Sunday, November 03, 2013

The River - Originally published April 2009

The River
It is Sunday morning in Yuma, Arizona and I feel like I am waking up from a long dream. The morning desert wind is dry and all the hues of red are forming into long bands across the sky above the low, dirty city. There is a Harley gathering in town this weekend and already many loud machines are piercing the quiet of the sunrise. The dream I had, it turns out, was real and a week long. I was on the river that makes this place able to be here. I followed that river, which is beyond essential for the entire population of the Southwest, from Blythe to Yuma and left it before its well-used waters cross the Mexican border.
I began working on the Lower Colorado a handful of years ago; the river has changed very little though the place has evolved in my mind. My first season I found the desert hot and oppressive, the locals were on edge, cranky and the whole experience (oftentimes we're guiding and naturalizing for hundreds of students from Los Angeles) could be overwhelming and numbingly tiring. But today, as I wake up from my week-long dream and begin to prepare for yet another I feel at home at a cheap motel in Yuma. The bikers staying next to us see us a locals, ol' Jim at Martinez Lake is like having a crazy grandpa you only see a couple times of year, and the desert dwellers of Walter's Camp welcomed us for Easter beers. We made a ham in a dutch oven, made mash potatoes and asparagus, and ate, as family, under the shade of a tamerisk tree.
I know the river now too: how to wake up and beat the windstorms (and associated dust and waves) that are common in the spring, how to dodge sandbars and get somewhere in the low water fall, how to apply sunscreen hourly to keep your skin from cracking until it bleeds, and how to talk to the locals about good 'ol things like catfish fishin' and assholes from the city. I've spent years now reading books about the Law of the River and the water rights that are always in litigation and limbo. Through study of the river's politics and ecology I have come to understand this region of America far better than I could ever imagined. Few know of the formerly vibrate delta that is now a barren wasteland where no Colorado River water meets the ocean – the water, of course, is in Phoenix, L.A., San Diego, or in the Imperial Valley coming out of a sprinkler head. This water, originating from the high the in mountains of Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah has made its way into everything. You, yes you, wear it in your cotton clothes and eat in your strawberries and lettuce, for the Colorado River is far from just the lifeblood of the urban Southwest it is the financier of the some of the most productive crop land in the US and travels far and wide by way of our heavily industrialized food system.
Before I jump to the top of my soapbox I'll bring myself back to the dream I was having before waking up in Yuma this morning. I was floating, pre-dawn, on a wide glassy river lined with reeds. The sky was turning from starry to colorful and the birds were responding with song. Ahead of me were four groups of canoes, tied together and moving through the current without human direction, their human contents were asleep and oblivious to their naturally well-choosen path. I had had been awake since 4am and had stood at the back of a box truck under lantern light watching kids stumble to pack their things. We are all on the move now, and I could relax for the time being. I tucked my arms under my lifejacket to block the morning chill, leaned back against the cold aluminum of the boat, and let the river do the work.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A speck of gold in the edge of our pan

Dear First Day of Monsoon,

The locals call it the day of the first monsoon. I am reminded of the fragile watering holes we have visited and take solace in their being revived and refreshed. The last months have been nothing short of very hot and dry, and so, when the rains came they were even more welcomed. We had little warning that today would be the day Tucson would leave the clutches of the oppressive dry heat. My favorite swimming holes have been waiting for months now too – evaporating and desiccating as the muck grows on their shores. In the morning the desert and it's inhabits were giddy with the sight of the cumulus nimbus.

The clouds grew high in the sky and then darkened. We saw it coming, but were still caught in the streets as the massive drops fell and sizzled on the concrete. Months of dust and heat were immediately washed from the city. Shop keepers and bar tenders left their posts to stand in the doorway to smell and feel the temperature drop. Lighting was all around, thunderously loud, and movie-like in it's intensity. The winds came and pruned the palms and streets turned into rivers.

The rain didn't stop abruptly as it came. It lingered on, clouds shrouding the city's mountainous backdrop. The cacti greened and expanded, the dusty trails darkened and compacted, and rivulets became rivers. The water that fell onto the landscape collected itself, it amassed as water has always done upon the land – trickles meeting with other trickles, those trickles finding yet another, then that creek continuing along dry arroyos until meeting yet another, and soon enough the wash was full and raging.

I knew where they water was going. I have been to these places, these hidden places, where water has gathered and stood strong against the desert heat. Deep in granite canyons, lined with impervious rock, and protected by shadows, there are pools that persist. These places are simple but special, they are infrequent and alone. When we find them we are miners with finally a speck of gold in the edge of our pan. Eureka!

Today these places, beat down by the constant desert sun, and gasping not for air but for water, have been rejuvenated.  

Photos: 1) Araviapa Creek, 2)secret Galiuro waterfall, 3)Deejay Birch getting air into a hidden pool deep in the Blue Mountains

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Exploring Sonora

Wilderness found

Rarely do I visit a place that gives new meanings to words themselves. Not often do any of us explore a landscape that brings new perspective to concepts previously planted squarely in one's mind. Matter of fact, there are very few places left on this Earth that can truly remind our presently over-electrified minds what wilderness really is. I will call this place Sonora, and I have just returned.

Don't worry about how to get there. Don't go searching all over the Internet for things to do while you're there. Don't busy yourself with maps and menus and matrices, for it is unlikely that any of those things will mean much once you are there. There are directions to this place – though I will not recount them here. And there are further specific place names and road numbers that may help in travel, but that is neither the goal or intent of this essay. Sonora can be found west and then south when traveling from Tucson – 'nuff said.

