The Wild River Speaks
The stories of New Mexico's last free-flowing river

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The Wild River Speaks

This month's Gila River Festival spins the stories of New Mexico's last free-flowing river

by Donna Stevens



Tales of America's splendor encouraged a flood of immigration to the New World, and later lured pioneers to pack their wagons and settle the West. The history of the Gila River region is a classic saga of opportunity, clashes of cultures, paradise found and lost, greedy villains, and ordinary people who had greatness thrust upon them.

Exploring the Gila River first-hand at the annual festival.
(Photo: Donna Wells)

The Eighth Annual Gila River Festival, Sept. 13-16 in Silver City and along the river, will feature the theme of "The Wild River Speaks." It provides an opportunity to learn about the Gila's cultural and natural history through stories shared in diverse ways, from field trips and presentations to maps and conversations. The festival also offers attendees the chance to hear some of the new voices of the Gila — those committed to conservation, preservation of sense of place, appreciation and stewardship — and to tell our own stories of our relationship to New Mexico's last wild river.



Chapter One, In Which We Set the Scene


Since time immemorial, Native Americans have inhabited southwest New Mexico and the banks of the Gila River. Hohokam, Mimbreños, Salados, Pimas and Apaches all left ample evidence of their lives here. Thousands of Mimbreños lived and farmed in the Cliff-Gila Valley from about 1200 to 1400 AD, then disappeared from the valley due to long-term drought. The Gila watershed is the common home for all the bands of the Chiricahua Apache, and the Gila River and its source, the Nadazai (Mogollon Mountains), are sacred to them. Apache leader Geronimo stated in his autobiography, "In that country that lies around the headwaters of the Gila River I was reared."

Our first written account of the Gila River comes from the Spanish military explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, on his search for the lost cities of Cíbola. He recounted coming upon a "deep and reedy stream" somewhere north of present-day Tucson.

Writing Water's Secrets


"There are two easy ways to die in the desert: thirst or drowning. This place is stained with such ironies, a tension set between the need to find water and the need to get away from it. The floods that come with the least warning arrive at the hottest time of the year, when the last thing on a person's mind is too much water. It is everything here. It shimmers and rises and consumes and offers and drops completely away, changing everything." — from The Secret Knowledge of Water by Craig Childs

Some years back, a friend handed me a book, saying "You've gotta read this." It was Craig Childs' The Secret Knowledge of Water. I had the good fortune of reading it at the Rio Embudo, a tributary of the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico. While the Rio Embudo is a modest-sized river, it has a large presence, rushing noisily around big boulders to its destination. In stark contrast with this river's proximity, I was transported to the Sonoran Desert, enthralled with Childs' descriptions of tinajas, or watering holes, whose presence means forestalling death in the borderlands. If they happen to be filled with water, that is.

I was at Rio Embudo to assist my companions with a stream survey, where I begrudgingly interrupted my reading to weave a 300-foot tape measure through the streamside vegetation. As soon as I finished, I'd eagerly return to the book, enchanted. After returning The Secret Knowledge of Water to my friend, I immediately ordered my own copy, which I lend out often, saying, "You've gotta read this."

Craig Childs has written other fascinating books, too, among them House of Rain and Finders Keepers, both about ancient civilizations of the Southwest and the mysterious and coveted artifacts they left behind. The Animal Dialogues, Soul of Nowhere and The Way Out relate his compelling adventures in the wild and chance encounters with wildlife.

For three years, the Gila River Festival has invited Craig Childs to come to Silver City, and apparently the third time really is the charm. On Sept. 14, at 7:45 p.m. at WNMU's Fine Arts Center Theater, Childs will give the festival keynote presentation, "Watercourse: A Conversation with a Moving Element."

— Donna Stevens

During the Mexican-American War, 1846-1848, Kit Carson led the Army of the West through the Gila region and Captain A.R. Johnston recorded in his journal tracks of bear, beaver and Indian ponies in the mud beside the Gila. Later botanic, ethnographic and boundary survey expeditions conducted by Lt. William Emory and John Russell Bartlett paint an idyllic picture of the Gila area. Indeed, later landscape portraits painted from field sketches from these trips would be used to draw Easterners westward to settle the Gila Valley around Phoenix.

