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Getting your feet wet in the Gila River.

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Confessions of a Kayak Virgin

Getting your feet wet in the Gila River.

By Donna Clayton Lawder

 

Cowabunga, dude! Okay, cowabunga is a 1960s-era surfing term, actually, and not really applicable to a kayaking adventure, which is what's on my agenda this morning. It just goes to show you — as I drive out to a pre-arranged meeting place, trying to quell the butterflies in my stomach — how inexperienced at water sports I am.

Oh, I've paddled my own canoe, thank you, and have proved myself to be a not-completely-worthless first mate on a sailboat or two. But up until this morning's adventure, in fact, I've never set foot in the likes of these little boats.

I guess you could call me a kayak virgin.

I was seduced, if you will, to take this particular plunge via email. Today's trip is part of the third annual Gila River Festival, an event organized by the local Gila Conservation Coalition and several eco- and conservation-oriented non-profit organizations. The festival has grown to span four days and includes guided hikes, talks, bird-watching walks, a "star party," family camping at the Gila's headwaters and more. The myriad experiences are aimed at increasing appreciation for the Gila River, and take place in a variety of locations from the Gila Cliff Dwellings to the Cliff-Gila Valley to Silver City.

The enticing invitation to this adventure promised a 1.5- to 2-mile paddle down a section of the Gila River, visiting recovering riparian areas, listening to birdsong. No previous river experience is required, the message said. The only requirement is that participants be fit and strong enough to carry their inflatable boats over short distances a couple of times.

Heck! I thought. I can do that!

I turn off Hwy. 180 onto Bill Evans Lake Road and immediately come upon two rows of cars parked along both sides of the road. I park and walk over to join the group of 10 or so people who are standing around chatting. A couple of outdoorsy guys who look like they're in charge are trying to have a conversation over the whine of a piece of equipment that is inflating the boats we will soon put down in the water. One guy's outfit looks like it must be among his best outdoor wear. The other's shorts and top are more weathered, perhaps having seen as much sun as his tanned face. These are our tour's leaders: Steve Harris of Far-Flung Adventures, the organization donating the equipment and expertise for today's outing, and Todd Schulke of the Center for Biological Diversity.

The equipment continues to whine and blow up boats, and Harris and Schulke take turns welcoming new arrivals to the group. To pass the time — and take my mind off my shaking knees — I chat with a couple of folks I know and introduce myself to a few I don't, always strategically inserting the question, "So, have you ever done this before?"

The other parties respond, "Oh, yeah, plenty of times," or "Yeah, just never here on the Gila."

I admit to one person that I've never set foot in a kayak before. She smiles and utters a thoughtful, "Oh." I can almost see the wheels turning in her head as she decides to stay well away from my boat when we hit the water. Going forward, I decide to keep my inexperience to myself. "Well, great day for it isn't it?" I say simply, as if I'd actually know a good kayaking day from a bad one.

 

The boats are inflated, piled high and strapped down on the backs of some trucks. We'll be going over some washes and high-clearance areas, Schulke warns, and so a few folks leave their low-riding vehicles here on the side of the road and we buddy up to carpool it. My higher-clearance mini-utility picks up a passenger and I steer us into our spot in the caravan.

About a mile up, we catch our first glimpse of the Gila River from the road. The remains of some dead cottonwood trees are heaped up on the banks, like piles of sun-bleached bones. I'm surprised to see "No Trespassing" and "Private Property" signs, and my riding companion explains that Phelps-Dodge owns acreage out here. There are even a couple of small ranches tucked amongst the forest service land.

We've been instructed by Schulke to pull off and convene in a small parking area. One of the trucks hauling our boats has pulled left and parked, and the rest of us follow suit. We pile out of our cars and pick-ups and gather around Schulke, who is pointing out pieces of equipment surrounded by chain-link fencing across the street.

This is a pumping station, he explains, noting that both the mining and cattle industries — evidence of which we will see here — make demands upon the river. He then launches into a fair amount of river science, pointing out that Gila is the last free-flowing river in New Mexico. This year's festival theme is "Flowing into the Future," and pains have been taken to educate attendees about, for one thing, how cyclical flooding is a necessary phase in the life of a healthy river.

