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Contemplations of a WATERMAN
A lifetime of interacting with and exploring the fate of our rivers
Roosevelt Dam
Theodore Roosevelt Dam and Reservoir above the Salt River, Arizona - photo by Jon Waterman

Like many Roaring Fork Valley locals who flee mud season in search of the summer cure, on April 8, I found myself at the helm of a 14-foot raft overloaded with beer and dog food, jolting down an Arizona river called the Salt. We bounced off the occasional wall, plopped over rocks and thrashed through tamarisk that festooned the banks.           

This same day another group put in on the river with several more Roaring Fork residents (then after the trip, I met a vet tech in Carbondale who had also just returned from the Salt). These chance meetings speak to the shared values of the soulful fun hogs who choose to live in our idyllic valley.    

Down in arid Arizona, by my reckoning, there was little room for wielding 10-foot oars on a Grapes of Wrath craft that listed visibly to stern beneath its nearly two-ton payload. At 2,000 cubic feet per second (dwarfed by that of the Roaring Fork River’s spring runoff) and drying quickly, the Salt River is renowned for its technical water amid tight and twisting canyons. I couldn’t help but notice that the other more streamlined-looking rafts in our flotilla seemed to be dancing around the obstacles and eddies that sucked me in like flotsam to the drain. And after only an hour on the river, pushing and pulling for all that I was worth, I had already broken blisters on both palms.  

As in any river adventure worth its Salt, a multitude of challenges lay ahead. First on the list loomed the quandary of how my lone six pack might last six days, but this seemed an easy fix: the group’s kayakers were refrigerating cases of beer on my boat.   

Next, there was my dog Jax, 70 years around the sun by human benchmarks, and perched, claws protruding, atop a tube like the proverbial cat on a hot tin roof. Until this trip, he’d been a dry lander. And the baleful look in his eyes — filling me with guilt and searching me out each time we approached a rapid — seemed to be saying why oh why are you trying to kill us?   

Campfire at Cherry Creek, Salt River, Arizona - photo by Jon Waterman
Since coming out of surgery the week before, the biopsy on his removed tumor came back as a grade-two soft-tissue sarcoma. He appeared to be taking things in stride, particularly since being on the river meant that he had his collar-of-shame lampshade removed in case of an accidental swim. For the next few days, anyone within earshot of our boat would hear repetitive: “NO LICK, JAX!” shouts echoing through the canyons as my black Lab mixed with a Westminster Terrier attempted to clean his healing wounds. When we finished this trip, he would begin a lifelong chemotherapy treatment in hopes of keeping the cancer at bay. So Jax — shivering in fright as we approached another rapid — had come to this particular river for an entirely different cure.


* * *

Compared to most accomplished river rats, I am an accidental boatperson. While I have bumped down, accidentally swam or said my prayers on some of the most sought-after or remote streams on the continent, I have taken these journeys to develop a sense of place, often to write about wilderness and water issues.  

So I paddle, row and steer to commune with wild places and friends, but never just for sport. While I love the mastery inherent in carving a clean line through a difficult rapid, cortisol-producing whitewater ultimately pales compared to the lasting esthetic joys of journeying through time in age-old canyons, the perspective granted to us by visiting ancient Native American dwellings, encountering wildlife, exploring remote country, sleeping under the stars and being unplugged for days at a time. Since rivers offer so many burbling or crashing symphonic delights, I disdain listening to recorded music, but often (which would be true for our journey down the Salt), someone brings an instrument and we all get to sing along next to a campfire.

Camp at Horseshoe Bend, Salt River, Arizona - photo by Jon Waterman
In the interests of full disclosure, I’m still trying to understand why most veteran boatpeople, even without clients, bring all the backbreaking, kitchen-sink conveniences that are antithetical to the wilderness experience. As if the surrounding forests of saguaro or warbler song or Anasazi ruins aren’t enough to hold our attention. But, since this is how most people roll in the lower 48, I relish each and every invitation to get to know another new river.    

It may be that the sound of gurgling, flowing water harkens back to our crucial gestation in a fluid-filled womb, and that through two atoms of hydrogen linked to an atom of oxygen, we are connected to rivers on a cellular level. After all, even our bones are comprised of 31 percent water, while our hearts tick within 73 percent of the same stuff that my family is named after. But I will hasten to add that moving water scares the shit out of me. Just like climbing big mountains, wild whitewater rivers teach us humility.

I had come to the Salt principally because longtime local kayakers Jim-Jim Kirschvink and Martha Moran invited me, Roaring Fork Weekly Journal correspondent Genevieve Villamizar and Jax to row their boat. They even provided the DFD (doggie flotation device). Jeff Jackel, also of Carbondale, who began boating the Salt in 1979, was leading the way.

I had jumped at this opportunity because the 200-mile-long river already lay on my radar screen. During two different National Geographic projects that would show the demise of Southwest rivers, I had repeatedly driven and overflown the Salt. Four decades before the Roaring Fork and the Frying Pan became the most over-engineered river system in Colorado, with three different diversions carrying water to the Eastern Slope, the Salt River got dammed. In 1911, Italian stonemasons topped off the world’s highest masonry dam at 280 feet high (now concreted over and extended to 357 feet high). The ominously named Salt River Dam # 1 (later renamed the Theodore Roosevelt Dam) allowed the newly created U.S. Reclamation Service (later renamed the Bureau of Reclamation) to flex its muscles by providing hydroelectricity, stopping floods and sending out year-round irrigation water that was backed up in the newly created reservoir. Three more dams followed and the river stopped running through Phoenix — which receives 40 percent of its water supply from the Salt River Project. 

