Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Commentary: Feasting on Lake Havasu.

I opened my eyes from an exhaustion-forced nap. Immediately, I was aware of a burning sensation about my face and arms. Dry and coated with a heavy hue of an earthy, sour-medicine taste, my mouth was recovering from what I had subjected it to just hours earlier. Feathery, cotton-like seeds clung to my worn T-shirt. My flip-flops, strewn carelessly on the floor, still carried a coat of mud. The muted rumblings just outside the window of the hotel room was a reminder of my proximity to Lake Havasu's Bridgewater Channel, and my body's state of mild disrepair harkened back to the adventure of the past two days. When my wife Krystal and I first started out for this western Arizona oasis on a recent spring morning, I thought I already knew all this playground had to offer. But this would be no spring breaker's romp through Arizona's Riviera. Just past the Lake Havasu city limits, visitors from the Valley traveling west along AZ-95 get their first glimpse of the economic engine that's been driving the growth of the region for the past 40 years. The azure water of the 45-mile-long lake gives way to saw-toothed peaks of the Whipple Mountain Range to the west. Add in the dry climate and oppressive summer heat and it all becomes clear: Water is life in the desert; the lake is life to this area. The vacationers and weekend boaters chip in significantly to the city's economy. Jarrod Lyman, vice president of public relations for the Lake Havasu City Convention and Visitors Bureau, provided a December 2007 report that pegged boating visitors as spending $212 million annually, supporting 4,700 jobs. Without a doubt, tourism is the biggest contributor to the local economy. However, Lyman's office promotes pretty much all of the activities available in the area. Even with fishing, hiking, restaurants, shopping, golfing, bicycling, camping and more, boating is still the biggest show in town, but isn't the only one. Scenic beauty plays heavy in all of our ads, he says. When people visit the Web site, we like to let them find their own adventure. Lyman, who also serves as the region's film commissioner, stays busy with the many duties of promoting the town he grew up in. When we have a company picnic, I even grill the burgers, he says. Battling the 'Heat' I thought the area might be a one-trick pony, after seeing cable television shows like Party Heat, which is filmed by cameramen who tag along with the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department's boat patrols and capture images of gorgeous boats, wild parties, free-flowing alcohol and scantily clad partiers. The TV program also shows sheriffs stopping boaters for myriad safety violations including OUI (the boating equivalent of a DUI), indecent exposure and medical emergencies. And it paints a picture of the lake as a drunken, anything-goes frat party. Matt Young, who has rented watercraft for Action Adventure Rentals for the past six years, sees a positive side to Party Heat. It's not necessarily bad, he says. It shows that if you boat and break the law, you'll get in trouble. The busiest time is the span between Memorial Day and Labor Day, with a much-needed lull during May. That's when we get to put everything back together the spring-breakers broke, he says. After acknowledging the lake's party pedigree, he also said people have started taking boating safety more seriously. Some come here with the party attitude, but most -- like 95 percent -- are responsible about it. It has gotten a lot better over the past five years. While certain hot spots on the lake have rightfully earned the lake's legendary reputation for debauchery (Copper Canyon and the ever-popular sandbar, in case anyone's interested), I proved that a drink can be enjoyed during boat trips on the lake without contact with the sheriff's department. The good ship Dixie Belle was moored just beyond the shadow of the city's most famous attraction, the London Bridge. The double-decker boat, complete with a paddlewheel and richly varnished, worn-wood railings, looked like it was freshly plucked from the bayous of the Mississippi River delta. The captain steered away from the dock, starting south toward Thompson Bay and passing under the bridge. The ship can carry 125 passengers and crew, although Dixie Belle Capt. Nick Maxwell pinned the average haul at about 20. On this early Friday afternoon tour, the ship's bar sat nearly empty as it carried about 15 passengers through the lake's man-made channel. At first, the channel's shore looked busy and choked with boats. Yet one tourist indicated that what we saw was actually not that crowded. He said the channel used to get so cluttered that sometimes the smell of carbon monoxide would nearly make you pass out. The channel originally was dredged by town founder Robert McCulloch to allow water movement in and out of Thompson Bay and to give the bridge he purchased for $2.4 million in 1968 something to cross. Capt. Maxwell easily navigated the channel as the boat edged around the island toward open water. The red-and-white paddlewheel spun effortlessly on the back of the boat, serving as a performer now rather than a worker, as the boat is now driven by two internal engines. Piloting the boat requires complete attention from the captain, who has to watch out for other boaters on busy weekends. Traffic is the big thing, he says. Some boaters know what they're doing and some don't. Mostly it seems like people know how things work, though. Outside the channel, the views stretch out to a contrast of the sparkling blue waters against the dust-brushed desert hills. The scene naturally encourages the use of several rolls of film - and it makes you a bit thirsty. Picturesque nightlights make boaters safe The Lake Havasu shoreline is dotted by replicas of lighthouses that serve as safety beacons on the shores of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the Great Lakes. The 1/3-scale models are a part of the Lake Havasu Lighthouse Club's efforts to make night boating safer. The volunteer club formed in 2000 the mission of building the lighthouses. To date, they have built 14 lighthouses of a planned 30. The lighthouses have replaced the lake's unsightly night navigational beacons and feature LED bulbs, which last longer and are brighter than the beacon lights. Club President Bob Keller plans to put up three more this year, but says he needs more volunteers to keep the effort going. A replica of the East Quoddy Lighthouse -- the original is located on Campobello Island in New Brunswick, Canada -- greeted passengers from the port side of the Dixie Belle as it re-entered the channel. As evening began to drape Lake Havasu City, my wife and I headed off to dinner at Shugrue's Restaurant. Lucking into a corner seat next to an all-glass wall, we were treated to views of sunlight and boaters escaping the channel for the final time that day. Steak cooked with a blend of five peppers seared my mouth a bit while a Shiraz from Southern Australia cooled it down and mellowed my taste buds. Even if the food was bad (which it wasn't) or the service was marginal (it was great) the stop for dinner at Shugrue's was worth it for at least two reasons. First, the fresh-baked, warm sourdough bread with garlic butter was sinfully delicious (I smuggled out some in a to-go container). Second, the view of the channel from Shugrue's elevated hillside position is something they should put on the visitor's guide. Krystal and I retired to a room at the London Bridge Resort, themed accordingly with its namesake. We needed sleep. Our mysteriously named jungle safari was scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. the following morning. Going green Appropriately decked in crocodile-hunter-style attire, tour guide Dave Jensen, who describes himself as somewhat of a conservationist and environmentalist picked us up in his Safari Tours-decorated Subaru. The slender, self-taught ecologist with a liberal arts degree through Regents University in New York State would provide a wholly unexpected adventure.