My carpool buddy is a geologist, in fact, and she seems to be getting more of the scientific details of all this information Schulke is throwing our way. It looks like we're about to move on, but then a few in the group ask informed-sounding questions and Schulke holds forth. The sun, meanwhile, is getting mighty hot, so I sink down on my haunches into the shade of a parked van, next to one of my friends.

Okay, I think, there really is no free lunch. While there's no charge for today's river adventure, I do have to wait here patiently while Schulke educates us on the local conservation groups' missions and river-saving efforts. I try to take my mind off how much I just want to get a paddle in the doggone water and console myself by thinking, heck, it's good to be informed.

Schulke makes some more comments about that all-important flooding cycle, and tells us to take note of the scenery changes as we drive to the next meeting spot. We get back into our cars and caravan onward to the place where we will actually get to unload our boats and hit the water.

For the next several miles, the view on the right — in the direction of the river — seems unnaturally flat and treeless. Yes, we are in a valley, but this looks more like farmland than the lead-up to a riverbank. There are big expanses of fields that look to be planted with something low-growing, perhaps sod or soybeans, I think. My carpool buddy and I chat about outdoor stuff — a hike she recently took, how I haven't been back on my bike since another bout of heatstroke this summer — and take note of the landscape, dotted with cattle. I comment on the lack of any sizeable cottonwood trees, something Schulke had mentioned.

The road becomes hillier, and we drive over a wash, then up a rise, finding ourselves looking down on some more fenced-in equipment. It looks like generators or something electrical, I think.

We bear right onto a gravel-and-washboard road, passing lots more cattle, then drive through another wash, this one gushing with water four inches deep. A couple more miles up the gravel road and the landscape begins to look more normal — large, mature trees with patches of native grasses, craggy rock-faces and hills, a certain lushness and green. It's easy to trace the course of the river in the distance by following the verdant line of cottonwood trees. I catch flashes of the river itself, glinting in the sunlight, and while a bit of my nervousness returns, my excitement also grows.

A couple more miles and we begin to zigzag up into the hills. The road twists and turns as we ascend and descend. I've never gone this particular route before, but I feel like I know where I'm going. Like the cottonwoods, I'm just following the river.

 

At last we pull into a recreational parking area and start unloading our boats. Here's where that "physical fitness" caveat comes in. We each pick up a boat, hoist it up overhead, then pick our way down a steep gulley, maybe 20 feetlong and lined with skree. At the bottom of the hill, we pass through a length of angled cattle-proof fencing — laced with barbed wire, I note. I've mentioned that these boats are inflatable, right?

The human caravan, now holding kayaks aloft, trickles down to the water's edge, where we take turns pumping the boats up by hand-pump to full air capacity. Schulke and Harris help us into our boats, one by one, and push us off, away from the shore into the Gila at last!

About 10 yards upstream, a small sandy spit juts out, and we all ground our boats there to wait for some paddling instruction. Some stand up to their knees in the water; others up on the sandy island. Someone notices a crayfish in the water and plucks it out for closer inspection. Someone else points out that this is an invasive, non-native species, a fact that was mentioned in one of the festival presentations.

Eventually, we are all convened, and Harris begins our instruction by telling us the proper way to wear our lifejackets. Ever the seatbelt-wearing "good girl," I already have my lifejacket strapped and buckled. He asks if there are any left-handers in the bunch. Though I write with my right, I'm a curiously left-oriented person in all other respects. I and one other participant raise our hands.

"You'll just do everything we do, but you'll have to learn it backward," he says with a laugh. What else is new?, I think. Along with demonstrating a straight-ahead stroke, Harris raises his own paddle to teach the fine art of slowing down, backing up and straightening out a wayward kayak. "If you're a righty, your boat will tend to pull left. And vice versa," he says, looking at me. We're cautioned to stay behind Schulke, who'll be leading the way. "If you pass him, turn your boat around and paddle like hell upstream," Harris says. "That'll help you stand still at least."

A kayak paddle has two "business" ends, so to speak. Paddlers can adjust the angle between the two "fins" up to a 45-degree angle, so one is at 12 o'clock and the other at 3 o'clock, giving better pull. I set mine and go through the practice motions, looking something like a spastic windmill, I think to myself. Harris gives a few more cautions and instruction.

