Packraft on Walker Lake

Pelicans near the mouth of the Walker River

It is funny how the mind can imagine a perfect trip. Like this one: arrive on the beach of Walker lake with fat bike and packraft. Pedal north to where the Walker River empties into the lake. Paddle across the mouth of the inlet. Pedal south down the east side of the lake. Paddle across the lake. Then complete the loop back to the car on the west shore. Simple, straight forward, idyllic 4th of July in northern Nevada. The mind is a fool.

Riding north on the boulder strewn beach of Walker Lake, perfect conditions for the fat bike

It is hard for the outsider to imagine that except for the water in the Colorado River drainage, water in Nevada stays in Nevada. We are a great basin, there is no drain to the sea. We have some fantastic lakes, sinks, dry lake beds, and quality rivers, streams, and creeks fed by snow melt and springs. Pyramid Lake, Lake Tahoe, and Walker Lake are the biggest pools of blue that standout on the map of Nevada. Water is a scarce commodity under great demand and increased salinity/alkalinity is the price our endorheric lakes pay. Walker Lake is one of such lakes and has intrigued me on all my trips on US 95 between Reno and Las Vegas.

Loading up in the warm morning light, the Wassuk Range

I arrived at 20 Mile Beach in the glow of sunrise. It felt like a southern Sierra sunrise if I had to make the comparison but I don’t. It was a Walker Lake sunrise against the east side of the Wassuk Range. Packing up was easy, the Salsa EXP Series Anything Cradle worked well at carrying my pack raft, life vest, and paddle. Riding north along the boulder strewn beach was ideally suited to my fat bike. Crossing a fence line I was on my way to a grassy flood plain populated with cattle.

Flood plain near the mouth of the Walker River

What I didn’t realize was that flood plain was flooded with a few inches of water. This had created a salt marsh of sorts of muddy pot holes created by the cows’ travels, shud (technical term for shit and mud), and eventually ankle to calf deep water. This mixture was prime breeding ground for a variety of biting flies. I figured I better head for open water!

Time to inflate the raft and head to open water

Standing in shallow water I was able to inflate my raft, disassemble my bike, pack-up and shove off. This was a feat of logistics I wasn’t versed in but may become more common the more experience I have in combining my modes of travel. I navigated little mud bars and paddled into open water, then headed to the mouth of the Walker River. There were a group of pelicans dominating the water bird scene. And then I came to a stand still.

And then there was mud
I abandoned my bike, got the boat secured, then shuttled them to the far shore

The Walker had deposited enough mud at the north end of the lake that I was stuck. With hindsight I should have entered the lake a quarter mile from the mouth of the river for my plan to work without a hitch. But this is all a part of the adventure! Out of the boat I was knee deep in quick mud. Semi-stuck with a ton of effort to keep moving I moved the boat to a section of mud that would keep it trapped then unloaded my bike and made my way to the far side of the river. Then back to retrieve the raft. Keeping my wits and spirits high I was in awe of the little eruptions in the mud, I assumed the effects of trapped gasses produced by microbes in the mud. I waded through small current filled channels including what I assumed was the main one which was waist deep.

A yard sale of muddy gear
Loaded up and ready to ride

On the far side I assessed my muddy bike and my muddy raft. No problems, quality equipment managed the extra grit just fine. I packed up and headed down a rarely used road on the east shore of Walker Lake. One thought was to climb into the Gillis Range and see how the connection to the route I took from Luning to Sand Mountain might look. But I decided I better narrow the scope of this trip just in case another wrench slipped into the gears of my day. Two highlights of this section were seeing the Zebra-tailed lizards rise out of the sand and run off til all I could see was the dust rising from their foot strikes. The other was riding along the mini-dune system at the southern end of this ride. I am enchanted by both playas and sand dunes, lucky for me in Nevada they are found together.

Great little dune system
Road shared with lizards and little else

I picked a spot to cross the lake just above the indefinite boundary for the Hawthorne Army Ammunition Plant. I was navigating to a beach just north of a prominent triangular face where the Wassuk Range came down to US 95. Loading the stacked disassembled bike onto the bow of the raft warrants refining. It needs to be second nature to position the bike to optimize your position in the boat, room for a natural paddle stroke, and keeping anything from dragging in the water. Once on the water you are locked in.

Crossing a placid Walker Lake

The water was beautiful. Crystal clear, I could watch the bottom for quite some time. It tasted like the ocean. Then the illusion of making no progress came over me, what a strange sensation. My progress was slow but there was a time when the shore behind and the shore ahead gave me no clues to my progress. But soon enough I was targeting a beach just to the north of some 4th of July revelers. I arrived on a rocky shore occupied by spiders. I had heard of this but not experienced until now. If someone suffers from arachnophobia I do not recommend this beach.

On the far side, loading up to ride back to my vehicle

As I was packing up, switching from boat to bike a few of the beach locals came over to see what I was doing. There were curious about the bike and boat set up. They told me about the big horn sheep that come down to the lake in mornings. I have yet to see them but I have heard they are common in the Wassuk. I was on my way, I was really hoping the partiers would offer me a beer but I must not have looked thirsty enough.

The effects of agricultural demands for water in Nevada on Walker Lake’s levels through history

Riding along the steep beach proved to be slow. Given the alternative of exiting up to the highway I took it. I road through one of the developed park sites and was entertained by the signs that gave the annual lake levels marking the periods of agricultural development in the Walker River Basin. I have heard if we get 10 or so feet of water in the lake then maybe fish will come back. My fingers are crossed for a few more big winters in the Sierras.

Standing waist deep in the main channel at the mouth of Walker River

By the numbers from the car to entering the lake it was a little over 3 miles. With the shuttling of bike and boat across water and mud there were another 3 miles. The cruise down the east shore of the lake was a little over 6 miles. Paddling across Walker Lake was about 3 miles, and finally a 6 mile pedal back to the car. An oddly unintentional grouping of 3 and 6 mile stints though the efforts were very different. All the pedaling was completely reasonable. The west shore of Walker tends to slope steeply to the water with a variety of sand/gravel types making going a bit more challenging but if forced to stay along the shore would expose you to a wider variety of terrain. The paddling efforts were a distinct challenge that added a welcomed dimension to the adventure.

The Salsa EXP Anything Cradle handlebar harness caries my pack raft flawlessly

I carried my Kokopelli Hornet Lite packraft, life vest, and paddle using the Salsa EXP Anything Cradle. It did not slip or shift from its original position and was clear of cables and front tire. It is an excessive load for it’s intended purpose so I am glad it came through with flying colors. My next big packraft trip will be pedal and paddle through the Black Rock Wilderness via the Quinn River. But there will be other trips in between.

One thought on “Packraft on Walker Lake

  1. Pingback: NevadaGram #219 – IHPV Speed Challenge, | NevadaGram from the Nevada Travel Network

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