This is a repost of a trip report from 2006. I thought I’d put it up on this blog to dissuade any crazy minivan pilots from attempting a similar stunt. You’ve been warned!
January, 2006 – Apache Lake
Since the boys and I had successfully navigated Roosevelt Lake (meaning we managed to sail some and not sink, get dismasted, blow up the boat, or get hopelessly lost, and that we returned home with the same Boy Count we started with), I decided that for #1 Daughter’s first voyage we’d try a different lake.
There were a number of considerations in choosing the next lake—Driving distance, lake size, possibility of wind, and likelihood of such vermin as jet skis. Lake Pleasant (I mentally refer to it as Lake Unpleasant due to the great number of jet skis and bass boats during the summer) was out because it’s way the heck out on the other side of Phoenix and the return trip was certain to involve huge traffic jams due to the traditional lets-wreck-out-car-on-the-only-road-heading-into-phoenix scenarios that seems to be the case nearly every Sunday on I-17.
Bartlett Lake looked like it was polluted with big powerboats and Felicidade would not fit in too well with the beer-and -bimbos crowd that seemed to favor that scene. Plus the lake was way out on the North side of Scottsdale.
Saguaro lake had potential, but looked kind of small. Canyon Lake sounded interesting, but I had heard the wind was not particularly good there, and it appeared kind of narrow. We could motor around exploring the canyons, but I wanted to sail, dangit, not exercise the outboard motor.
That left Apache lake. According to the www.Recreation.gov website:
“Formed by Horse Mesa Dam, Apache Lake is long and narrow and is the second largest Salt River Project lake. It is located off the Apache Trail (Highway 88) about 65 miles from Phoenix, and is a favorite with many sportsmen, particularly those from southern Arizona. The Apache Lake Marina and Resort is one mile from the main highway and features a motel, gas station, coffee shop, picnic supplies and a trailer park for 12 units. A boat ramp and dock are at the resort, and a county sheriff’s aid station is nearby. The Three Bar Wildlife Area is just across the lake from the resort and provides a scenic spot for photographers. Seven miles northeast of the resort is the Burnt Corral Recreation Site with 17 spaces for trailers which are less than 17 feet long. The area is open all year and has boat launching facilities. Game fish in Apache Lake include walleye, largemouth and smallmouth bass, red ear sunfish, bluegill, channel catfish and crappie.
There are two ways of getting here. Take the Apache Trail for 18 miles from Apache Junction past Canyon Lake to Tortilla Flat. Another 15 miles, some of which is unpaved brings you to your destination. Or, if you’re coming from Globe, take Highway 88 northwest about 35 miles to Roosevelt Dam, then turn south along the Apache Trail (still Highway 88) about five miles to Apache Lake.”
That didn’t sound too bad. 18 miles from Apache Junction? Some of it dirt road? Well, we live on a dirt road. This is a highway (Hwy 88—it said so on the map!). How bad can it be? A lot of the Alaska highway was dirt, and that doesn’t slow down the RVs any.
On the map it looked like a pretty good sized lake. The website, www.apachelake.com, showed what looked like a real marina, a restaurant, and even a resort hotel on the lake. Very nice.
An SRP (Salt River Project– They made the lake) website talked about the dam itself:
“Horse Mesa Dam, located on Apache Lake, is named for nearby Horse Mesa, where thieves sometimes hid stolen herds. The dam was constructed between 1924-27. It is 300 feet high and 660 feet long. It has three conventional hydroelectric generating units rated at a total of 32,000 kW and one pumped storage hydroelectric unit added in 1972 and rated at 97,000 kW.”
Sounded interesting, and relatively easy to get to. In retrospect I should probably have scrutinized the map a little closer. The little red highway line looks rather squiggly when viewed closely, a clue that it may be a tad more challenging than the breezy travel descriptions provided by the tourism websites. But I get ahead of myself.
The trip out
#1 Daughter and I set off for Apache lake on Saturday morning and soon found ourselves in Apache Junction, where we turned right at Hwy 88. The road was smooth pavement, curvy and swoopy, which was a nice change from the rectilinear monotony of most of the valley’s roads. This isn’t so bad! I was enjoying the drive and looking forward to a quick trip out to the lake.
