Story by Dave Shively
Photos by David Jackson

Presented by

When most people think of Las Vegas, a paddling adventure is about the last thing that comes to mind. And by "paddling adventure," I mean a real on-water wilderness paddling experience, rooted in real rocks, real air and real water — no fountain shows, no pirate-ship pyrotechnics, and no faux Venetian gondoliers.

Reality and reconnecting with the natural world can be good things. I've learned as much working for the last eight years as an editor at Canoe & Kayak, where we cannot state one idea enough: The best way to experience a place is from the water. So when I thought of Las Vegas, my mind drifted just east to the water in the Colorado River and the Black Canyon section that I'd only heard about from fellow paddlers.

And I also could not think of a major airport other than McCarran International with year-round access to a worthy desert paddling trip. So when Expedia partnered with C&K to capture a series of Carry-on Adventures, we figured, 'Vegas, baby!' The goal of the series is simple: adventures to go, rediscovering popular travel destinations by landing and launching as light and fast of a paddling escape as possible. There could be no better place to find an unlikely paddling adventure than in the driest desert in North America.

We found out fast that connecting with the natural side of Las Vegas is easier said than done. The buzz began before the wheels hit the tarmac. Fellow airline passengers stirred in mixed conversation as we caught sight of the Strip. Anticipation peaked for all the excited plans hatching to celebrate the triple-whammy of the next three days: the beginning of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, spring break and St. Patrick's Day.

Adventure photographer David Jackson got caught up in the arrival fervor, coming off a month of wet and rugged winter backpacking in British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands. Vegas visitors entering the alternate universe of conditioned air and LED lights are often already mentally prepared for strange sights. Still, many were not fully prepped to see a 6-foot-5 backwoods Canadian filming and juggling gear as we grabbed our folding Oru kayaks spinning on the carousel. The on-looking questions came rapid-fire: "You're paddling?" "Those are kayaks?" "Are you sure?"

First stop: Luxor Hotel and Casino. Online deals lead us 28 floors up the fake pyramid with our packed boat parcels in tow. Through the stream of faces, the bustle and barrage of questions — which only mounted from curious casino security guards — slowed down as we finally stared out our locked hotel window down onto the grid of lights in the middle of the desert. The AC hummed as our distracted, overly stimulated brains settled on a single thought: We need out.

We left the double-thick shades open, woke up with the sun, scrambled free from the pyramid and started our short drive off the Strip. After assembling our kayaks, we connected with Desert Adventures, one of the permitted outfitters that paddlers must use to launch from the limited-access security zone at the Hoover Dam. Gazing 700 feet up the wall of concrete, we realized how the dam represented the last unnatural sight of our trip.

Landing in camp ...

Landing in camp

Finding some shade

Finding some shade …

exploring side caves

… and exploring caves as the canyon walls narrowed.

OK, maybe this river isn't entirely real, I thought as we slid beyond the looming shadow of the dam wedged into the canyon. I'd never been on a desert river with water this clear. Instead of silty chocolate milk, we glanced nearly 40 feet down to the river bottom. We reveled in the sight of our own shadows in the two kayaks sliding over the green surface, all the St. Patrick's Day celebration we needed. Enveloped in the silence of the canyon, we keyed into different types of entertainment: the flap of a duck on the glassy surface, or the cool shade of side-canyon brush to hang some Kammok hammocks and beat the mid-day heat.

When we finally pulled up onto an empty gravel beach, we made our own all-you-can-eat buffet mess of couscous, veggies, pre-cooked chicken, and expired sriracha over a camp-stove. The only light was the waxing half-moon over a sheet-glass river, and offline and out of cell range, the only entertainment was sharing stories around a crackling fire.

Waking up still disconnected from the world, I felt more plugged into myself than ever. No email inbox, no concerns, only having to deal with a fresh cup of coffee. Nothing was on the schedule except exploring the canyon: climbing up the side-canyons to hot-spring pools, jumping off cliffs, and of course, taking it slow and easy. Hitting the takeout ramp, packing up the boats, and loading them back into a car, I took a deep breath and felt sore shoulders from two days well spent.

I'd been to Vegas before, and I'd had my share of debauchery. And yet I'd never left feeling this good.