COOL RUNNINGS

WANT TO ES­CAPE RE­AL­ITY? RIDE A PER­SONAL WA­TER­CRAFT DOWN THE COLORADO RIVER.

Boating - - CONTENTS - BY JEFF HEMMEL

Want to es­cape re­al­ity? Take a PWC tour down the Colorado River to see some in­cred­i­ble sights.

THE COLORADO RIVER COUR­SES THROUGH THE SOUTH­WEST DESERT LIKE A VI­BRANT BLUE LINE, A LINE THAT STANDS IN STARK CON­TRAST TO THE END­LESS PAL­ETTE OF BEIGE AND RUST THAT OTH­ER­WISE DOM­I­NATES THE LAND­SCAPE. ALONG THE MA­JOR­ITY OF ITS LENGTH, IT’S SUR­ROUNDED BY NOTH­ING EX­CEPT SAND AND ROCK, ALTHOUGH THAT DE­SCRIP­TION CER­TAINLY DOES NOT DO THE PAIR JUS­TICE. THAT SAND AND ROCK MAY COVER END­LESS MILES OF PAN­CAKE FLATNESS, BUT THEY CAN ALSO RISE AND TWIST FROM THE DESERT FLOOR TO FORM GE­O­LOG­I­CAL WON­DERS — MOUN­TAINS, ARCHES AND BLUFFS SCULPTED TO SEEM­ING PER­FEC­TION BY THE HAND OF TIME AND THE POWER OF THAT VI­BRANT BLUE LINE.

THE NEC­ES­SARY JOUR­NEY

It’s an es­pe­cially poignant mo­ment given the events of the pre­vi­ous night. Not that long af­ter I flew into Las Ve­gas to be­gin my jour­ney, a gun­man opened fire from the 32nd floor of the Man­dalay Bay Ho­tel, tar­get­ing con­cert­go­ers be­low. Nearly 60 peo­ple were killed in that mas­sacre, an­other 546 wounded. That I’m drift­ing along the river less than 12 hours af­ter the fact seems some­how in­sen­si­tive and yet strangely ap­pro­pri­ate. If there’s any time to es­cape the real world, this just might be it.

My itin­er­ary for the day spans the Colorado River from Laughlin, Nevada, to Lake Havasu City, Ari­zona, a 60-mile jour­ney that I’ll be do­ing not by boat but SeaDoo per­sonal wa­ter­craft. Launch­ing from the beach at Har­rah’s Casino, I can’t help but marvel at the mini-Ve­gas that lies up­river. Laughlin started in the 1940s as lit­tle more than a mo­tel and bar to serve work­ers con­struct­ing the Davis Dam, gold and sil­ver min­ers, and fish­ing en­thu­si­asts. When the work­ers left in the 1950s, the town with­ered in the desert heat un­til Las Ve­gas casino owner Don Laughlin took in­ter­est in 1964. By 1966, the 14-story River­side Re­sort had joined that orig­i­nal mo­tel; oth­ers soon fol­lowed. To­day, the city at­tracts nearly 2 mil­lion vis­i­tors an­nu­ally who casino-hop via water taxi and, when they’re not dream­ing of hit­ting it big, soak in the area’s at­trac­tive mix­ture of sun­shine, low hu­mid­ity, and beau­ti­ful scenery.

The first half-hour on the river is a re­minder that we’re not alone in seek­ing es­cape. Once lightly de­vel­oped, river homes now pack the Nevada shore­line, serv­ing as va­ca­tion getaways for count­less Cal­i­for­nia, Nevada and Ari­zona res­i­dents look­ing to trade me­trop­o­lis ma­nia for the river’s beauty. When I first vis­ited this area over two decades ago, a fewer num­ber of homes were far more ram­shackle in ap­pear­ance. To­day, they’re up­scale modern-chic, with de­signer land­scap­ing and toys in abun­dance. Still, the oc­ca­sional re­al­ity check awaits. Be­low Laughlin, the aban­doned hulk of the un­fin­ished Emer­ald Bay Re­sort comes into view, still wast­ing away 25 years af­ter a boom pe­riod went bust.

READY FOR AD­VEN­TURE

Be­yond Laughlin, de­vel­op­ment even­tu­ally gives way to the desert, and the soli­tude and raw beauty of the nat­u­ral land­scape re­turn. Make no mis­take, it’s des­o­late. Es­pe­cially in fall, lit­tle other boat traf­fic is found on the water, and there’s no such thing as a gas stop or place to grab food and drink. Cell­phone re­cep­tion is spotty at best, mean­ing you’re pretty much on your own. (I sug­gest pack­ing a per­sonal lo­ca­tor bea­con and, in quiet sea­sons, pos­si­bly even a sat phone.) That adds to the ap­peal of the trip, but it also adds to the need to take it se­ri­ously.

