Paddling Trip To Navajo Lake

by Phil Rowe

Today, my 65th birthday, began delightfully in Albuquerque. Around 9:00 A.M. I finished loading my little car and was ready for a camping trip in cooler climes, specifically southern Colorado and Navajo Lake, along the border with New Mexico. Primitive style camping is not my wife's thing, so I was on my own. Navajo Lake .. here I come.

This was the first time that I carried my 17' fiberglass touring sea kayak atop that Geo Prizm sedan. In the past I'd park it on the shell of my old Ford pickup truck, but the truck was sold last Fall. Now I had to see how the clamp-on gutter-mounted carrier worked, and if it presented any driving problems. I needn't have worried, for the boat rode as smooth as silk up there, but then I had it so well tied down that it couldn't budge in any direction. Me cautious? You bet!

My route from Albuquerque took me up NM-44 to the turn-off, just past Cuba and the Continental Divide, to the Jicarilla Apache tribal capital of Dulce, New Mexico. That territory is beautiful, and getting moreso every mile you get closer to the Colorado border. The hills are covered with Pinon pine and Juniper, plus lots of sagebrush. To the north the snow-capped Colorado mountains present a magnificent skyline backdrop to the nearby hills, cliffs and rolling back country.

Just short of Dulce, I detoured to take a peek at Stone Lake (also Stony Lake?) depicted on my road map. It's pretty, though small. Conversations with a fellow camped along the shore revealed that the little lake is a good fishing hole. It's stocked with trout and managed by the tribal fish and game authorities. My informant told me that the Indians had been chasing away small boaters, especially canoeists, since a recent accident that cost two folks their lives. With that bit of advice, I pressed on toward my original destination.

From Dulce, a little town with a big gambling casino ( typical of reservation activities in this region), I drove east on US-64 to the US-84 turn-off that would take me to Pagosa Springs, Colorado. The drive in that 8000' mountainous country is beautiful. The weather couldn't have been better either, temperatures in the low 70's(F) and the air crystal clear. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride. In Pagosa Springs I topped off my fuel tank, for I knew not whether I could find gas in the remoter parts of Colorado near the lake. The map doesn't show much in the way of towns there.

Then I drove west along US-160 some 20 miles to the CO-151 turnoff that would get me to the lake's eastern tip. The lake is within the Southern Ute Indian reservation. A hamlet called Arboles is marked, next to a symbol for a camping area and that was my object. It turned out that the camping area is part of a Colorado State Park. I stopped at the little Visitors' Center and paid my $8.00 a day (for two days). That included car permit and camping fee in the undeveloped area. They have two campgrounds, one improved and one not. I chose the primitive one as I was merely tenting and didn't need the bells and whistles preferred by RV-ers. I can say that as a long-time RV-er, with a long history of trailers dragged behind me for 30+ years.

Map of northern third of Navajo Lake

Anyway, I was most pleased with the general appearance of the park, the courteous and friendly officials, and most especially the beauty of the area. This place is neat and not at all crowded in early June.

The unimproved camping area is across the upper end of the lake from the Visitors' Center, so I back-tracked a couple of miles to the County Road #500 turnoff. About two miles along that gravel road there is a sign pointing the unimproved lakeside camping area. I'd made it. And to my delight and surprise I had the whole campground to myself. That meant I could choose any site I wanted.

I selected a small bluff not far from the water's edge, a site with several Juniper and pine trees that would protect my tent from strong winds and provide some welcome shade. Yet the spot was also handy to a dirt trail leading down to the water. The winds were dead calm and the lake smooth as glass as I parked the car and walked about my chosen site to decide where to put the tent, position the car and get about the task of setting up camp.

It was warm, with late-afternoon temperatures in the upper 80's. In the stillness some pesky flies and a few mosquitoes began to buzz around. I was glad that I elected to bring the tent rather than merely placing my folding cot under the lean-to shade awning.

I'd no sooner gotten the tent set up and rigged my shade canopy to one side of the car when a pickup truck drove onto the dirt road turn-off to my site. Apparently somebody else knew that this was the best one. Heh heh. I got there first. He backed out and drove over to the other side of our small peninsula.

Navajo Lake is about 35 miles long, its eastern quarter is in Colorado. The dam which forms the lake and most of the northeast-southwest extending waters are in New Mexico. I've visited the lower end in times past, but it cannot compare in beauty to the Colorado end. Both states have parks and campgrounds along the shores. The upper end is nestled in the mountains, many still snow-capped this time of the year, and the New Mexico side features sage covered hills with a few Pinons and Juniper. I'd made the right choice.

The waters are pretty brown this early in the season, when snowmelt from the high country fills streams and much silt is dragged down to the lake by rushing torrents. By late summer the waters clear up quite a bit, though you wouldn't want to drink it. There are too many old mines in the hills with tailings full of heavy metals and other junk to pollute the water. Several large streams keep the lake full, forming the water supply for much of the Ute and Navajo tribal areas and the cities of Farmington, Bloomfield and Aztec New Mexico. The area below the lake is becoming quite an agricultural center. This is also a mecca for fishermen, boaters and campers. It's a year-round attraction.

I decided to wait until the cool of the morning to paddle. It seemed like a good idea to sit back, take it easy in the shade and drink a cool beverage. Ah yes, this is the life.

