Tidewater Traveler August 2006

Hoover Dam or Boulder Dam?

     A great blue amoeba is shimmering below as the airplane continues its descent over a region of Nevada known as the Mojave Desert. Like a puddle of water on a table-top, the shape cannot be defined by crisp geometric terms; instead its boundary is an intricate collection of curves and bends. The rich azure hue is bordered and contrasted by a dull tannish-brown. Short white streaks, like arrow-shaped trails mar the surface. Only a few boats are large enough to be seen, but even the ones still invisible at this altitude are marking their trails.
      A few thousand feet lower and my eyes begin adjusting to the illusion. The amoeba is not sprawling on a flat surface as it seemed at first; instead it fills and conforms to depressions, valleys, gorges and basins wetting hundreds of miles of desert shoreline. Lake Mead is said to be the largest manmade lake in the United States. Approaching the Las Vegas airport from the east, the lake appears in the desert without warning, first as a small finger of water that curves and stretches, eventually to reach out almost beyond sight.
      Absent around the lake’s edge are boardwalks, high-rises and amusement rides. Only a few dozen sites of campers and motorhomes dot the brown part; and a few dozen pleasure boats and jet skis leave their wakes on the blue part. Blue and brown – no green – just blue and brown! The contrast is striking – the turquoise water against the stark, lifeless tan of the desert.
      There is a chalky, light tan band that perfectly traces the boundary of the lake like a bathtub ring left behind by a receding water level. The water level in the lake is directly affected by the volume of snow in the Rocky Mountains. Several years of lower-than-average snowfall in the higher elevations of the Colorado River watershed have caused the level of water in the lake’s basin to fall by about one hundred fifty feet, creating a chalky-looking residue along the lake’s perimeter – a giant bathtub ring.
      Lake Mead provides wonderful entertainment for the occupants of port-side window seats as this long flight nears an end. I know that in a few days I will have the opportunity to be aboard one of the vessels below. I will look up from that boat at passing airliners knowing that dozens of faces are pressed against the glass peering down at the white lines on the bright blue water.
      Lake Mead was named in honor of Dr. Elwood Mead. As Commissioner of Reclamation from 1924 to 1936, he drafted new specifications for a giant project that would dam the Colorado River, impound the world’s (at that time) largest artificial lake and provide flood control, irrigation supply and power generation.
      Now for a good trivia question – what is the name of the dam that has forced the Colorado River to backup and form Lake Mead? Is it Boulder Dam or Hoover Dam? As a travel planner, educator and geography major, I must admit that I am a bit embarrassed to learn that Hoover Dam and Boulder Dam are two names for the same dam. Damn!
      From its inception in the late 1920s, the project located near Boulder City, Nevada, was commonly referred to as Boulder Dam, and the common name stuck. Also, from the beginning, the dam’s official name was Hoover Dam, named for Herbert Hoover, who while Secretary of Commerce in 1922 hammered out agreements among the seven states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) that would be impacted by the massive Colorado River flood project. These agreements would ultimately allow the project to go forward. In 1935, Hoover Dam was completed and Lake Mead formed.
      A 45 minute ride from Las Vegas brings me to the water’s edge and the opportunity to board the Desert Princess for a 90-minute, narrated luncheon cruise on Lake Mead. The paddle-wheel cruiser carries about 300 passengers and covers a relatively small area of the 550 miles of shoreline. At its farthest point the boat makes its way into Back Canyon and nears the danger zone adjacent to the upriver side of Hoover Dam.
      I marvel at the colors of the rock strata along the shore, colors that are not discernible from the sky. Vacationers are seen waterskiing, riding jet skis, and just cruising in pleasure boats. Some boats motor freely through open waters; some are pulled up onto remote, stony beaches for picnics and privacy. From the onboard narration I learn that the United States Park Service manages the recreational activities of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
     “Recreation, although a by-product, constitutes a major use of the lake. Lake Mead is one of America’s most popular recreation areas, with a 12-month season that attracts more than 9 million visitors each year forswimming, boating, skiing and fishing. Lake Mead extends approximately 110 miles upstream toward the Grand Canyon. It also extends about 35 miles up the Virgin River. The width varies from several hundred feet in the canyons to a maximum of eight miles.”
      If you find yourself headed to Las Vegas by air, try to get a window seat on the left side of the airplane. When you detect that the plane is beginning its descent, start watching for the great blue amoeba. Sightseeing tours that include Lake Mead can be arranged at the tour desk of any Las Vegas hotel, or such tours can be arranged in advance by your travel planner.
      May all of your journeys be happy and safe!

George Sellers and his wife Priscilla are Certified Travel Counselors and Accredited Cruise Counselors who own Travel Selections by Priscilla and George, Inc. and the popular travel web site www.sellerstravel.com