A couple of weekends ago, my brother George and I went out on a dress rehearsal of camping overnight on the boat with something approaching all the gear and plunder we expect to be carrying when we put the boat in the water in Montana. The place we chose was the Blue Mesa Reservoir, on the Gunnison River in western Colorado. I had gone by that body of water many times over the years, on car and motorcycle expeditions into the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, my favorite part of the state. I had enjoyed the scenery along the lake and wanted someday to camp by it, never expecting to be camping ON the reservoir.
Blue Mesa is the centerpiece of the Curecanti National Recreation Area. It is the largest body of water in the state, some twenty miles long with about 100 miles of shoreline. The Gunnison valley is “high desert”, which means very little moisture, and the water supplying the lake is coming out of the surrounding mountains. It also means there is practically not a tree in sight, closer than on those mountains. It also means, according to a friend who went to college in Gunnison, it is one of the coldest places on the planet in winter.
But we happened to choose a very sunny and mild May weekend for our outing. We hauled the boat over the mountains from Denver Friday afternoon, during which transit I had time to remember the value of having a good checklist for any expedition. Forgot my sleeping bag. So, we did a Walmart fly-by in Salida and I chose a lighter-duty (30-50 degree) bag, thinking that would be right for the eventual nights on the Missouri River. The next morning I did a Walmart fly-by in Gunnison because I forgot my water bottle. Lists are good, even if your brain hasn’t started ossifying. Friday evening we landed in a motel in Gunnison and went out foraging. Happily we ran into a just-fine Mexican restaurant with good food, beer and live music, so it made for a good start to the trip.
Saturday we made our way to the lake, had the boat inspected for undesirable life forms (the parks folks are making a valiant attempt to keep Zebra Mussels and the like from taking over all the state’s lakes), and launched mid-morning. We cruised up the lake to the marina and got some gas, just to be on the safe side, and just took in the scenery.
We had lunch (standard river sandwich fare) on the boat, while demonstrating that we had no skill in getting an anchor to catch on the lake bottom, but didn’t drag the anchor quite all the way to shore. Then we got to work navigating.
A word about that. The boat has a very nice GPS/Depth Finder, which will be critical on the river trip for keeping us from getting lost or running aground. It is already my best buddy, even though I’ve customized three propellers while getting serious about the depth finder function. Slow learner. The first 1200 miles of the river trip will involve picking our way down through a half-dozen unmaintained Missouri River stretches between reservoirs that will no doubt prove the value of both GPS and depth finder functions. So, in preparation for that, brother George is plotting waypoints along the best-guess main channel through these stretches, on Google Earth satellite imagery. And to rehearse that concept, he plotted waypoints all around Blue Mesa and downloaded the images onto a chip/card that could be inserted into the boat’s GPS unit. So then we could practice navigating.
I found this most entertaining. We would reach one waypoint on the display, punch a button to “GoTo” the next one, and it would draw a line which we would then follow. I understand that airplanes follow such a line, marked by radio signals, to a destination. So we chased around the lake, finding occasionally that the waypoint was up on the shore, because the water is lower than when the satellite image was recorded. And we found that you can’t always just follow the line because it will take you over islands and such. It was a good afternoon’s activity. The important thing is that we know that we will be able to go to Montana armed with course plots that can be displayed on the boat’s GPS, which will no doubt help keep us out of trouble there.
Later on we made our way down the lake into the rising wind and chop, but the boat was very stable going through the waves. But this was child’s play compared to what we might well encounter on a windy day in the huge reservoirs in the plains.
Late in the afternoon we made our way up into a narrow arm of the lake with no other boats around, and after a few tries managed to anchor the boat fore and aft (to keep it from swinging around one anchor). We zipped the side curtains on, set up chairs, broke out chips and dip, put on some tunes, and surveyed the scene. What we were in was a pretty livable room (a good thing, as I will be spending most evenings and nights in it for 10-11 weeks).
A bit later we set up the roll table and broke out the cooking gear and cooked and ate a fine pasta supper. That operation and washing dishes was all very manageable, given that George and his wife Nan had outfitted us with very complete kitchen equipment. A very important consideration we recognized was that opening the side curtains around that area and having good cross-ventilation is prudent. It would be silly to blow up the boat and ourselves while lighting the Coleman stove. And, in mosquito-plagued river moorings it will be very nice to cook inside the screened-in tent rather than outside it. I am undertaking further research about exactly where and how the boat’s under-deck gas tank vents. Warmer weather this summer will encourage more venting and, well, you know.
We set up the bunks – mine on a narrow bed across the boat made up using the opposing bench seats, and George’s on a pump-up mattress on the deck in back. Neither was satisfactory. My cushions were very hard and through the endless wee hours I really missed my zero-degree sleeping bag. George’s mattress, because there wasn’t really room to fully inflate its wide expanse, pooched out to the sides and left his buns pretty much on the cold aluminum deck. Right above the cold gas tank. Right above the cold lake.
But it was a quiet night and we awoke to a beautiful calm, sunny morning. We hauled anchor, motored across to the area of the take-out, and tied off in a slip for a leisurely breakfast. Life is good. There was a fishing tournament going on, and we had a chance to chat with some fishermen while wrapping things up. We recovered the boat onto the trailer (I’m getting to where I can do that without too much embarrassment), secured everything, and headed for home.
We are now very close to this show’s “opening night”, but we feel that the dress rehearsal was very valuable. I’ve outfitted us with good Therma-rest pads, and a number of other arrangements have been tweaked. All gear of any value will be stowed in heavy-duty Rubbermaid totes, which will be padlocked and secured to the boat by cable. That is so some undesirable visiting while we are uptown somewhere in a café will need bolt-cutters to take very much. I am installing a real sound system in the boat, so tunes will be properly delivered all summer. George is pulling together food and iced coolers for the first leg of the trip. I am making lists, buying stuff, and filling my garage with enough gear and supplies to, well, sink a battleship. Very soon I will cram it all onto my little twenty foot fishing boat, put on the cover, and head for Montana.