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Gila Coptering

Following the Gila River by helicopter from Arizona to its headwaters in New Mexico takes you thousands of years back in time.

By Elan Head

Photos by Aron Whitesell

 

Viewed from the skies south of Phoenix, the Sonoran Desert stretches for miles in a pale brown-and-blue panorama that is as blank and mysterious as a hand-drawn map.

Above the flat desert floor, the razor-sharp ridges of isolated mountain ranges rise in endless succession down to Mexico — the Estrellas, the Picachos, the Santa Catalinas — delineating the broad valleys that the first Spanish padres trudged through in search of souls to save and golden cities to plunder. This is where the Apaches once roamed, and where a vanished civilization built a slowly dissolving monument to celestial mysteries.

Suddenly, my light, two-person helicopter loses power and begins a 1,500-foot-per-minute plunge to the surface. Don't you hate it when that happens?

In my single year of flight instructing, I've ridden along for hundreds, possibly thousands, of self-inflicted autorotations — a pilot's safe way to the ground when her helicopter loses its will to fly.

In an autorotation, the rotor system is disengaged from the engine and spins freely as it descends through the air. It's the neat trick that allows a helicopter to land virtually anywhere in an emergency, but it takes a lot of practice to master. Perhaps half of a pilot's training is in preparation for the engine failure that may never happen.

Once a student gets comfortable with the procedure, his instructor will start cutting the throttle on him unexpectedly. Eventually, he will be able to react quickly and competently (eventually).

One blistering summer day, I'm practicing throttle chops with a student south of the Santan Mountains when I realize that the broad, waterless floodplain below us — what we refer to on the radio as "the wash" — is none other than the Gila River, the watercourse that drains virtually all of western New Mexico and eastern Arizona and that is so strikingly verdant at its headwaters, where I grew up. I wonder briefly where all the water has gone. Then I tell my student to watch his RPMs.

 

The word "Gila" comes from the Yuma Indian word hahquahssael, "salty water running." (The last syllable of that word is pronounced "eel"; tack on an "a" to accommodate the Spanish tongue, and you have the name that today is pronounced "HEE-la.") From its headwaters in the Mogollon Mountains of New Mexico, to the point near Yuma, Ariz., where it drains into the Colorado River, the Gila River is 630 miles long. It traces a circuitous westerly route across two aeronautical charts, the Phoenix and Albuquerque sectionals.

Before the Salt River Project dammed and diverted its flows, the Salt River drained into the Gila southwest of Phoenix, very close to the present-day Phoenix International Raceway. The Santa Cruz Wash, extending north from Tucson through the Gila River Indian Reservation, joins the Gila around the same place. From the air, the fingers of these drainages manifest themselves as subtle shadings of mauve and green. If you're lucky, you'll see the wild horses that roam the reservation, but more often you'll only see their hoof prints, crisscrossing the sand of the dry Gila riverbed.

At one time, the Gila was a wide, lazy river through this section, a lush riparian area that supported the Pima and Maricopa Indians and, before them, the mysterious Hohokam (whose civilization disappeared in the early 15th century). The Pima Indians used the Gila to irrigate bean, maize and squash crops; evidence suggests the Hohokam did the same. The elaborate canal system established by the Hohokam between 300 BC and AD 1400 was the inspiration for the Salt River Project and the irrigation of modern Phoenix.

The Gila was never a deep river, and attempts in the 1800s to navigate it proved mostly futile. Still, it was — and is — prone to spectacular floods. In July and August 2006, monsoon storms caused disaster-level flooding throughout the Gila River Indian Community (and throughout Pima and Pinal counties upstream). Chocolate-colored water raged across the vast floodplain, inundating riverbed quarries that, one year later, are still ad hoc lakes. In the cockpit, we call the largest one "Lake Ready-mix."

 

Instrument training is the supremely challenging process by which a pilot learns how to fly a helicopter (or airplane) without looking outside, generally with the view-limiting assistance of a floppy plastic visor. From my student's perspective, the AYZUT waypoint is five green letters on the GPS screen and a checklist of obligations he's probably forgetting: headings to turn to, buttons to push, radio calls to make. Out my window, however, I can see that AYZUT also corresponds closely to the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, and — 3,000 feet below — to the "great house" itself, just visible beneath its sheltering canopy.

One of the most significant archaeological ruins in the Southwest, the Casa Grande is a four-story anomaly in a valley whose pre-Columbian inhabitants (like its current ones) tended to build flat. It's made from caliche, a hard soil rich in calcium carbonate that is used in Portland cement. According to most estimates, the Hohokam built Casa Grande around AD 1300, apparently by "puddling" caliche with water and packing it up in courses. They reinforced the structure with beams cut from ponderosa pine, juniper and fir, which were either floated down the Gila or carried by hand for 50 miles or more.