There's no whitewater to speak of in the area we'll be floating, but there are some low-hanging branches, Harris says. He tells us how to navigate through and around such obstacles. "Look for the downward-facing vee. That'll be your calmest water, so if you find yourself going off, or getting into some trouble, head for the vee."

There's potential for "trouble?" I force a brave smile and get into my boat. We shove off.

 

There's a crazy moment right at the start as more than a dozen eager kayakers push off from the shore and immediately clog this narrow stretch of river. The inflatable boats bounce off each other harmlessly, like a bunch of buoyant bumper cars. I begin to paddle to try to get out of everyone else's way. Sure enough, my boat pulls right — so much so that it often takes two strokes on the right to balance out my stronger strokes on the left.

The pack thins out, and soon we are in more or less a single line. There is some laughter at first, but then a sort of hush comes over the group.

After just a hundred years or so, I feel my old canoeing instincts coming back. Feeling a bit less like I'm fighting to keep my boat upright (the inflatable kayaks are flatter on the bottom, and thus less prone to tip), I find my paddling becoming more natural, relaxed. The calm waters help.

I'm able to pick my gaze up from the prow of my boat and start to notice the sights and sounds around me. How green everything is! Being a high-desert girl now, fully in love with the many shades of brown in my southwestern home's landscape, shades of green and signs of water now surprise and delight me.

Trees along the riverbank throw intermittent shade over my watery path. One minute I'm in full sun, watching the water around me sparkle and dance; the next moment, I'm in a shady patch. I feel something deep in my gut relax as I cruise into the darker, cooler zones.

I'm very aware of my gut, in fact, as the way one sits in a kayak really puts the abs to work. I hear it's even more so in the traditional boats where your legs are confined. Thank heaven for all those Pilates sessions, I think.

Suddenly I realize that I've been so enraptured with the scenery that I've allowed my boat to cruise into the far side of a bend in the river. I'm heading right into a low-hanging branch. On the other side, I note the water is tumbling and fast, evidence of a deeper spot. Okay, I'm a far cry from the nearest flat-water vee.

Instinctively, I pull my paddle out of the water, hold it flat across my lap and lie back flat in my boat. This gives me just enough clearance to whoosh under the tree branch and come out the other side, unscathed. Though I bounce comically off the riverbank and spin around backward, I'm pretty pleased with myself, and after a couple of strong pulls with the paddle, my boat is righted and I'm cruising again.

"Good one!" calls out Schulke at the head of the group. I realize with a start that I'm the third boat in line. Even more startling is the fact that there are other people around me. I'd completely lost awareness of my fellow paddling humans.

"Thanks!" I reply.

 

The other boaters, I notice, have drifted into little floating conversation groups. Schulke and another man up here in the front of the line are identifying birds by their calls and the occasional flash of feathers. I join in their conversation, adding my own observations and a bit of my bird-watching history from back east when I lived in a small town next to a canal. Of course, I'm just chatting about the beauty of night herons and swallows, whereas Schulke brings in the life-or-death issues of the destruction of river habitat.

We pause to let the back of the group catch up a bit — Schulke is a capable and considerate leader. There's a bit of a challenge coming up, it turns out. Doubtless Schulke knows this stretch of the Gila like the back of his strong hand. He's probably also noted the sound of rushing water just around the bend.

Sure enough, we round the turn and are confronted by a couple of stumps in the middle of the river, water rushing around them, and a tree limb jutting out from the riverbank, well into our channel. A couple of folks have gotten ahead of me by now — actually I've discreetly let them pass, as the pressure of not passing Schulke was adding tension to my experience, something I was feeling particularly in my abs.

The three kayakers ahead of me are navigating between the stumps, aiming for the flat-water downward-facing vee beyond them. They do a fairly good job of it, whooping a bit at their victorious end. Forgetting just how much power I have in that strong left arm, I've panicked a bit and pulled my boat hard right, heading me straight into the tree branch. It worked once, I think. Will it work again?

