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Takin’ Ahoy Ride

Dapper dressers, these mountains.

Deep brown shirt, white slacks, tres stylish. … Or for those not prone to equate nature with fashion, try this:

“Sometimes people will ask me what that white line is out there (below) the mountain and I say, ‘Well, every summer the Boy Scouts in Boulder City come out and get merit badges for painting it white,’ ” says deck hand Tom Adams aboard the Desert Princess as it paddles around what’s known, with a noticeable lack of poetry, as Lake Mead’s bathtub ring. “They don’t always buy that.”

He’s yanking your anchor chain, mate. That’s the water line, the stark demarcation between the mountains above — gorgeous as they roll by, looking like they’re dusted with chocolate — and the sun-bleached rock wall below, once submerged before drought depleted the lake by nearly 115 feet over the past five years.

That’s an alarming reality revealed on the relaxing ride aboard the Princess, on a leisurely midday glide as one of the Lake Mead Cruises.

“You get onboard the boat, leave the driving to us, it’s a much smoother ride than Greyhound will ever do,” says cruise line sales manager Ginny Gottfredson, eager to float some business in a sinking economy.

“We’re one of the best-kept secrets in town, and we’re anxiously seeking locals to come out. Some people think there’s no water in the lake, but there’s a lot of water in the lake. You can see quite a variety of water fowl, you might look up and see the blue heron with their 6-foot wing span, which can skim about 18 inches off the water. And people look for mountain sheep. Their little feet are like Velcro, and they go up and down the mountain.”

The sights, both on and offshore, include chugging by Hoover Dam on the Desert Princess and her little sis, the Desert Princess Too. They’re the twin-ship fleet for an extensive package of tours for breakfast, lunch and a mid-lake dinner-dance — “adults come to that to escape their children,” Gottfredson quips — or the daily afternoon excursions departing at noon and 2 p.m. from the Lake Mead Cruises Landing, accommodating up to 300 passengers.

“We have everyone from babes in arms to seniors in walkers,” Gottfredson says, noting that both boats comply with U.S. Coast Guard regulations for the disabled on passenger vessels. “The midday tours offer drinks and a snack bar — we have a remarkably good hamburger.”

This reporter can vouch for that.

On a noon outing, piped-in Dixieland jazz greets sightseers boarding the senior Princess as it departs port, leaving the marina and the slowly rocking barges behind. Ensconced in his wheelhouse atop the bow, “Captain Roger” Ellis responds to a radio request from shore. “Captain, captain, when you get a chance, make a sharp turn to starboard.” Captain Roger gradually shifts the helm rightward.

“If I have to work, this is a good job,” he says, navigating the glassy surface rippling out before him in a soothing, blue-green tableau. “I mean, look at my office.”

Back at the stern, passenger Jim Bullock sits contentedly alone, behind the massive, rotating red paddlewheel gently churning up sprays of water as Bullock gazes at the diminishing shoreline. “You’re out of the sun back here,” he says. “You get the breeze on your face, the mist off the paddles, how can you not enjoy that?”

You can’t. Around the corner comes one of the “Love Boat”-friendly crew, cocktail waitress Vicki Post-Painter — she prefers Vicki P. — delivering a pink concoction called a Lake Mead Lemonade to this reporter. (No boozin’ while cruisin’. This story is not being reported in an alcoholic stupor.)

Beyond fetching refreshments, Vicki is a talkative tour guide. “I try to let people know not just about the beauty but the facts,” she says, her bubbly observations complementing a recorded narration of lake history. “This is an awesome lake, what it does with electricity and our water supply and all the recreation, the mountains, the sheep, the wildlife. And people won’t get a chance to see this much of the dam when the water levels go up, and they will.”

Passengers congregate in the enclosed, window-lined decks, sprinkled with tables where they consume snack-bar fare and beverages, the latter mixed by garrulous bartender — make that “social chemist” — Tina Quarry. “You meet so many people from all over the world,” she says. “It’s like Disney World in here.”

On the outdoor promenade, other tour-goers unwind to the vessel’s calm, steady rhythms while seated on blue plastic chairs, which on this summer scorcher really heat the ol’ heinie. Soon, Hoover Dam swings into view. “We saw the movie ‘Vegas Vacation’ years ago, so at least we knew Hoover Dam was here, and we wanted to make sure we saw it,” says Steve Harrison, visiting from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with his wife, Theresa, on their inaugural Vegas vacation. “We didn’t come here for the casinos because we have children with us,” she says. “No gambling, so this is wonderful.”

Deckhand Tom, at 80, is the onboard kidder, handing out a business card with “Retired” stamped on it. “People ask questions you wouldn’t believe,” he says. ” ‘Is it saltwater or is it freshwater?’ It’s a lake! Or, ‘What did they do with all the dirt when they dug it out?’ And I have to explain that they didn’t dig nothing out. It’s amusing, but I like it.”

Dirt isn’t the only thing never lifted from Lake Mead. “People ask about wrecks out here,” says boat manager Tony Musso as the Princess doubles back for its return ride. “There’s a B-52 bomber at the bottom of the lake, there’s a Cessna, and there have been about 7,000 boat wrecks over the history of the park, at least that’s what a ranger told me.”

Ninety minutes after its departure, the Desert Princess paddles into port, just as this reporter finishes off that surprisingly tasty burger.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256.

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