IT’S A DES­O­LATE NO-MAN’S LAND AND YET, AT THE SAME TIME, ONE OF THE MOST TRULY AWE-IN­SPIR­ING PLACES I’VE EVER VIS­ITED. AND RIGHT NOW, AS I FLOAT PEACE­FULLY WITH THE RIV ER’S CUR­RENT, SUR­ROUNDED BY THIS MAG­NIF­I­CENT BACK­DROP, I CAN THINK OF NO PLACE I’D RATHER BE.

BE­YOND LAUGHLIN, DE­VEL­OP­MENT EVEN­TU­ALLY GIVES WAY TO THE DESERT, AND THE SOLI­TUDE AND RAW BEAUTY OF THE NAT­U­RAL LAND­SCAPE RE­TURN.

Thank­fully, we couldn’t be on more ap­pro­pri­ate craft. With low-water lev­els, nu­mer­ous shal­lows dot our first hours on the river, shal­lows that would be a se­ri­ous threat to a prop-driven boat. With our jet pumps pro­tected by in­take grates and flush with the hull, we man­age to get through with­out a scratch. The spe­cific mod­els, 2018-vin­tage Sea-Doo GTX and RXTs, are also tai­lor-made for ad­ven­ture. Each fea­tures clever mounts on the aft plat­form, to which we’ve at­tached cool­ers, gas cans, and gear bags loaded with the ne­ces­si­ties. When that dry desert air be­comes too much, we sim­ply spin around in the sad­dle and pop open a Yeti cooler filled with ice, drinks and snacks. When a dis­tant gas stop later proves to be un­ex­pect­edly out of fuel, we have jer­rycans at the ready to top off our tanks. A new stor­age sys­tem, which opens di­rectly to the driver while seated, also made it easy to grab what­ever was needed un­der­way with­out leav­ing the seat or tee­ter­ing over the han­dle­bars.

The new GTX/RXT plat­form also puts a pre­mium on sta­bil­ity, mean­ing if you had con­sumed a lot of water on a lengthy ride with no shore­line fa­cil­i­ties, you could even briefly drift away from your rid­ing com­pan­ions, kill the en­gine, stand on one side of the craft, and re­lieve your­self with­out fear of tip­ping the boat and fall­ing into the drink. Not that I per­son­ally know of any­one who would ac­tu­ally do such a thing …

CALM WA­TERS AND RED-ROCK CANYONS

Af­ter miles of open water and empty desert, our re­turn to the real world is like find­ing an oa­sis, a restau­rant/ bar/store and swim­ming-pool com­plex known as Topock 66. Named both for the pic­turesque gorge that awaited us to the south as well as the ad­ja­cent his­toric Route 66 high­way, Topock 66 ar­rives out of nowhere. One minute you’re rid­ing through soli­tude, the next

you spot the place that bills it­self as “your party head­quar­ters on the Colorado River.” For me, see­ing the trendy, de­signer mix of rusted steel and con­crete that is the modern Topock 66 is cool but also sad. Like the homes south of Laughlin, I re­mem­ber the Topock of old, a place where I once des­per­ately needed for gas and food, and one far re­moved from the cur­rent fa­cil­ity. Nev­er­the­less, it’s a fun place to stop, a wel­come taste of food af­ter long hours play­ing on the river, and one of the only places I know that has uri­nals shaped like open mouths — and bar stools that make oc­cu­pants look like they’re not wear­ing any pants.

An hour later, with stom­achs filled, thirst quenched and yet an­other round of sun­screen ap­plied, we once again headed south for the high­light of this trip, the 20-mile pas­sage through Topock Gorge. Nick­named the “Baby Grand” in ref­er­ence to its much larger, deeper cousin, the Grand Canyon to the north, Topock Gorge is the cen­ter­piece of the Havasu Na­tional Wildlife Refuge. It’s a place where the desert walls lit­er­ally and figuratively be­gin to close in on the river, with vol­canic red-rock canyon faces ris­ing abruptly from the blue-green wa­ters, and the oc­ca­sional sandy beach of­fer­ing an invit­ing spot to while away the day in seclu­sion. Wildlife is in abun­dance. Ev­ery­thing from bighorn sheep to wild bur­ros and count­less bird species can be seen as you drift through the deep­est 4-mile sec­tion at no-wake speed. We at­tempt to freeze the mo­ment in end­less pic­tures and gaze in awe at new sights wait­ing around ev­ery cor­ner, then ul­ti­mately head to our turn­around point in Lake

Havasu City.

