Now that we had seen the man made marvel, Hoover Dam, by land and from above, we thought how about seeing it by water and from below? How awesome that would be!
The more we thought about it, the more appealing the idea became. But how? Should we take a commercial boat tour or rent a boat at the Willow Beach Marina. Hmmm, a decision needed to be made! For the commercial boat tour we would have two choices: the Black Canyon Raft Tour. This 5 hour tour on a motor-assisted inflatable raft is $92 per person. Sounds good but the downside was that we would have to drive ourselves to the Lake Mead RV Village (about 25 miles) by 9:15 a.m. Or we could try the other tour – the Hoover Dam Postcard Tour, a 1.5 hour tour (includes a 30 minute river raft float) for $33 per person. Once again we would have to drive about 45 miles to meet the tour in Boulder City.
Or we could rent a 17′ Campion powerboat with a 60hp outboard for a half day for $125 (plus gas). And best yet it was only a two minute drive to the Willow Beach Marina registration office with this option. Although we figured that the narration on either of the commercial tours would be informative, having been boaters for years it was still an easy choice – four hours to be explorers by ourselves at our own pace in our own private boat.
When we inquired about the rental at the office we were told about a few things to consider before reserving a boat:
- A boating license might be required depending on what state of residency. We were told we should check on the Willow Beach Marina website to see if we might need a boating license. That sure would put a glitch in our plans! But good news – only Florida residents (which we are) born after 1988 need one.
- Check the restrictions regarding when a personal water craft (PWC) or vessels with motors can be used on the river:
Sundays & Mondays: PWCs and vessels with motors are prohibited.
- Memorial Day – Labor Day:
Tuesdays – Saturdays: There are no horsepower restrictions. PWCs are allowed.
- Labor Day – Memorial Day:
Tuesdays – Saturdays: PWCs are prohibited. Only boats with with 65-horsepower engines or less are permitted.
Good news on both counts – as much as I hate to admit it, we’re both older than 30 so no license was required and our plan was to rent a boat on a Wednesday. We were good to go!
On the morning of our expedition after arriving at the registration office, we were required to watch a 15 minute boating safety video before going to the marina. A little bit boring since we have taken numerous boating courses in the past but I guess a refresher on safety practices is always good.
Finally around 9:30 a.m. it was time to pick up a boat at the marina! A dock hand gave us a map, instructions on how to handle the boat, advised us to not go past Mile Marker 60 because of shallow water and to have fun! If we did go all the way to the Dam, it would be approximately 12 miles.
As we left the marina, we passed by the Willow Beach Fish Hatchery which produces about 500,000 rainbow trout annually. They also work with two endangered species, the bonytail chub and the razorback sucker.
On both sides of the river, there was gorgeous scenery created by the El Dorado Mountains to the west (Nevada) and the Black Mountains (Arizona) to the east. Much of the river from Willow Beach north is a deep and steep sided canyon – beautiful!
On most large bodies of water buoy’s are used for navigation, but on the river aids to navigation are primarily land based Mile Markers (MM) along the shore. Willow Beach Marina is at MM 52 and the floating boom at the base of Hoover Dam is at about MM 64.
At MM53, we could see the remains of the gauger’s residence, the home to the person who operated the gauging station (located further up river). The gauger, a Bureau of Reclamation employee, would “commute” a mile upriver every day in rain or shine from his government owned home to his “office”, a tiny monitoring station on the Nevada side of the river.
The gauger would have to negotiate a catwalk of wooden planks laid on top of supports driven into the cliff walks, all to monitor the river’s flow. It also involved using two hand-powered carts to pull himself, suspended on cable tramways, over the yet-to-be tamed waters of the Colorado River.
According to an article titled “7 Gorgeous Reasons to Explore Black Canyon” in the Las Vegas Review Journal “Prior to construction of the Hoover Dam, one man, whom local lore likes to refer to as “Bob,” spent ten years living in the canyon. His sole purpose was to determine if this area was a suitable place to build the dam. And because this was long before the days of modern telemetry, he had to measure this manually. So every day, he would trek down the wooden catwalk, secure himself on the cable car and zip line across the river into his office. Once there, he would measure the level of the water and study samples of the silt and water.”
“For ten years, the River Gauger lived in that canyon, making that perilous journey everyday so that the dam could be built. And, as we know, the dam ended up instead being constructed ten miles north, rendering his efforts obsolete.”
The gauging station hangs about forty to fifty feet above the surface of the river on the vertical wall on the Nevada side of the Black Canyon. Built in 1931, it was used during construction of the dam for monitoring downstream water level, flow rate, silt content, etc. It was replaced in 1939 by a new station closer to the dam. In March of 1986 it was placed in the National Register of Historic Places. Whoever held this job must have really loved their job!
Not too far from the gauging station was the aptly named Emerald Cave.
Keeping a sharp eye out, we saw some Bighorn Sheep grazing on the steep cliffs. That was really cool! Makes you wonder though how they can climb on these steep cliffs! From what I have read, they have modified toenails on their outer hooves that are shaped to snag any slight protrusion on a rocky surface. A soft inner pad provides a grip that rivals the best climbing shoe in its ability to handle slight changes in the surface of a cliff.
Click here for a short (sorry it’s a little shaky) video that gives some perspective as to where the sheep in the photo above were located on the canyon walls.
It was a pretty quiet day on the river with just a few kayakers passing us by, an occasional fishing boat or tour raft. Travelling northward toward the dam we were fighting a fairly strong current, probably 5-10 mph. Click here for a video of our journey northward near MM60 that gives a good idea of the currents encountered.
On the way back though, the current gave us a free ride and every now and then, Rob would shut off the engine, letting us drift with the current so we could enjoy the peace and quiet. I had packed a few sandwiches so we just drifted while we were eating.
We stopped at this beach (photo below) where I stayed in the boat while Rob went on-shore and did a little exploring. The water felt a little chilly, according to what I’ve read, the water in the canyon below Hoover Dam is 53 degrees Fahrenheit year-round but gets warmer as it moves away from the dam.
Did we make it to the dam? Darn it, no. MM 60 which is where the water starts to get more shallow – we could see the bottom getting closer which was strewn with large rocks and shifting sand bars. The dockhand at the marina had warned us to “watch your prop” and advised us not to proceed beyond MM 60.
Although Rob really wanted to continue all the way to the dam, I was a bit more apprehensive. We had two things working against us – we weren’t familiar with the waters and it wasn’t our boat, so if the prop did get damaged it would be a hefty fee and it could strand us, definitely not worth the risk. So his better judgement finally kicked in around MM 62 where we reluctantly turned around. But rest assured if this was our own boat a little shallow water and a few rocks wouldn’t have stopped us! Next time for sure!
As we approached the marina on our downstream run, we still had some time left before our four hours were up so we continued heading south. Parker Dam is about 50 miles south of Willow Beach and creates Lake Mohave just north of Laughin, NV, but we only had time to go a couple more miles. The landscape dramatically changed from the steep and tall canyon walls to more moderate hills and a much more lake like expanse of water. Click here for a video of this section of the river near MM 48.
Eventually it was time for us to begrudgingly return to shore.
That evening we had another beautiful sunset – the perfect ending to a perfect day!!