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Weekend Escape: Colorado River

Canoe Beginnings

First-time paddlers are all oars with three days in a wilderness convoy

September 15, 1996|JAMES NELSON | Nelson is a Whittier-based freelance writer

PARK MOABI, Calif. — Our three-day canoeing trip started on a Thursday evening with a 4 1/2-hour drive to where Interstate 40 crosses the Colorado River at Moabi Regional Park and Marina. On Friday morning, our group of 14 loaded into a Jerkwater Canoe Co. van with hungry anticipation. With canoes atop and a trailer behind obediently shouldering our gear like an old pack mule, we headed to Bullhead City, Ariz., leaving Park Moabi and our cars behind.

The option we had chosen, one of many that Jerkwater offers, was a three-day trip for which the canoe company supplied canoes, paddles and transportation to and from the river. We brought the rest of our gear, including tents and everything we ate and drank.

After the van unloaded us at water's edge, we were on our own for 55 miles and three days of paddling the Colorado, two to a canoe, from Bullhead City to Castle Rock Bay, on the Arizona side of the river. We ate and drank what we carried in our 750-pound-capacity canoes, dropped overboard into the refreshing water whenever the sun's beating became too harsh, fished when we liked, and had two nights of camping, cooking and relaxing around a crackling fire--a refreshing respite from the mechanized life of the city.

We pushed off from the shore in canoes loaded with sunscreen, straw hats, one gallon of water per person per day, food, snacks, drinks, cooking utensils, camp chairs, coolers, tents, sleeping bags, mats, pillows, bug repellent, first-aid kits, fishing gear and license, cameras, plastic bags, towels, trash bags, firewood, a change of warm and cold clothes, swimsuits, rope, sunglasses and cans--not bottles.

I was already reveling in the brief escape--transported from the smog, traffic and concrete sidewalks of Los Angeles to a vast wilderness where wind blows, the sun scorches your skin and the desert stretches farther than the eye can see. It was a fantasy only slightly marred by vacation homes dotted along the shore and an occasional motorboat or water toy.

Paddling slowly down this peaceful stretch of river--the same river that created the Grand Canyon--the pressures of the city began to fade away, replaced with a natural relaxation.

The first day's canoeing started with jokes about who would be the first to take a spill. The deed was done in the first few hours. Two of our group managed to flip their canoe, soaking firewood, food, sleeping bags and clothes. I couldn't help but laugh at the tragic sight of their goods floating away while both scrambled to retrieve what they could and still hold onto the canoe. But the pratfall resulted in only one lost sandal, which caught up with us downstream later that day.

Our goal was to make just under 20 miles a day, so we ambled at a moderate pace. Occasionally we'd stop for rest breaks, to take a meal, stretch our legs and attempt a little fishing. At our first stop, someone on the banks had caught a 30-inch striper, making us enthusiastic about our prospects. But either Lady Luck had deserted us or the fish weren't hungry because for three days because no one in our party caught a thing. Well, except for a scorpion that showed up under one of the tents to surprise us in the morning.

*

The first night we found a secluded crescent-moon-shaped patch of sandy beach, set up tents and sat around an open fire. We enjoyed a dazzling display of color as the sun slipped below the horizon, melting earth and sky into bands of light orange, saffron and blue mirrored atop the glassy evening river. It was my first canoeing trip, and that night I slept like a baby with a tired body under a diamond blanket of glittering stars. The only noise was the quiet of the desert and the gentle motion of the river.

The second day the sun beat down relentlessly and the cool river water became a constant invitation. The first few tries were difficult, but after that, I learned the fine art of exiting and entering the canoe midstream without dumping my girlfriend or our provisions into the water.

As we relaxed into the pace of paddling, the banks and river bottom came to life. Below us swam a variety of fish, none of which seemed to like my bait--anchovies. On the banks there was a constant rustle in the brush and the shrill voices of birds singing out in an unfamiliar serenade.

As the second day progressed, our energy decreased and we spent more time floating than paddling. We tied the canoes into a single-file convoy in an attempt to keep the group together. Floating down the river like a Spanish armada was great fun, but it became harder to avoid the rocks.

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