On his 1846 expedition to the California coast, Emory passed through San Vicente de la Cienega, now present-day Silver City, and described it in his journal as "beautiful in the extreme; a succession of high, rolling hills, with mountains in the distance. The soil rich and waving with grama." Once he reached the Gila in the now-famous meeting with Apache chief Mangas Coloradas, at the confluence of present-day Mangas Creek and the Gila, Emory says, "We heard the fish [most likely roundtail chub, now state endangered] playing in the water. They are in great abundance. The growth of trees and weeds was very luxuriant; the trees chiefly cotton-wood, a new sycamore, mesquite."

Rivers have been so heavily used by people for hundreds of years that it is difficult to imagine what the Gila looked like. Historically, the riparian forest was a constantly changing mosaic of often discontinuous, multi-age cottonwood and willow communities. Floods produced multiple channels and sandbars, washed away stands of trees, and created wetlands and patches of different plant communities and age classes. Portions of the riparian forest would have contained wetlands such as marshes, wet meadows and oxbow sloughs. Wetlands created by beaver dams historically slowed down flood waters and increased groundwater infiltration, as well as provided valuable habitat for waterfowl.

The Gila used to flow 649 miles from the headwaters in the Sierra de Gila, as the mountains were called by the Spanish, through the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts of present-day New Mexico and Arizona; it reached the Colorado River at Yuma. Spanish navigator Hernando Alarcón sailed up the Colorado and the Gila rivers in 1540, trying to meet up with Coronado's expedition. Alarcón's maps show the Gila as the "Miraflores" or "Brazos de las Miraflores."

When Emory reached the confluence of the Gila and the Colorado on his 1846 expedition, he said that the Gila discharged about half of the flow of the Colorado, but its water was clearer. The Gila's natural discharge to the Colorado is about 1,900 cubic feet per second, but today — due to upstream dams and diversions to supply water to 5 million people and to irrigate crops — the Gila is mostly a dry wash from Phoenix downstream. It joins the Colorado only during spring snowmelt and monsoon rains.



Chapter Two, In Which Different Peoples Meet,
With Disastrous Consequences for One Group


In the 1500s through early 1800s, Spaniards, and later Mexicans, traveled north, looking for riches and opportunity; they found it, more or less, but they encountered strong resistance as well. The Spanish established missions and later garrison presidios to protect villages and ranchos from Apache incursions. Likewise, when would-be settlers from the East arrived in the Gila in the mid-1800s in search of virgin land, they found it already inhabited by Native Americans. Early miners and farmers clashed with Apaches. For more than 300 years, the Apache defended their homeland from European conquest. It was only after they were nearly exterminated, and the survivors sent to distant reservations, that mining developed into a profitable industry in the area and farming could take hold to feed the booming population.

In the late 1800s, with the "Indian Wars" winding down, Mormons settled the Gila Valley and found old Native American irrigation ditches, some of which they repaired and pressed into service again for watering corn and wheat. Wetlands were drained and the remaining beavers trapped, so that farmers could farm the rich alluvial soils of the Gila River's floodplain.



Chapter Three, In Which Paradise Is Found — and Then Lost


Lured by lush native grasses and open range, ranchers imported cattle, and it didn't take long for cattle numbers to far exceed what the land could actually support. During the extended drought of the late 1800s, as cattle died of starvation in huge numbers, the damage was done. This new land use ushered in another chapter of the Gila's story, a sad tale of watershed degradation.

During this time, the Lyons-Campbell Ranch, headquartered in Gila, controlled 1 million acres of open range with 60,000 head of cattle. Dams and diversions were constructed on Duck Creek, a tributary to the Gila River, for irrigated agriculture.



Chapter Four, In Which Paradise Is Partially Regained


In 1905, as a result of watershed impairments caused by overgrazing and excessive timber cutting, Congress established the Forest Service. The philosophy of Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service, was "to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run."

Responding to the changing needs of the times, the Forest Service's mission has evolved into managing these public lands for multiple uses such as water, forage, wildlife, wood and recreation.



Chapter Five, In Which We Meet Young Aldo


One of the first people to recognize the poor condition of the Gila's drainages was Aldo Leopold, considered by many to be the father of the conservation movement. Young Leopold arrived in the Southwest in 1909, fresh out of Yale Forestry School, to begin his job as a forest ranger. In those days, long before computers, rangers spent considerable time in the forest, and Leopold became a quick study of nature's processes.




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