“WHAT ARE YOU DOING THIS SUMMER?” The voice belonged to BOATING’s original rambling man and Senior Editor David Seidman. From his tone, I knew he already had the answer: “How would you like to take a Toyota 22′ Epic and a Tundra pickup from L.A. to New York? Find some funky spots along the way, do a lot of boating, and write about it?”
God, I love my job.
Some time later I walked into Toyota headquarters and picked up a small fortune in hardware. Accompanied by my wife, Kris, friends Gary and Selena Holmes, and enough water toys from industry leader O’Brien to while away the summer on the water, our two-car, one-trailer caravan set out in search of America. Not the chichi destinations in glamour-puss travel brochures, but the places you can only discover by getting in your car and hitting the open road. What we gleefully found is something we’re calling BOATING’s America – wacky and wonderful sites best experienced with a boat in tow. From a fish worth a million dollars to a battleship with a bow full of grass, we show you where and how to escape the confines of your local watering hole. So take a cue from our travel journal and get lost with us as we go coast to coast-BOATING-style.
WEEK ONE ****
A Sky Ski, a London Landmark, and Gambling by Water
Ah, California…the possibilities seem endless. Head north from Los Angeles to Pismo Beach and discover the world’s largest clam; south to Venice and find the world’s largest pair of binoculars. The reality, however, is that opportunities for getting out on the water in a 22′ boat are pretty slim. So what do we do? Like many Left Coast natives, we bolt for the smooth water of the Colorado River.
Our destination? Parker, Arizona, home of legendary ski bums Mike Murphy and Mike Mack. Sporting his trademark ponytail, the 50-something Murphy is best known for inventing the Sky Ski, a waterski-like contraption that rides above the water’s surface on a hydrofoil. Mack, meanwhile, operates a ski school and pro shop on the docks of his Arizona Shores Motel. Which is where we find both of them on an early Sunday morning. Only a minor amount of arm twisting is necessary to get them both out on the water. Mack handles the expert driving duties in Parker’s narrow stretch of river, while Murphy leaves us in awe with his bag of tricks. By the time we leave, our crew is equally divided – some want Sky Skis, others want to take over Murphy’s and Mack’s lives.
Our next stop is Lake Havasu City, Arizona, home to the London Bridge. Purchased in 1971 by chainsaw magnate Robert McCulloch and transplanted to the desert southwest, the bridge is now a mecca for partying on weekends. We join the party for the afternoon, but spend the evening gambling in Laughlin, Nevada. An oasis in the desert, Laughlin replaces the asphalt strips of Vegas with the cool Colorado. We check in riverside at Harrah’s Casino, play in the river by day, and gamble away our food expense allowance by night. The best part? Instead of grabbing a taxi to take you to the next casino in town, you can walk to the dock. There you’ll find a fleet of water taxis waiting to whisk you to the next hotel.
Hey, if you’re gonna lose, you might as well enjoy the ride.
Elevated Lakes, The Grand Canyon, and a Million-Dollar Fish
Drifting back into Arizona, we turn our sights on that big hole in the desert, the Grand Canyon. Yeah, we know-most visitors view the Canyon from above,gawking at the breathtaking vistas below. But there’s a river at the bottom, more apropos for BOATING’s America. So we turn down a lonely road and head toward the Temple Bar Marina & Resort – 27 miles away.
Rising out of the seemingly barren desert on beautiful Lake Mead, Temple Bar features a marina, hotel, restaurant, store, and even a post office. Named for the rock formation located across the water, it’s the perfect staging point for visits to either the Hoover Dam or the Canyon. With spare gas and chart in hand, we opt for the Canyon and the wakeboarding and skiing opportunities that abound on the miles of perfect glass we encounter en route. Once within the Canyon boundaries, we alternate between staring up in awe and slathering on yet another layer of sunscreen. By day’s end we’re baked through from the sun and the dry heat that blasts along the Canyon walls. We’re feeling pretty honored to have made the journey, but we definitely could have used a Bimini top.
A day on the road to our next venue gives our sunburns time to fade. Two quick points: One, a Toyota Tundra is quite a comfortable truck. And two, the desert is really dark at night. We make Lake Powell just before white-line fever sets in.
Lake Powell is unlike any other body of water in the country. Most visitors are content to take in the surreal landscape where you feel as if you’re on the moon. We, however, have come for the fish. Less than a month earlier, 220 striped bass had been caught, tagged, and released into this almost otherworldly lake. And one of the little buggers has a tag worth a cool million dollars. We grab an Ugly Stick, bait the hook, and go in search of our fortune.
We troll through the many houseboats anchored in front of beautiful Wahweap Lodge, run to Rainbow Bridge National Monument, and squeeze the Epic into several of Powell’s many slot canyons. Kris and Selena try dangling a few $5 bills as bait, and I do double duty, making casts while taking the obligatory wakeboard runs, but we never snag the finned money machine. Gary, however, pulls up a bright yellow pair of shorts on the anchor, after we pass a very friendly, very naked woman being rowed through Cathedral Canyon.
After that, we kind of forget about the fish. Colorado’s Lake Dillon is next on our itinerary, home to the highest yacht club in the United States. Dillon is a quaint town, nestled among a collection of ski resorts and framed by the snowcapped Rocky Mountains. Its “yacht club” turns out to be no more than a trailer…and for blowboters only. We debate staging a protest from the Epic, but Dillon Marina manager Bob Evans wins us over with an invitation to cruise out on the lake under power and take in the weekend’s regatta. After which we feast at the local food festival.
By the time we cross the Continental Divide, we have over 1,500 clicks on the odometer and have boated at sea level and at 10,600 feet.