There would be lots of nature, a jungle of sorts, instruction on desert survival and even some snacks picked straight from the plants most human desert inhabitants avoid. However, the guide looked the part and gave the desert chow his stamp of approval, so why not trust him? We drove into the 9.5 square-mile Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge located about 20 minutes outside of Lake Havasu City via a hard-packed dirt and rock road. But we soon found ourselves out of the safety of the car and trudging through greenery unseen in the desert parts of Arizona. Our guide said we were walking in skunk cabbage. It seemed a bit of a harsh name given that I didn't notice a smell, and the big, romaine lettuce-like leaves and white flowers made it seem pleasant enough. Soon enough, the ground became increasingly marsh-like and I could feel my feet sinking with each step. Our guide said the Bill Williams River actually ran underground through the area. We would be swallowed quickly by a mix of Cottonwood trees the dreaded Salt Cedars, the enemy of this once flush, riparian area. The Cottonwood's seeds, which appear to be wrapped in the fluffy white stuff, completely covered the tree-top canopy and the ground. The guide began explaining how the rather dead-looking trees steal all the water and kill the native vegetation, and how they were introduced originally by railroad builders to control erosion. Then I asked why they were called Salt Cedars. The guide snapped off a piece of the nearest specimen and said taste. Touching it to my tongue, I discovered that, indeed, it was salt-flavored. My trust in the guide grew and I figured I'd perhaps try more desert cuisine, considering the first taste-test wasn't fatal. Again, bouncing around the back seat of the vehicle, we were tearing down a less-improved route called Trail's End Camp Road near the California side of Parker Dam. We again found ourselves out of the vehicle, and our guide commenced snapping up pieces of other plants to taste. This time, the fare was a handful of extremely dry and dead-looking Primrose seeds. A bit earthy, I thought. But I felt obliged to Dave and his penchant for desert cuisine, and again survived the ordeal. Bouncing back toward the highway, Dave provided a list of dos and don'ts for surviving in the desert. Included in the list was the medicine-like, woodsy, tangy bark Dave had made me separate with my teeth from a Brittle Bush a few miles back. He said it had anesthetic properties, which I discovered was true. I also learned that its breath-freshening properties left something to be desired; my wife wouldn't kiss me afterward. Dave returned us to the resort, and we parted ways with our hungry guide. The lake was extremely inviting, making me wish I had my own boat to take out. I didn't, but had found plenty of ways stay entertained in the Home of the London Bridge, as the city bills itself. Sunburned, tired, muddy -- and with a weird taste in my mouth -- I lay down for a nap.

Source Citation
"Commentary: Feasting on Lake Havasu." Arizona Capitol Times (2008). General OneFile. Web. 26 May 2010.
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