When we got to our camp in Sonora we were welcomed by our friend Keith, who has essentially taken up an artist in residence at the wild place. Having become infatuated with the wild desert landscape and intricate ecology of sonora and having already explored from his month-long basecamp Keith was a great guide and companion for exploration. We lost ourselves in rivers of lava and wondered through layers of wildflowers as Keith handily expanded upon the subtle ecology and history of the volcanic dreamscape.

Within minutes of stepping from the car we were engulfed by the desert. Ocotillo in full leaf and bloom rose wildly on all sides, hemmed in by black basalt towers and domes. Craters and remnants of craters splashed with winter color created a lunar-like viewscapes to the west, while swirling desert playa dropped away to the east. In every direction was wilderness for as far as the eye could see.

At night, beside the hot mesquite fire, we ate meat from the coals. The desert was quiet and cold and the sky was lit with limitless stars. The dry air made the guitar chords resound brightly and they bounced off the lava backdrop that formed our protected camp. It was the three of us, two dogs, and 200 square miles of desert.

On day two we learned about the craters by walking their long, elegant rims. Rarely is one afforded the privilege of a hike that describes a perfect circle, ending where you began without a step backward. On colorado we found a perfect nature-built trail of rock benches and steps. We weaved through indescribable formations of eroded tuff mixed with colored lava pours and chunky conglomerates. The geology of the place was confusing to the eye and mind, though it was impossible to not make an attempt to make sense of it. I wanted to capture the place with photos that I could share later. I wanted a way to prove that what I was seeing did indeed exist.

We repeated another circle hike in the afternoon, traversing a wide crater rim a mile in diameter. Elegante was dark and ominous, its tone more subdued and somber than colorado had been earlier in the morning. This crater held a secret. Its floor appeared entirely inaccessible, being rimmed with loose basalt cliffs for 360 degrees. Looking into the crater floor was like looking into a time and place before mankind, it was a place before footprints and before trails and before our impacts have scarred a place.

As the sun settled and turned the sky to red we were at the edge of elegante with our backs to the crater floor and our gaze turned west toward the mighty shield volcano that built the place on which we stood. It would have been quite a show, watching the unfolding of this grand volcanic place. Just as the desert itself was morphing, my mind's definition of wilderness was being rearranged. Sonora, in the last moment of the day's sunlight, was unfolding the definition of wild before me.

The sun set, the moon rose. We were still just three humans and two dogs alone in the desert.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011



Places are best defined by the places nearby.

Our place, in a wild corner of the desert southwest, is more a conglomeration of all the places that we visit throughout our local adventures.

Oracle is a quiet cluster of homes nestled in a high oak-laden canyon at the foot of a mighty granite ridge. Oracle, to us, is also Cochise Stronghold, The Homestead, Peppersauce Canyon, Mt. Lemmon, the Ironwood Desert and all the other places that are just a days drive away.

Our place is a wild collection of towering granite walls, endless catus gardens, limitless sunsets, mystical native forests, remote crags, and desert vistas. Its just a small slice of a very big space . With each adventure we cut off a bigger slice of our place – and in this place its hard not to have another spoonful.

We've placed ourselves in this desert. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Bonnie Lake and Fairytale Island

Why Be Inside

With nearly all the Northwest rivers nearing flood stage it's a good time to get out and explore some lakes. For our last adventure we headed out to Turnbull Wildlife Refuge, a wild section of lakes, sloughs, and puddles that get lost on the map. Overshadowed by the mountains and dense forest to the north this slightly random area southwest of Spokane really surprised us with its rugged terrain and one-of-a-kind island camping. Thanks to Paddle Routes of the Inland Northwest we found our way into Bonnie Lake for the night and were happy we did.

The route to Bonnie is unconventional. The gravel roads that lead you their wind aimlessly through miles of plowed fields. It feels more like your on your way to the Corn Maze rather than a cliff-lined lake. The boat launch is in a place called hole in the ground. It is a slough. Boats coming down from the lake look they are paddling through a dry meadow. The parking is limited, the access rough, and a small handful of unlucky fisherman were the only one we shared it with.

We paddled against the very slight current, through handfuls of songbirds and cattails as the basalt canyon narrowed to meet the lake's outlet. We passed a fascinating and seemingly very rare basalt rock arch. Tucked into a defile cross canyon was a wild waterfall cascading from the plateau. All around us were rims of basalt capped with stately pines. The scenery went from meadow to cliffs in maybe a mile of paddling.

All the while the birds singing loudly and the greening grass beneath the wide-spaced pines contributed to the park-like atmosphere. We paddle into the lake and reach a small spit. The lake opened up to us and further north we could see an island, looking out of place and stuck in its location clogging the lake channel between high cliffs. The sun was setting and we hugged the east shore to take it the last warmth of the day.

Reaching the fairy-tale island we discovered some well used camps. We lit a fire using old fence parts I gathered at the put-in. We drank, ate, and were merry. Osprey and bald eagles visited our island home. The stars were bright, it was a warm night, the fisherman had long gone back down the slough to their trucks. It was easy to forget were maybe an hour from home. With the wildness of the place it was easy to forgot that Spokane was just an hour over the hills. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The oil baron

The oil baron never gives up. He's always out there looking for black gold.