Journey to Topock Gorge

by David Diefenderfer

Between Needles and Lake Havasu lies a primitive stretch of the Colorado River that even today is almost as inaccessible as in the years before the building of Parker Dam. Any attempt to sail upriver through this area is a real adventure. Only a very shallow draft vessel can hope for success. My little 14-foot West Wight Potter Pelicana, with enclosed cabin, centerboard, and readily trailerable, is such a boat.

She eagerly accepted the challenge.

We launched at the Lake Havasu City Marina and enjoyed the brisk sail to the upper end of the lake, exploring many of the large bays along the shore. We camped for the night in a small cove so as to have the full advantage of time and winds the following day for our attempt to navigate the Topock Gorge. It was July, but the night was comfortable and cool. Though calm at dawn, there was a promise of a breeze so we took our time in getting ready.

About ten o'clock, the usual morning winds came up, but the massive flow of water remained oily and mirrorlike, as if to defy any sort of waves. Pelicana, however, moved lithely forward over the glassy waters. Then, scarcely 20 feet ahead of us, betrayed only by a slight change in the refraction of the sun's slanting rays and appearing to run clear across the river, appeared the first underwater obstruction. A solid cliff of moving sand changed the river's depth from 10 feet to mere inches.

We were prepared, however, and as the bow rode up over the bar, we jumped overboard and pulled vigorously. Thus lightened, Pelicanawas able to hold her speed and left behind only a small trail from the lower edge of the raised centerboard. Behind this natural dam, the water gradually deepened, and soon we were once more on board and sailing freely.

This sudden change without any warning would have been disastrous to almost any other kind of boat. On a previous fishing trip we had seen an inboard ram into this barrier at full speed and bury itself so firmly that no amount of lifting and rocking could dislodge it. Later it was towed away with a damaged motor and a badly bent drive shaft.

The gods of the Chemehuevi Mountains resent all evidence of power and noise, harking back no doubt to the ancient times when the river was a great inland sea, finally held in check by the mountains. For eons these obviously impotent waters from the distant Rockies had pleaded in vain for a passage to the sea beyond. The mountains had looked on them with disdain even when they rose to their shoulders in caressing supplication. Then having stealthily sought out a possible pathway, the waters had suddenly vented their angry frustration and used the broken bones of their adversary to rip and tear a deep channel to the great Pacific.

Pelicana's crew found numerous convenient and comfortable campsites while journeying up Topock Gorge.

The mountains were overwhelmed but not vanquished; the river had broken through but could do no more; its powers of erosion were exhausted in one tremendous battle. Today the waters flow sullen and fearful through the forbidding canyon walls, and the gods of the Chemehuevi continue to ignore them as though they did not exist. From above or below, the mountains seem intact. They present the same hostile barrier, and the waters from a distance appear to flow into and out of their base with no sign of a passageway or valley in their ranks. This forbidding canyon is Topock Gorge.

Although we were safely past the first barrier, the silt-laden waters still seemed heavy as quicksilver. The brisk wind was unable to stir up any waves, and on looking for bottom one could see only moving sand. But Pelicana stepped out exuberantly.

Sailing "wing and wing," she was almost arrogant with pride and somewhat impatient with my insistence that she keep to the deeper water near the great bed of tules that lined the east side of the river. I refrained from chiding her, however, knowing full well that there would be more challenges to her skill, and that like all good women, even though a bit overconfident at times, she would listen to reason when needed. Her name should be given the Spanish pronunciation of Pay-LEE-ka-na, which denotes a rather graceful bird of the air, not Pelle-I-CAN-na, known in Spanish as "Alcatraz," a gluttonous relative who spends most of his time in the shallows gorging himself.

We sailed along for about an hour with no further problems, facing the mountainous barrier from which the river seemed to arise full fledged, but which our maps defined as the beginning of horse-shoe-shaped Blankenship Bend. There, Pelicana's friendly helper, the south wind, was completely blanketed by the high rocky point. The currents too were concentrated here. The wind suddenly vanished as she wallowed into the swift river current with her sails flapping idly. Then as she lost all momentum, the waters pushed her helplessly back to her starting point. She tried valiantly several times but only lost more ground and was being slowly pushed to port where a large bay, completely sanded in, threatened to block all progress.

The Evinrude Mate outboard soon solved the problem. After about 200 feet of vigorous pushing, she was once more in the arms of her friendly winds and on a beam reach. This kept her safely clear from the sand bar and away from a large whirlpool backed up by the mountain barrier in which was a large island of floating debris. We soon entered a large mountainous valley which was now almost completely filled up with sediment and overgrown with great fields of tules, through which the river constantly changes its course as the sands build up to close one passage and the waters force open another.