The function of Casa Grande has been the source of considerable speculation. Was it a watchtower? A silo? A temple? A duplex? Located on the south bank of the Gila River (just outside the present-day town of Coolidge, Ariz.), Casa Grande would have afforded a sweeping view of the surrounding valley and its extensive network of canals. More intriguingly, a carefully placed opening in its upper wall coincides with the position of the sun at the summer solstice, suggesting that eyes in Casa Grande were watching the skies 700 years before the skies were watching back.

The celebrated Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino was the first European to record Casa Grande's existence, which, by the time he passed through in 1694, had long since been abandoned. In his book The Gila: River of the Southwest, Edwin Corle describes Kino as "the pioneer, trail blazer, father confessor, dictator, geographer, cartographer, altruist, architect and cattle king of the Gila watershed." From 1687 until his death in 1711, Kino covered more ground in New Spain's northern frontier — "Pimeria Alta" — than any man before or since. He founded more than two dozen missions in those expansive flat valleys of the Sonoran Desert, including his most famous one, the Mission San Xavier del Bac near Tucson.

At Casa Grande, Kino was only the first of many tourists to come. Over the course of two centuries, souvenir-seekers chipped away at the ruin as inexorably as the wind and rain that were slowly melting its walls. In 1892 it was declared the nation's first archaeological preserve; in 1903, a makeshift roof was erected to shelter it from the elements. Its current steel canopy went up in 1932, and this is what I see from the air every time I'm over AYZUT.

 

You notice a lot from the air that you don't from the ground, but sometimes your speculations are off. Case in point: "F Mountain."

F Mountain is a rocky hill just outside Florence, Ariz., on the north bank of the Gila River floodplain. Its real name is Poston Butte, but I call it "F Mountain" because of the whitewashed rocks that spell "F" on its southern exposure.

For months I assumed that the masonry pyramid at the summit of F Mountain was a monument to the Class of '87 at Florence High. (Go, Gophers!) In fact, it's the fire temple and final resting place of Charles D. Poston: prospector, poet, politician and Parsee.

In his diverse career, Poston was a surveyor, a miner and the alcade, or mayor, of Tubac, Ariz. Known as the "father of Arizona," he campaigned almost single-handedly to establish Arizona as its own territory, separate from New Mexico. After the territories were divided in 1863, Poston became Arizona's first delegate to Congress. Later he visited India, where he became a Zoroastrian.

Returning to Florence, Poston invested his own money in the construction of a road and Zoroastrian fire temple on the butte he called "Parsee Hill" (and his neighbors called "Poston's Folly"). This was where he wanted to be buried, but when he died in 1902, his body wound up in a Phoenix cemetery. In 1925, his remains were relocated to Parsee Hill in accordance with his original wishes.

Parsee Hill. Who knew?

 

You don't have to travel far up the Gila to find water — it appears just past Florence, where the last of the Gila's flow is diverted into canals. Today I'm taking a Robinson R-44 helicopter up the river with Neil Jones, the owner of Quantum Helicopters, and Aron Whitesell, a photographer and one of my former students. Just east of Florence, we pass between the twin buttes called North Butte and South Butte. Here the character of the Gila changes dramatically, and not just because it's actually wet. Rugged mountains squeeze the listless desert stream into a lively river that tumbles through deep canyons. Five centuries after the first adventurer from Spain crossed its banks, most of the Gila is still challengingly remote.

Actually, that Spanish explorer was an African slave named Estevanico. In 1538 and 1539, Estevanico followed the San Pedro River north to the point where it flows into the Gila (about 70 miles east of present-day Phoenix), crossed it, and continued on to the Zuni pueblo of Hawikuh. There, the flamboyant Moor met the fate that generally meets the men who would be king: he was killed by the natives.

Estevanico had been shipwrecked in Florida with his Spanish master, Dorantes de Carranza, in 1528. Along with the better-known Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, a small band of survivors slowly worked their way to Mexico City in New Spain. Esteban was sold to the viceroy of Mexico City, Don Antonio de Mendoza, who promptly sent him on an expedition in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola. The nominal leader of the party was Fray Marcos de Niza, a reluctant explorer whom Estevanico eventually outpaced.

The legends surrounding Estevanico are numerous. He postured as a healer, possibly as a god. By all accounts, he had a swinging good time working his way north until the party crashed in what is now west-central New Mexico. Behind him, Marcos de Niza beat a hasty retreat. Marcos de Niza's self-aggrandizing and fraudulent account of his adventures inspired the subsequent Coronado expedition, which never discovered the shining gold-paved streets of Cibola, but did stumble across the Grand Canyon.

