A preservationist's challenge, youthful overconfidence, and a river of doubt
I had come to call them "The Guns of August" - the thunderstorms that came to the Las Vegas valley each year in last of the hot months. Summer seldom leaves quietly, in desert.
In 1986 those August rains swelled the Las Vegas runoff as usual, raising the water level in Las Vegas wash, the ancient creek bed that still runs from the site of the town's original artesian wells, through the city and ultimately to Lake Mead, about 10 miles down stream. I turned 22 that summer, and decided it was time to accept the long-standing challenge of a fiery preservationist-historian, who was known for fighting to maintain the east valley wetlands area, created by this runoff. It was a marshland of tall reeds and low trees, which in similar form had existed before the town itself.
Few Las Vegans knew of the area that we called "the swamps," when I was a student at Basic High in nearby Henderson, in the early 1980's. Friends hunted duck there, in those days. As the city grew, so did the volume of runoff, particularly before flood planning. The sewer water treatment plant was constructed nearby to improve the water before it was released back into the natural system of reeds. This slow moving flow bolstered the natural filtration of the water, before it returned to Lake Mead, the Country's largest reservoir. This industrial wonder had created a relatively consistent river from the swamps, to Lake Mead.
The preservationist's challenge? Canoe it. No one ever had.
I had been intrigued by the idea for years. In 1983 I had ridden my enduro motorcycle out to the site which was later to become Lake Las Vegas, to have a look.
Early Vegas-area pioneer Dan Potter had owned what would have been part of Lake Mead. So the Federal Government in 1926 swapped his original holding to make way for what would be the largest reservoir in the US, a national recreation area. The land Potter was granted in trade, over 3,000 acres just a few miles up North Shore Road toward Henderson, straddled Las Vegas Wash at it's deepest point. There the torrent of runoff water - of dubious quality at best - had cut a canyon 8 stories deep, as it made its way to Lake Mead. It was a ravine of sand cut by a polluted river in the middle of nowhere, then. But Potter, not unlike other early investors in the area, was a man of vision. He sold that vision with the land in 1967, to J. Carlton Adair, an investor who dabbled in acting, known later for his role in the film "The Electric Horseman" filmed in Las Vegas in 1979. Adair was inspired by Potter's vision when he conceived of a new development there, which he called Lake Adair.
Adair and his wife Perry worked tirelessly to see their dream come true, but in the end had to file bankruptcy in 1987. By 1983 as I rode past the barriers of their holding that day, financial trouble was already apparent, with abandoned yellow iron sitting in the dust. Adair would later become a consultant to the ultimate developer of Lake Las Vegas.
I parked my Suzuki 250 and walked the last one hundred yards or so to the edge of the canyon. The deep, light sand was too soft to ride. I was shocked at the depth of the walls, dropping straight down to the river a hundred feet below. The whole place seemed unstable. I wondered if I would ever take the challenge.
Three years later I figured life, or a development on the Adiar site, would soon get in the way, and it was probably then, or never. Finding a Boulder City company naïve enough to rent me two of the latest Wenoka high-impact plastic canoes, I recruited three friends for the trip. I would captain one boat with Will at the Stern, and my buddy Dave would captain the other, with Ron. We provisioned up with plenty of food, water, first aid, machetes for overgrowth, ropes and more. We were ready. My father, doubtful but obliging, brought us out to the launching point a little west of Pabco Road. We lowered the canoes in, over a wrecked car that some insurance company was probably still hunting. Once we hit the water, we were swept immediately down stream at running speed. We shot the tunnels under Pabco road, smashed into the rocks on the other side and took on water. We managed to right ourselves but immediately realized the purity of the water left much to be desired as we gagged on it.
Undeterred, we continued rapidly east, into the unknown. I knew once we passed Pabco Road, there was no turning back. the uncharted canyon walls only got steeper, the place more remote. We would have no communication with anyone. There were no photos from previous trips by anyone to warn us of what was ahead. No road traversed the route near the Wash, and there was no way out of the canyon until we got to Lake Mead.
A group of twenty-somethings relishing the 'ride or die' mandate, we almost instantly high-centered the canoes on a set of waterfalls sloping down rock surfaces about 50 feet, at steep grade. Once at the bottom, we were in a river scene reminiscent of Planet of the Apes (the 1970's Charleton Heston one), cruising at about 10 miles per hour. At this rate, is seemed as if this trip would take no time.