A few miles later, the road narrowed a bit. Not a problem, it was still a nice paved road. We began climbing some gentle grades. A few miles after that, we came to a one-lane bridge. Huh? I thought this was a highway! What kind of stupid highway has one-lane bridges? “Highway 88” was starting to look more like Podunk County Road #12A with each passing mile. Still, we pressed on. Soon we got our first look at Canyon Lake off to the left. It looked small. A couple of miles after this we passed through the crusty-looking flyspeck town of Tortilla Flat which was busily extracting dollars from what appeared to be a large flock of snowbirds. After creeping through the 200-foot long downtown of Tortilla Flat, we continued on our way.
The road narrowed some more, and began climbing in earnest. Still not worried. We had to slow down, but life was good. Then we came to a sign– “Dirt Road ahead”. Okay. I slowed down a bit and we plowed on over the dirt road. “hwy 88” which, as dirt roads go, was pretty nice. The next sign warned that trucks over 40 feet were not allowed on hwy 88. As we passed this I was wondering how long the minivan and Felicidade were. Forty feet? I hoped not. I kept up a cheerful face for #1 Daughter—“We’ll be there in about 30 minutes,” I said. Silly Captain Dad.
Fish Creek Hill
Well, the nice dirt road began to narrow and twist, and the first washboards began appearing as the grade steepened. A few miles later we were in full mountain goat mode, creeping along a periodically single-lane dirt road that was switch-backing up a precipitous canyon wall. Yikes! Now I was worried. Every turn was a blind corner, and there were no guardrails or anything to prevent what would (hopefully) be a mercifully rapid descent to oblivion at the bottom of the canyon. We moved along cautiously as the road twisted and turned, nervously looking down at the distant bottom of the gorge to our left. Two or three cars passed us in the opposite direction, their drivers looking stunned, knuckles white on the steering wheel, with a what-the-hell-was-I-thinking expression on their faces. I imagine I had pretty much the same expression.
The worst part came as we descended into a deep canyon. About halfway down, a huge pickup truck appeared coming up from the opposite direction. I got as far to the right as I could, fearing that I was about remodel Felicidade’s starboard rub rail on the cliff beside the road. The pickup inched past us, thankfully on the precipice side, getting as close as he could to the trailer. We managed to squeeze past each other with no damage to anything but our respective nerves.
I found out later that the part of the road which was so gnarly is called “Fish Creek Hill”. It is apparently infamous, being a 15-17% grade that drops 1000 feet in less than a mile, into the bowels of Fish Creek Canyon.Four-wheelers evidently love it; minivan pilots, towing a fat sail boat, not so much.
A USDA Forest Service website had this to say:
“The scenic byway (with numerous sharp curves and narrow stretches of road) is safe to all but the reckless driver. Traffic is moderately heavy on weekends, less on weekdays. Pulling trailers of any type over this road is strongly discouraged.
A significant part of the byway is unpaved, and is normally suitable for passenger cars. Keep to the right. DRIVE CAREFULLY AT ALL TIMES.
At Fish Creek Hill (Milepost 222.5), the road is primarily one-way (with turnouts), climaxing in a 1,000-foot drop in elevation over a 15-17 percent grade, hugging the bronze bluffs.
For closer viewing and photo-taking, please stop at the vista points where there is safe parking. DON’T look while driving! The road is safe but one must pay close attention to twists, blind-turns, and oncoming vehicles.
Prepare yourself for a most unusual experience: some of the most spectacular scenery to be seen in all of the West.”
Unusual experience, my poop deck. How about a life-threatening experience? Twists, blind-turns, and oncoming vehicles; Ya think? How about the grim reaper leering down at you as you fearfully inch down the precipice, trailer sailer in tow? How about preparing yourself for a few new gray hairs? And that spectacular scenery? Yeah, right. Any fish in Fish Creek probably died long ago from terror as the minivans came crashing down the canyon into the creek. Puh-lease.
Arrival at the marina
Following that harrowing experience, the so-called highway flattened and widened, and we made good progress towards Apache Lake. After driving what felt like halfway to New Mexico, we finally came to the turn off for the marina. Woohoo! We had survived! The rest was, going to be a piece of cake.
