Editor’s note: Thanks to Rebekah Kakuk and Robert Kendall for being my travel buddies and helping with the photos.
Sometimes we deviate from sea kayaking and wander into the desert. As Tsunami Ranger Capt. Jim Kakuk heads off to Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada and the smoke from thousands of acres of burning forest rises from the Rogue Valley my mind drifts back to my annual pilgrimage to the hot springs of Eastern Oregon: Spring Waters 2015. And yes, there’s kayaking involved.
This was my fourth tour in the Alvord Desert. The first time I didn’t bring a kayak. The next three times I did, because there’s water in that there desert. One of the most astonishing things to me about deserts is how they actually have quite a bit of water. In fact, they have all the water they need. Man is the one always wanting more.
In the desert, the very lack of water makes every tank, wash, river, creek, pool, lake, reservoir and spring significant. Water is always on one’s mind. Do I have enough? How can I conserve? Where/when can I get more? Is it drinkable? Is my pee clear? And there are kayaking opportunities in the desert. Naturally we think of the Colorado River, and others of that ilk. But there are smaller, more secret opportunities if you’re interested in what you might call the Huckleberry Finn approach to water travel. That’s my kind of desert kayaking.
The first time I went to the Alvord, I discovered Borax Lake. At Borax Lake crystal clear mineral water comes up at 10,000 gallons per minute from two sources forming a lake of roughly 9 acres. A wide swath of built-up tufa around the edges of the lake makes entering a bit challenging. This is why I wanted a kayak – to get past the tufa and out onto the lake so I could look down at the sources. Also, it just seemed really cool to take a sea kayak out on a giant hot lake in the middle of a desert. To check out some really hot water, click on the video link below.
This year I got my wish. In April, Rebekah, Robert, and I drove to Borax Lake and Robert and I schlepped the Tsunami X-O to the edge. It’s about a quarter mile or so hike through soft tufa. We took turns paddling out. Taking my trusty pool thermometer, I checked the water temperature: 92 degrees. The water at Borax allegedly issues from the source at 103 degrees, but you never can tell with undeveloped hot springs. Later, we tried to soak in a pool we used last year, but at 114 degrees it was too hot. Temperatures vary. In fact, we were told that the water at Borax periodically comes up in a big superheated belch that could scald you in seconds. Oh, and did I mention that the lake and the surrounding pools are full of arsenic that will kill you if swallowed?
I’m not sure if the rumor about the superheated belches is true, but it’s certainly possible, and the upwelling water created a spooky blue eye in the center of the lake. I was the first to paddle out, and let me tell you, it gave me the heebie-jeebies. I have heard of people swimming in the lake, and part of me wanted to jump in and swim around in the clear, warm water. But when I looked down, all I could see was the water growing darker and darker as it disappeared into the depths, and some bubbles on the surface to indicate the sources.
I’m no coward, but the thought of paddling over that big, blue eye set me back a bit. I reminded myself that my friends were on shore (yeah, a lot of good that’d do if a superheated upwelling occurred or some crazy, giant monster rose up from the depths of the earth. Balrog!!!) I hovered nervously around the little bubbles bursting on the water’s surface and then paddled vigorously toward the shallows. Once I could see the bottom again, I relaxed and started to explore. There were ducks floating (alive) near the edge at one end, and I found a place where the bottom was solid with some kind of porous rock that would allow a would-be swimmer access to the lake without having to sink knee-deep in powdered tufa.
It was really beautiful out on the lake. The longer I stayed, the more comfortable I felt. I still don’t fancy swimming there, although if I could go in with other people I might be willing. But those stories of scalding water just made me not want to do it, and neither did Rebekah or Robert. So after we took some photos and we each took our turn paddling, we sauntered off in search of a hot pool to soak in.
Using the pool thermometer, we located a nice little glory hole just about right for three. (This one’s tooooo hot. This one’s tooooo cold!)
We spent some time soaking, hidden in the tall grass, looking up at the big, beautiful desert sky, watching Cloud TV. Then we went back to camp. Another great day with a sea kayak in the desert!
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