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Weekend Escape: Colorado River : Rumble in the Desert : Riding Seadoos, or Motorized Water Bikes, May Not Be 'Environmental,' but It's Fun

September 19, 1993|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAUGHLIN, Nev. — I feel such guilt for what I'm about to write, please allow me to ease in slowly.

We're swimming in an isolated lagoon, the tranquillity of which is intensified by a surrounding fringe of hostile rock pinnacles.

The water is cold here in this sheltered offshoot of Topock Gorge, on the lower Colorado River. But since the air temperature will hit 125 Fahrenheit today, that's hardly a deterrent.

My wife, Pam, floats dreamily, absorbing the chill.

Our 8-year-old daughter, Ashley, stands in sopping tennis shoes on a narrow ledge, baking pleasantly and mustering nerve.

When it finally comes, her leap is a joyous arc of energy connecting the blue sky and calm green water. When her freckled face pops up, grinning, our ad hoc congregation--three couples from as many generations, two college women, and two guides--clap and cheer.

Then the dazzling quietude again embraces us.

So far, so good, right?

Yeah. But it's not the setting that has my conscience simpering. It's how we got here.

When I mentioned our plans to my friend Jane--who, earlier this summer, rafted the Tuolumne River and wrote about it for this newspaper--she hit me with a look of withering contempt and walked away.

I told my friend Robert, whose family was about to commune with nature spirits at Mt. Shasta. "You're disgusting," he said.

I'm sorry if I'm a bit defensive, but listen: My family's been low-impact nature-blissing from Zion to the north coast redwoods, Yosemite to Joshua Tree this year. So it's not that I don't understand Jane and Robert's green wienie-ism--I can get environmentally sanctimonious myself, sometimes.

In fact, as our group starts punching starter buttons, I murmur mea culpas for the gurgling rumble that disrupts this peaceful sanctuary.

But then we're back on the river and-- errrrrRRRRRREEEEEE-- my contrition disintegrates with the gleeful storm of water blasting from our river rocket's roostertail.

*

The trip to test my environmentalist soul begins with an ad for an unusual package deal: two nights at Harrah's Del Rio casino hotel in Laughlin, Nev., and a five-hour tour of the Colorado River on a Seadoo "personal watercraft"--an updated, sit-down, high-horsepower version of the Jet-Ski.

Our Friday-night sprint across the desert delivers us to Harrah's a few hours ahead of dawn. Pam and I immediately decide that the casino's carefully orchestrated, 24-hour fiesta atmosphere is an insidious plot to lure responsibility-addled baby boomers and their children into gambling's sinful web.

With its neon-lit Club La Bamba and Margaritaville bar facing out on an ersatz, air-conditioned, indoor village plaza; with its bright and balmy Henri Rousseau as-adapted-by Jimmy Buffett Hawaiian-shirt color scheme and murals; with its wandering mariachis and P.A. that booms decent rock n' roll, the place is clearly supposed to remind aging gringos of wild nights at Hussong's or carefree days at some beach-front bar in Cabo.

And, subliminally at least, the sanitized insanity does connect with our repressed, pre-familial bacchanalian instincts in a way Vegas never could. So, juggling care of our 8-, 6-, and 3-year-old children, Pam and I do make hurried individual attempts to squander their college fund on foolish games of chance.

But, like the swarms of other families here, we spend far more of our time sloshing about in the hotel's two too-warm riverfront pools and too-cool Jacuzzis, and trotting the kids down to the wonderfully frigid river, where we swim and build sand castles (and endure the flatulent roar and stench of jet boats) on the casino strip's only sandy beach.

*

On Sunday morning, we leave our younger children with my sister, who has arrived with her own kids, and make the half-hour drive downriver to Needles for the Seadoo tour.

Pam and I have envisioned two worrisome scenarios: either a slipshod fiasco run by sun-stupified yahoos, or that our guide will be a control-obsessed misanthrope who delights in running roughshod over his herd of uppity "city folk."

We're still jittery as our group wades into the water at the launch site and, following a mercifully brief introductory spiel, climbs onto the bobbing Seadoos--one driver per craft, one or two hangers-on--and ease into the fast-flowing river.

Stan Jablonski, a 37-year-old, Los Angeles area accountant who started this company two years ago, takes up the rear, waving an orange warning flag over his head; his assistant, Rob, roars ahead, leading the way.

Eco-concern about noise and gas use aside, these sleek and stable craft are a futuristic dream-come-true to anyone who read Tom Swift as a kid. Used incautiously, however, they're dangerous, and doctors in the area's emergency rooms report increasing injuries and even fatalities, especially in the more crowded parts of the river back near Laughlin.

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