Astonishing is an appropriate word to describe the scenery along the Colorado River. The massive cliffs and enormous boulders along the way seem more probable for a movie set than what we normally recognize as reality.
Our adventure began in Las Vegas where our tour company picked us up at 6 am under the massive clown sign for Circus Circus (I'd never stay there again because it is like living in a maze) half hour later we met our tour guide, Reid, who proved to be a kayak master who did everything but tuck us in at night. Reid brought all of the supplies, including water, tents, food, first aid, etc. He works for aptly named Desert Adventures, which supplies everything one needs to survive on the river. Reid's infectious love of the Colorado was just a bonus.
The short van ride down a very steep road past a check point resulted in our first glimpse of massive Hoover Dam from the river. Quite an incredible sight. The water it was holding back is Lake Mead, which serves several states and is a warm 85 degrees or so at surface level.
Everybody who goes on the river must have IDs and kids need a copy of their birth certificates--precautions begun after 911. I was told the concern is more that somebody might attempt to poison the water supply than blow up the dam.
When we arrived at river level carrying all of the equipment, police boats were in plain site, as a man in his 50s apparently jumped off the bridge near the dam the prior afternoon at 3. I'm glad we didn't see any more than that and our river trip began uneventfully.
We settled into our two-person, supply-loaded kayaks and off we went under clear skies. The current was quite strong and we struggled to follow Reid's directions. Having a guide in these spots is priceless, as he tells you when to stay close to the shore, where to avoid a big cross current, when to paddle the hardest, etc. There were a few moments when my heart raced, hoping like hell I wouldn't get swept off course. My kayak partner, Serena, was understandably spooked a few times, which didn't exactly help calm my nerves. But ultimately we did fine, especially after I finally figured out the rudder system on the kayak.
Reid was invaluable off the river, too. He knows the best places to stop along the way to hike, have lunch, camp or all of the above. The best surprise for me was the amount of hiking. It was such a terrific break from paddling because the environment is just so arresting. I never imagined we'd visit so many hot springs and enjoy so many walks through gorgeous, rocky terrain.
At our camping spot, I was too lazy to go for another hike before dinner, but Serena and Maureen made the 30-minute trek. When they returned, they were all smiles. Serena couldn't stop talking about the hot pools, the big ladder leading up to them, etc. When the rest of us went with Reid the next day, I soon learned what Serena got so excited about. You are soon walking in a wide, winding corridor with cliffs 500+ feet high on both sides with a tiny warm stream running down the middle. During flash floods, Reid said the water can rise 20 ft! You'd be totally screwed if you were in there then.
"You don't drown," Reid offered helpfully. "You die of blunt force trauma." Remember, there is nothing but solid rock surrounding you, in addition to some trees and other vegetation.
The real payoff is the hot pool, where a 20-rung steel ladder led us. I'm not crazy about heights but made the climb anyway and lived to experience nature's warmth. The pool above that was just short of boiling, so I only waded into that. A couple from Hawaii was neck deep in it!
My mother-in-law is 68 and courageously made the climb up that ladder, too. She stepped very carefully and made it just fine, but I was worried she might slip and come tumbling down. Descending backward down those first few steps wasn't exactly enjoyable for me, either but worth the experience. On the way back, Reid had us drink some warm water flowing from the center of the rock wall, which had a pleasant tea like taste. It was quite warm, as well.
On another hike, we got a glimpse of a few big horn sheep, including an agile baby who seemed quite comfortable on those steep cliffs. Other than ducks that followed us everywhere and a few high flying ravens and hawks, there wasn't the amount of wildlife I had hoped for.
The first day of paddling was pretty easy because the wind was at our backs, though it was very light wind. The next day was forecast to be very windy, which would make the trip more challenging. But luckily, we only experienced several minutes of gusts which dissipated and never reappeared for the remainder of our trip. A short time later, after we reached our destination point, we heard two people were tossed off their kayaks and had to be rescued. A Milwaukee native, Jeffrey, was the one who rescued them! In fact, our guide, Reid, is also a Milwaukee native.
We all loved the trip, but some more than others. "Why did that stupid river trip have to ruin everything," said Olivia to her mom as I write this, lamenting that we'd have to leave soon for Wisconsin. She much prefers hanging out in the mountains in grandma's back yard in Rio Rico, Arizona, as one can surmise by viewing our group photos.
It's actually a fine trip for kids, especially if the weather cooperates and you have a good guide. The river itself is a real joy, crystal clear and even drinkable. That's what made it real for me.
When you experience such jaw-dropping beauty over a couple of days, it sinks in that no movie scene could possibly compete with Mother nature.