Weekend Escape: Colorado River : Rumble in the Desert : Riding Seadoos, or Motorized Water Bikes, May Not Be 'Environmental,' but It's Fun

TIMES STAFF WRITER

I feel such guilt for what I'm about to write, please allow me to ease in slowly.

We're swimming in an isolated lagoon, the tranquillity of which is intensified by a surrounding fringe of hostile rock pinnacles.

The water is cold here in this sheltered offshoot of Topock Gorge, on the lower Colorado River. But since the air temperature will hit 125 Fahrenheit today, that's hardly a deterrent.

My wife, Pam, floats dreamily, absorbing the chill.

Our 8-year-old daughter, Ashley, stands in sopping tennis shoes on a narrow ledge, baking pleasantly and mustering nerve.

When it finally comes, her leap is a joyous arc of energy connecting the blue sky and calm green water. When her freckled face pops up, grinning, our ad hoc congregation--three couples from as many generations, two college women, and two guides--clap and cheer.

Then the dazzling quietude again embraces us.

So far, so good, right?

Yeah. But it's not the setting that has my conscience simpering. It's how we got here.

When I mentioned our plans to my friend Jane--who, earlier this summer, rafted the Tuolumne River and wrote about it for this newspaper--she hit me with a look of withering contempt and walked away.

I told my friend Robert, whose family was about to commune with nature spirits at Mt. Shasta. "You're disgusting," he said.

I'm sorry if I'm a bit defensive, but listen: My family's been low-impact nature-blissing from Zion to the north coast redwoods, Yosemite to Joshua Tree this year. So it's not that I don't understand Jane and Robert's green wienie-ism--I can get environmentally sanctimonious myself, sometimes.

In fact, as our group starts punching starter buttons, I murmur mea culpas for the gurgling rumble that disrupts this peaceful sanctuary.

But then we're back on the river and-- errrrrRRRRRREEEEEE-- my contrition disintegrates with the gleeful storm of water blasting from our river rocket's roostertail.

*

The trip to test my environmentalist soul begins with an ad for an unusual package deal: two nights at Harrah's Del Rio casino hotel in Laughlin, Nev., and a five-hour tour of the Colorado River on a Seadoo "personal watercraft"--an updated, sit-down, high-horsepower version of the Jet-Ski.

Our Friday-night sprint across the desert delivers us to Harrah's a few hours ahead of dawn. Pam and I immediately decide that the casino's carefully orchestrated, 24-hour fiesta atmosphere is an insidious plot to lure responsibility-addled baby boomers and their children into gambling's sinful web.

With its neon-lit Club La Bamba and Margaritaville bar facing out on an ersatz, air-conditioned, indoor village plaza; with its bright and balmy Henri Rousseau as-adapted-by Jimmy Buffett Hawaiian-shirt color scheme and murals; with its wandering mariachis and P.A. that booms decent rock n' roll, the place is clearly supposed to remind aging gringos of wild nights at Hussong's or carefree days at some beach-front bar in Cabo.

And, subliminally at least, the sanitized insanity does connect with our repressed, pre-familial bacchanalian instincts in a way Vegas never could. So, juggling care of our 8-, 6-, and 3-year-old children, Pam and I do make hurried individual attempts to squander their college fund on foolish games of chance.

But, like the swarms of other families here, we spend far more of our time sloshing about in the hotel's two too-warm riverfront pools and too-cool Jacuzzis, and trotting the kids down to the wonderfully frigid river, where we swim and build sand castles (and endure the flatulent roar and stench of jet boats) on the casino strip's only sandy beach.

*

On Sunday morning, we leave our younger children with my sister, who has arrived with her own kids, and make the half-hour drive downriver to Needles for the Seadoo tour.

Pam and I have envisioned two worrisome scenarios: either a slipshod fiasco run by sun-stupified yahoos, or that our guide will be a control-obsessed misanthrope who delights in running roughshod over his herd of uppity "city folk."