We could see the facilities below as we made the turn—Way down below, it seemed to me. The 1-mile road to the marina was very step and sandy in parts, which gave me reason to worry that we might have trouble pulling the boat back up. Minivan = front wheel drive, boat = 1900 lbs, steep, sandy dirt road, you get the picture. Nonetheless we arrived at the launch ramp without too much fuss. #1 Daughter & I went inside the resort, which was pretty much empty, though nice in appearance. Hmm. Could the Highway Of Doom have anything to do with the sparse occupancy? We made our way to the launch ramp, where I called The Wife and announced our safe arrival, omitting the details of our journey along Death Highway 88.
The launch ramp was interesting, being composed of deep concrete troughs. While #1 Daughter explored the area, I rigged the boat up. The only other boats there were a couple of huge Pontoon things which had apparently just pulled out of the lake. While rigging the main sail I discovered I had forgotten the battens. I worried about this for a few moments and then decided that it probably wasn’t going to make a difference, considering my skill level and the relatively light winds (4 – 8 knots).
In about 30 minutes we were ready to launch. I put #1 Daughter on the boat and backed down the launch ramp… and down, and down, and down. The stupid ramp seemed to take forever, as it descended between two concrete walls. At the water’s edge the walls soared 10 feet above the water level. What kind !of screwy launch ramp was this? I felt like I was locking through the Panama Canal! Once I got Felicidade into the water, I had #1 Daughter alert me when the boat was floating. I had to back in pretty far before the boat would float off the bunks; the minivan was pretty close to floating as well. #1 Daughter was thrilled by all this excitement; I was rehearsing the apology I was going to give Sweetie for launching her car into Apache Lake. None too soon, the boat reluctantly lifted off the bunks.
I climbed onboard, fired up the engine, and backed us off the trailer. About this time I realized that there were no docks visible nearby. How was I supposed to tie up and get the minivan out of the lake? We motored slowly around the huge concrete wall and finally I spotted some docks across from the fueling area, right around the corner.
As we approached the docks, I realized that I had not yet rigged the dock lines and fenders. Bad sailor! Feeling slightly embarrassed, I quickly darted below and fetched the fenders and dock lines, and while #1 Daughter steered us in while I got them rigged. . As we approached the dock I saw signs telling us these were private docks and there was a $10.00 fee to use them. Well screw that, I thought. and we tied up at the first outside dock. I figured I was only going to be there long enough pull the trailer up and park it. We made the dock without any mishap and tied up
I admonished #1 Daughter to stay put and not fall into the lake, and went back to the minivan. As I pulled the trailer out, the front tires spun pretty good before slowly grabbing on, and for a panicked moment I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to pull the trailer out. The ramp was pretty steep, and covered with wet sand. But we finally got moving, much to my relief. After I parked the car, I quickly walked back to the boat, freaking out now at the thought of pulling the boat up the ramp. If I had trouble pulling the empty trailer, it was going to a problem getting the boat up the ramp!. Now I had another thing to worry about in addition to (a) the road from the marina to hwy 88, and (b) hwy 88. This was turning out to be more nerve-wracking than a flipping typhoon, fer cryin out loud.
Sailing at last
Back at the boat, we put the daggerboard down and shipped the rudder. We started the outboard and cast off for #1 Daughter’s first sail at 1530 in a nice breeze of between 4 -8 knots. While #1 Daughter steered us into the wind I put up the main, unrolled the genoa, and killed the outboard. We were sailing!
I was impressed by how well #1 Daughter handled the boat. She has a great touch—Steers just enough to stay on course without overcorrecting. She had no problem with the concept of using a tiller and always managed to turn in the right direction. Cool! We sailed West on a starboard tack while I explained to #1 Daughter how to pick a spot on ahead to steer for, how to feel the wind, and what tacking was all about.
