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Living and Writing in the Natural World

A Tale of Water--or the lack thereof

Arizona Springs Beach on the Colorado River

We sloshed through the narrow canyon’s trickle of water, sheer walls rising 40 feet above us on either side. These slot canyons off the Colorado River meander endlessly, but our attention was on the water wetting our Crocs: was it getting warmer? Another curving 25 yards: yes. Distinctly warmer now. Our kayaks and gear were some quarter mile behind us, tied up to bushes along the river’s bank. Another turn, and a solid wall 20 feet tall loomed before us, with a narrow ribbon of—hot!—water snaking down its right side. On the left side: a rickety metal ladder slapped against the wall. I looked at Al: would we trust it? Pondering this, we heard noises from above, beyond the wall. I stepped gingerly onto the first rung, my mind made up. There was clearly a party going on up there!

Getting here had been a tale of almost as many twists and turns as this canyon. Back in January, Al asked if I wanted to join him in a “Geology of the Mojave Desert” course, to be held at a field station smack in the middle of that southern California desert. In February, yet (it’s a high desert, quite cold in the winter).

Desert rocks don’t fascinate me as they do Al, but I’d come along for the ride. A jaunt in Al’s new Yaris (mileage equal to a hybrid) 400 miles south to L.A., then another couple of hundred miles due east to the Mojave. While Al was rock-sleuthing, I’d camp and explore nearby Afton Canyon, a critical year-round water source on the mostly intermittent Mojave River (and hence a critical link on the thousand-year-old Mojave Trail across the desert from the Colorado River on its eastern edge). Lots of birds in the riparian zone, including the elusive Phainopepla, a jet black creature with startling red eyes. Devil bird. Then after the geology course, a 12-mile, 2-day kayak trip down the famous Black Canyon portion of America’s fifth longest river, just the two of us, no guide. Ahhhh.

After all the arrangements had been made, the geology course got canceled. Scrub the trip? No way! There was a might river to run, the devil bird to track down. And suddenly we had 3 extra days in Los Angeles: play time. On the first day we took the early ferry to Catalina Island, sauntered up a canyon past Avalon’s edge to chewing gum magnate William Wrigley’s monument, passing the site of his Chicago Cub’s spring training field from 1921 to 1951, and a surprisingly well-done natural history museum detailing the island’s ecosystems and geology (the latter surprisingly complex). Then another long saunter back to Avalon and up the coast to a kayak rental beach. The cool breezes on the water as we kayaked up the eastern coast felt great, with the California mainland barely visible on the horizon to our right, some 22 miles away.

Day two was at the Autry Museum of the American West in Glendale’s Griffith Park, where the annual showcase of contemporary Western art was newly opened—a diverse collection of paintings and bronze sculptures. I had a short conversation there with former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Seriously. As I was returning from the men’s room, there was Arnie, heading for the spot I’d just vacated. “Well—hi there!” I gushed as I recognized him. (He’s not nearly so large as he looks on the screen: shorter than me, and not so grossly muscular these days.) “Ugh” he grunted as he walked past me, not even breaking stride. (Hey; I said it was a “short” conversation.)

The folks at the reception desk confirmed my sighting, and indicated Arnie was a big collector of Western art. When I saw him again, perusing the paintings, he was accompanied by a fetching young thing, a gal-Friday type, on one side; and a decidedly not fetching bruiser on the other side, making sure no one bothered his boss. He was succeeding.

Our last day was themed “Pasadena.” The morning at the Huntington gardens, museums, and library. A savory Chinese lunch at the Chinese Gardens overlooking pavilions and the koi-filled lake. In the library I was treated to an original copy of Darwin’s 1959 Origin of Species, an original copy of Darwin’s and Wallace’s 1858 Linnean Society papers announcing the theory of evolution by natural selection to the world, and a Francis Crick-signed copy of his 1953 article with James Watson in Nature journal proposing the double-helix structure of DNA. Goose bumps all over, as you can imagine.

Then Pasadena’s historic City Hall, a gleaming white-stucco masterpiece of galleries and towers, with the 9-foot bronze busts across the street of the city’s two most famous citizens, Jackie Robinson and his brother Mack (the latter of whom didn’t go gallivanting off, but stayed in Pasadena as a patron of local sports and civic endeavors). Then a short saunter up nearby Eaton Canyon into the San Gabriel Mountains toward the canyon’s waterfall, following the footsteps of John Muir in the late summer of 1877, just before he returned to San Francisco to find a letter from Darwin’s best friend Joseph Hooker, asking the famed California naturalist to guide him and Harvard botanist Asa Gray on a botanizing trip to Mt. Shasta. Which he did.