Known as Blankenship Valley and preserved for future generations as a part of the Chemehuevi Wildlive Preserve, this desert oasis is lush with plant and animal life. Seldom disturbed, the animals have little fear of man. Large bass idle in the crystal clear pools until some careless bullfrog swims too far from his protecting reeds, then a sudden silvery flash, and the frog is no more. A tall heron seems to sleep standing on one leg, then with a quick sweep of his bill a small fish vanishes.

A herd of wild burros, led by a palomino horse and a white mare, ignore our presence. With a stamp of the hoof from "papa," they vanish like ghosts into the high growth. On a previous trip when we had come in here in a small aluminum boat, this same herd had come within 50 feet of us. My niece seized part of a sandwich and followed them into the tules to see if she could catch one of them. She came back laughingly holding up the piece of bread with a large bite taken out of it. We were almost convinced until we noticed her mouth was still full of the unswallowed bread. A loud bray from the marsh indicated someone else was also enjoying the joke.

At the eastern end of this big valley stands Mohave Rock, a tremendous boulder standing about 50 feet above the water and, no doubt, hundreds of feet below.

Rocky crags of Chemehuevi Mountains shelter the river from wind,
so Pelicana's outboard was used to continue journey.

It is a relic of that ancient battle between the mountains and the angry river. Iron bars cemented into holes in its sides bear witness to the days when there were no dams and the river was navigable by shallow draft steamers. They tied up here for the night and replenished their supply of wood for the boilers.

Pelicana too nuzzled up to this rock as if she wanted to rest before tackling the dangerous whirlpools of the Devil's Elbow, which lay ahead. We took her picture there while standing in ankle deep water on a sand bar only a few hundred feet away. It too could be a treacherous trap, as the lake appeared to be a mile wide at that spot and the photographer seemed to be walking on water. A few steps forward, however, he would have been in over his head.

With the freshening afternoon breeze, Pelicana was soon ready to move on again, so we cruised along the barrier far to the east where we found a navigable channel near the Arizona shore. By this time we had learned that the eternal battle between the eroding waters and the persistent blockading of the reed beds will usually leave a deeper channel in these areas. The swifter currents keep such channels open and fortunately the wind was strong enough to get us through.

Upstream a few miles we searched for Picture Rock. Here in times past, the Indians used to gather at a cool spring to rest and swap stories of their prowess in the hunt. They drew pictures of the game and left records of their history. But our search was in vain. Even though we were sure we had found the spot, either the map was wrong, or the growth of brush and tules has effectively concealed it.

Besides, the wind was dying, and since we had found a good camping place completely hidden back of the tules, we decided it was time to anchor for the night. Like the old river steamers, we had no desire to traverse the Devil's Elbow that late in the day.

There was a nice beach at this secluded campsite and remnants of a fireplace with a large can sitting on top of the grate. On the can someone had scrawled with charcoal the words: "If you think this place is a mess - you should have seen it before we came! You clean up a bit too!" We heartily agreed with the sentiment.

We anchored in shallow water near the beach, and carefully secured Pelicana with extra lines from some protruding rocks and a small tree just in case the winds should become too exuberant during the night.

As the sun sank behind the mountains across the river, it lined up with a rocky pinnacle in the distance, which was the exact shape of a great fist partly clenched. With the reddish glow shining through between the fingers, the symbol seemed to say, "This far, but no further!"

Perhaps it was the gnarled fist of the gods of the Chemehuevi, giving us the final warning. After a warm supper, and watching a few satellites roam across the clear starlit sky, we had a good night's sleep.

Around midnight we were aroused for a bit of unusual entertainment. Something was rattling around in our cooking pans, which we had left ashore. We turned on a flashlight from the safety of the cockpit, which revealed the largest skunk we had ever seen. He was really beautiful with a large bushy tail that was well over two feet high. He ignored our light and, finding nothing of interest in the pans, decided to investigate a large carton that we had used as a trash box. He stood up with his front paws on the end of the box, put his weight on it to pull it towards him, when suddenly it flipped downhill and completely over him.

For a few minutes we all were too surprised to think. We held our breath hoping he would not take revenge or blame us; then with complete nonchalance, he began pushing the carton around over the beach while still entrapped. It looked quite ridiculous to see this large box apparently moving around by itself. We even entertained the idea of getting behind him and pushing the whole thing on out into the water, but thought better of it as the smell of wet skunk is very pervading. He finally got the box up against a rock, which gave him a chance to put his nose under the edge and crawl out. His dignity was not disturbed in the least, however, and no bad after effects were evident in the morning, so all was well.

Dawn was one of those lavish Arizona spectaculars that defy description. A towering bank of thunderheads in the east caught the first rays of the rising sun and sent brilliant streamers of color into the blue-black of the morning sky. There was a sort of electrified feeling in the air as the dark silhouettes of the distant mountains seemed to move slowly towards us and come into full perspective. The mirror-like waters of the lagoon duplicated the rosy hues and accentuated the ghostly movement.

