More of a scouting trip than anything (for who knows what, but we’ll be back), our four day trip down the Gila River was filled with fine moments. Here are a few favorite shots:
The Creation of a Monster
Four people, three inflatable boats, and food and equipment for three nights out = full load. To make matters worse, two out of the three boats were miserable candidates for carrying much more of anything than their paddler.
The only workable solution was to load all of the gear onto the one pontoon-style boat, leaving the kayaks free and light. Of course, the addition of that extra person – also on the tank – sank the thing so low in the water that it was starting to look that some of us were signing up for a very long, wet, walk.
On the water, the kayaks shot forward like thoroughbreds out of a starting gate, gamely skimming across the sandy shallows, dancing across the oh-so-modest rapids, casting their pilot into an immediate and glorious state of rapturous watery delight.
For the two unlucky souls stuck atop WaterPig, it was another story entirely.
Pull, Pull, Pull, Spin
The rudder is an amazing invention. We didn’t have one. WaterPig – front-loaded and fickle – took full advantage of that fact. The more power put down, the more control conceded. The best thing you could do was gamely perch atop this beast, and make cool suggestions regarding choice of channel or routes through rapids.
Riding the nose of WaterPig was an experience of sublime variety. Not only did you surrender any trace of control, you also personally bore the full brunt of the river’s creativity. Namely, this coincides with the appearance of five (apparently) interrelated elements:
- a steepening of the gradient descended
- a general narrowing of the riverbed
- a noticeable rise in WaterPig’s rate of movement
- a more severe turn than typically encountered
- over-enthusiastic, low-hanging, vegetation (aka large branches)
So Close But Yet So Far
The final morning it happened. Abuzz with the overall success of our little expedition, Susie and I clamored aboard WaterPig for a final installment of fun. Out of the gate we chugged, and things were going far, far, far too well.
We “shot” a little rapid, deftly maneuvering our horrific bulk downstream (admitting that by this point we had, rather handily, eliminated a healthy 30 lbs of foodstuffs from the original gross weight). Like pilots on a flightpath we cagily stuck to the deepest part of the river, avoiding the disgrace of a dismount and subsequent pushfest with the listing pile of conspicuous consumption.
It was then that we happened upon a real-life rapid (the others elementary by comparison). The river served up a nasty narrow section, with a big old jagged boulder protruding right up in the middle, stinking things up royally for yours truly, aka wide load.
Yet cheered on by false confidence we blazed in, promptly caught a pontoon on some submerged rocks at the lip of the churning descent, turned awkwardly sideways only in time to free ourselves, and shortly thereafter broadsided the boulder with certainly no lack of momentum.
It was a real neat little setup, and it almost immediately transformed WaterPig into a giant pack-laden mousetrap, ejecting its tenants and flipping totally upside down with real gusto. Facedown in the water, first thing in the morning, I staggered to my feet in the rushing rapids (oh yes, just a few feet deep, only adds to the achievement, really), and conceded that WaterPig was a wild beast not to be tamed.
The Glorious Gila
We drifted on downstream, found the sun, warmed up, and merrily battered on through more low-hanging brush with both aplomb and style (“Trees, trees!!!” see last scene of video). That afternoon, back at the car and out of the water, we faced north, east, south and west, in turn, tipping our hats to all the world’s “greater” waterways even as we parted ways with our most recent host.
It’s all there on the good old Gila.
Right On Time
It was the first human outside of our little party we’d encountered since launching several days before, and he stood on the banks of the river watching us approach.
From a distance I thought he was a backpacker, maybe out for a few nights of camping and hiking on Bonita Creek. But as we drew closer, it became apparent that he didn’t fit the usual mold.
On a Mission
His hat was a sweat-soaked Stetson, his long sleeve shirt was tucked into a pair of jeans and his reason for standing there became apparent after a quick exchange:
He was walking ranch to ranch (~150 miles of mountainous terrain), and he really didn’t want to get his boots wet.
The timing was about as good as it gets. He arrived on the bank and before long we drifted on down the river, crossing paths with mutual incredulity I do believe.
I offered him a seat on the tanker across the river and he jumped on board without a moment’s hesitation. He did not, however, accept Prom King’s generous offer of our final supply of peanut butter. Clearly one hardened dude.
We hit the far shore and with a quick thanks he was gone, back off into the wild.
We heard the rockfall long before we ever saw them. “Bighorns,” Till called it as we left our boats and climbed a small hill to take in a view of the Gila River running gently by below us. He was right.
Twenty minutes later just as we piled back into our boats the sheep appeared on the shoreline downstream. In an inflatable kayak I pushed off and started drifting with the current – I had the camera just in front of me in a drybag and so I pulled it out as my boat approached the sheep.
It was a wide angle lens but I was near enough them to just go for it! The sheep paid me scant attention so I crossed my fingers after taking a few shots, let the camera hang, and paddled a bit closer. Slipping past them in the stream thirty seconds later, I got the best look at these amazing creatures that I’ve ever had.
They spooked when I paddled back upstream towards them, but afterwards when I sat still for a few minutes they all clambered back down to the river, once again passing right in from of me. They must have been thirsty. I took a few stills of them on the riverbank. After a quick drink they were off again, back up into the rocky crags and side canyons from where they quietly observe all that passes by below them.
More about these guys:
For contact of the human variety, see what is possibly the most serendipitous river encounter ever (or at least on the Gila)
A short climb up a crumbling butte served up a fine panoramic view of the Gila River winding its way through through lots and lots of wide open spaces. We floated a little over twenty miles of this river over the course of four days.