We then drove along the Angeles Crest Highway up onto the ridge of the San Gabriels, passing new-to-me bigcone spruces and Coulter pines, as well as the common Incense Cedar and Canyon Live Oak, on the way to the Mt. Wilson Observatory. (Muir got to the same area the hard way, on foot up Eaton Canyon.)

We ended the day at El Molina Viejo, the old mill of the San Gabriel Mission, where another art show was being held, and where the huge mill-stones that ground the mission’s grain were still visible, stones so heavy that native-Americans enslaved by the Mission had to pull ropes attached to the stones to overcome the inertia to get them moving. This early southern California mission, we would later learn, was the common destination from the late 1700s on for Spanish, then Mexican, then American traders bringing blankets and other woolen goods along the Old Spanish Trail from Santa Fe.

The Trail headed west by various routes, most of which traversed the Mojave Desert via the native-American’s ancient Mojave Road, then over Cajon Pass into southern California. There the goods were exchanged for large herds of mules and horses to take back to Santa Fe on the return trip. “The goods” in either direction always included any native-American young girls and older children they could kidnap en route to sell at either end. This aspect of the business was always brisk. (The slave trade was long endemic to the native-Americans themselves, particularly the horse-riding Utes from the north; but the trade mushroomed and flourished with the participation of European-descent traders.)

We drove several hours east over the same Cajon Pass and past Barstow to visit the field station where Al’s class would have been held—a very picturesque spot named Zzyzx (really)—and then along a rough, up-and-down dirt road into Afton Canyon—where I quickly spotted the devil bird perched on a fence post! The old Mojave Road here persists in a punishing RV “road” following the old trail (more or less), and in the Union Pacific railroad line that intersects the canyon. A train roared through while we were hiking around, sounding romantic but looking very out-of-place.

From this western edge of the Mojave Desert we arrived at Kelso some hour later, a former depot of the Union Pacific (and also a stop on the old Mojave Road, as at Afton Canyon) which now serves as the visitors center in the middle of the Mojave Desert National Preserve. Wonderful 19th-century photos here of native Americans (Mojave and Chemehuevi tribes, mainly) looking quite strong and healthy, amazing the new Caucasian settlers by the aplomb with which they took off into the desert, confident in their ability to find the ancient water holes and food sufficient for their needs. After all, their people had been doing it successfully for thousands of years--until the Spanish and then the Mexicans and then the Euro-Americans arrived and stole their land, killing and enslaving and turning their old world upside-down and inside-out.

We pushed on, passed Las Vegas a few miles to the north, and spent the night in a casino resort overlooking Lake Mead, the largest artificial lake in North America, thanks to Hoover Dam which defines its southern border. Many bright lights and people gambling the night away. We retired early, woke early the next morning, and by dawn were being shuttled by our kayak rental company down the winding road to the base of said Hoover Dam. As the dam loomed above us, we quickly unloaded the kayaks, carried them to the edge of the continuing Colorado River below the dam, and hurriedly stuffed our camping gear into the kayak holds. (The shuttle company had only 20 minutes below the dam, due to security concerns, before the guard re-locked the gate allowing access.)

Before we had quite recovered, we found ourselves on North America’s fifth longest river. We were paddling only 12 of the Colorado’s total 1,450 miles, but we were stoked. Our 12 miles traversed the famous Black Canyon, whose volcanic walls rose steeply hundreds of feet to either side of the wide river, the rock shaped by fire into a never-dull mosaic of odd shapes and swirling patterns. Soon even the huge Hoover Dam was out of sight behind us. Fortunately for us, there was a slight breeze blowing downriver, which with the current made the going fairly easy. The water was a beautiful blue-green, verging on emerald-green in the shallow edges and frequent small coves.

Al patiently waited downstream as I beached my kayak less than a mile along and completely repacked my hastily-stowed gear, in order to get my sunblock and health-food bars handy. Then a bit later we both beached on the Nevada shore (Arizona was on the left) and walked a ways up Boyscout Canyon. The trickle of water coming down the canyon felt good on my Crocs and Al’s tennis shoes. For the first time that day but not the last, we were surprised to feel the water turn steadily warmer. We clambered over several small waterfalls and enjoyed the canyon’s twists and turns. But we had further miles to go before we got to our overnight campsite, so we reclaimed our carefully-tied kayaks and pushed back into the river.