Theodore Roosevelt Dam and Reservoir above the Salt River, Arizona - photo by Jon Waterman
Behind the oars on this only free-flowing section of the Salt — 50 miles above the Theodore Roosevelt Reservoir — I suspected I wouldn’t get to row this drying river again. Last year, like many other desiccated spring seasons in Arizona, there wasn’t enough water for oar-frame rafts on the Salt. Since the beginning of the 20th century, river gauges have shown the Salt’s headwaters steadily diminishing. Although tempting to blame the water deficit solely on lengthening droughts caused by climate change, a recent study has shown that, until 1963, wildfire suppression thickened the ponderosa pine forests surrounding the river. This reduced flows by up to 29 percent. But, since then, amid a worsening drought, our Salty veteran Jeff has observed decreasing flows and limited rafting opportunities.

So I had also come to celebrate a river. While we still could.

And even as I began to feel in sync with the river’s serpentine rush — plunging and coiling and striking like a wondrous, wet snake of the desert — I followed Jeff closely, mimicking most of his moves. I even added a few of my own: deliberately pinballing through the rapid of the same name by bouncing into reverse off a smooth rock, but constantly pulling (rather than pushing) on the oars to put on the brakes as our super-loaded raft bumped into Jeff and Tim Knost’s stern. With each rapid, Jax shivered a little less violently as I gained more control of the boat, while Genevieve and I continued shouting: “NO LICK!”

On day three, Jeff and Jim-Jim repeatedly counseled me to steer left of the rock fin and ship my oar on the crux rapid Quartzite, site of several drownings. We passed desert bighorn sheep and the music of a canyon wren, until the rapid roaring ahead of us took all of our attention. Still, I couldn’t have felt more composed, more present in time and space. With Jeff 100 yards in the lead, I watched him — strangely — run right of the rock fin and disappear into the maelstrom below (later I learned he had gotten surfed by an errant wave).           

Jim Kirschvink on thousand-year-old Moki steps on the butte above the Salt River. - photo by Jon Waterman

Figuring that he had seen and wanted to avoid an obstruction left of the fin, I followed the sketchy line to the right just as Jeff was dump-truck-catapulted out of his boat and into the rapid. I shouted “Hold on!” to Genevieve and Jax then feathered a quick push on the right oar then shipped my left oar inside the rock fin, and braced myself with a foot under a boat strap as we plunged steeper than I would’ve liked. Clearly, we were on the wrong line but otherwise perfectly positioned as the raft bucked like a bronco and I dug hard with my right oar deep into the hydraulic to escape the wall — suddenly we were free. I earned a total of two drops of river on my sunglasses.

Not so for Jeff. Jim-Jim, not missing a beat in his kayak, intercepted Jeff floundering above the unswimmable Corkscrew Rapid. With a few yards to spare, Jim-Jim pulled him ashore. Jeff believed Corkscrew would’ve killed him — so he claimed this would be his last trip down the Salt (but within days of finishing the trip he got back on the horse and repeatedly rowed the upper daily section).  

We stopped alongside a beguiling creek, where we bathed and immersed ourselves in the wonder of 30-foot-high saguaro and flowering hedgehog cacti. Jax, blinded by his lampshade, only blundered into one teddybear cholla — it took us a half hour to tweeze out all the thorns. For two nights, the renowned oarsman Tom Klema (from Durango) regaled us with guitar and mandolin. Pat Tierney (author of “Colorado’s Yampa River”) told of his first time boating a half century ago and how he knew, immediately, that he’d spend the rest of his life running rivers.

Boat dog
Genevieve Villamizar and Jax Waterman on the Salt River - photo by Jon Waterman
It took us two hours of deliberately not bushwhacking up through thick stands of thorny cacti to a butte on a high ridge above camp. As Sonoran collared lizards led my lamp-shaded dog on fruitless chases, we climbed to the summit via Moki steps, carved into the volcanic rock a millennium ago by the Anasazi. From this high castle of the desert, they could escape their enemies and contemplate the wonders of flowered aridity and the precious silver thread of Life-saving River given to them by their gods. Surrounded by their shards of pottery, we followed suit and marveled over the dazzling river below.

I am saddened to say, particularly for our children, that we were viewing the last days of the Salt. Beyond our visible horizon — looking west from the butte and beyond Phoenix — the Salt once ran into the even mightier Gila River, the second-largest tributary of the Colorado River. But now the lower Gila too has been pumped dry for irrigation.  

So this is the story then of what we ask of our rivers. I had found new friends, challenge (followed by the desired mastery) and incalculable beauty. Ultimately the fate of Arizona streams is a parable for all Western rivers that surround our homes — including the Fryingpan, the Roaring Fork, the Crystal and the Colorado. Without intervention, and far-sighted conservation, these mountain rivers will continue withering like the Salt. 

Jax waited below, panting inside the lampshade, sniffing at whatever molecules of past lives that a dog’s prescient nose might find amid the crumbling ruins of the ancient ones. These Anasazi could have taught us a lot about desert life, and while sitting on high, their shamans had gazed into the distance, pondering past and future, along with their invaluable water. Back then they too had hoped that their rivers would run forever.


Jon Waterman’s most-recent National Geographic project is the first ever “Atlas of the National Parks,” to be released in bookstores this fall.