Last night I awoke at about midnight. A sudden breeze shook my tent a bit and nature called. As I stepped out into the darkness I was greeted by a sky so bright and clear, so full of stars, it took my breath away. You sure don't see night-time skies like that in towns or cities. I quickly made a mental note of some of the navigational guideposts I'd used in the past. There they were. Up north was Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) and its lip star (Dubhe) pointed me to the Little Dipper and the North Star. To the south was Scorpio and it's clearly-defined scorpion-like shape. I took it all in in pure amazement. Such a clear, brilliant sky. Wow! I almost forgot why I got out of bed.

It really cooled off in the night, making it necessary to crawl into my warm sleeping bag. While a sheet alone had been enough when I turned in, more covering was needed after midnight. It was 6:30 when I arose, with rays of sunlight pouring through my window netting. What a glorious morning. My choice of waiting until morning was a good one. At sunrise the temperature was in the low 50's and the breezes didn't seem too bad.

The winds kicked up after midnight, coming from the northeast. I was now ready for some serious kayaking. It was another terrific day. So after a quick breakfast of cold cereal and some instant coffee, I rolled my trusty vessel down to the water. I have a small two-wheeled dolly to make such portages easy. It works even over rough, rutted dirt and gravel roads.

I donned my life jacket, changed moccasins for water shoes, and stowed my gear. My camera was important, for who knows what scenery might demand a snapshot. I had a bottle of drinking water, a good sunshade hat and a new tube of protective sunscreen lotion. I was ready. In just a few moments I was aboard that sleek sea kayak and gliding out into the lake. Ah yes, this is what it's all about.

Last evening and again in the morning I'd observed dozens of fish jumping, some coming clear out of the water. Many were good sized too, running one to two pounds in size I judged. The lake is known to have trout, bass, crappie and some catfish. I later learned that there are also pike as well. No wonder fishermen find the place so attractive. In the first ten minutes of paddling I was soon in the midst of many jumping fish. They were apparently feeding off low-flying bugs, though with the stiffening breeze that puzzled me. I saw no bugs.

I headed into the wind and traveled toward the north end where a major stream fills the lake. Then I turned downwind and found the job much easier. I always seem to paddle into stiff breezes that make it tougher. Puff puff.

Soon I was a couple of miles down the lake, paralleling the northwestern shore. I usually stay not far from the shore, preferring not to be beyond the distance I'm prepared to swim, should my kayak turn turtle on me. I've inadvertently rolled several canoes in the past, but have yet to turn over my kayak. They really are more stable, because your center of gravity is much lower than sitting on a raised canoe seat or kneeling to paddle.

After almost two hours, and I travel at about three miles per hour, I reached a cove extending northward. There in that cove was a marina. It looked inviting so I paddled in. And within that sheltered region the winds suddenly died off. Now it was easy. Quickly my thoughts turned to coffee. Ah yes, real coffee would be good. Much better than that instant stuff I gulped down back at camp.

The marina has a large concrete boat ramp. At the water's edge are two parallel floating docks, one to either side of the ramp. A variety of boats were tied up. Some were pontoon houseboats. Others were fiberglass day cruisers and a few speedboats. The majority were outboard-powered fishing boats, many rentals are available for visitors. One dock featured a bait and tackle shop and a gas pump. I headed over that way first, to inquire about the availability of coffee.

"Up the ramp, mister. There's coffee at the little cafe, " responded the fellow dipping bait minnows out of a galvanized tank for a waiting customer.I elected to beach my boat off to the side, away from the concrete ramp and traffic. Several vehicles were taking turns backing down to the water with boats atop trailers being driven into the waters to disgorge their heavy cargo. There must have been half a dozen or more in the process of launching boats.

I secured my little insignificant vessel and doffed my life jacket. Then I walked up the ramp toward the cafe and that now-essential cup of real coffee. The cafe-cum-gift-shop is a clean little place. There are but two inside tables and two more on a wooden deck. Three women seemed to be running things. When I asked if they had "real" coffee, one lady laughed and suggested that I must be a camper. She knew. I lingered, sipping my coffee, for about 20 minutes.

Down at the dock I chatted with several fellows getting ready to go fishing. They'd never seen a sea kayak before, only the smaller white-water kind. They seemed intrigued by my strange craft, commenting on the deck-mounted compass and the rudder mounted aft. I explained about the different types of kayaks, adding that I was more interested in touring and exploring than rushing down white-water streams and dashing into rocks.

Soon I was ready to continue paddling. I headed back down the cove toward the main body of the lake. And just as I rounded that spit of land to my left, into the unsheltered open water, the winds really became apparent. I would be facing very stiff breezes, winds strong enough to make white-caps and waves now approaching 12" to 18" high. I realized that it would be all uphill back to the campground.

I elected to head straight into the wind and the waves. Every now and then a big wave would come right over the bow of my bobbing craft. I was never in any danger, but I preferred to take the waves close to head-on, just to be safe. The three miles or so back to a position abeam of the campground was hard work. By the time I came about and made the last half mile with a following wind, I was pooped. Hey, this is great fun, but it can also be hard work. Me and headwinds are old friends.

The experience of paddling Navajo Lake was well worth the drive. The scenery is really magnificent. By the time that I made it back to that little inlet, where I'd launched earlier, I was fatigued, hot and sweaty. My shoulders hurt a little and I was just about to get a few hand blisters, but I was having a ball. Great fun. Who says this old guy is 65? What's in a number?

I'm definitely coming back to Navajo Lake to do this again. A neighbor friend, Mike, is about finished building his own kayak and we'll have to bring it up here to try it out. Few places I've been are more inviting. And it surprises me that there weren't more folks camping here. I am not disappointed, for having the place practically to myself is great. Maybe they just haven't discovered what Colorado has to offer down here near the New Mexico border. So don't tell 'em. Okay?

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