IT’S A PLACE WHERE THE DESERT WALLS LIT­ER­ALLY AND FIGURATIVELY BE­GIN TO CLOSE IN ON THE RIVER, WITH VOL­CANIC RED-ROCK CANYON FACES RIS­ING ABRUPTLY FROM THE BLUEGREEN WA­TERS AND THE OC­CA­SIONAL SANDY BEACH.

WE AT­TEMPT TO FREEZE THE MO­MENT IN END­LESS PIC­TURES AND GAZE IN AWE AT NEW SITES WAIT­ING AROUND EV­ERY COR­NER.

THE REAL WORLD CAN WAIT

Like most of the sights you’ll come across on this trip, Lake Havasu City has a story, and a suit­ably quirky one at that. Like Lake Mo­jave that lies just to the north of Laughlin, Havasu was cre­ated by a dam, in this case the Parker Dam com­pleted in 1938. The dam flooded the sur­round­ing desert, cre­at­ing a lake with nearly 450 miles of shore­line. In 1963, that lake cap­tured the at­ten­tion of oil mag­nate Robert McCul­loch as he flew over­head. McCul­loch joined with a devel­oper to grow the city into a tourist and re­tire­ment des­ti­na­tion, and chose a rather ran­dom struc­ture as its cen­ter­piece — the Lon­don Bridge. Orig­i­nally span­ning the River Thames, the bridge was de­clared un­safe for modern traf­fic in 1962. McCul­loch bought the struc­ture, had it dis­man­tled and the fac­ing stones num­bered, then shipped the pieces to the United States, ul­ti­mately re­assem­bling the orig­i­nal stonework over a new con­crete struc­ture. The bridge was orig­i­nally built over land, on a penin­sula ex­tend­ing into the lake. Once com­pleted, McCul­loch had a chan­nel dredged be­low to turn penin­sula into is­land — and, of course, make sure his cen­ter­piece bridge ac­tu­ally passed over water.

We pin our Sea-Doo’s throt­tles to skip over the windswept sur­face of Lake Havasu to reach the peace­ful bridge chan­nel, then take the req­ui­site cruise un­der the bridge and its nearby English-themed vil­lage, now in­creas­ingly giv­ing way to con­dos. On the far side, we once again get on the gas to travel the re­main­ing dis­tance to the last sight on our ride, Cop­per Canyon. A baby, baby ver­sion of the Baby Grand, Cop­per Canyon none­the­less fea­tures those same tow­er­ing red-rock walls. It has a rep­u­ta­tion as a party spot, with boats raft­ing up, drinks flow­ing, and cliff div­ing be­ing the norm. In fact, MTV took no­tice of Cop­per Canyon years back and used it as the lo­ca­tion for one of the net­work’s in­fa­mous Spring Break week­ends. To­day, how­ever, the water is still and the air quiet. We mo­tor through at idle speed and take pic­tures of the rocks as they’re lit up by the blaz­ing af­ter­noon sun, then turn north to re­trace our steps through Topock Gorge and be­yond.

The­o­ret­i­cally, we could make it back by night­fall, but this isn’t that kind of ad­ven­ture. In­stead, we check in to Pi­rate’s Cove Re­sort, an­other oa­sis hid­den just north of Topock 66. Here we en­joy cab­ins along the ma­rina shore­line and later, at the bar, toast the desert sun­set. To­mor­row we’ll re­turn to the real world and its seem­ingly end­less prob­lems and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

But for tonight, the es­cape con­tin­ues …

The Colorado River is a vi­brant blue line cut­ting through a stark land­scape, lit­er­ally an oa­sis in the desert.

While the Colorado River can seem wild and re­mote in many places, we started our jour­ney from the beach at Har­rah’s Casino, part of the miniLas Ve­gas in the city of Laughlin that re­sides along the river’s banks. The casi­nos stand out from the desert...

The Sea-Doo GTX and RXT-X are es­pe­cially suited to tour­ing, with an aft mount­ing sys­tem for switch­able com­po­nents such as a tour­ing bag, cooler or gas can, as well as a newly de­signed stowage com­part­ment un­der the han­dle­bars that swal­lows up gear.

Mount the ad­justable tow bar and hit the Sport Throt­tle set­ting for some fun wa­ter­sports ac­tion.

Slide your phone into the wa­ter­poof com­part­ment and play your tunes through the built-in speak­ers.

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