As we beat to the Northwest, I used the wind gauge and measured the breeze. 4 knots steady, with occasional puffs to 6 -8. When the puffs hit, Felicidade put her shoulder down and accelerated nicely. It was great, even though it only happened a couple of times. I was very pleased with how the boat was performing—the helm was close to neutral (I guess remembering to tighten the backstay paid off on this sail!) and the boat happily performed all required maneuvers with little fuss. It was fun to heel over a little bit in the gusts, though the first time it happened #1 Daughter & I did pucker up just a bit. But Felicidade sailed like a dream. What a great little boat.
We seemed to average between 3.0 and 3.6 knots. I had forgotten to zero out the GPS so I don’t know what out actual max and average speeds were under sail, but the boat seemed to move along very well in the light airs. I think we even topped 4 knots a couple of times. In any case, Felicidade felt like she was sailing great and we were having a blast.
By 1615 we were SW of Bass Point. The sailing was fun, but we weren’t really getting anywhere very quickly. I wanted to make better progress towards an anchorage, likely spots being 1 – 2 miles ahead. #1 Daughter agreed, so I reluctantly started the outboard, rolled up the genoa and dropped the main.
In search of an anchorage
The first anchorage we approached was where Indian Wash joined the lake. It was a narrow little cove with a deep V at the head where the wash (supposedly) ran. I liked it because it was sheltered from the westerly wind, but as we motored in slowly the lead line told me it was staying pretty deep despite the narrowing cove. #1 Daughter steered and managed the motor while I threw the lead line and fretted. About 100 feet from the head of the cove, we sounded 24 feet. I dropped the anchor and let out about 60 feet of rode, then had #1 Daughter put the outboard in neutral while I waited to see how we’d swing.
We slowly spun around the anchor, coming uncomfortably close to a couple of large boulders. I knew if I let out any more rode we’d get too close to the rocks. All the way up the cove, it looked like we could squeeze in to the narrow part of the wash, which I briefly thought about trying. I decided against it because the sides of the wash looked pretty rocky and I wasn’t sure I could keep the boat centered in it. Plus I’d have to blow up the raft to tie up, and I didn’t really feel like screwing around with the raft just yet. Reluctantly, I decided to seek a better anchorage. I pulled the anchor up, piling the rode on the deck, and #1 Daughter steered us West out of the cove.
Almost due West across the lake was a bight with something called Hermit’s Cave. According to the chart it looked like the bottom was flat and only 10 feet deep. That sounded like a good spot for me except from where we were, motoring out of Indian Wash, it looked like the cliffs ran right to the water’s edge, and it was exposed to the wind which was blowing from the NW. It was about 2/3 mile across the lake to investigate. On the other hand, half a mile to the NW was Ash Creek, which while somewhat small appeared like it might make a good anchorage. I opted to head us up to Ash Creek. If that didn’t work out then we’d be at a better position to look at the Hermit’s cave area through the binoculars, and if all else failed there were all kinds of coves and bights further to the NW.
In a few minutes #1 Daughter had us slowly Pottering into Ash creek. It was a wide bowl of a cove with a nice little beach at the head, surrounded by saguaro cactuses. To our port was a sandbar (well, maybe more like a gravel bar) that the chart didn’t show—We gave it a wide berth. #1 Daughter expertly steered us into the center of the cove and I dropped the anchor in about 20 feet of water. We put the motor in neutral and waited to see what the anchor did as the breeze swung us around. After a few minutes I let out 110’ of rode, as much as I dared to with the rocks all around us, and killed the motor.
This looked like a pretty good spot. I stood there admiring the scenery for a while, letting the stress of the last few hours roll off.
Life at anchor
“Don’t tell me you forgot a pan to cook the ramen in, Dad,” came #1 Daughter’s accusing voice from below, interrupting my reverie. Doh! I had a checklist, but somehow forgot to follow the stupid thing. #1 Daughter gave me one of those looks familiar to any male who has ever been married, but I was the Intrepid El Capitan, and would figure something out.
Salvation arrived in the form of the fruit cocktail I had brought for dessert. We opened it up, and ate the fruit cocktail. Next I removed the paper label from the can and rinsed it in the lake. I used some of my stainless steel rigging safety wire to make a grate to set the can on over the stove burner, and in a few minutes we had boiling water for ramen. Crude, but effective.
