agents went on to say if someone stepped forward and took responsibility the others would not be involved as much….also if it were something minor they would treat it as a training mission for their dog.

At this point, the listeners of this story realize it is nothing funny at all.  That situation was about as serious as it could get.  I know my mind was racing forward to worst case scenario….though I knew our outfitter was still in business….surely this story had a purpose?  Anyway… one of the guys she is shuttling says there is a pipe in one of his bags….nothing that has been used for some time, but it is in there. 

The Border Patrol turn the dog loose and he goes right to the bag within seconds.  The dog checks the rest of the vehicle and then back again to the bag.

I am sure the ending of this story could have had a hundred outcomes…all of which are worse than a simple “wave thru” at the check-point.   Our outfitter never asked anyone in our group if we had anything in our bags….she doesn’t know all of us all that well.  But the point of her story was quite clear.  My take on this was if any of you have something in your bags….you better speak up and get rid of it before we hit the check point.  It was clear it wouldn’t make it past the dogs.  We all kind of laughed…in my head I’m thinking…geez none of these other people better have something…because I know I don’t.   I wouldn’t even want to get stopped and have to go through that…even if it was someone else’s fault.  We made some jokes about the vehicle being flagged as a problem vehicle….. and checked more closely when it passes through.

About the time this story had time to sink in, we rounded a curve in the road, and there was the check-point complete with Fatigue clad, military looking Border agents, and those keen sniffing dogs!  By now I had visions of being lined up outside the van, awaiting our fate.  We passed through without incident, but the story sure stuck with me.

Not far from the check point we soon came to the turn off to Walter’s Camp.  We turned off the main road and headed down a dusty dirt road full of bumps the whole way.   About 6 miles of severe wash board.  The doors along with everything else seemed to rattle continuously.  Some of the noise may have been my teeth rattling loose in my head…I’m not sure which.  I just recall thinking I was glad this wasn’t my vehicle getting beat by the constant pounding the tires and suspension were taking.  A few deer ran across the road in front of us, caught in the beams of the headlights.   It was getting fairly dark now, so the deer were soon out of sight.   Around another corner there was a wild burro standing beside the road.  The dusty dirt road took us into Walter’s Camp, and onto the west bank of the Colorado River.

Gear was taken off the trailer and out of the van.  With headlights illuminating the grassy area, we pitched tents.  We were in full darkness by now.  We rolled out our sleeping bags, and broke out food for a late dinner.  The temperature had dropped considerably as the sun went down.  With no man made light from any nearby large towns, the stars started lighting up the very clear skies.   The Milky Way was clearly visible.  It was going to be a very cold night.  We all retired early to our tents and warm sleeping bags to escape the cold.

Since we went to bed so early I started waking up around 3am.  Of course it could have been the cold too?  The cold had started creeping in the bag in the wee hours of the morning.  I kept turning trying to find a warm spot.  Also the call of nature was knocking on the tent flap, and whispering in my ear to get up.  I fought off both until 530 a.m. 

(Day Two) This was the beginning of Saturday 1/14/12.

It was definitely a cold night.  I finally crawled out of the bag and put on 4 layers.  Hood, gloves, etc.  I walked over to the campground bath rooms in the dark.  The sun would soon start coming up.  The early morning twilight was still impressive.  The sky was filled with endless amounts of twinkling stars against the jet black of outer space. 

I tried to use the water hose a short distance away from our tent area to get water for coffee....nothing.  It worked last night just fine.  Water was spraying out from around the handle when I gave it a few twists.  I tried the 2nd faucet with no hose...water!  Checking further I could see that the hose was frozen solid!  Definitely a cold night!

We were all up before the sun came up.  The dark sky slowly started lighting up over the distant mountain ridge to the east.  The distant bank slowly materialized.  That mountain ridge off in the east was a stark black jagged line against the red skyline.   The sunrise was spectacular.  With crimson red shimmering on the river and the silhouettes of canoes and kayaks lined up on the bank.

As the sun came fully up, we were all breaking camp.  We bagged gear in preparation to load our canoes and kayaks.  Breakfast was quick and a hot coffee warmed us up.  We started loading up kayaks and canoes after a breakfast was over.  By the time we had all the gear loaded I had removed 2 layers of clothes....it was warming up fast.  That is the benefit of living in this southwest desert area during the winter.  In many parts of the country people are more than likely getting up to shovel snow.