Breakfast and a morning swim over, we decided to do some exploring while waiting for the tardy breeze. With obvious ill will, Pelicana again submitted to the indignity of her little "kicker" and moved carefully across the river, skirting another partly concealed sand bar. She nosed into a small channel with quite a strong current, apparently flowing straight into the mountains. Several times we almost had to give up, but eventually it opened up into a wider bay. Then we passed through another narrow channel into a deep secluded harbor completely concealed in the mountains.

Here we found two campsites that possibly had been the hideout for some old miner. This winter home on the sunny side of the bay had a nice clearing for a tent and the most unique stove we had ever seen. The whole thing had been painstakingly made of oil drums and coffee cans, all sewn together with baling wire. It was well preserved and very efficient both for cooking and heating. We could have put it in use at any time.

On the southerly side of the bay was another excellent landing, well shaded by an overhanging cliff. A boxwood table and old mattress attested to comparatively recent use. On closer inspection we found that pack rats also had a liking for good bedding and had carried away much of the stuffing for use in their own nests It was an ideal year around campsite which could probably tell an interesting story.

Pelicana is dwarfed by Mohave Rock, which guards the eastern end of Blankenship Valley.

By now the movement of the foliage and ripples on the water indicated it was time for Pelicana to travel again. Once back on the river, the south wind whispered assuringly in her sails and we were soon making good time upstream. The threatening walls rose higher on each side, leaving the black waters still in ominous shadows. We felt our way ahead, watching for submerged rocks and avoiding the whirlpools near the shore.

Devil's Elbow is another 180 bend with a narrow channel and swift current. The wind, however, concentrated its force also, as if determined to push us through. It was a problem whether to stay close to the jutting rocks on the inside of the bend or sweep into the swifter current and try to stay with the wind. We tried both and each time just missed coming around into the ripples that indicated the wind was trying to aid us. But it was just another dizzy merry-go-round. Pelicanawas desperate and this time she offered no angry flaps of her sails as her little Mate barked at her heels and soon had her once again in the arms of friendly breezes. Once more we were on the move pushing up the dark corridor of the Elbow's arm.

Somewhat relaxed, we had time to study for perhaps some future trip, the enticing views of side channels and secluded bays that were surely worth more investigation. But those would have to wait.

About noon we came to a spot where a rockfall had created a recessed backwater and deposited sand until a small beach had been built up. We stopped for lunch and noticed that our voices were being echoed back from the rocky wall across the river so we shouted real loud like irresponsible kids. As this blast of noise hit back at our side, we were greeted by a shower of debris and guano from a flock of protesting swallows who had their mud nests in the cliff above our heads. Needless to say, we took the hint.

We finished the rest of the "arm" without incident and were soon heading north once more, looking at a widening stretch of slower moving water. To one approaching from the north, the river seems to vanish rather than pass through the mountains. We took time to go ashore and take a picture of Pelicana apparently materializing like a ghost. (Shades of the Flying Dutchman, of course.) But our troubles were not over yet. A few miles further the banks again become steep and narrow, and man was now about to test Pelicana's ability. We faced the United States Geodetic Survey.

At this spot the USGS had erected a cable across the river from Arizona to the California side. Anchored in the rocks about 25 feet high at the sides, it still hung so low over the water that it looked hopeless to sail under. But after studying it at close range, there was a chance it could be done near the banks. There, however, the currents were erratic and indicated the possibility of submerged rocks. This called for wind, motor, and centerboard.

With medium power and carefully spilling wind, we edged up inch by inch to the cable. It barely cleared, then with full power from wind and motor, we speeded up until we had gained at least 100 feet of margin. Only then did we dare relax, as failure would have permitted her to veer helplessly back into the slack wire or swing into the rocky shore.

There was no more grumbling from Pelicana now as she sailed happily along on a widening river, but the sun was getting low in the west, and our helpful winds were getting drowsy. The span of the Topock bridge was visible in the distance and surely there could be no more problems. But as we rounded the bend and could look beyond the highway bridge, we could see the old railroad bridge. It appeared even lower than the cable, and the large pylons and concrete abutments restricted the passage even more. By now the wind had failed us completely.

But why worry? Park Moabi Marina was only about a mile above the bridges; we could walk to that if necessary, and besides we still had our trusty little Mate. Pelicana showed no resentment at all this time as I lowered it into the water; even if she could not make the final entrance in full glory, at least her sails were still set. We again edged up carefully and just cleared the overhanging trusses, but about 50 feet further on, she suddenly stopped cold! The currents swung us sideways and back, almost hitting the concrete abutment. We fended off with an oar and dropped anchor just below the bridge.

We coaxed and pleaded, even offered her a new spark plug, but the Mate was adamant. Pelicana's sails hung idly in complete humiliation. Finally being sure she had made her point, the outboard took hold and ran as good as ever. Only darkness hid her shame as Pelicana sailed dejectedly into Park Moabi, her sails stirring idly in the slight breeze created by the pompous purr of her triumphant little Mate.