After dinner we amused ourselves by playing Poker, Millbourne, and Mancala. #1 Daughter creamed Captain Dad, showing insufficient regard for my lofty stature. I pledged to make her walk the plank come daylight. She reminded me that Mom would make me walk the plank if I did that. We thus arrived at an amiable truce and turned in for the night after a story.
During the night, I slept better than I had on the Roosevelt Lake trip with the boys. I woke up at 2300, and took the opportunity to pop my head out of the hatch an survey the surroundings. Everything seemed to be in order. There was no moon, but the bathtub ring around the lake glowed eerily in the darkness. The wind had died down, and the water no longer had any chop. Felicidade was sitting peacefully at anchor. I checked on #1 Daughter who was burrowed deep into the quarterberth. I went back below and climbed into my sleeping bag.
The next morning I woke up about 0630. I climbed stiffly out of the sleeping bag and fired up the propane heater. Shortly thereafter #1 Daughter woke up. We had breakfast and played Millbourne again as the sun illuminated the cliffs around us.
Around 0815 we got underway. I had to haul on the anchor pretty good to pull it up, and when it came to the surface there was a large glob of grey-white mud on it. When I took sailing lessons on Lake Pleasant a few years ago, the instructor had complained that anchoring was not very good in AZ lakes. Twice now I’d anchored and things were fine. Maybe it depends on how neurotic one is about picking the perfect spot. I was trying really hard to pick what looked like flat bottom anchorages on the theory that there would be fewer boulders to mess things up. So far so good!
We fired up the Iron Jenny and headed East out of Ash Creek. As we motored into the lake, my cell phone had no reception (it was so bad that the phone didn’t even attempt to connect, and instead entered “power saving mode.”), and I knew The Wife would want to hear that we survived the night. So the first thing we needed to do was go back to the marina and use the phone. The wind was very light, and it would have taken us forever to get to the marina, so we powered on instead of sailing.
It took us about 20 minutes to make the marina. As we approached, I noticed there was another launch ramp to the East of where we had put in. We cruised past it and checked it out—It looked like a much flatter, and less sandy, ramp than the other one. With relief I resolved to pull Felicidade out from that ramp, and leave the other ramp to the pontoon boats. While checking out the new ramp I spotted a small dock next to the fuel docks.
We tied Felicidade up to the small dock, and hiked up the hill to the resort. While #1 Daughter wandered the gift shop I interrogated the lady manning the front desk about the condition of the road from here to Roosevelt Lake. No way I was going to drive back up Fish Creek Hill! The woman was very helpful and told me that the road to Roosevelt Lake was wider and better that the way we had come. That made me feel much better! I mused aloud that nobody was likely to be pulling those big old honking pontoon boats over that nasty road. The woman said that what most people with the big pontoon boats did was put in just below Roosevelt Dam, and float down to the marina.
We checked in with The Wife, and headed back to the boat. The wind had come up while we putzed in the resort, so we got underway and set sail. We ran dead downwind to the West at about 1.6 – 2.2 knots. I performed a couple of jibes, which the boat accomplished without any fuss. It was nice to be able to push the boom across—A bonus for having a small, light boat! After a while I set the whisker pole, and we ran wing-to-wing down the lake. It was great sailing. Felicidade handled great on a run, and it was very quiet and peaceful.
#1 Daughter amused herself by tying Barbie to the roller furling line and trailing her behind the boat. Barbie gets Keelhauled!
While we sailed I took some bearings off of the various bluffs and headlands and plotted our position, getting my navigator jollies. I used the Iris 50 hockey puck and the KVH to shoot the bearings. Both instruments worked well, except the contrast on the KVH was not very dark. Since I had calibrated the KHV to work with my glasses, I preferred to shoot the bearings with that. When using the hockey puck I had to take my glasses off before shooting the bearing, which was a pain.
About 40 minutes later we were abeam of our anchorage at Ash creek, in the center of the lake. As we sailed by we spotted a bass boat anchored there. I was hoping to make it further down the lake under sail to see what lay around the next bend, but right about then the wind died. We flopped about for a while before I gave up and started the motor. Before we got moving I shot a fix, then plotted a course to Hermit’s cave, which turned out to be 210 degrees, more or less. I did this because I couldn’t see anything resembling a cave from where we were, and wanted to go direct to the cave as opposed to running up and down the shoreline under power searching for it.
