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Mohave by houseboat

Cruising the Colorado River in a 'floating condo,' a captain and crew find an oasis on a Nevada-Arizona desert lake.

June 01, 2003|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

Cottonwood Cove, Nev. — Cottonwood Cove, Nev.

Ann sang a familiar tune as the houseboat bobbed on a clear, calm stretch of the Colorado River southeast of Las Vegas:

"Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip ... "

It was a joke, of course. Gilligan and his long-suffering boatmates sailed out of a tropic port, not a lakeside marina in the middle of the desert. And there were seven of them, only six of us. But visions of being stranded on an uncharted desert isle floated before my eyes nonetheless. This was my fourth trip. I knew what to expect: a Little Houseboat of Horrors.

On previous Colorado River trips, my companions and I had been beached and nearly dashed against rocks, had suffered through major equipment failures and had nearly blown up a fuel dock. (We hit it a mite too hard coming in to gas up.)

And then there was the storm of '94 that struck while we were at sea ... uh ... at river. The yowling winds and 6-foot waves so terrified the crew that some vowed never to set foot on another houseboat.

Consequently, when this newspaper asked me to try a houseboating trip -- I recently wrote a similar story on RVing -- I had to think about it. Finding a team wouldn't be easy. Capt. Dan, who had manned the helm on the earlier Houseboat of Horrors trips, was game to try it again. But where would I find the rest?

I took the easy way out and invited neophytes -- unwitting friends who had never houseboated before. Joining Dan would be Ann, Hal, Ted and Dorothy.

Our mission: to test the waters of the Colorado River. Could a group of average vacationers survive the journey?

Not only did we survive, but we also had a great time.

Oh, there were a few scary moments here and there. But the good things that made our houseboat trip a unique vacation easily outweighed the difficulties -- things like waking up to a glassy sheet of water turning golden with the rising sun. Or perching at river's edge during the heat of the day with our feet dangling in the water. Or sitting around a crackling campfire onshore with a universe of stars shimmering overhead.

And knowing a real bed -- not a sleeping bag on the ground -- awaited each night.

"This is like a floating condo," Dorothy said as we loaded provisions onto No. 255, our Forever Resorts houseboat, on a Saturday morning in late April.

Fellow sailors were equally impressed. "Pretty plush," Ted said. "Amazingly roomy," added Hal, who might not be a good judge because he does most of his boating in a kayak.

The boat did feel spacious. It was 56 feet long, with broad picture windows, a well-equipped galley, a dining room, three cabins (including one with two queen-size beds) plus a sofa bed, 1 1/2 baths, a sundeck roof, water slide, air conditioning and a TV/VCR. Clean linens were stacked atop each bed.

Comfortable digs, considering our destination: the backcountry of one of the hottest regions on Earth. We started our journey at Cottonwood Cove Marina on Lake Mohave, a meandering 67-mile stretch of the Colorado River surrounded by rugged mountains and stark desert. Mohave, with 250 miles of shoreline, is bordered by Nevada and Arizona and begins beneath the massive base of Hoover Dam, winding south to Davis Dam, ending just north of the fun-and-games town of Laughlin, Nev.

Along with huge Lake Mead, it makes up the 1.5-million-acre Lake Mead National Recreation Area. In summer, temperatures can reach 120 degrees.

We weren't worried about the heat on this trip, though. April showers seemed more likely. We scheduled our adventure during the "value season" to save money, paying $995 for our weekend (54-hour) rental. On May 1 the price rose to $1,595, and from Tuesday to Aug. 30 it will be $2,295. All rentals require a minimum security deposit of $500.

When I booked the boat, I told the rental agent the tab seemed steep. "But it sleeps up to 10," she answered, "so the cost per person really isn't so high."

I said I'd think it over and hung up.

I promptly called back and asked whether there were any specials, because most of the travel industry seemed to be offering them this year.

"Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, a few like that, but nothing general. Sorry."

Specials don't seem as prevalent among houseboat rental companies as they are in some segments of the industry. Clients call without them.

"People are still looking for trips close to home," said Mike Harris, publisher of Houseboat magazine. "The industry isn't booming the way it was in the '80s and '90s, but it's stable."

A nationwide phenomenon

The nation's houseboating hot spots are in the heartland, especially along the rivers and lakes of Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana, but rentals are available in most states. Californians can rent houseboats at Lake Shasta or Trinity Lake in the north, in the Sacramento Delta region or at a handful of other lakes, most in Northern California or the gold country. Many Southern Californians try the Colorado River or its nearby lakes: Mead, Mohave or Havasu.

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