We're still jittery as our group wades into the water at the launch site and, following a mercifully brief introductory spiel, climbs onto the bobbing Seadoos--one driver per craft, one or two hangers-on--and ease into the fast-flowing river.

Stan Jablonski, a 37-year-old, Los Angeles area accountant who started this company two years ago, takes up the rear, waving an orange warning flag over his head; his assistant, Rob, roars ahead, leading the way.

Eco-concern about noise and gas use aside, these sleek and stable craft are a futuristic dream-come-true to anyone who read Tom Swift as a kid. Used incautiously, however, they're dangerous, and doctors in the area's emergency rooms report increasing injuries and even fatalities, especially in the more crowded parts of the river back near Laughlin.

But Jablonski maintains a healthy thrill-to-caution ratio. He's also pleasantly flexible, letting the group's whims determine rest stops and side tours, even as the advertised 5-hour trip stretches to more than seven.

Before we had children, Pam and I canoed this same stretch of the Colorado. Paddling, we found, is a good test of and metaphor for balance in a relationship. So is this.

"Slow down! You're following too close," Pam nags, as I drive, with Ashley sitting before me, her head barely clearing the thickly padded handlebars. Then Pam and I switch, and I echo: "Watch over there! Look out for the boat!"

Gradually, though, we re-establish faith in each others' competence, and enjoy the ride.

At lunch, on a shady swatch of grass overlooking Lake Havasu's London Bridge, Jablonski's attention to detail reveals itself. In the front "trunk" of each Seadoo, along with bottled water, he has packed an insulated cooler and an ice-chest, color-coordinated to match the purple, magenta and jade of the Seadoos and life jackets. With a cornucopia of sandwiches, juices, sodas, chips and junk-food desserts spread out on our beach towel, Ashley announces, sincerely, "This is the best lunch I've ever had."

On the way downriver, we dawdle, exploring small coves and racing through narrow channels flanked by acres of hypnotically rippling reeds.

Then, with me riding solo on one of the smaller Seadoos, the group guns it.

The gorge, like a coda to the Grand Canyon 200 miles upriver, sizzles past, a channel of sheer slabs backed by distant peaks, all sunbaked to the dark earth tones of burnt chocolate brownies

People reflexively call these Seadoos "bikes," because the feeling they convey is of a motorcycle on water.

But when Stan or Rob pulls ahead to hotdog, they make their vehicles buck and lunge, spin gracefully, and rear back, reminding me of what a skilled rider can do on a feisty stallion: Pegasus, perhaps.

Inspired, I break from the group and push my water scooter into tighter and tighter turns at faster and faster speeds, relishing the shifting G-forces and the way the scalding, down-canyon wind laps at my face like flames. Trying a move I've seen our guides perform, I crank the handlebars hard one way then the other.

As anticipated, the Seadoo pirouettes on the water like a dancing Lipizzaner--throwing me head over heels, hard into the river. Jablonski's only reaction is a grin.

For the rest of the 36-mile return trip, we roar. Sometimes Pam and Ashley pace me on the larger Seadoo, smiling and waving. Other times I shoot ahead and skitter ecstatically at 45 m.p.h. over waves kicked up by bigger boats, bloom-bloom-bloom !

The next day, as we swarm into the elevator in Harrah's parking garage, I notice two posters.

One is a grim public service ad for Gamblers Anonymous.

But it's the other, an ad for the "personal watercraft" Harrah's rents, that fires my pulse and makes my thumb twitch spasmodically.

On the ride home across the desert, with the highway hissing under our tires like an asphalt river, I wonder if there's a toll-free number for compulsive Seadooers.

Watercraft Adventures, reservations and information, including details of package arrangements at Harrah's; tel. (805) 499-9948. Tours run through October .

Budget for Family of Five Two nights at Harrah's Del Rio and Seadoo tour $458 Dinner for two at hotel's William Fisk's Steakhouse $95 Meals with kids at hotel's buffet, coffee shop, Mexican restaurant, snack bar, and a few poolside margaritas $140 Gas and gas station junk food $57 Mass quantities of sunscreen $6 FINAL TAB $756

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