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Willow Lake Kayaking
May 23, 2023
by Chuck Parsons
group A
Twelve Trailblazers gather at the launch ramp on Willow Lake. [photo by Wayne]
Wayne, Chuck, Lee, Ron, Nancy, Sandy, Norma, Billie, Neil, Scott, Eva, Burt.

On a beautiful sunny morning in late May, twelve Arizona Trailblazers gather for an exploratory kayaking trip on Prescott’s Willow Lake. We’ve hiked around this lake several times over the years but have never kayaked it before, usually because of low water levels. With almost all of Arizona’s lakes now at capacity or near-capacity levels, it’s time at last to kayak Willow Lake. After a quick group picture near the launch ramp, we push off from the lake shore at 9:35 AM--12 kayakers in 10 kayaks, including two tandem kayaks. The temperature is a perfect 74 degrees.

And, we’re off! [photo by Wayne]
Nancy and Ron in their inflatable tandem kayak. [photo by Wayne]
Kayakers are on the move today. [photo by Wayne]

Now, for the first major decision of the day. Which direction do we want to go from the launch ramp? To the left towards the huge granite boulders and interesting rock formations of the Granite Dells? Or to the right towards the tall cottonwood and willow trees, many whose trunks are partially submerged in the water? There’s so much lake to explore today and, as usual, so little time. Billie finally suggests going to the left towards the Granite Dells area first, so we start paddling clockwise in that direction to the east end of the lake.

Sandy in her Oru foldable kayak. [photo by Eva]
Sandy and her cormorant companion. [photo by Eva]
These cormorants are drying their wings in the sun. [photo by Wayne]

At nearly 400 surface acres when full, Willow Lake is several times larger than its sister lake, Watson, at about 70 surface acres. Unfortunately, Willow Lake is also much shallower than Watson Lake, and often during the summer months, as the lake level drops due to evaporation loss and releases for downstream users, much of the lake becomes too shallow to navigate. But today the lake is about 95% full, as seen in the telltale “bathtub ring” at the base of these large granite boulders, pinnacles, and bluffs partially submerged in the water along the Granite Dells area.

Burt, Scott, Lee, and Eva. [photo by Wayne]
Kayakers cruising the scenic Granite Dells. [photo by Wayne]
Paddles up, kayakers! [photo by Wayne]

Willow and Watson Lakes are both located in the spectacular Granite Dells area of Prescott and were created in the early 1900s when the Chino Valley Irrigation District built a dam on Granite Creek. Willow Lake is located in Willow Lake Park, about two miles to the northwest of Watson Lake on the opposite side of Highway 89. One of our kayakers today makes a comment about how great it would be if a connecting waterway could be built beneath Highway 89 between the two lakes. That certainly would be great for us kayakers, but we’ll likely never see that happen.

Ron and Nancy paddle toward the trees. [photo by Eva]
Burt is cruising the shoreline. [photo by Eva]
As the day warms up, these large cottonwood trees provide welcoming shade. [photo by Eva]
Scenic overview of the Granite Dells section of Willow Lake. [photo by Wayne]

As we paddle toward the Granite Dells area, the lake water becomes increasingly filled with dark green algae. Not the thick pea soup type of algae we’ve seen in the past on Watson Lake, where you can’t see anything beneath the surface. But, instead, more like small pea-sized globules of algae suspended throughout the water column. This is evidently a completely different type of algae we’re seeing on the lake today. As summer progresses and the water starts to warm up, large algae blooms gradually turn the water pea soup green.

Chuck and Norma paddle thru cottonwood material floating on the lake surface. [photo by Wayne]
Tall columns of granite line the shore along this section of the Dells. [photo by Wayne]

We’re also paddling through increasing amounts of floating white cottony type of debris on the water surface, before realizing that the cottonwood trees are responsible for this. This is the time of year in the Prescott area when the cottonwood trees are blooming and begin shedding their cottony material, including thousands of small clumps of seeds which float on the lake’s surface. When the wind starts blowing through the high cottonwood canopy, the trees begin shedding heavily and the material starts coming down so fast that it almost appears to be snowing. As we continue paddling, this material begins covering certain areas of the lake, while other parts of the lake away from the trees remain clear of both cottonwood debris and algae.

Scott in a straight jacket. [photo by Wayne]

After spending some time paddling throughout the Granite Dells, we start thinking about finding a good shady area to pull in, stretch our legs for a while, and break for lunch. But first we come across an inviting tall cottonwood tree and gather beneath its canopy for the cooling shade that it offers, as the day starts to warm up. Intermittent cooling breezes offer relief from the sun, but when the breeze stops we warm up fast. It’s about 11:20 when we finally locate a large grove of cottonwood and willow trees lining a section of the lake shore and beach our ten kayaks for a relaxing lunch/snack break in the shade.

This Great Blue Heron starts to lift off from its rocky perch. [photo by Wayne]
Neil and Billie appear to be having fun on the lake today. [photo by Wayne]
Chuck and Norma are still cruising along. [photo by Eva]
Scott and Burt pause for a quick break from paddling. [photo by Eva]

Lunch break over (that was fast!), we pile back into our waiting kayaks for Kayaking--Round II. The plan is to paddle over to the far opposite end of the lake and slowly paddle around among the partially submerged cottonwood and willow trees, taking full advantage of the abundant shade they provide. But somehow the group manages to drift apart, with kayakers going off in different directions. Only about half the group ends up making it to the trees, while the other half is off exploring parts unknown or perhaps even heading back to the launch area.

Trailblazers scout out a potential lunch stop. [photo by Eva]
We pull into shore for a lunch/snack break. [photo by Wayne]
Mallards are using this shaded rocky perch as their launching point. [photo by Wayne]

But it all works out in the end, and all kayakers are present and accounted for. This end of the lake is so unique to Arizona. How many places in this state can a person kayak among a forest of hundreds of partially submerged trees, especially a forest of towering cottonwood and willow trees? Except for the different species of trees, this is a scene straight out of the swamps of Louisiana’s famed bayou country. But this “swamp” is only ephemeral, and as the lake’s water level invariably drops over the summer, all of these trees are left high and dry once again.

Colorful Coenagrion Damselflies gather on this plant. [photo by Wayne]
We gather in the cooling shade beneath this tall cottonwood. [photo by Wayne]

On such a beautiful day, it’s really surprising that we’re about the only people on the lake today, other than the lone fisherman who took our group picture earlier in the day and a few others on the launch ramp as we pull in for the day. A definite advantage to kayaking during the middle of the week. By 1:30 in the afternoon we all arrive safe and sound back at the launch ramp and start loading up for the drive back home. It’s been a perfect day for kayaking and exploring one of Arizona’s most scenic lakes. We’ll definitely return for more kayaking on Willow Lake.

This smallmouth bass is cruising the shallows. [photo by Wayne]
This American Coot is in its element. [photo by Wayne]
We’re heading for the tall trees at the opposite end of the lake. [photo by Wayne]
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updated June 29, 2023