America’s Largest Man-made Lake
By Sandra Scott
The best way to explore the desert is from the water. Houseboating on Lake Mead is the best of all worlds, combining fun in the water and in the desert with all the comforts of home.
Fifty miles north of Las Vegas, Nevada, at Callville Bay, eight of us, from a six-month-old to an eighty-three year old, boarded one of Forever Resorts’ 56-foot houseboats, complete with everything from linens to cooking supplies. After brief operational and mooring instructions, we headed out into Lake Mead.
For nearly four hours, we motored at a relaxing 10 miles a hour through the calm waters between the high canyons walls of the Narrows, out into the Virgin Basin, then Temple Basin. From high on the top deck we surveyed a scene that appeared to be untouched by the hand of man. The contrast of the blue-black waters and the robin’s egg blue skies divided by a thousand shades of desert red was mesmerizing. We passed rock formations and places with names that would make good book titles: Coyote Cove, Boat Wreck Point, Plane Crash Island, Monkey Cove, The Haystacks, Mushroom Reef and Wild Burro Bay.
The first day we tied up in the mid-afternoon in secluded Teal Cove with our very own hoodoo (a rock formation eroded into fantastic shapes) high on the ridge acting as our sentinel. It was time for a little hiking, then zipping down the slide on the back of the boat into the refreshing waters. The waters of Lake Mead are clear and clean—ideal for swimming, snorkeling and diving. Then it was time for a little fishing while dinner cooked. The lake is home to striped bass, bluegill, largemouth bass, crappie and catfish. The fishing was so good that even two-year-old Jenna caught a stripped bass. You’ve heard of the fish that got away; well, the one that got away from us took the bait and the pole! In Lake Mead, one of the most common and sought-after fish is the striped bass; specimens weighing 50 pounds and more have been caught. I’m sure the one that got away from us was a prizewinner.
Each day we cruised for a couple of hours. It was a relaxing time with some of us admiring the scenery, others reading or playing games. When we stopped for the day it was time to fish, swim and explore. In the evening, we toasted marshmallows over the campfire. Each night we were rocked to sleep listening to the gentle lap of the water against the boat. The biggest decision of the day was figuring out which of the many coves would be the perfect mooring spot for the night. One night was spent at a wide sandy beach and another in narrow cove surrounded by walls of reddish rock that graduated down to a gravel beach. Forever Resorts provides a map that shows places suitable for spending the night plus those to avoid. Each place was unique and excellent for exploring on foot.
Sometimes the place was sandy, sometimes very rocky, but off we would go, scrambling over the hill or up the wash into a hidden canyon. We felt like we were the first explorers to penetrate the canyons but signs of old fire pits proved that was not the case. Our only disappointment was not seeing any bighorn sheep, wild burros or coyotes; but we saw plenty of evidence from the dung and tracks that they were nearby.
Each morning we would scan the shore hoping to catch a glimpse of a critter getting a morning drink. Later we learned that the bighorn sheep commonly descend the steep rocky ridges to the shore at mid-day for a drink. They are one of the few desert animals active during the heat of day. Lizards, squirrels, jackrabbits and other creatures come out of their shaded resting-places in the cooler hours of morning, late afternoon, evening or night. We did see several little lizards basking in the warm sun, only to have them scurry away as we approached. However there is plenty of vegetation, if you stop and look around. From the houseboat, the surrounding desert, with its canyons and washes, looks as lifeless as the moon, but on shore there is an amazing variety of plant life. I wished I had a field guide similar to one I had for Grand Canyon to help me identify the different plants and flowers. I did recognize beavertail cactus, desert holly, rock nettle, Mormon tea and the creosote bush.
Along the lake there is a rich assortment of birds, including species you wouldn’t expect to find in the desert. We saw ducks and coots patrolling the bays. Every morning we scared up a great blue heron, and during the day, we saw several hawks, although we failed to see the elusive bald eagle.
The clear skies, untainted by secondary light, make for great stargazing. Even the novice star watcher can find the Big Dipper, Little Dipper, North Star and Orion’s Belt. One is sure to see at least one shooting star, and it is great luck to be on the lake during a meteor shower.
Lake Mead, America’s largest man-made lake, covers 229 square miles, with over 500 miles of shoreline. The lake, fed by the Colorado River, was created when Hoover Dam, one of the country’s engineering wonders, was built. Five thousand men worked day and night for five years to complete the structure. They poured enough concrete to pave a highway 16 feet wide and 8 inches thick from San Francisco to NYC. Finished in 1935, it took Lake Mead three years to fill up with water, creating a recreation area ideal for boating, swimming, fishing and diving. The scenery varies from multicolored rock formations to sheer cliffs to sandy beaches to serene coves.
Houseboating is a wonderful way to spend a vacation. Our houseboat had four queen-sized beds, a sleeper sofa, two bathrooms, a television and all the kitchen amenities to cook a five-course meal. Operating a houseboat is not difficult. Everyone, including even experienced operators, is given instructions before setting out. The houseboat is moored for the night with long ropes tied tightly to long metal stakes pounded into the ground with a sledgehammer. Three able-bodied adults are helpful when tying up for the night, and they may be necessary if the wind really kicks up. On our trip, the National Park Service alerted everyone on Lake Mead, via the emergency radio channel, to seek a sheltered spot immediately because they were expecting dangerously high winds. We found a secluded cove and successfully weathered the storm but learned that securing a houseboat in the high winds can be tricky.
Houseboats can be rented for vacations on Lake Mead and Lake Mojave, plus a variety of other places. They come in a variety of sizes, including Forever Resorts’ palatial 65-foot Millennium, complete with a big screen TV, satellite dish and GPS.
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