"What's that roaring noise?" Will asked. I realized I could barely hear him, and quickly motioned to head to the left bank, stopping just at the top of a waterfall dropping straight down about 20 feet. We managed to motion to Dave and Ron, and they joined us to trek the canoes down the sides of the river on a steep carry. We put back in at the bottom of the falls, lower still in the canyon.
I could see the unstable walls of the canyon were as high as I had found a few years earlier, and I knew we must be getting close to that area. Here we paused at the site of two large pipes exiting the south bank river wall, with almost neon-colored soil in front of each. I realized that the long-told tales of the dumping of toxic waste by Henderson plants into the Wash near the Calico Ridge development site, then under construction, were probably true after all. Here was the evidence, which smelled of heavy metal. I may have treated preservation as a joke until that moment, when I realized the joke was entirely on us all. This was an epiphany. Perhaps one that the Preservationist intended.
We embarked again. The river suddenly accelerated, and narrowed. Vegetation was disappearing from the sides, baring rock and hard amalgamate. I realized we were heading into a funnel rapid, an area where sides of the canyon closed in, and the water creates a deep vein. I could see it getting down to about three feet wide, very fast moving. I figured it was probably fifty feet deep here, and extremely dangerous. I pulled our canoe to the left bank to walk it, instead. But Dave had other ideas, and I reached the bank just in time to see his canoe catch air coming off the first step of the narrowing rapid. About one hundred feet downstream, they smashed into a hairpin bottleneck corner, and took on water. Ron bailed out as the rear submerged in the narrows, Dave jumped to the other shore, and the canoe went vertical, hull facing down stream, open top catching the hydraulic current, which was wedging it upright, threatening to break the boat right across the middle. Their gear largely gone, we used hand signals in the roar to maneuver into position and divert enough current with paddles to right the wounded boat, then carry it down river with ours.
We put the canoes back in at a calmer lagoon, but I saw rapids just ahead again, and I was trying to tell the group it was a bad idea, when the ground gave way under my feet, and I barely caught the lead line hanging off the back of a canoe tied to shore, as the current pulled me east yet again. Will jumped to the left bank closest to me to get my hand, but the ground gave way under him too, and he was instantly clinging to that little rope just ahead of me. I didn't know where Ron was, but I was watching Dave, who had quickly grabbed the rope from the other end of the canoe, when it broke its hold on shore. He was grasping the line with all his might, straining to hold the boat, with Will and me on the other end, from vanishing downstream. Dave was unusually strong and looked determined against this impossible task. But his feet were slipping, and I realized he would get pulled in before he would ever let go, and then I'd have the whole caravan coming down river on top of me in a virtual drain pipe. I instead dropped the line to reduce the load, and waved to Dave as I vanished downstream.
I was pulled under water, but had a good breath of air, and put my feet out in front of me in case of an obstacle. Swimming skill was useless in this turmoil. Just as my head came above water, I slammed into the tangled branches of a dead tree jammed across the narrow rapids. The rushing water pressure was so intense, and I was unable to move at all. I saw Dave come over a ridge and stand on a ledge about 10 feet above the river, just upstream from me. He was motioning to the others and indicating my position, when the ledge he was standing on completely gave way, and disappeared with him into the deep, rushing water. He would later turn up on the other side of my tree. I looked up again to see Will and Ron prying my limbs out away from the tree enough so that I could finally pull my way out. I had already decided I need not know that feeling of being so close to drowning, ever again. We rested a little while, drank what little water we had left, and put in again, just past the rapids.
Will and I went in the lead again. The river swung wide to the right, and as we came around a bend in narrowing water, a giant bird looked up, snapped its massive beak closed, flapped wings spanning over 7 feet and flew right over us. I had never seen a Blue Herron so close. Rounding the next bend, I was startled as I thought I saw a person on the right bank, then quickly realized it was a giant horned brown owl. It too watched our approach, then flew over head. We were just letting the excitement sink in, when we swung sharply left and picked up speed, as the river became hydraulic, rushing against a bulging a cliff face. As I jammed my paddle against the wall, I realized the entire cliff was covered with wasps nests. Mud Daubers. Before I could tell if we had angered the insects, I felt the canoe tilt violently to the right, away from the cliff face. Will had leaned away from the wall when he realized what company we had. Into the drink again.