We launched and paddled constantly until noon.   The pace had slowed way down from hustle of the work week.  This was going to be relaxing.  We pulled over to a sandbar in the middle of the river for an early lunch.  The wind had been picking up all morning.  To our advantage it was blowing from the north, and on our backs.  But the temps were dropping.   Weather was coming in.  I put layer 3 back on. 

Picacho State Recreation Area 4-S
After a quick lunch we paddled until 1:30 pm.  We had arrived at our 2nd camp site, Picacho State Recreation Area 4S.  Concrete picnic tables, pit toilets, and charcoal grills....right on the river.  Boats were beached and the gear taken up the bank.  We had the luxury of warm sunlight to pitch tents today.

Helen was starting a 'Trash Can Turkey'.  Paula and Lori were preparing foil packs of veggies to throw on the fire.  There were also apples being prepared for baked apples....the apples to be baked in a Dutch Oven as Apple Brown Betty.  Everyone pitched in and the prep work was done.  The charcoal had been fired and was now burning hot coals.  The coals were stacked on the trash can to begin roasting the turkey.  2 hours from now we would be feasting away.  A couple of Canadians along on the adventure, Murray and Christine, pulled out their guitar and sheet music.  For the next hour or so we were entertained and also joined in on some of the songs.   They both had great talent, as well as a few others in the group.  It was an awesome time around the campfire.

A large group of Boy Scouts had set up and were sharing the large camp site with our group.  They were bustling around making meals and setting up tents.  Laughing and letting off energy.  The sun was getting low in the afternoon sky.

Helen tipped the garbage can off the turkey.  A big cloud of steam billowed up to reveal a perfectly cooked turkey.  The meat was falling of the bone.  The smell was incredible.  There was stuffing, veggies and even cranberry sauce.  Someone pulled several bottles of wine out of the river.  The wine was chilled to perfection.  This certainly didn’t seem like trail cooking to me.  Note to self; make sure to leave the calendar open for next year.  This trip is awesome. 

Trash Can Turkey
We finished off that bird like we hadn’t eaten in a week.  Everything was cleaned up with enough time to sit around the fire as the sun dipped below the western horizon.  Not as spectacular as the morning sunrise, but it wasn’t bad either.  It was a perfect ending to a great day on the water.  As the cool air moved in, we all pulled our chairs closer to the campfire.  A few more pieces of wood thrown on the fire caused a huge release of sparks that rushed toward the sky.  There was conversation and laughter until it was time to hit the sleeping bags.

(Day three) Sunday 1/15/12
Saturday night was another cold night but not nearly as cold as Friday night.  We were all up and out of our tents before sunrise.  Scott and Jake were packing gear early since they had to be back a day earlier than the rest of us.  Work and duty was calling them home.  They were doing the stretch of the remaining 18 miles in one shot today.  They had the fire going, and charcoal on for breakfast cooking.  Helen had hinted last night she would make cinnamon rolls for breakfast if someone started the charcoal in the morning.  Not much arm twisting was required.

Helen was up and was prepping her Dutch Ovens to start a batch of cinnamon rolls.  Everyone else was starting coffee and breakfast.  The eastern sky was starting to light up with some pinks and orange.  It looked as if it would be a solid gray overcast day. 

The rolls were coming out of the Dutch oven.  Perfect on top and bottom.  What a special treat to go along with our breakfast and coffee.  Scott and Jake had their gear stashed in their kayaks.  After enjoying the warm rolls they said their goodbyes, slipped into their kayaks, and headed off downstream.  They turned and waved back to us, from a short distance away.  Then with a few more strokes with their paddle they were soon out of sight.  Hopefully all goes well for them on the trip downriver, and also on the drive of around 300 miles back to Las Vegas.  The next day I would be making that same drive.  But I only have to paddle about 12 miles the final morning to reach my vehicle.  We would put 6 of the remaining 18 miles behind us today.

Sunday's overnight stop was around noon.  The 6 miles seemed easy.  We had reached Picacho State park on the California side.  The campground is the site of an old mining town and steamboat port.  Most evidence of the past is long gone.  But there is still large tailing piles and the mine entrance into the nearby hillside.  There was an old cemetery and many other things to go investigate.

We had a leisurely afternoon.  Several went off hiking up the nearby tailings pile to look at some of the old mining equipment.  I opted to walk over to the solar showers hoping for at least warm water.  Warm water was doubtful after 2 days of clouds and low night time temperatures.  Over the wall, in the next shower room Helen rated the water as Luke warm.  I stepped into mine, and yelled back my rating of “Luke cold”!  It is the kind of shower where you get wet, shut off the water, and lather up.  Then step back in to rinse off.  I tried to keep my screaming muffled.  It was refreshing to say the least.  Feeling clean again, after 2 days, felt good.   