 

The town of Kearny, Ariz., sits just downstream from the Gila-San Pedro confluence; at its tiny airport, it is not unheard of to see cows on the runway. Kearny is named after General Stephen W. Kearny, who led the Army of the West down the Gila and into California during the Mexican-American War.

Kearny captured Santa Fe in a bloodless battle in 1846. Informed prematurely of an American victory in California, he then took only a third of his forces with him down the river. Kearny had many rude surprises waiting for him on the West Coast, but yellow fever, not war, is what finally killed him. He died on Halloween Day in 1848.

Kit Carson, already a renowned outdoorsman, guided Kearny down the Gila. Lt. Col. William H. Emory kept a journal of the trip, from which come descriptions of the Gila as "a beautiful clear stream. . . filled with fish." Emory's name is attached to a mountain pass in the Black Range of New Mexico.

If you drive Hwy. 77 from Winkleman to Globe, you'll pass the historical marker that observes where the Army of the West detoured north through "Carson's Old Trail" — El Capitan Pass — to avoid an impassable canyon on the Gila River. This canyon is now preserved as the Needle's Eye Wilderness Area, one of the most spectacular canyon systems in Arizona. Dramatic limestone cliffs tower thousands of feet above the river, which is fed by narrow gorges that cut through the Mescal Mountains. According to the Bureau of Land Management's website, there is no legal public access to the Needle's Eye Wilderness. Looking down on its precipitous canyon walls is like looking down on a labyrinth with no way in or out.

 

The upper limit of the Needle's Eye Wilderness Area is Coolidge Dam, which was built between 1924 and 1928. It is 249 feet tall and 580 feet long, and creates the 25-mile-long San Carlos Lake on the San Carlos Apache Reservation, which is used for irrigation and recreation. Along with Roosevelt Dam on the Salt River, the Coolidge Dam is the primary reason why the Gila is dry below Florence.

As water from the Gila slowly backed up behind the Coolidge Dam, it flooded an ancient Apache burial ground. Relatively speaking, the Apache are newcomers to the Southwest — their ancestors arrived around AD 1000. But they dominated the Gila watershed for centuries, in perpetual conflict with the Spanish and Mexican colonists and American pioneers who tried to move in. For many years, eastern Arizona and western New Mexico were known as "Apacheria."

The Apache Wars began in the 1860s. Under leaders like Cochise and Geronimo, the Apaches waged a 25-year campaign of guerrilla warfare against American settlers, who waged a traditional war right back. The San Carlos Reservation was established in the middle of this conflict, in the 1870s. Geronimo escaped from San Carlos in 1885 to lead his people in one last struggle against US forces; nominally, the Apache Wars ended with his surrender in 1886.

 

From San Carlos Lake, we follow the cotton fields of the wide Gila Valley to the Safford, Ariz., airport, where we stop for fuel. We cross into New Mexico 40 miles east of Safford. From Florence to Safford we climbed gradually, our altimeter creeping upward from 2,000 to 3,500 feet. Now the desert gives way to scrub oak and juniper and, eventually, to pine trees and snow. Our altimeter reads 8,000 feet and our temperature gauge tells us that it's one degree Celsius outside, or just above freezing.

We are now on the edge of the Gila Wilderness Area, which is where the three forks of the Gila River merge into a single stream. The boundaries of the Gila Wilderness were designated in 1924, mostly due to the persistent efforts of the conservationist Aldo Leopold. It was the first designated wilderness area in the world, and it was a quietly radical development. Up to that point, American efforts on the continent had been directed toward conquering wild places. In 1924, the nation extended them respect.

It's strange to fly over country that you know well from the ground. I grew up in the Gila National Forest near Silver City, and have several times camped at the confluence of the Gila and Sapillo Creek. Seeing this juncture from the air is like seeing a coworker out of context — I almost don't recognize it. And the walls of the box canyon where I caught tiny, perfect trout are so narrow and steep that the bottom is masked in shadow. (I do recognize the hike out; it was brutal.)

Cue the bald eagle. It appears out of nowhere, and I maneuver to stay well clear. Suddenly I'm struck by the privilege of my position, sharing the view that the eagles have seen for thousands of years. A mostly wild river and the technology to travel its length in a few hours: what a lucky accident of timing.

And practice.

 

Elan Head is a Grant County native who is moving to Melbourne, Australia, as the incoming editor of HeliNEWS Magazine. Photographer Aron Whitesell has prints of the photos on these pages, along with many more, available for sale via his Web site, www.awphotographics.com.

 

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