WEEK TWO ****
Sunken Ships, Big Loons, Metal Ducks, a Fish “This Big,” and Air Guitar
We begin Week Two by turning north from Colorado and heading toward the plains of South Dakota. We find Wyoming’s best breakfast at the Old Western Saloon in tiny Glendo and catch more than our share of attention hauling the boat to both the Crazy Horse National Monument and Mount Rushmore. The state’s most unique attraction, however, just may be the U.S.S South Dakota Memorial. A life-size outline of the battleship is set into a grassy park, complete with the bridge, gun emplacements, and a small museum. We stop in for a chance to become honorary members in the South Dakota Navy and have to laugh at the stories told by the museum’s curator. The funniest visitor’s comment she’s heard: “Why did you guys decide to bury the ship?”
On to the Midwest.
First observation? Both Minnesota and Wisconsin seem to have developed a sort of “world’s largest” rivalry when it comes to attractions. Minnesota lays claim to the champion ball of twine, prairie chicken, and ear of corn, whereas Wisconsin fires back with the biggest badger and largest six-pack. It’s the loon battle, however, that really has citizens of both states in a frenzy. Minnesota’s entry? A 14′ fiberglass creature gracing the town of Virginia, a bird that beat all comers until Wisconsin, desperate for the media glare that comes with having the world’s largest fiberglass fowl, erected a bigger version in the town of Mercer. Minnesota was left with two choices: Give Wisconsin the bird or rebuild. It chose the latter, floating a whopping 20-footer in Silver Lake.
But be sure about this: Wisconsin has ducks. And not just the feathered variety. Wisconsin has ducks made of metal – amphibious vehicles made famous by the D-Day invasion. Designed to carry troops on land and water, the “ducks” were mostly retired following WWII, but the largest single flock of them make their home in the tourism-rich Wisconsin Dells, where they’re used for sightseeing tours. We launch in the Dells’ Lake Delton, then go duck “hunting” as one bird after another rambles down a dirt road, then splashes into the lake. Judging by the squeals of the children onboard, the metal ducks are more fun than the rubber kind found in the bathtub.
Perhaps the most famous of the Dells’ attractions is Tommy Bartlett’s Thrill Show. Created in 1953 by Bartlett to compete against a “fickle” radio and television industry, the show still runs three times a day during the summer months, entertaining family audiences with an event that’s one-half waterskiing and one-half thrills acts. Though Bartlett organized and ran the operation until his death two years ago at the age of 84, it wasn’t until his 70th birthday that the legend actually learned to ski. His teacher? A visiting Mike Murphy, our Sky Ski friend from Arizona. After attempting all day to get Bartlett up on the water, Murphy popped alongside just in time for the start of the evening show and helped the aging entertainer fulfill his dream. As show driver Joey Lindstrom recalls, “It brought a tear to your eye.” That it does.
Loons, ducks, and ski shows aside, there’s no question who has the biggest fish. That title goes to Hayward, Wisconsin, where we find a leaping muskie half a city block in length and over four stories high. The centerpiece of the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, the huge fiberglass muskie can be seen from over a block away. We play bait by climbing up the stairs leading to the fish’s mouth, then while away an afternoon perusing the surrounding exhibits, including the expansive motor graveyard, home to one of Ralph Evinrude’s first creations. Kind of reminds me of my parents’ boathouse.
Leaving behind the land of fiberglass creations, we drift through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, taking the opportunity to visit three Great Lakes: Superior, Michigan, and Huron. Immortalized in the song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Superior is known as the most treacherous of the trio, making it fitting that the Shipwreck Museum is located along its shores in the small town of Munising.
We briefly debate heading to Oscoda to join in BOATING’s search for Jimmy Hoffa, but ultimately decide to splash the boat and head to Mackinac Island, located just on the Huron side of the infamous Straits of Mackinac. No cars are allowed on the island, making horse-drawn buggies a familiar sight on Main Street. Even UPS delivers by horse-drawn wagon. Walk a half-mile on Main and you get the distinct impression the island’s sole purpose is the production of fudge. The 12 fudge shops within steps of each other make a stroll along this thoroughfare a feast for the olfactory glands. Just watch your step – that might not be chocolate pecan swirl on the street.
Overall tally for the state? Three beautiful lakes, one teamster boss still missing, and a sugar-induced buzz that lasted all the way to Ohio. I blame that sweet tooth for my impromptu air-guitar session outside Cleveland’s Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. For those unfamiliar with the Hall, the coolest part of this $92 million structure is not Elvis’ leather suit or John Lennon’s Lonely Hearts Club uniform, but the fact that the futuristic structure sits along Lake Erie’s shores. We launch at a nearby state park, then motor into the Hall’s small bay, where I promptly crank up the Rolling Stones and play the best air guitar ever seen from a guy balancing precariously atop a boat’s sunpad. Yes, I’m sure it looked and sounded funny, but that’s what they said about rock n’ roll in the early days, too. Ladies and gentleman, Jeff has left Ohio.
WEEK THREE ****
Bright Lights, Big City
Final destination? New York…as in City. As the song goes, New York, New York, it’s a hell of a town – especially when you find yourself towing a 22′ boat behind a four-door pickup in the gridlock around Times Square. I like to say it was all Seidman’s fault, but in reality, I enjoy the looks and stares of normally busy New Yorkers as the pristine Epic bobs against a sea of yellow taxis on Broadway. It’s a great way to end the trip. I try to talk Seidman into letting me waterski around the Statue of Liberty for a finale….Oh well, there’s always next summer.