As evening started drifting upon us we started preparing dinner.  The left-over turkey and veggies from yesterday, was thrown in a pot along with the contents of a couple cartons of broth.  We sat down as a group and enjoyed turkey stew. 

After the great hot and tasty meal Christine and Murray brought out their guitar, along with multiple copies of sheet music.  Everyone joined in.  I guess some of our shyness had worn off.  The night before, Christine and Murray, did most of the singing.  Everyone joined in tonight.  Something told me this was one of those special moments.  It just doesn’t happen on all trips.

(Day Four) Monday 1/16/12
We were up early as usual, but moved around a little slower.  The day looked like it would be a beautiful sunny day.   We didn’t have many paddling miles to go.  This camp was a little further off the river.  So we packed our gear and made several trips from the bank, back up to the camp site.  We finished moving our gear back to our kayaks and canoes.  It was a team effort until everyone was ready to shove off. 

We headed off one by one in the slow water of a small inlet alongside the camp ground.  Each watercraft would soon catch the faster current flowing along the bank as we paddled out into the river.  The current would catch the bow and quickly turn the craft down steam and move that paddler out of sight from the next paddler.   We looked like a row of baby ducks following momma duck. 

Old Miners Cabin - Along the Colorado River

Further downstream several of us pulled off into a little cut out in the bank and hiked up over a small hill.  There we found an old miners cabin.  The cabin is made of stacked stones and a roof of small logs, brush, dirt, and rocks.  There is old iron material lying around.  There are also many old items in the cabin such as an old stove, cast iron frying pans, etc.  We shot some photos.  Then we set off to the east and up a dry wash in search of the mine entrance.  There were old equipment platforms, an old wooden structure that appeared to be a small water tower?  We followed piles of diggings and soon found the entrance.  It has welded bars across the entrance now for safety.  The whole area is strewn with parts, rocks that don’t match the surround surface, and things that just make you wonder how they were doing all of this.  To think the only transportation at one time was by steamboat.  This is a desolate stretch of river.

We thought we better not linger any longer.  The rest of the group had continued drifting down river.  It would take at least an hour to catch up again.  We could have easily spent half the day exploring the mine area…it was interesting.  But the wind was starting to pick up…and unfortunately blowing the wrong direction to help us.  We finally caught sight of the rest of the group about an hour and half later.  Everyone was pushing to make headway in the wind.  We were nearing the end of our trip…only about 2 miles to go.  We rounded a sharp bend in the river and were able to ride with the wind for about a mile.  That was a welcome relief.  We soon pulled into Fisher’s Landing and loaded boats and gear onto the waiting vehicles. 

Most of us started as strangers, but as we sat having lunch together at Fisher’s Landing we knew we would be parting as friends.  Friends that hope someday, somewhere, we would meet again.  We talked over the highlights of the trip.  Then we said our goodbyes.  Helen took off with one group being shuttled back to Walter’s Landing to their waiting vehicles.  A smile crossed my face when I thought of the fact they hadn’t heard the Border Patrol story yet.  Another one of Helens drivers took a couple other paddlers and the canoe trailer, and headed for Bullhead City, AZ.  They all had nearly the same long drive as I did to get home.  Helen, with the back tracking to do a shuttle back to Walters, and then on to Bullhead City had the longest ride.  I watched as they all pulled out of Fisher’s Landing.

I found a pay shower at Fisher’s Landing.  I grabbed some quarters and clean clothes and a towel out of my vehicle.  That hot shower was well worth the money I had to pay.  I stepped out feeling refreshed and ready for the 6 to 7 hour road trip back to Las Vegas.  I knew it would be late when I made it home.  A few hours later while cruising north toward Las Vegas I witnessed another stunning sunset.  Out in the open desert now, it seemed to last a long time.  A perfect ending to a perfect trip!

Authors note: I have since had the pleasure of returning and doing this trip again in 2013. Hopefully there is a 2014 trip in the future.

We will soon be posting a piece on the "Trash Can" cooking method used to prepare the meal on this trip.  Some time before Thanksgiving.  Be sure to check back and use the search function in the blog to find that article.  Or sign up with your email so you can receive a notice when a new post is released on the blog.

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