Under deep rushing water, I reached the surface as it slowed, and grabbed the bow of our inverted canoe. Drifting to shallower water, I pushed off a rock and landed on the overturned vessel. Will popped up a few yards away. A paddle passed by, I wasn't sure if it was ours or Dave's. The equipment had broken free from its ties. I managed to stay with the vessel as it headed down river upside down. We slowed as we hit a section of tall cattails and Will caught the back of the canoe. We managed to flip it, and climb back in, one at a time.
The gear was gone. My paddle had been smashed down to a pole, which I had not recovered. I grabbed the trunk of a dead willow and broke off a stick with a broad end - my new paddle. Will had managed to recover his. Back in the boat again, one way out - downstream again.
This was the fastest part of the trip. We passed a wreck of a vintage motor boat, and knew we were coming close to Lake Mead. The walls shortened and the riverbed widened and straightened, waist deep, fast moving. We rounded a broad bend and I saw the river disappearing into tall cattail reeds which had grown on both sides, then fallen across the middle, completely blocking the view. Will asked what I thought. I remember yelling "No roar!" meaning I didn't think there would be a waterfall hidden ahead.
We must have hit those cattail reeds doing 20 miles an hour. The fluffy ends absolutely exploded their cotton-like seeds, which flew out in a cloud. We blew out the other side of the reeds after about 50 feet, wiping the flying seeds away from our eyes, looking like we had been tarred and feathered. I felt Will's paddle on my upper back. I could tell he was trying to flick something off. "What is it?" I yelled. "Uh, nothing!" I knew he was lying, but I also couldn't take my eyes off the terrain. He later told me it was a bug, but no larger than my fist.
The water slowed, the river widened, and we knew we were coming to Lake Mead. The vegetation was so thick I had to get out of the canoe and lead it through, with Will following behind the boat, wading as well. Then, at last, open lake. Dave and Ron soon floated into view.
The canoes had hit so many rocks, so hard, that the hard plastic layers had separated. There were massive gashes and bubbles. The up-ended boat had a destroyed middle seat. The end caps on all the bows were broken, popped up. We looked like drowned rats, with cuts and bruises. We had a few paddles left, no gear, my clothes were in absolute tatters and I was paddling across the lake with a stick. That's how we pulled up to Las Vegas Marina that day. My father picked us up, still not sure if we were superhero adventurers or complete idiots. I wasn't sure either. The good humored canoe rental folks were very understanding and only hit me for another $40 after the deposit and the story of what we had done.
Everyone recovered eventually. Ron would leave town a few years later. Will and I drifted apart. And Dave? Dave and I still reminisce about that hot day after the Guns of August, in Las Vegas Wash, knowing we made history.
The most treacherous part of the Wash would indeed be developed into Lake Las Vegas in 1990. Contrary to popular notion, the water still rushing down Las Vegas Wash does not fill Lake Las Vegas. It is piped underneath it, continuing out to Lake Mead. It was a drinking water allocation that allows for the fresh clean water of Lake Las Vegas.
After a series of bankruptcies and various billionaire faux pas, Lake Las Vegas has celebrity homes and some of the most picturesque lots, on what was once a cavernous, unstable, toxic, wastewater wash. In Las Vegas, the truth is always far stranger than fiction.
The biggest smile, on hearing the tale, was of course that of the preservationist historian who dared me to do it in the first place, back in 1983. She was already known for saving, in the early 1970's, the Old Mormon Fort, which was the first structure ever built on Las Vegas Creek. She was also largely responsible for converting Spring Mountain Ranch into a State Park, and had gone on to save Big Springs, the genesis of Las Vegas Wash, which became The Springs Preserve.
Her input was integral to the visitors center at the Clark County Wetlands Park, near our original launch site that day, as well as Whitney Mesa Nature Preserve and the sites of the Old Spanish Trail, traversing original Las Vegas water sources. Her PhD dissertation in 1996, "Las Vegas Springs: A Disappeared Resource" would shed unprecedented daylight the dubious history of water management in Las Vegas. She told me for years to write the story of our river of doubt, as no one else would ever make the trek.
I arrived at her house to tell her the news that day, of which she was doubtless already in the know. "So?" she lit up as she inquired.
"I did it, mom."
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