In the early afternoon we reached Arizona Beach campground on the left, one of a half-dozen or so spots where camping was permitted. The kayaks were pulled a couple of dozen yards ashore and tied to bushes, then we unloaded our tents, sleeping pads, food, stoves, and miscellaneous gear. We hiked a few minutes away from the shore and found a secluded, brush-sheltered spot near where the slot canyon opened onto the beach. As we pitched our tents and arranged our gear, several groups of hikers appeared from the canyon behind us—nearly naked!

This was late February, now, and though sunny and comfortable while paddling, it wasn’t the sort of day you’d normally go around topless in shorts. Talking to these good folks, we discovered that they had parked cars at a trailhead some 3.5 miles away and hiked through the high-desert terrain down into the canyon. The object of this considerable hike was not so much our beach and campground but rather—the canyon hot springs just before the beach. A natural spring gushed from the canyon wall, and industrious locals had piled sandbags in three spots to create three pools. The closest to the spring was 111 degrees F; the next (downstream) was 105 degrees; and the third was 101 degrees.

So it was that Al and I found ourselves eyeing that rickety ladder up the 20 foot wall. The ladder turned out to be somewhat more secure that it appeared, so that as my head emerged above the wall, I found myself looking at some dozen scantily-clad folks in the middle pool, swigging beer and enjoying themselves immensely. I quickly joined them (at least in the enjoyment category; there wasn’t enough beer to share, and they had, after all, carried it 3.5 miles to get here).

I conversed with some of the folks in the middle pool that we had earlier met on the beach. One couple lived in Wisconsin, and every winter visited her mom in Arizona and hiked to the Arizona Beach hot springs. They regaled me and others with tales of what it was like in late February home in Wisconsin. It made us all feel really, really good about being right where we were. (Though all of us were aware of the brain-infecting Naegleria amoeba resident in all the Black Canyon hot springs, and were careful not to dip our heads below the water.)

Only a few slightly tipsy guys ventured into the upper pool, at 111 degrees. Young males are like that, I remember. They didn’t stay long. Reluctantly Al and I climbed down the ladder and trouped off down the canyon; we were getting hungry for dinner, and wanted to dry off and start cooking before it got dark and cold. I changed clothes, spread my wet shorts on a nearby bush, and they dried within an hour.

One couple had kayaked in and camped closer to the river, but other than that we were alone at the campground once all the hikers had departed. This couple tossed a Frisbee a bit, made a large campfire with the rather enormous load of wood they had strapped to the top portions of their kayaks, and played music—softly—into the evening. Al wandered over and chatted with them and enjoyed their fire. I was pretty bushed, and after enjoying the incredible sheath of stars blanketing the night sky, had no trouble at all falling asleep as the temperature dropped.

The next day we were on the water early, needing to paddle 8 miles for a pickup at Willow Beach downstream. Eagerly we watched the draws and trails from the high walls down to the water, hoping to spot some of the Desert Bighorn Sheep that lived in the area. Our fellow-campers last night (who had awakened during the night to find their kayaks and tent in rising water, and pulled both further onto the beach) had seen Bighorns on previous trips, but we were disappointed today. What we did see was a fairly rich waterfowl fauna on the river: flocks of black-and-white buffleheads, red-topped common mergansers (the females), green-topped mallards, black-necked cormorants, and (to our surprise) only an occasional heron or egret. I saw exactly 2 kingfishers, also a surprisingly small number. The sculpted walls of Black Canyon, etched with endless crevasses and fretting, were adorned by blooming Opuntia cacti, the green “barrels” and red-tinged spines the only bit of color on the walls.

We stopped at Cranes Nest canyon and explored it, enjoying the bee-smothered yellow flowers of a compositae bush, and austere ironwood saplings pressing against colorful rock walls. And we ventured into the well-known Emerald Cave, which while not as deep or interesting as the sea caves of Santa Cruz Island, still afforded enjoyable views of the mighty river pushing by outside as we sat in the darkness of the cave. We reached Willow Beach in plenty of time, and munched sandwiches from the café there, muscles pleasantly tired, as we contemplated the beauties of channel islands, Chinese gardens, bigcone spruces, high desert, and tranquil afternoons pushed by the current of a storied river through a Black Canyon—all of which we had enjoyed the past several days.

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