I steered a course of 210 degrees towards the cliffs on the SW side of the lake. In about 8 minutes we came up to a small cut in the cliff. Just above the bathtub ring was a small cave with what appeared to be wood covering the bottom half. Felicidade slowly pottered into the cut for a closer look. #1 Daughter wanted to get real close, but I started getting nervous because of the confined space. Plus if there was an actual hermit in there, being Arizona he was probably pretty well armed. Before we got too deep in the cut I reversed the motor and backed us out.
Back to the trailer
It was getting late, so we steamed back to the marina. We tied up again at the small dock, where I raised the centerboard, unshipped the rudder, and got Felicidade ready to pull out. I walked to the minivan and backed it down the new ramp. When I stepped out of the car, with the trailer in the water up to the correct depth, my bare feet were slipping and sliding on the brown algae. I could barely stand, and ended up hanging on to the driver’s door, which closed (gently) on my fingers. I felt pretty stupid hanging there by my fingers, feet sliding around, barely upright. Somehow I managed to make it to dry concrete without going swimming.
Back at the boat, all of a sudden the wind picked up, this time blowing a solid 7 knots, of course directly across the boat ramp. Oh great. NOW there’s wind. My second ever retrieval, and a veritable hurricane of a crosswind! When I was a pilot I relished crosswind landings, but I had a feeling this was going to be a challenge.
Nonetheless, we fired up the outboard and got going into the windy lake. When we cast off from the dock I forgot to let go of the stern line until the boat had warped herself backwards around the end of the dock. No harm done, but I felt pretty stupid. I was holding the stern line firmly and wondering why the boat was doing what it was doing. Duhhh. I hope I quit doing these kinds of things as I gain experience!
Anyway, we approached the trailer. I knew I had to head into the wind, and I did so, until I turned into the trailer. At this point I discovered how a Potter P19 handles without daggerboard or rudder! In a word, she floats like a piece of Styrofoam, skittering sideways all over the place. Needless to say My first approach had to be aborted. We backed out and circled around for another shot. This time I got Felicidade in between the guideposts, albeit at a good angle. But we were close enough for me to go monkey off the pulpit to attach the trailer winch, which I did, standing on the 6 inches or so of water covering the trailer frame.
#1 Daughter got the boat centered by pulling on the guides as I winched away, and in a few moments we were all set. I gingerly stepped off the trailer into the brown algae, but this time I was wearing shoes and had no problem, to my relief. I felt I had already made enough of a spectacle of myself without falling into the lake.
We pulled the boat out without difficulty and parked above the ramp. I rigged the mast-raising tackle and disconnected the forestay. Heading aft, I heard a ping! And the mast began to slowly topple aft. The tackle had disconnected from the gin pole, and the mast fell free as I watched in horror. It bounced off the hatch several times before I got hold of it and put it in the cradle. Fortunately the massive bludgeon missed the daughter, though her tender ears did learn a few new words from Captain Dad.
The boom vang u-shackle attached to the lower part of the mast had punched a neat square hole in the forward edge of the hatch. Other than that, there didn’t appear to be any damage, other than to my nerves.
I retrieved the twist shackle that had been holding the tackle to the gin pole, and it was open but appeared undamaged. I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that it had twisted somehow which caused it to open under load. Alas. I guess now I get to learn fiberglass repair! Could have been worse.
Once I regained my composure, I got the boat secured for trailering, and we got moving. The road from the resort back up to so-called-highway 88 was, as I had feared, pretty bad. I put the minivan in low gear and kept my speed up. A couple of times we lost steerage way and the car began skittering sideways, but by using the entire road I managed to get us up to the top.
Once on hwy 88 we made good time traveling 12 miles to Roosevelt dam. #1 Daughter was impressed by the dam, and I pointed out where the boys and I had anchored on the last trip.
The trip home was uneventful. Another successful voyage for Felicidade! And this time it only took about 6 bottles of 2-buck Chuck to get myself calmed down enough for the next road trip.