I pull up my paddle and do my little lying-down trick, passing under the branch with nary a scrape! I catch up with the few boaters ahead of me and we all turn and watch as the others meet the stumps-and-branch challenge.

A woman who has found herself in the branches is trying my lying-down trick, but her boat gets wedged. Other boaters are following close behind her and a logjam of kayaks results. One guy's boat is hit by another from behind. As his prow firmly plants into the branch-stuck woman, he capsizes into the drink. Luckily, he's taken care to strap down his small amount of gear, but his straw hat goes flying.

"Save that ugly hat!" I yell out, and another kayaker swipes it with his paddle as it goes streaming by. To be fair, my friend whose boat got flipped is an experienced kayaker. The tipping wasn't even his fault. He laughs good-naturedly as his hat is returned to him, even puts the soggy thing back on his head. I can't help wondering if he'd get more dates if the damned thing had been swept away forever.

 

We come to a wide place in the river, and Schulke tells us to ground our boats and gather. It feels good to give the abs a rest from holding that 90-degree sitting angle, and we all stretch our legs and backs. Though we were not told to bring a lunch on this outing, a few have brought along snacks — apples, trail mix, meals bars and chunks of cheese. Everybody shares.

The water is fairly deep and moves with some speed around the small sandy island in the middle of the river. A few folks walk up above the place where we stopped and jump in, letting the fast current pull them along to a spot past where the boats are resting. After watching this a few times — people looking for all the world like grinning, playful otters — I decided to jump in and take the ride.

A few people lie on the sandy island, catching a bit of sun trickling through the trees. On the riverbank, a small group has gathered around Schulke.

He's talking about threats to the Gila River, and gives a little history lesson incorporating hydrology, geology and a bit of politics. The word "diversion" has come up a few times in his mini-presentations today, and even during the less-formal conversations floating down the river.

The river fails to flow all the way to the Colorado these days, he tells us, owing to heavy water use in Arizona. Advocates for a free-flowing Gila have thwarted several projects in the past, and in the 1970s, plans for the Hooker Dam failed to pass muster because the reservoir would have submerged and damaged the wilderness.

In the 1980s, other projects — the Conner Dam and its alternative, the Mangas Diversion — were defeated because Silver City residents refused to pay the sizeable price tag. But defending the Gila is a never-ending battle, Schulke says.

A few people ask educated-sounding questions. Schulke goes into the financial and political pressures coming to bear on the untamed river we've just been enjoying. Though much of what he says goes over my head — about the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act and its $66 million of federal money for any water-related purpose in southwestern New Mexico — I catch his drift about the damage that would be done to the Gila by the proposed diversion of 14,000 acre-feet of water to the San Francisco River.

As always seems to be the case, there are "bottom line" issues driving the scenario. For one thing, the state would receive an additional $34 million to $62 million for what Schulke calls "an unnecessary and ineffective project," forever changing the Gila in the bargain.

"Bottom line, this would no longer be like this," Schulke says, gesturing with wide-open arms to the scenery around us.

 

Our trip is just about at its end now, he informs us. He gives some instructions and we all get back in our kayaks, push off and paddle just a little farther downstream. We ground our boats on a little outcropping of sand, pull them out of the river and begin hoisting them up the steep riverbank.

Okay, it's an inflatable boat, but it's still heavy, doggone it! Especially after a couple of hours of paddling, I might add.

We take turns helping each other pull the boats up the embankment. A few of us simply don't have this kind of strength, and so a couple kayakers pull more than our fair share in the name of getting the job done.

I stuff the paddle into the side of my kayak, hoist the boat over my head and rest it on my shoulders, and begin the long and steep trudge up to where the trucks await loading.

I'm in a Zen sort of blissed-out state, feeling no wear and tear on my back. My arms that felt rubbery just moments ago now balance a boat on my shoulders with almost no effort. The thoughts running through my head — perhaps taking my mind off the weight of the boat — are about this river and these good, knowledgeable people who go in and brave fight after fight to keep it wild.

By now I've already decided that I need to buy a kayak. For one thing, the exercise is great!

But mostly, I just feel like I need to get out on the river more often.

 

Donna Clayton Lawder is senior editor of Desert Exposure.

 

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